Internet and the Palaces of the People

The crisis of neoliberalism has highlighted the failed promises of material and personal development offered up by technology.

People walking along the promenade in front of the Palace of Education at the 1904 World's Fair (Saint Louis)

People walking along the promenade in front of the Palace of Education at the 1904 World’s Fair (Saint Louis) | Missouri History Museum | Public domain

Something has gone wrong in the digital world. The end of cyberutopia and the disappearance of the free-culture movement have left us in a place where the large private monopolies have control over infrastructures that are decisive for our economies and social lives. César Rendueles explores this fall from grace in the prologue to the Spanish edition of Stuck on the Platform by Geert Lovink, which we have published here courtesy of Bellaterra Edicions.

I first met Geert Lovink at a meeting about free culture at the Círculo de Bellas Artes of Madrid, just a few months after the 2008 financial crash. I had read his first book translated into Spanish – Dark Fiber –  which defends the critical potential of free culture on the internet from an anti-utopian perspective that was quite the rarity at that time. I clearly remember something he said in his talk, something that I have often since quoted and paraphrased: “Not everyone experiences the possibility of modifying their printer drivers as an emancipatory triumph.” Free culture, Lovink explained to us, should be something more ambitious, exciting and politically complex than free software and open access in their blunter, more technocratic versions.

It is difficult today to get an idea today of the central role that debates about technology had among the political left at that time. Antagonistic social movements saw in free culture a means of non-commercial collaboration that was innovative and communicatively sexier than traditional cooperativism. Looking back it seems a bit embarrassing, but it was not uncommon to idealize the figure of the hacker as a kind of aggiornamento of the Leninist professional revolutionary. The techno-utopian left also had its social democratic and conciliatory version. At an election rally in 2009, with the Great Recession already in full swing, the then President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero assured the crowd that what Spain needed was “fewer bricks and more computers.” From the perspective of the second decade of this century – with millions of people trapped in the pyramid scam of the crypto-bubble – it is hard to see how this could be an evidently advantageous substitution for the real-estate dictatorship that Spain has been suffering for decades.

It would be unfair to blame progressive forces for some kind of technological naivety endemic to their ideological environment. Techno-utopianism was part of the Zeitgeist born from the savage era of neoliberal globalisation. The alternative was not very palatable either: a bunch of melancholic European intellectuals, if you will pardon the pleonasm, who believed that the fate of civilization was inextricably linked to their dusty Olivettis. The truth is that right from the outset, post-Keynesian deregulated capitalism established a deep affinity with the hegemonic model of digital communication. The neoliberal counterrevolution and the project for a deinstitutionalised, private and marketable digital communications system fed into each other. The emerging technologies helped to justify the dismantling of the post-war financial control systems and, in general, neoliberals saw the construction of a global communications network as an important material basis for their political project. But they also understood that digital technology provided something that capitalism had hitherto been lacking – a societal model and a culture of its own, a friendly-faced and non-monetarised projection of global markets onto everyday social bonds.

From this point, and for at least four decades, the dizzying reality of precariousness work springing from financialization and flexible contracts was tempered by the promises of economic growth, post-materialist expectations of the expansion of expressive subjectivity and, increasingly, the advance of digital technologies. It was a new world full of dangers, true, but also full of exciting opportunities for personal growth and reinvention and global connectivity. When the neoliberal project began to implode, it dragged with it, first and foremost, the fantasy of precariousness with a human face – the false promises of a positive break from Fordist production chains that would exponentially increase the possibilities of personal self-realisation through the creative pursuit of exciting lifestyles were dashed. At least for a few years, digital technologies became the last lifeboat of a decaying social regime, the redoubt of sky-high expectations of protection and reconciliation. Digital technology was imagined to be the solution to the Great Recession, labour problems, the climate crisis, educational issues, cultural challenges, intolerance, authoritarianism and everything else. It is literally hard to think of a single area of our collective or personal lives where someone didn’t think that a few futuristic-looking gadgets and a broadband connection were going to drive a positive quantum leap forward.

Since then, our investment in technological solutionism has firstly unravelled and then changed direction, giving rise to a collective mood that is increasingly funereal and even dystopian. No one doubts the central role of tech companies in global capitalism, but this privileged position doesn’t seem to be mitigating the neoliberal project or offering an alternative to its degradation. On the contrary, it tends to exacerbate work precariousness, monopolistic concentration of power and financialization. The “network society,” the great hope for democratisation and equality over the past few decades, has finally revealed itself to be the ideal environment for the growth of some of the largest oligopolies the world has ever seen – digital megacorporations that no government is in a position to control. Likewise, the image of social networks not as a promising arena of enhanced intelligence and participation, but rather as a jungle of aggression, neo-Nazi extremism, panoptic surveillance and fake news is becoming ever more widespread.

