You wake up in cuba, have your morning coffee, and you need to send an email. There is no wifi in your house. You take your computer and walk to the nearest park. There a young man is standing on the corner offering small green cards. On them is a wifi name and the password to access it. All around you on every bench and corner sit young couples on their smartphones, older college students working on papers, and mothers watching children play. It is here, outside, among the screams of children and the general buzz of people that you can log on. This park is where the internet lives.
Even this small shift of place, from ubiquity to locality subverts an assumption we all make about about the most important interface of the modern world… In this internet, via this infrastructure, what does it mean to be online? It is fair to wonder if even this small shift would allow for certain forms we take for granted in our ubiquitous and isolated internet. It is fair to wonder, for example, if the sort of anonymous hate much of the western internet has been inundated by could even exist. Still, this is only a shift of one factor, out of isolation and into the communal. Once online the computer is still built for isolated use, the log in still for one person. What we are given here is not a resolution but a hint at the possible.
Scattered across the world there are other shifts and other hints. There have been documented cases of entire families using a single facebook profile. There are stands at public markets for thumb drives of "content" in areas where censorship is heavy. If we hold back our attempts at "why" these systems exist and take a moment to simply appreciate that they exist we can follow their existence to the simple conclusion. Isolated and ubiquitous internets are just a choice.
What if we’re doing it wrong? By we I mean the colonial sense, as in western civilization and western culture. By it I mean the internet. Specifically the sort of access we build its infrastructure to facilitate. There is a prevailing sense that the internet, like water, should have an infrastructure that allows for simple and uninterrupted, ubiquitous, access. At its base this sentiment is a noble one. Like water and education the internet should be accessible by every human on the planet, and this access should be easily had. However, the more one looks the more one finds flaws in, or at the very least other ways of approaching, the concept that the access should be everywhere all the time.
With that in mind, why on earth should wifi be ubiquitous? The prevailing colonial western logic establishes the following basic premise: Because it is good and when something is good it should be everywhere all the time. If you’re not american and this seems foreign or confusing to you then consult the Mcdonald’s Logic: People like burgers, so people should have constant and immediate access to burgers. This stems from the also very american sense that conflates objects with freedom and freedom with democracy. It works like this, In america freedom has no real definition but it is unanimously agreed upon that whatever it is is good and that everyone should have it everywhere. All of this is derivative of the founding ethos, “Democracy is good, democracy should be everywhere all the time.”
The final and parent logic I find to be true. It’s derivative statements less and less so with every consecutive leap down the family tree. So the question we come to explore is about the statement, “The internet is good, and so it should be everywhere all the time.”
Is the internet good? We can address that quickly, it is not. That doesn’t mean the internet is “bad.” We’re just asking the wrong question. The internet is a technology. Technology builds tools. It is immensely weird to point to something like that and blurt out “controlled combustion is good,” because its not. Controlled combustion is not inherently good. It is good at building particular sorts of things. But, perhaps we mean the things it builds are good. So our question becomes, “The things the Internet builds are good.” Again, no they aren’t. It follows from essentially the same reason as above. A tool is not good. A tool is good for certain tasks. Controlled combustion is good at building guns. Guns are not good–they aren’t bad either. Guns are good for abruptly ending somethings life. The same is true of internal combustion engines, they aren’t good, they are good for building machines that move fast or lift heavy or, coincidentally, end somethings life very abruptly. A technology is good at something. A tool is good for something. Conversely, they are very bad at other things and they are very bad for other things. So no, the internet is not “good”.
"…and so it should be everywhere all the time."
Here a definition in isolation no longer works. We’re talking about integration and interaction at a massive scale. This is about industry and culture and environment and, as a result, politics. So often we address this by simply saying, “The internet should be everywhere because it promotes freedom.”
If you don’t want to read the rest of this section then it will serve you just refer to the previous mentioning of the american definition–or lack thereof-- of freedom and to wonder to yourself “Is it a good idea to write policy and build infrastructure based off some ill defined and simple sentences that, owing to their lack of definition, mean at once so much and so little.” You could also skip that and just read the news. There are a series of much discussed points refuting that the internet promotes freedom, some of the best being those outlined in the Ukrainian net theorist Evgeny Morozov’s book “The Net Delusion.” In the next short section I will briefly outline these points for those without better things to do. If you already believe me than skip down to the paragraph that begins “do not be afraid.”
The internet is just as useful for anti-democratic regimes and generally "anti-freedom" dictators as it is for those groups americans selectively deem "freedom fighters". In some cases much more so. A fantastic example of this is the much publicized roll of the internet via microblogging sites twitter and facebook in the protests and subsequent revolutions that were the Arab Spring and Euromaiden. At the time and still to this day is a story is often repeated in which the internet had a pivotal role in the incepting and directing of those moments. Tahir and Independence Square were said to be hotbeds of twitter activity in which tech savvy freedom fighters typed away, organizing brilliant and seemingly instant fronts that, just in time, would mass and disappear like so many white blood cells attacking the disease of fascism. This is a good story. The women and men who made up these movements were unspeakably brave and I do them no justice here. However, that particular story, of the sort of role that the internet played in these movements, turns out to be not exactly true.
