SECESSION FROM THE BROADCAST
THE INTERNET AND THE CRISIS OF SOCIAL CONTROL
The way out is via the door. Why is it that no one will use this method?
To the memory of Sherrie Rabinowitz and Heinz von Foerster.
UMMON THE BREATHTAKING IMAGE of the multitude pouring into streets and plazas around the world in millions to demonstrate against tyranny. Now imagine instead they’re demanding a free and open internet. The likelihood of that is almost zero, we would agree. But why is that? What would have to happen to make that utopian spectacle reality? What insurgent algorithm would get us from here to there? That is the subject of this lecture.
It is said life isn’t measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away. I don’t have to tell you we’re living at such a moment. A truly breathtaking historical moment that may literally take our breath away. We live in futures that have come to pass, in case you haven’t noticed. Apocalypse and utopia. Apocalypse not expected so soon, utopia not expected at all.
Apocalypse: the ecological holocaust and the end of democracy, both driven by third stage capitalism and created by the institutions that were supposed to prevent them. For 40 years I have called this the global ecosocial crisis. We’ve known for at least that long that it presents a challenge of civilizational proportion — the challenge to create on the same scale as we can destroy. We always face that challenge. But the sheer scale of actual and potential destruction today is beyond anything humans have imagined — or can imagine, even as it unfolds before our eyes.
The crisis is radically nontrivial, and anything like an adequate response will require sustained creative conversation among the people of the world. No problem can be solved by the same awareness that created it, so the conversation must be open to everyone for the widest scale of awareness. The only counterforce equal to the scale of destruction is the scale at which all people can communicate. The problem is that we can’t get to the problem because we can’t get to each other.
For that we need a communication revolution, and the apparatus that could enable it is at hand, we all know. Utopia, in this context, is the technological possibility, and only the possibility, of a communication revolution. That’s probably not how you think of utopia, as mere technical potential for something. Anyway, you probably think a communication revolution has already happened. I’ll return to them.
Meanwhile, consider the breathtaking historical coincidence of, on one hand, the failure of democracy around the world even as the ecological holocaust races in slow motion toward its tipping points; and on the other hand, the simultaneous rise, as if on demand, of the one thing that might enable a worldwide effort to prevent crisis from becoming catastrophe. Or at least catastrophe not greater than it’s already guaranteed to be.
If the internet didn’t exist we’d have to invent it to even begin to imagine what creating at scale might mean. So thank God it’s here. But there’s a problem. The communication revolution can’t be allowed to happen, because it’s a mortal threat to the social controls that precipitated the ecosocial crisis in the first place.
The cultural component of those controls I call “the broadcast.” It follows that secession from the broadcast — leaving the culture without leaving the country — is the necessary first step toward creating on the same scale as we can destroy. The breathtaking fact is that the internet actually does enable secession at that scale, which is why its very existence throws civilization into crisis.
Secession from dominant culture at the scale now possible means collapse of social control as we know it in liberal democracies. We want it to collapse because it drives the crisis, but that creates another crisis that compounds the apocalypse. The other crisis isn’t loss of social control. Quite the contrary. It’s the rise of the security and surveillance state, a lawless cyber-panopticon with terrifying powers of totalitarian control. It’s the second reason the internet throws civilization into crisis.
One thing is certain: the free and open public internet we need to prevent tyranny and face the coming chaos will not exist unless the millennial generation rises up to demand it. That’s a dilemma, because we need a free and open internet to cultivate radical will to demand a free and open internet. The paradox that the only prerequisite to freedom is freedom may turn out to be the real apocalypse, not climate change.
How are millennials to confront the tragic legacy we leave them? How can they inaugurate The Build for creative destruction of the world-system that imperils their future? That’s the transcendent question of our time: which culture will define the internet, the culture of death or the culture of freedom? It’s a race between the drive-down and The Build, and there isn’t much time.