In our parliaments and media, strong, neoconservative political figures are legitimised as an alternative to the failure of cosmopolitan sociability in a world perceived as conflictive and threatening. Waiving our freedoms and tolerance is the price we must pay in exchange for the promise of protection from an indefinite but terrifying array of global dangers. Post-utopian technologies – the big social media platforms, corporate AI and Big Data – are the digital version of this post-neoliberal authoritarianism. Just like the radical right, the platforms demand that we forgo our civil and workers’ rights, control over our privacy and our democratic sovereignty. In return, they offer us the promise of calculability and order in a world of terrifying uncertainties. A promise that is certainly as false as that of the far-right politicians who appeal to the wounded narcissism of their voters, although purged of atavisms and neo-fascist allegiances through the language of cyber-fetishism.

The coronavirus crisis sped up this relationship of resigned subordination to post-utopian digital communication systems. In just a few weeks, both governments and all kinds of companies were required to carry out many of their activities online. Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp (all subsidiaries of the same company) stepped in to replace many of the traditional spaces for socialisation. Netflix and Spotify became our cinemas and concert halls. Offices and meetings were spread out across hundreds of thousands of homes connected by a dense network of private apps. It was a dark and ambiguous social experiment that, in a sense, showed the limitations of the mass digitalisation project. It takes something as brutal and violent as a pandemic to make internet-centric fantasies come true and bring about a profound technological colonisation of our daily lives. The digital versions of education or various artistic expressions, not to mention family relationships, proved to be poor simulacra, light years away from the promises of augmented reality. In any case, the pandemic cast a general magnifying glass over the technological reality in which we were already living – we discovered that, in order to keep our social lives alive and hold onto out jobs, to access leisure activities, culture or education, we had to accept the conditions imposed by the large tech corporations. The bare truth of our digital society was thrown into stark relief – a monopolistic network that allows huge private companies to control the fundamental infrastructures of both productive activity and social life, offering us in exchange an endless succession of dismal videoconferences and toxic relationships on social media.

Perhaps the most striking thing is how unsurprising it all was, how familiar and coherent we found this situation of collective helplessness and extreme digital dependency. The reason, at least in part, is the almost complete disappearance of the free-culture movement, which has normalised our perception of technology as an economic and political black box. The swing of the pendulum from euphoric techno-utopianism to Hobbesian digital catastrophism swept away copyleft, digital collaboration, media antagonism, communication guerrilla, and more. Of course, there are still many, many people around the world who collaborate on the net, who free their work from copyright, organise hacklabs and fight against digital enclosures but, unfortunately, their programmatic presence in the public space is practically anecdotal. It isn’t exactly a victory for the forces that sought the privatisation of the digital commons, but something worse. A defeat, at least, is understandable – it may be painful, but it makes sense. But it’s as if we have accepted the need for centralised planning as an alternative to market failure, and then handed the task over to BlackRock.

This book confronts us lucidly and sometimes mercilessly with the impasse in which we are trapped. Digital media theory is a reflexive environment dominated by hype culture – like children with ADD, we rush for the latest technological toy without looking back until, a few months (sometimes weeks) later, something new appears to grab our attention. In contrast, over the course of many years Geert Lovink has managed to develop something both extremely valuable and improbable – a critical (and, even more difficult, self-critical), continuous and long-standing testimony of the internet and social media. This is the intellectual energy that makes Stuck on the Platform a profound diagnosis of our sense of impasse, not with this or that specific platform – Second Life or MySpace – but with the very project for a networked social sphere.

Something has gone wrong in the digital world, something to do with the relationship between our expectations – what we hope to get from the internet – and what we feel we are being asked for in return. For many people, the price has become too high. We continue to participate on social media because, as we learned during the pandemic, we don’t feel that there is any outside world to escape to. The alternative seems to be paralysis, another form of gridlock. This book gives us keys to understanding what is happening to us and therefore have the chance to rebuild an improved critical culture that avoids some of the dead ends we have previously gone down.

Historical transitions are complex phenomena, arising from the confluence – mediated by a mixture of virtue and fortune – of independent and heterogeneous factors. As well as a very subtle diagnosis of the contemporary technopolitical crisis, Stuck on the Platform offers an imaginative and exciting approach to some of the threads with which we will have to weave a digital world worthy of being lived – from the physical infrastructure of the internet to the institutionality of the social media platforms, including public control, citizen participation, the wishes of users and collective mobilisation. These are possibilities for turning the internet and social networks, to borrow a phrase from Eric Klineneberg, into social infrastructures, into palaces for the people.

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Internet and the Palaces of the People