When thinking about the problems and debates of our digital age and lifestyle I keep coming back to a movie made in 1979: Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In one key scene, Brian – the proposed messiah – speaks to the masses gathering underneath his window. Trying to convince them to basically leave him be he appeals to people’s sense of individuality:
While Monty Python is obviously making a point about the way individualism and difference have been co-opted by advertisers and marketing people to separate people into distinct directly addressable groups who use the products sold to them as means of distinction I think there is a lot to learn from this small piece about the Internet and the way we live and interact here. In fact I believe it outlines the key question or unsolved problem that is the foundation for most of the other issues we are talking and writing and drawing pictures about: The relationship of the individual to the community.
Here in the so-called “western world” we pray at the altar of individualism. We do for example tell history framed as hero-narratives around geniuses or important individuals: Steve Jobs invented the iPhone, Helmut Kohl united the two Germanies, the cold war is often illustrated as kind of an ongoing chess game between changing Russian and US presidents. We buy products because they allow us to express our “true selves”, whatever the hell that is. “I’m a Mac.”
Our digital rights who are under immense strain due to having been defined in a time where networked computing was a party only a handful of organizations and companies could attend. Yes, e-Mail sounds kinda like Mail but maybe the way we treat letters doesn’t really work when trying to provide an open but still usable communication network for potentially everyone on this planet (including spamers and scamers). While individual privacy is still being paraded around like the digital golden calf even its strongest supporters do admit that maybe our conception of what privacy is or can be or should be maybe shouldn’t have stopped developing after Brandeis’ “Right to be let alone” and Westin’s “Right to control information about oneself”1 .
One of the main arguments against large-scale government surveillance is that it changes people’s behavior, that they no longer behave naturally. And even if we are not cynical enough to answer “Yeah so what you are saying is that surveillance works?” which is probably maximally far away from the argument people are trying to make there is a weird dominance of the individual at work here: Government action (as a representation of an action of society/community) is presented as oppressive and dangerous to the natural order of things. Or maybe better lack thereof.
Everybody probably agrees that we have seen and are seeing many oppressive regimes all around us. And it would be too simple to just cast a stone at some of the nastier dictatorships of our common history and present: The democratically elected German government for example – usually not seen as oppressive by many, in fact Germany and especially its capital is the place to be right now for digital activists looking for a good place to live relatively cheaply – still doesn’t grant the same rights to its hetero and its LGBT citizens when it comes to marriage, adoption and certain medical aspects. The structures we build for our communities to live in do by definition come with some sort of rule set and – usually – with ways to enforce these rules. Enforcement that can easily and often times quite reasonably be perceived as being oppressive.
The Internet as a sociotechnical system is defined by the people using it and the ways they use it. But being based on a technological foundation of hard- and more importantly software certain people and groups have a lot more influence and power to design, define and destroy structures than me and most others: The companies and organisations building the tools, platforms and technologies our digital lives run on to grant or deny, support or discourage certain modes and patterns of behavior. And in that group a certain reading of the world is very popular: Libertarianism.
The libertarian view pumps individualism up to eleven: Whether its about free markets or the fight against government regulation of cryptography or drugs in the libertarian mindset all these infringements on individual freedom are evil and need to stop. The market will decide and the individual will protect itself against other entities through its power of informed decision and reasoning. I could go on quite the rant about the ideology here (in fact I did a few months ago) but while I personally find it morally appalling it is a position people can have and defend if they want to.
With our digital platforms being so deeply infused with those ideas of individuality and metrics to help us be successful on the global market for human attention and money it cannot come as a surprise that it has become harder and harder to discuss questions of the digital in terms outside of that very capitalist, very individualist framework. The Internet has made certain words like “platform” very popular but neither are they usually used in a well-defined way nor do the sloppy definitions usually transcend economic perspectives. And it’s weird because the Internet has actually shown us how little individualism manages to capture what it is to be human.
Of course we are all different in many many ways. It’s what makes communication and friendships and love and feuds and arguments and the human condition so rich. But – apart from constructing extreme cases – we cannot really grasp people as just themselves. People are not just their minds or – if you like the term better – souls. They are just as much their position in different social structures and networks in society. Talking about the genius white man without talking about their privileged position, the networks and therefore resources they were born into or grew into is not meaningless: It’s actually harmful making other people, the people with a different social status with different influence invisible.
It’s tempting to think of ourselves as these brilliant, clearly delimited beings: It allows us to ignore all the sometimes messy details of our position within the social. Details Sartre summarized in his influential play No Exit by having a character state: “Hell is other people“. Other people that do, by existence, limit what libertarians might call freedom. Other people that do rightfully claim unquantifiable parts of or work and fame. It’s convenient and understandable but also quite lazy.
Because if the Internet has shown us anything it is how integral to our being remixing culture, sharing, exchanging, collaborating, the commons are. And how broken the laws governing these things are.
I believe that in forgetting that we are networked beings, homo interconnecticus (( please forgive me for that horrible beating of the Latin language )) . Not because of technology – unless you consider language a technology – but because of the way we are. Alone we are nothing. But that perspective doesn’t seem to influence our debates much.
We live by individualistic concepts and words and we as social beings, as structures of more than just one are suffering for it. The real questions of privacy and copyright and adblocking are questions of how we position the I and the you in relationship to the us. What do we as individuals owe to the us that allows us to be who we are and do what we do? And where does the us’ reach need to stop?
Writing this listening to music I came to remember the lyrics of an Enter Shikari song I like:
When I was little…
I dressed up as an astronaut and explored outer space
I dressed up as a superhero and ran about the place
I dressed up as a fireman and rescued those in need
I dressed up as a doctor and cured every disease
It was crystal clear to me back then
That the only problems that I could face
Would be the same problems that affect us all
But of course this sense of common existence
Was sucked out of me in an instance
As though from birth I could walk but I was forced to crawl
I believe that we need to stop thinking that crawling around as singular individuals is the way to go. We should walk and find a better way to use technology to enrich all our lives. Then we will live in truly exciting times.
- There are obviously developments and researchers and thinkers working on those questions, those results just haven’t really hit mainstream or are basically remixes of the existing models