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Cyberpunk mayonnaise: Thoughts about the cyberspace in a day without internet

04 juin

The awkward moment when you wake up and realize your internet connection is screwed up is the moment where you start thinking in a different way. Yes, in 2012, in a rich Western country, a storm can still cut the internet. In such a case, “storming the internet” takes a very clear, ground-level meaning… Well, ok, let’s get to something tasty yet nearly forgotten: being home alone and reading a book.

I get bored very easily and have a particular propensity of making myself accomplish miracles. In other words, I start a huge amount of complex tasks that I often have little knowledge about: what is more exciting than exploring immense territories of human minds and imagination? This is a rhetorical question. Coherent with myself, I’m in the situation where my third year of PhD in science coincides with the year when I have to complete my Bachelor’s in Law of the industrial property. Yeah, I know. But I spoke miracles, right.

Anyway, lyrical auto-centered swerve ends here. After 5 minutes of deep exhausting thinking, I decided that my Bachelor’s thesis should encompass not only the privatization of biological matter and genetic information – where I could thoroughly explain why biopatents are a very ugly and unnatural idea – but that I should broaden the spectrum of ugly and unnatural ideas to the basic, the fundamental one: intellectual property itself. I thus decided to include the so called “new technologies” (that is, the Internets) and software patents.

I did the blueprint of the thesis because I have never written such a thing in Law and my analytical mind is a bit too constraint into the scientific scheme “Introduction – Material and Methods – Results – Discussion”. I won’t go more into the tedious blah of how to write a stunning Bachelor’s thesis in Law: I have no idea, actually. My thought of the day was focused on a book entitled “Code is Law” (yes, the same one, by Lessig). I have already read it a few years ago, when I was discovering the special world of Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) and when stuff like the commons and CC licenses were just some fancy words I could not understand even though my English seems to suffice me to comprehend quite a lot of ideas and concepts.

“Code is Law” was considered as THE book you have to have read if you want to have a decent exchange with some smartasses in the FLOSS world. Me being a female – thus scarce resource and presumably totally helpless in front of the very complex issues it was all about, – was encountering both flirty nauseous manners and paternalistic attitudes aimed at teaching me the very deep matter of stuff as if I was a naughty little child unwilling to do her homeworks. (In both cases, a “piss off” from my side followed, disguised in different words and with various numbers of teeth in the associated smile.) I found this book – as many others, in fact, such as “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” or “Anarchism Triumphant” – and did what I do the best: sat alone and read them.

Communism. Image by Wolfgango on Flickr (CC-by 2.0)

Written in 1999 (when we used to chat through mIRC32 and play Starcraft in internet cafés instead of going to high school), it discusses code and commerce. Or how the junction of these two can transform the internet into “a place of exquisitely oppressive control”. I won’t go into this discussion: many such as Cory Doctorow have already done it a countless number of times and far better than I’d do it. Something I have totally missed in my previous encounter with this book just stroke me today. Very prosaically, the introduction itself:

A decade ago, in the spring of 1989, communism in Europe died – collapsed, as a tent would fall if its main post sere removed. No war or revolution brought communism to its end. Exhaustion did. Born in its place across Central and Eastern Europe was a new political regime, the beginnings of a new political society.
[…]
Eastern and Central Europe were filled with Americans telling former Communists how they should govern. The advice was endless and silly. Some of these visitors literally sold constitutions to the emerging constitutional republics; the balance had innumerable half-baked ideas about how the new nations should be governed. These Americans came from a nation where constitutionalism had worked, yet they apparently had no clue why.
[…]
What we saw was striking, if understandable. Those first moments after communism’s collapse were filled with antigovernmental passion – with a surge of anger directed against the state and against state regulation. Leave us alone, the people seemed to say. Let the market and nongovernmental organizations – a new society – take government’s place. After generations of communism, this reaction was completely understandable. What compromise could there be with the instrument of your repression?

A certain American rhetoric supported much in this reaction. A rhetoric of libertarianism. Just let the market reign and keep the government out of the way, and freedom and prosperity would inevitably grow. Things would take care of themselves. There was no need, and could be no place, for extensive regulation by the state.

But things didn’t take care of themselves. Markets didn’t flourish. Governments were crippled, and crippled governments are no elixir of freedom. Power didn’t disappear – it simply shifted from the state to mafiosi, themselves often created by the state. The need for traditional state functions – police, courts, schools, health care – didn’t magically go away. Private interests didn’t emerge to fill the need. Instead, needs were unmet. Security evaporated. A modern if plodding anarchy replaced the bland communism of the previous three generations: neon lights flashed advertisements for Nike; pensioners were swindled out of their life savings by fraudulent stock deals; bankers were murdered in broad daylight on Moscow streets. One system of control had been replaced by another, but neither system was what Western libertarians would call freedom.

At just about the time when this post-communist euphoria was waning – in the mid-1990s – there emerged in the West another “new society”, to many just as exciting as the new societies promised in post-communist Europe. This was cyberspace. First in universities and centers of research, and then within society generally, cyberspace became the new target of libertarian utopianism. Here freedom from the state would reign. If not in Moscow or Tbilisi, then here in cyberspace would we find the ideal libertarian society.

Emboldening is from yours truly. As you may have already noticed it, I follow pretty closely the events in the Middle East and more particularly in Egypt, which I generally refer to as the country of my heart. These emboldened chunks of thought above are the ones that swiftly brought my dispersed mind from patents to Egypt. (Yeah, I know: some people curse me quite often because of this type of mental leaps. I’m sorry, it doesn’t seem to be a treatment for this :) ).