When the actual posts surrounding these events were looked at more closely it became clear that while not entirely false, the role of the internet in the organization and mobilization of people was greatly exaggerated. The internet was certainly used, but not in the way the western(or eastern for that matter) media told the story. Rather than say “look how good the internet is as a tool for freedom” we begin to ask “how useful was the internet as a tool in these movements?” and then to the better question “was the internet as useful to the protestors(freedom) as it was to the government’s(fascism)?” This evolution is important for us because it moves us very far away from the original ill defined premise and closer to the actual issue. Years later, Looking now at those movements and their eventual repercussions, no less at the internet’s role in those repercussions, we are further pushed to question our ethos surrounding the internets sainthood, and much more seriously, the forms we choose to physically manifest it in. Further, if the internet’s use in expanding so called freedoms is questionable, then it’s ability to diminish them is concrete fact. Dictatorships can use and have used the internet for reliably identifying and locating political dissidents en masse, selectively censoring public discourse in real time, creating swarms of trolls that intimidate voices and obfuscate fact, and a very long list of other both evil and rather ingenious tools built from this technology.
Do not be afraid. I raise these issues not in hopes of prohibition or to engender fear in any way. The internet does much good. I do it simply to call into question–not to repudiate–the architecture of a political system in its fullest sense. I mean the complex and human made system that links belief and idea to industry, culture, society, finance, and policy. The structure of which that little idea above sits within as a pivot stone. There have been many essays and books and movies which highlight both the good and objectively evil of the internet and I do not wish to spend anymore time focused on it. If you’re unconvinced or curious Mr. Morozov has 400 pages of argument for you. I am not offended if you stop reading this and go jump into that. But the morality of the internet is too philosophical a discussion for my taste. This is not what I wish to talk to you about. I have focused on it simply because with an idea it is enough to find one simple flaw, among much perfection or many other flaws just like it, in order to do irreparable harm to the blind acceptance of that idea. And it is irreparable harm I wish to do and hope I have done.
In short, it turns out that the morality of the internet, like the morality of any technology is nothing but the sum of a tool and the instant of its implementation. Even this is determined only by the particular window from which we saw a particular hand fire a particular gun at a particular being for an unknown but certainly very particular reason. In a word, it’s difficult. And that is all we need to know for now.
I will now take a moment after that particularly long, though I hope not too boring, enumeration of issues with a premise to remind the reader that this is about place. We are asking whether or not the internet should be everywhere. This is a matter of place because everywhere is all of them. Wonderfully, we are not in terra incognita talking about how we build technology into tool and tools into place. This discussion is in many ways at the heart of the story of human civilization. Every time we push the boundary of the real we have had to find some form for it to take and some way for it to be used and subsequently understood. It must have somewhere to be. Looking over our shoulder this way it may seem that while to be human is to love and think and create, to be "humanity"–at once singularly it and plurally apart of it–is to find a place for the things we love, think of, and create.
We place them so well that too often we mistake what is for what should be, what has been, and what will be. We tend to see the current manifestations of technology as part of some inevitable construct. But, history is not a straight line. Nothing made by human hand from human mind is a part of anything beyond the history that shaped the culture that raised the mind that used the hand to build the thing(hagadyah). The tools we make and the infrastructures we build around them are both simply artifacts. There is no absolute principle or universal truth that they manifest. Things can be made differently. Infrastructure can take different shapes. The permutations are likely infinite. Simply put, things can be radically different.
Often in our western imaganings we view time spent on the internet as anti-social. The image comes to mind of a pale man in a dark room illuminated only by the blue glow of his computer. I imagine all of us have seen this picture or can at least imagine it all too easily. But if we are to question it I believe we would find three pivots.
(1) why is he white?
(2) why is he a he?
(3) why is he alone?
The first two have simple, though consistently ignored answers.
(1) systems of white supremacy in our culture that paint all protagonists as white.
(2) patriarchal systems in our culture that paint all protagonists as men.
those systems were built, are not inevitable, and deserve to be radically altered. I won’t dedicate much time to them here not because they aren’t important but because the third leads us somewhere I’d like to go with you. It’s answer too can be stated simply.
(3)Because we built the interfaces of the internet to emphasis a physical isolation.
Computers, hand-held or otherwise, have been built with one screen and one keyboard. The digital interfaces via which we log on are singular, the profiles we build personal. The interfaces via which we utilize the internet are absolutely exclusionary. It is important the we remember it does not have to be this way just because it currently is this way. Further, as we build the internet to be everywhere, if we accept that the physical objects and built interfaces via which we utilize the internet are isolated and emphasise an exclusion then everywhere we access it we are physically isolating ourselves. We are emphasizing an exclusion.
This is an effect of the current technological institution in the western white world. There are already alternate forms of access that turn these assumptions on their head. Imagine an internet that is outdoors and entirely communal. Imagine an internet which emphasises public life and community, the opposite of the isolated, indoor, private interfaces via which we currently interact. You do not have to simply imagine. All around us there are important hints, not utopias, but glimpses at other possibilities.