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.