What I highlighted above thus was the trend I observe in Egypt for the last months. There are differences, for sure. The previous regime didn’t create mafiosi after falling: it was already composed by such, themselves complemented by a serious military brainwashing. And no, the youth in Egypt didn’t discover the cyberspace after the Revolution: the cyberspace was there before and was used as a communication means to help emerge and burst the people’s exhaustion. Lastly, yes, nearly no country in CEE did a revolution – the Berlin wall fell, Gorbachev’s perestroïka succeeded in deconstructing the already rotten bases of the sovietism, and all the others eventually followed the move. Egypt is different in the sense that there actually was a Revolution.

But somehow, the differences end here. We witnessed – and still do, at least to a certain extent – the refusal of a government. What comes to my mind is the birth of this revolutionary thought in Egypt: it was in the particular conditions of the cyberspace, right? If there is one country where no government and borders exist, it is it. (I’ll skip here the very privately controlled freedom to read and share knowledge here as I’m not sure this is relevant in the current case.)

And yeah, the revolution emerged as a leaderless surge, as the share of thoughts, dreams and attempts to strike against the oppressor were expressed. And the Revolution was leaderless even though “influential bloggers” were star-ified later on by Western press. Is it then so astonishing that the youth could not find a convenient structure IRL? One that would have united all the different desires under a common strive that went beyond the first bond to the Revolution: the disappearance of the state as a sign for freedom. Is this bond between a deep change and stateless country even stronger than what we had in CEE? I don’t know, and I somehow doubt it. As revolutionaries thought the cyberspace was unregulated-by-the-state breathing room, they went into reality in the same way: they could not be regulated, they would avoid any deeply crooked state-like structure and thus things would care of themselves which makes us mainly – and unavoidably – free. The new, post-revolutionary society to come was as the space where we used to meet when oppressed, that is with no choice of government to install, where none could reign autocratically, free from political tweaks, with a definition and a certain direction, but built bottom-up and fully self-ordering.

Friday of Protecting the Revolution, April 13. Image by Mosa'aberising (CC-by-NC-SA 2.0)

I suffer from what bitterly disillusioned people call idealism. One of its very symptoms is to believe such real-space organization can actually happen, that everyone being a burning sun and careful about other’s freedom will only tend to such a place to live, be and bloom. (Let’s skip for now the insolvable obstacle to me, namely the demography, it deserves a nice bottle of red wine and a river in the summer nearby to be discussed at its highness.) We witnessed such a beautiful society has yet to happen in both the CEE countries and Egypt. Where Lessig actually has a point is in the following:

[…] Cyberspace, the story went, could only be free. Freedom was its nature.

But why was never made clear. That cyberspace was a place that governments could not control was an idea I never quite got. The word itself speaks not of freedom but of control. Its etymology reaches beyond a novel by William Gibson (Neuromancer, published in 1984) to the world of “cybernetics”, the study of control at a distance. Cybernetics had a vision of perfect regulation. Its very motivation was finding a better way to direct. Thus, it was doubly odd to see this celebration of non-control over architectures born from the very ideal of control.

[…] I believe that these first thoughts about government and cyberspace are just as misguided as the first thoughts about government after communism. Liberty in cyberspace will not come from the absence of the state. Liberty there, as anywhere, will come from a state of a certain kind. We build a world where freedom can flourish not by removing from society any self-conscious control; we build a world where freedom can flourish by setting it in a place where a particular kind of self-conscious control survives. We build liberty, that is, as our founders did, by setting society upon a certain constitution.

But by “constitution” I don’t mean a legal text. … I mean an architecture – not just a legal text but a way of life – that structures and constrains social and legal power, to the end of protecting fundamental values – principles and ideals that reach beyond the compromises of ordinary politics.

Constitutions in this sense are built, they are not found. Foundations get laid, they don’t magically appear. … There is no reason to believe that the grounding for liberty in cyberspace will simply emerge. … Left to itself, cyberspace will become a perfect tool for control.
[…]
My argument is not for some top-down form of control; … Thus, to speak of a constitution is not to describe a one-hundred-day plan. It is instead to identify the values that a space should guarantee. It is not to describe a “government”; it is not even to select (as if a single choice must be made) between bottom-up and top-down control. In speaking of a constitution in cyberspace we are simply asking: What values are protected there? What values will we build into the space to encourage certain forms of life?

Substitute “cyberspace” by “Egypt”, and you’ll have an idea of what I’m pointing to. After plenty of discussions about a civil council and one of the presidential candidates promised to establish a fair and diverse Constitutional Assembly, today – and more importantly – when we witness the outcome of our too impatient desires, we need to address precisely this question: What values will we build into the country to encourage what forms of life?

These values, if we keep this word, are of two kinds: structural and substantive. In other words, we need to come up with a structure that gradually enforces the power to the people and by the people. What I cannot define for now is what separation of powers the people want and what regulatory power we can build into such design so that it (in the form of assembly, government, whatsoever) doesn’t become too powerful. Equally importantly, we need to figure out what substance have the values we want to protect and enforce. Are these about freedom of speech? About social justice? About mandatory education?

The other day, hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million, were back to what many called “home”: Tahrir. Let’s then take advantage of being home, with family and friends, and think of what we want to build as a society. What is next, Egypt?

/a momentary lapse of reason

A side thought: A comparison to what happened to the CEE communism may very well be inappropriate. Instead, one may focus on Latin America. Me being an ignorant about details of political developments in this part of the world, I’ll skip it. But my guess is it is interesting to dig in this direction as well.

Images: here and here

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