Last week, news reached me of the passing of John Perry Barlow, a former cattle rancher from Wyoming who penned songs for The Grateful Dead and later co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I knew JP, at least online, as we’d frequently sparred with theoretical discussions of the impact of the internet upon society back in the mid-90’s.
In 1996 Barlow, joined the great and good as they ascended the Alps to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos. It is there that he, so the story goes, took advantage of a break “between drinking and dancing” to pen his seminal A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Just over twenty years later, the same conference generated headlines for “tech-bashing”.
The document, shared initially via Barlow’s email list, set out the desire of cyber-libertarians for an internet that was self-regulated and free of government interference:
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.
Barlow was not naive – in our online conversations, all those years ago, it was clear to me that whilst he hoped the internet would live up to the promise of being the democratic, free and open space “all may enter without privilege or prejudice” he desired, he also knew that such a space could and probably would be misused for other purposes.
Cyber-Libertarianism is a particularly American, even Californian, ideology – a belief that technical innovation, entrepreneurship and free-market economics could create a “better” World so long as Governments didn’t meddle too much.
The irony in this is that the internet was created on the back-bone of public funding: its physical network, and many of it’s protocols, were established as part of ARPAnet, a distributed computing network funded and designed by the US Military to survive a Cold War nuclear attack. The World Wide Web, too, was created, not by a Venture Capital funded start-up, but by British Researcher Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, The European Organisation for Nuclear Research. The first visual browser – Mosaic – was coded at the state funded University of Illinois. Public funding gave birth to the internet, yet it is commercial interests that determine much of how it is used today.
Silicon Valley owes much of it’s success, consciously or not, to the Cyber Libertarians of the early and mid-90’s, who sought to transform the World through the provision of goods, services and spaces that – whilst freely accessible, and certainly transformative, are also controlled by profit seeking corporate entities. Recall, Facebook’s mission to “connect the World”.
The timing of the rise of Google, Amazon and Facebook was convenient as it mirrored a period of sustained economic growth that, at least in the USA and Europe, allowed governments to reduce public spending and sell off public services without facing much opposition from constituents and special interests, who instead gorged themselves on a feast fuelled by easy credit and the profits of inflated share valuations.
America has always prided itself in being the place where, above anything, hard work and determination is the maker of fortunes. “Work hard enough” the old maxim goes, “and even you can be President one day”. This ethos is engrained in the minds of American children, particularly those in the impoverished South and the Rust Belt of Mid-America so that, when they (almost inevitably) fail to break out of the barriers of class or race, they have “no one but themselves to blame” for not making it in a World that is opposed to their success. That is, within the American system, there can be no collective, systematic, failure – the system itself is unassailable – failure is personal.
In Europe, we tend to recognise important role that socio-economic structures at play: whilst personal success or failure is a possibility, one need not always blame themselves, but rather “the system” for failing to nurture knowledge, experience and creativity. On the right side of the Atlantic, taxes and regulation are a part of everyday life – the acceptable trade off being universal access to services such as healthcare, education and unemployment benefit. Unlike in the US, where even the recent gains of “Obamacare” have failed to halt the slide in life expectancy, in Europe people expect to live longer, more comfortable – more equal – lives, even if that means contributing to the ability of others to have the same whilst doing nothing.
Americans, and American based businesses, expect their governments to adopt a laisez faire stance with regards to the regulation of industries. Consumers and investors, they argue, “will vote with their feet”. No need for top-down regulation: industry, and the market, will self-regulate.
Europeans, on the other hand, tend to be more comfortable with regulation, particularly when it comes to clipping the wings of businesses which fail to meet our ethical, moral and social expectations – the benchmark for which is the ability to provide “social utility” or, at least, “doing no evil” during the quest for profitability.
It is no surprise, then, that the dominant social media brands – all of which are based in the US – have come under most consistently come under attack from the member-states of Europe (in particular Germany) as well as from the European Union itself.
Perhaps now – with questions being raised about the effects of market domination, the role of those brands in disseminating fake news, and increasing concerns being raised about the “echo-chambers” they create stifling political discourse – is a good point in time for the World to understand, and perhaps follow, Europe’s lead in trying to address the bad that comes with the good.