The Lingering Myth of Cyber-Utopianism

There is an astonishing gap between how people perceive internet 'freedom' and the realities of the digital sphere in the 21st century. The mistaken conviction that the internet is both unfettered by the norms of capitalism and can bring fundamental political change to the globe is not surprising. The internet was fostered by an unprecedented amount of social capital as well as has created unique ways for humans to interact. In the face of some grim realities about the way in which the digital world tends to reinforce the political and economic status quo, people still broadly ascribe open and disinterested roles to this communication sphere. It is possible that the internet still can provide the type of support to human capital that was present to a large degree in its early days within the research community. However, if we do not acknowledge that the digital world has become largely colonized by market and political forces, then it will be too late to preserve the essential social value of the internet. It is important to articulate what is unique and important about being human in the digital age—and how the central positive aspects can be preserved in the interests of the citizens, rather than for the demands of states or corporations. This led the Onlife initiative to attempt to articulate the key challenges to promote and protect citizen interests in the digital era.

An examination of various 'manifestoes' and other documents that articulate rights (and responsibilities) in the online sphere show a wide range of norms and ideals (see Table 1 for a sample list). However, a conviction that resonates through many of these declarations is the idea that the internet can fundamentally change how humans (and, by association, states) relate to one another. For example, Dyson et al.'s Cyberspace and the American Dream states that the “powers of mind are everywhere ascendant over the brute force of things” and implies that this is a shift in power away from traditional political institutions: “It also spells the death of the central institutional paradigm of modern life, the bureaucratic organization. (Governments, including the American government, are the last great redoubt of bureaucratic power on the face of the planet, and for them the coming change will be profound and probably traumatic.)” Even more striking is John Barlow's A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (1996), which identifies the internet as a completely new and different way of being human: “I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” The identification of the idea of 'sovereignty' is very useful, in that in many cases people are declaring that the norms of the internet are something new and different that transcend sovereignty and laws, some 'hacker' manifestoes going so far as to

Table 1  List of manifestoes and declarations relating to online sphere (alphabetical order, date of initial publication listed where available)

10 Internet Rights and Principles Internet Rights & Principles Coalition A Crowd-sourced Declaration of Rights

Source: Reddit Sub-Group A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace

Source: John Perry Barlow, 1996 A Digital Citizen's Bill of Rights

Source: Keep the Web Open A Hacker Manifesto

By Par McKenzie Wark

Published 2004 by Harvard University Press

CATO Institute: The Libertarian Vision for Telecom and High-Technology By Adam D. Thierer and Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age

By Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth and Alvin Toffler Future Insight Release 1.2,

August 1994

Declaration of Internet Freedom (1)

Don't Make Me Steal It

Digital Media Consumption Manifesto

Draft Code of Ethics for the Information Society Source: UNESCO Internet Manifesto

How journalism works today. Seventeen declarations, 2009

Manifesto for Agile Software Development

Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy By Global Network Initiative The Cluetrain Manifesto

By Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger, 1999


By Richard Barbrook, 2007

The Euston Manifesto

Table 1 (continued)

The Hacker Manifesto

Source: + + + The Mentor + + +

Written January 8, 1986

The Mozilla Manifesto 2012

Rights and Obligations

Source: Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertés (CNIL)

UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue

We the Web Kids By Piotr Czerski

Note: This list is meant to be a useful sample rather than encyclopaedic. It was compiled initially by Nicole Zwaaneveld for the Onlife Initiative

redefine a 'hacker' as someone who is reconfiguring not just code, but society itself. Overall, Barlow's comment that “the challenge is as daunting as the opportunity is great” is compelling. The unique properties of the internet—the ability to transcend national borders, to create content with virtually no economic barriers, to communicate instantaneously, for many-to-many networking—indeed do create great opportunity. But what opportunity and for whom?

