The web is authoritarian.
Happy birthday.

I woke up this morning to read that it’s the web’s 25th birthday, so here’s my web-birthday musings.

Last night I read Langdon Winner’s 1980 essay “Do artifacts have politics?”. In it he describes two mechanisms where technology can contain politics. The first is where design decisions have been made that embed biases in artifacts – the most powerful example he gives is the the design of overpasses on roads leading to parks in New York. He states that these were deliberately designed to be too low for buses to pass under and so making it hard for the the poor, mostly black, population who rely on public transport from using the parks. The unpleasant political views of the town planner is now embedded in New York’s infrastructure.

Winner then goes on to describe a second way that technologies are be political. Their political biases can arise from the internal logic of the technology itself. Plato described how the smooth functioning of a ship demands a power structure with a ship’s captain at the top. Few people would want a ship run by democracy; by adopting the technology of a ship you inherit a political system. Engels built upon this by looking at the politics inherent in factories: “The automatic machinery of a big factory is much more despotic than the small capitalists who employ workers ever have been.” It’s the way the factories are that Engels sees as oppressive, more so than the politics of the factory owners. Winner summarises:

“If the basic case is as compelling as Engels believed it to be, one would expect that as a society adopted increasingly complicated technical systems as its material basis, the prospects for authoritarian ways of life would be greatly enhanced.”

It’s pretty clear that the internet and web have caused society to adopt  increasingly complicated technical systems as its material basis. So does that come hand in hand with greatly enhanced prospects for authoritarian ways of life? The recent NSA/GQHQ scandals and the growing sense of distrust in web giant like Facebook and Google seem to lend credence to the thought. This article from Wired argues we should embrace collaborative surveillance as the natural state of a connected world. Foucault wrote in Discipline and Punish:

 “… to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.”

Zoom out so “inmate” becomes “citizen” and this is exactly the state the Wired article is arguing for.

It’s an interesting thought experiment to think of the web as being inherently authoritarian. It makes the first twenty four and a half years of hope and optimism about the web seem unbearably naive and foolishly optimistic. Did we really believe for so long that this new technology offered  opportunities for freedom and greater democracy rather than convenience served on a platter of creeping authority?

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