Nostalgia, Net Neutrality, and the Spanish Inquisition

I have a friend who just cares so much about injustice and oppression. On her Facebook feed, she often posts exposé-style articles about injustices and petitions to change this or that about the world. I love being connected to this friend, as she often makes me aware of issues that I didn’t even know were issues and exposes injustices, but sometimes she posts something before she has had time to look into it and her worry is Snopes-worthy.

One issue that she posted about a few weeks ago was that of net neutrality. At the time, I did not take this post very seriously, even though my philosopher was adamant that I should probably care about it. As I considered this issue further I realized that I really wanted to care, but I am also pretty sure that this nostalgic idealized internet-before-regulation never existed, just like Standage’s idealized coffee shops never existed.

[For the Colbert version of net neutrality, click here. The video is longer than one-minute, though, so you don’t need to watch it in order to understand my arguments].

Standage describes the coffee houses as “forums for free speech and the free exchange of ideas” (113). In his interpretation of them, people from all classes could come together and, you know, discuss things. The problem I have with this goes back to two things: (1) it is very clear to any researcher of the period that there was little class-mixing in these coffee houses and (2) even in Standage’s examples, people tended to visit the same coffee houses in which their particular communities (the scientific qua “Philosophical” community and the sailors’ communities were his examples) gathered consistently. People, as they do now, stuck to their familiar, comfortable communities.

And now the very mild Katie-version of the Spanish Inquisition, without torture, directed at Standage:

Now, my point here is not to lambast Stangage for his misrepresentation of historical events; after all, it is clear that he really wants to think of the coffee houses and their digital reflection (the internet) as a free and open world for all to join and share ideas. I applaud this enthusiasm. My problem is with the fact that the nostalgia and idealization of processes and events creates a cloud of ignorance about what philosophers call “the facts of the matter” or the things that we really know about these idealized “freedoms” and “democratizations.” These are the facts of the matter as I—with a political ideology which is currently influenced very deeply by G.A. Cohen, to put my cards on the table—see them:

Premise 1: As long as the processes which enable the internet are controlled by capitalistic enterprises, they will be trying to enact enough control over these processes so as to make as much money as possible.

Premise 2: Capitalism is not concerned with individual freedom and liberty; it only espouses such ideology in order to make money.

Premise 3: The elite in any society that does not value and defend equality are always looking to maintain control over information and content, as knowledge = power (hence the chapter on Luther and printing).

That said I am not convinced that the internet has ever been neutral, nor do I think that it will continue to serve as the beacon of liberty that Standage espouses. I am interested, though, to hear more of your thoughts on whether you believe the internet to be a really free space which enhances individual liberties.

10 thoughts on “Nostalgia, Net Neutrality, and the Spanish Inquisition”

  1. Katie,

    To answer whether I believe the internet to be a really free space, I think we need to (re)consider how we conceptualize “space” on the internet (and no, I promise I’m not trying to make fun of Baron’s use of the term “space page” here!). I’m thinking about blog sites like Tumblr that are oriented toward the creation of sub-communities that, while insular, allow for a relatively “free” form of speech (Caitlin’s post this week is particularly useful here). What I mean by insular is that certain groups (typically anything LGBTQ-centric) feel the need to bury themselves deeper in the annals of said blog, and thus these sub-communities aren’t necessarily as “free” as they could be: the outlet for and reach of their conversations are very limited.

  2. I think this post is great, especially considering Standage’s crazy-positive spin on the revolution-starting, democratic social media as compared to the Nazi-endorsing, really-awful, no-good mass media. Even before we get to specific internet communities and questions of their freedom, we must ask ourselves about how access to the internet in general is controlled and by what means we have access to it. As you rightly point out, this is the same kind of messiness at stake in the days of early printing and coffeehouses, which Standage does seem to gloss over as unimportant.

  3. Katie,
    I have experienced working with and living with what I can call a brutally restricted Internet which has been extremely limited, controlled and abused by a totalitarian government to maintain the power. Through a quick comparative view which brings thousands of examples to my mind (any one of them sounds unbelievable) I can simply say what American people know and experience as Internet IS a free space no matter how capitalism might impose its needs and intentions on it.

    1. I take your point here, but relative freedom ≠ true freedom. I think discussing the differences between the totalitarian internet practices you have experienced and US internet practices is so meaningful and so valuable; however, just because one is better or “freer” than the other doesn’t mean that it is perfect and/or “free.”

      If we end up bowing down to the ideology of American freedom without considering its limitations (even if those limitations aren’t as many as they could be in other specific areas of the world), we risk eliding some really problematic stuff, such as poverty and class issues.

