Four Metaphors for the Internet (and Politics)

Does the internet have a political disposition? Or is it inert, providing a tabula rasa for political ambitions already familiar to the offline world? Likely the truth lies somewhere between these two poles. Building on an earlier post, here I discuss four possible metaphors for understanding the politics of the internet: biology, institutionalism, the commons, and geography.

Biology

A Darwinian biological metaphor of the internet carries a certain appeal, resembling as it does the dominant paradigm of a “harder” science. With the advent of the internet so recent in our past, it is easy to apply the term “evolution” to its growth from a few interconnected government computers to a global communications system.

A strong interpretation of the biological theory views the internet as a sentient creature. Author Kevin Kelly adopts this perspective in his book What Technology Wants.

This approach has its weaknesses. First, the evolutionary metaphor glosses over how little we understand about the emergence of technological communications systems. It treats technological development as exogenous to politics, whereas there were clear political motivations for early computers (WWII) and computer networks (Cold War). Second, biological evolution has a clear theoretical mechanism–natural selection–that technological evolution lacks. The actions of numerous conscientious designers contributed to the internet and its structure, whereas theories of biological evolution generally lack designers.

Institutionalism

The institutional approach helps address both weaknesses of the biological metaphor. The main premise of “internet institutionalism” is that the structure of the internet can help to understand its political uses. Mike Barthel, building on ideas developed by Alexander Galloway argues that the physical structure of the internet–decentralized, as yet ungoverned–lends itself to a form of libertarianism. However, Barthel’s thesis generally concerns politics on the internet (e.g. comments on political news sites and blogs) rather than a politics of the internet (the general behavior of online communities).

Commons

The metaphor of the commons has been a powerful one for understanding political behavior since it was first introduced. A commons is a shared resource from which individuals desiring entrance cannot be denied access. Centralized governance of a commons is extremely difficult, if not impossible. However, decentralized governance mechanisms have been shown to emerge in many varied settings (see in particular the work of Elinor Ostrom).

The best picture of the commons for understanding the internet is the ocean. The sea is accessible from every continent, free to anyone who can afford the cost of the technology necessary to navigate it. Like the ocean, the internet remains largely ungoverned outside of a few limited areas. Coincidentally, one type of “outlaw” behavior on the internet also uses a familiar maritime image: piracy.

The main weakness of the commons metaphor is its strong tie–deservedly–in the minds of many scholars to Hardin’s “tragedy.” The internet is generally not at risk of overuse. Quite the opposite: through the power of network effects, the more people use the internet, the greater its value to other users. The primary strength of this approach may be more accessible through the fourth and final analogy.

Geography

The final metaphor, geography, leverages political scientists’ familiarity with the way that borders and land formations can affect political behavior.

Specifically, this metaphor draws on an understanding of geography introduced by James C. Scott. Like the physical geography of Southeast Asia that Scott describes, the internet has places that are more or less accessible to governance. The United States has some of the most advanced internet governance policies, so it is like the lowlands that were easily controlled by governors. Western Europe is somewhat less governed, like the highlands to which tribes would flee to avoid central control.

The main difference between the internet and physical geography is that changing a domain name or using an alias IP address, unlike migrating from one place to another, is virtually costless.

The geographical metaphor of the internet encompasses the stronger aspects of all three earlier theories. Like a biological creature, geography can shift over time due to exogenous effects. As with the institutional approach, the physical structure of the internet has important connections to the way that people conduct their politics. And as with the ocean, physical geography can have areas under varying degrees of governance. Geography cannot be privileged above the other explanations yet, but it could be useful as political scientists start to think more deeply about internet politics.

3 thoughts on “Four Metaphors for the Internet (and Politics)

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