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Nets Work

September 6, 2010

It seems almost tautological to say that the Internet is a confluence and a lattice of networks and their attendant network effects.  “Net” is right there in the word!  But less obvious to the primary constituents of The Great Network are how their lives are dominated by these good, bad, and ugly network effects.

The good bring us efficiencies in communicating with our friends, sharing our baby photos, collaborating in professional contexts.  There are the bad, imposing costs of wealth and welfare (and global deadweight loss) attributable to the power of price control that these winner-take-all monopolies can impose on the market.  Then there’s the ugly: the omnipresent, imperceptible, and legal surveillance that we agree to submit to because “everybody’s doing it.”  There are network effects in our consent; we signal to each other that it is safe.  Even if we do dissent and opt-out, everyone else is still a happy and voluntary informant: ready, willing, and able to report your activities and information to the network.

The oddness of our network is that though we sacrifice our individual privacy and autonomy of identity, we simultaneously empower ourselves with the wisdom and communion of that collective.  But because we are so deeply enmeshed in the network (The Matrix provides an apt allegory for the emotional resonance), it is incredibly subtle thing to dispassionately assess our existential dependence and subservience to that network:

Google is not ours. Which feels confusing, because we are its unpaid content-providers, in one way or another. We generate product for Google, our every search a minuscule contribution. Google is made of us, a sort of coral reef of human minds and their products.

Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical. Making Google a central and evolving structural unit not only of the architecture of cyberspace, but of the world. This is the sort of thing that empires and nation-states did, before. But empires and nation-states weren’t organs of global human perception. They had their many eyes, certainly, but they didn’t constitute a single multiplex eye for the entire human species.

In Google, we are at once the surveilled and the individual retinal cells of the surveillant, however many millions of us, constantly if unconsciously participatory. We are part of a post-geographical, post-national super-state, one that handily says no to China. Or yes, depending on profit considerations and strategy. But we do not participate in Google on that level. We’re citizens, but without rights.

We indulge the deal because maybe it is in fact a fair trade in terms of practical power; after all, in our information age we can instantly know just about anything there is to know, and that Mephistophelian appeal is undeniably attractive.  But we have inadvertently lost some of the intangible existential and political freedom and autonomy that relied on the sprawling unknowability of the World’s Wild West.  It was too large and sprawling to be fully grasped or dominated by a single actor.  But now we are herded into walled gardens and controlled environs, smaller spaces where actors attempt to capturing the benefit of network effects.  And if the Economist is less than cheerfully optimistic that the market will sort things out in freedom’s name, you know that things are profoundly amiss.

The cracks are most visible along geographical boundaries. The internet is too important for governments to ignore. They are increasingly finding ways to enforce their laws in the digital realm. The most prominent is China’s “great firewall”. The Chinese authorities are using the same technology that companies use to stop employees accessing particular websites and online services. This is why Google at first decided to censor its Chinese search service: there was no other way to be widely accessible in the country.

The danger is not that these islands become physically separated, says Andrew Odlyzko, a professor at the University of Minnesota. There is just too much value in universal connectivity, he argues. “The real question is how high the walls between these walled gardens will be.” Still, if the internet loses too much of its universality, cautions Mr Werbach of the Wharton School, it may indeed fall apart, just as world trade can collapse if there is too much protectionism. Theory demonstrates that interconnected networks such as the internet can grow quickly, he explains—but also that they can dissolve quickly. “This looks rather unlikely today, but if it happens, it will be too late to do anything about it.”

What we have is an ongoing redistribution of the democratic power of the Internet.  What was once a tool that could be wielded by everyone but controlled by nobody is now a tool that can be wielded by a single body and applied to everyone, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse: though dissidents everywhere are bugged, so is Big Brother.

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