      1. I have to agree with you, Callie: is there even such a thing as “true freedom” on the web, much less off of it?

      2. Callie
        I do not have a partial view over the degree of freedom, otherwise the restricted internet that I have experienced could also be called “free” in comparison with some other countries. I really do not see the great freedom anywhere in the outside world, neither in democratic nor theocratic societies . However, talking about the Internet here, personally speaking I have not faced any real limitations in using it so far.

  4. Katie,

    Super interesting post! My SO is always going on about the telecom industry’s “monopolistic pricing structures” and how it’s a “single-handed argument against the efficient market hypothesis.” When he’s on one of these tirades (typically instigated when our internet is being especially slow), my eyes tend to glaze over and I just wait for him to notice that I haven’t responded for the last five minutes. (This is apparently what I get for choosing a partner with degrees in poli sci and econ.) But I think your point– that public outrage about net neutrality can’t help but have a willfully naive, faux-nostalgic tenor to it– is well taken. I too am deeply skeptical that any capitalistic enterprise is capable of placing a higher value on an ideal than on accumulating capital, and certainly there are already many, many ways in which our experience of internet content is highly filtered and manipulated toward capitalistic ends. And like all powerful ideologies, what makes capitalism so scary is its incredible capacity to self-perpetuate.

    But in the face of ideologies as strong as capitalism, I guess I’m inclined to think that the only possible intervention is demystification– to keep at least *some* of these injustices in the public spotlight, and to fight for whatever measure of control we might have over them. Maybe that’s totally delusional– I’m reminded of Baudrillard’s “deterrence machine” that calls our attention to contained simulacra so we don’t notice them all around us– but really, what are the other options? Besides, of course, complete socio-political overthrow? 🙂


  5. This is my favorite post ever.

    I mean, I routinely predicate my voting patterns over which candidate for office is actually able to make a cogent position on why we probably do need to maintain net “neutrality” (i.e. whatever non-neutral but okay thing the status-quo is), but I agree 100%–it is not now, nor has it ever been, neutral. I mean, effectively, the entire internet-as-we-know-it exists at the discretion of the Department of Defense (they can’t kill it, but boy could they hurt it) and the ideologies of those people who build the software. The good thing about net neutrality hysteria (legitimate or Snopesworthy), though, is that I think of it as the natural push back against capitalist interests, much in the same way that there is push back against GMOs for totally unfounded reasons (genetically modified somehow = DANGER via bad science) that’s still useful for other reasons (fighting exploitative capitalist agricultural practices, crop sterility).

    So, I think I just used a controversial issue to explain a controversial issue. Let me try a different tactic: I agree, and I think in the face of capitalist hegemony, the floating signifier of net neutrality might still be useful in forcing hegemonic forces to continue integrating “freedom” into their profit-motives. Bad PR for the hegemony is, ironically, a symbol of the hegemony’s good-PR tolerance of free discourse, and as long as it’s good (profitable) PR, they’ll keep doing it.

    The problem is, if you let the hegemony get away (for even a moment) with restricting access to information, they can dominate their own PR image (see: every contemporary “firewalled” nation). So basically, maybe the nostalgia-myth of how the internet-used-to-be-free is a great incentive for the hegemony to protect information freedom.

  6. Kylie,

    I think you brought up an interesting question, which I’m grossly summarizing to: Now that we know this, what can be done? This is a huge question, and it reminds me of Zizek’s argument (from our theory class) that what is dangerous about our present society is that we are perfectly aware of oppressive ideologies and we’re just like, “Okay, that’s bad. I guess I’ll keep on living” (this is also probably a really disrespectful restatement of his arguments).

    What is to be done? I wonder about this a lot myself. I believe that one thing we can do is to try to fight back by doing things like: engaging people into conversation about ideologies, give students the sort of argumentative structures that they need in order to think about these processes in the world, and not relenting in encouraging people to think differently about the world. I don’t know if these sorts of tactics (if this is what they are, since I have a hyper-awareness of what I am doing when I act on these) work, but they are worth a try, I think.


    I think you are totally right in that something like net neutrality (and action on it and discussions about it) can be the sort of tactical pushback which inspires thought about these oppressive practices. Then a nostalgia about the “way things were” can inspire action in a way that maybe my current methodology (make everyone argue) cannot. I want to mull over this thought some more, because I think it may answer my often-dismissive “why even bother?” when it comes to political action.

    Thanks, everyone, for such engaging discussions here!

  7. Katie et al.,

    This was an interesting post and lively discussion! I mean, Roz Chast, Monty Python . . . how can you go wrong?

    Two comments: I think the meaning of neutral in net-neutral is pretty specific and legalistic. I simply take it to mean a space that is somewhat less rather than more regulated. Similarly, true freedom seems to me a red herring. Of course it doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still try to make spaces and discourses more rather than less free—don’t you think?


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