Cyber-utopism suggests that property and sovereignty are irrelevant because the power of networked communication will transcend these two pillars of modern Western society. The assumption in early cyber-utopism is that the opportunity will be for the citizens to have greater power. Yet, it was not clear how the online sphere would either appropriate that power or utilize it outside of traditional political institutions such as political parties, legislatures, military forces, traditional mass media, or indeed the framework of states themselves. Evidence suggests that state policy as well as national cultural norms divide and shape the internet into a reflection of individual countries. Thus, rather than transcending state boundaries, the internet can be seen to reinforce state boundaries and powers (Oates 2011). If the cyber-world is indeed an other, utopian sphere than it is precisely that—an alternative sphere that is devoid of the true institutions of power, a place for people to network and collaborate but ultimately only a landscape of ideas. The paradox is that if the online sphere remains 'pure' and above traditional political institutions, it also remains relatively powerless and irrelevant in modern political life. Thus, while the online sphere was perceived to be outside of mainstream society, it remained unfettered by the powerful interests of states and markets. As corporate interests began to emerge and quickly dominate the internet (Hindman 2008), there was little protection for a fragile eco-system that relied on norms of communal sharing in which capitalistic norms of profit were not present. Cyber-liberation arguments cited in various declarations and manifestoes (see Table 1) cling to the idea that the online sphere is entitled to different rules and regulations, particularly in terms of distribution of copyrighted material. While they may have a point that the price of goods such as music, films and books remains disproportionately high now that the cost of distribution is relatively low, the argument that the internet is a zone excluded from regular legal oversight becomes increasingly weaker as the online and offline worlds continue to converge.

Interestingly, the We the Web Kids declaration by Piotr Czerski argues that there is no resonance to the idea of a 'virtual' world as young people of his generation seamlessly integrate information communication technologies into their daily lives. We the Web Kids makes this point in relation more to the social habits of the younger generation, but it's a valid point throughout society as the web is “not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment … The Web is a process, happening continuously and continuously transforming before our eyes; with us and through us. Technologies appear and then dissolve in the peripheries, websites are built, they bloom and then pass away, but the Web continues, because we are the Web; we, communicating with one another in a way that comes naturally to us, more intense and more efficient than ever before in the history of mankind.” Thus, it is no longer useful to talk about the internet as though it were a separate universe. It is interwoven with human existence, with all the affordances and drawbacks this may bring. Czerski then tries to argue that as popular culture is part of this collective consciousness, it is unfair to claim copyright over things such as popular music television shows and movies. Yet, it is precisely because the online and 'real' words have now merged (as Czerski himself argued earlier in the piece) that gives weight to the argument that historic rules of ownership and copyright should apply to digital forms of creative output.

While acknowledging the origins of the internet as particularly collaborative and detached from economic or national concerns, it also must be recognized that the world has moved on. Yet, has the common conception about humanity's relationship to the online sphere really moved on? The lingering conviction that the rules are different for online rather the 'real' spheres continues, as people continue to interact in ways online that they would never do in their daily, non-internet lives. On the one hand, this spawns stories about a Congressman sending sexually suggestive photos via social networking or the viral distribution of an expletive-laden email from a sorority member upset that her sisters weren't friendly enough to male visitors at a social event.1 On the other hand, it gives people a false sense of security when they engage in the online sphere. The problem is not so much people engaging in socially unappealing behaviour, being duped by email fraud or having their accounts hacked by online viruses so that their personal details can be stolen. More significantly, the assumption that the internet provides a safe, 'other' sphere blinds online users to their vulnerability to data aggregators (Solove 2004) working for corporations, security services or even simply criminals. Most internet users are unaware of the depth and breadth of personal information that is created via routine online interactions—including but not limited to search, email on many platforms, uploading photographs, clicking on websites, buying products—that are harvested by companies and sometimes state security officials. We are leaving tracks all over the online world, the impact of which is discussed by other authors of the Onlife Manifesto. The point that is emphasized here, however, is that there is a considerable gap between what people perceive is being revealed about themselves and the massive, detailed and mostly permanent data trails that they leave behind.

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