Independence Daze

A sovereign cyberspace is alluring, but hardly practical


Scott Rosenberg
August 1, 1996 10:58PM (UTC)

The online world has always equated itself with the frontier. In its self-generated and -propagated mythology, cyberspace is a brave new world, explored by pioneers, settled by homesteaders and marauded by the occasional outlaw. Like any fringe community, it does not take kindly to supervision from afar.

As Washington moved earlier this month to impose censorship on the world of computer-based communication, calls for protest and acts of resistance were the order of the day. But the "Communications Decency Act" -- which imposes stiff fines and prison sentences for transmission of "indecent" material online and which was challenged in court the moment it became law -- also aroused a new note from the world of the Net: a cry of secession.

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Specifically, a "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" issued forth from the email-box of John Perry Barlow -- the sometime cattle rancher and Grateful Dead lyricist who co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group. Conceived as Barlow's contribution to the "24 Hours in Cyberspace" project, the document circulated fast and wide on the Net.

Addressed to the "governments of the industrial world," it declares "the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us." A stirring, admittedly grandiose call to virtual arms, it's worth reading in full.

Barlow's declaration did not pop out of nowhere. The notion of the Internet as a quasi-sovereign entity has been kicked around ever since people realized that the structure of the network itself rendered it resistant to regulation or control by any individual state or central authority. Lately the rhetoric of Net nationalism has heated up. For instance, "Rules of

the Net," a sprightly and savvy new book about Internet culture by the late Thomas Mandel and Gerard Van der Leun, delivers a mock Declaration of Independence in its opening chapter. Theirs is different in tone from Barlow's, but similar in motivation: "On the Net, we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all users are created equal..." Like Barlow, who describes cyberspace as a "civilization of the mind," Mandel and Van der Leun call the online community "an information nation; a nation not located on the earth but in the mind."

This conceit is not only seductive, it is -- unlike so much of the hype that accompanies any use of the "cyber" prefix -- based on a substantially accurate reading of the facts. The Net is an unprecedentedly efficient connector of people on the level of ideas; it creates communities, based on shared interests, that transcend the mundane limits of time and geography. And so it has acquired a genuine, although metaphorical, sense of place for its habitues. Threaten that place with unwanted restrictions and the talk gets rebellious fast.

And yet there is something profoundly impractical in the ideal of Net independence. It is a concept without ballast, an attractive free-floating notion that stirs the heart but has difficulty persuading the head. The Net as a community may be a construct of mind, but the Net as a technology is a very physical thing, utterly dependent on such down-to-earth commodities as bandwidth, telephone access, computer nodes and memory chips, and, underlying the whole thing, reliable sources of electricity.

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These commodities are not found in the Net's "republic of mind" but in the actual republics of the Americas, Europe and Asia. And while it's impossible for any nation to control the Internet, given its architecture, it's thoroughly conceivable for one nation or many to separate from the Net -- to shut access down.

And so one must ask the declarers of Net independence just how they imagine fighting for their freedom. When the first digital Redcoats arrive to reassert the rule of some nation's law over the Net, what e-mail Minutemen will ride to defend the cause of freedom?

I asked John Perry Barlow these questions, and his answers are vague but provocative. Admitting that it's impossible to predict the shape of a "cyberspace revolution," given that "we're talking about a conflict between a mental region and a physical region," he also suggests that "bloodshed" is not out of the question.

If that's the case, I think the Net is in trouble. Consider the possibilities: Either the cyberspatial "republic of mind" turns out to be far less powerful than its partisans believe -- in which case it will be unable to resist institutional efforts to control it; or it proves unexpectedly potent -- in which case it is likely to arouse far more radical opposition from the powers of the "old order" than anything we've seen to date.

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The recent dustup between Compuserve and the German government -- in which an international online service found itself at the mercy of legal standards in Bavaria -- may not be a representative case, since Compuserve, as a centralized commercial service provider, is vulnerable to government interference in a way that the abstract Net is not. Then again, increasing numbers of people get their Net access through big companies like Compuserve.

What happened in Germany suggests that the global reach of the computer medium, far from allowing it to transcend petty national issues, actually ensnares it in every local conflict. The cliche has it that all politics is local; on the Net, all local politics have global implications.

What happens when the new medium of the Net tangles with the old world of sovereign nations? That world is itself pretty beleaguered right now. One of the more insightful and useful analyses of the post-Cold War world, Benjamin Barber's "Jihad Vs. McWorld," describes a global culture that is eroding the traditional nation-state from two opposite directions.

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On one side are the forces of a fierce new tribalism, reacting against perceived threats to traditional cultures and often motivated by fundamentalist moralities of one stripe or another. This "Jihad" culture rips apart weaker nation-states like the former Soviet Union and undermines stronger ones, like the U.S., by promoting fanatical single-issue politics and ethnic separatism. On the other side is Barber's "McWorld" -- the homogenizing power of international corporate culture, with its promise of prosperity, its demand for free trade and its aggressive override of local sovereignty.

Both sides in Barber's global conflict can and do make use of the Net: small separatist groups find it a powerful organizing tool, while giant corporations hope to shape it as a conduit for the flood of "information" and pop culture that can swamp local societies. In such a world, computer communication as a tool is in no danger. But neither of these forces is likely to see any value in the Net as a quasi-nation, a free-speech zone and haven for individualism.

Barlow writes of the online world as a new republic of pure mind where the individual may flourish. It is an inspiring vision -- but one that seems almost certainly doomed, if Barber's framework is an accurate world picture.

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Both McWorld and Jihad work to corrode the contemporary nation-state, along with its concept of citizenship and individual rights. It's madly ironic yet entirely conceivable that Cyberspace: The Nation, having declared its disgust with and independence from the "Governments of the Industrial World," will find that they aren't its greatest enemies after all.

Citizens of the Net may declare independence and secede from meddlesome governments only to find themselves in a world dominated by vast corporations and hostile tribes. For either of these groups, the Net ideal of free expression is at best an irritation and at worst an anathema. What mujahadeen would hesitate to ban alt.binaries.pictures.erotica? What multinational would mind if information were a little less free?


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

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