It’s been almost 20 years since the internet reached the mainstream and while it has been an economic force that has disrupted several industries, its political impact is just starting to have its effect. This week, in New York, Fred Wilson organized a fascinating discussion around hacking society.
The 7 internet principles
Looking through a lot of conversations and efforts by internet activists, one can start discerning common traits, fundamental principles that appear to apply to most causes that have taken hold on the internet. They are
- Technology is the solution: Often underly discussion of the internet as a political force is the view from its supporters that technology is the solution to most of the world’s problems. Techno-utopia runs far as many internet activists see the lack of technology or the lack of transparency provided by technology as the source of most of the world’s ills. This works as a superset of the other principles as the other owns are mostly about protecting the technological underpinnings of the internet.
- Internet sovereignty: For right or wrong, many on the internet look to the internet as its own sovereign body. They see local jurisdictions as not applying to the internet and place servers in location that are more favorable to what they are trying to do. This can be seen, for example, in the Wikileaks efforts and how they argue that, as a publisher located outside the US, they are not under US jurisdiction.
- A common good: This concept is that the internet is a common resource and that governance of the internet, as such, is the responsibility of all parties who have access to it and not necessarily of a central authority. This principle was established by the founders of the internet when they created a technical review model called the RFC (or Request for Comment) which gave right to voice opinion on a new piece of technological infrastructure to anyone who felt they were qualified to do so. The input would then be melded into the final product if there was consensus that it was a valuable one. The same concept can be witnessed in the open source movement, where every contributor is given the same right to submit new additions to a code base.
- Personal actions, collective power: Embedded in much of the internet philosophy is a strong libertarian sense of the power of the individual. As such, suspicion of established command and control structures runs high. This view is however held along with the seemingly contradictory concept of network power, which puts an emphasis on the power of connecting individuals in powerful collectives that can take on individual issues before disbanding and forming in different configurations again when a new issue arises. The power of the network is generally viewed as the glue that ties the internet together and its looseness is viewed as a strategic advantage as it allows for coalition creation and disbanding at a very rapid rate, which then allows for rapid responses to threats.
- KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid): To a large extent, the internet population has mostly flexed its muscle when a particular issue threatened it. Groups that have tried to present more than a single pithy message and idea have failed to get any kind of substantial hold in the internet hive mind. This seems to point to internet ideas needing to remain simple when presented instead of being grouped as part of a wider agenda.
- Freedom to communicate: This principle is embedded in the continuous fight over control of access to the internet and to the internet content. It can be framed by discussions such as net neutrality, which looks to ensure that every site or person on the internet is given the same opportunity to express opinions or share information, regardless of their financial weight offline.
- Show me, don’t tell me: There is an old adage among internet circles that “working code wins arguments.” Due to the first principle, there is a fairly large do-it-yourself ethic to the internet and, as a result, a substantial part of gaining trust and establishing thought leadership is to actually do things. When an idea is showcased with working examples already in place, it gains substantially more traction than when it’s talked about as a concept. As a result, there’s a bit of rearview mirror effect when aligning ideas: implement first, then generalize seems to be part of the larger ethos.
Populist movement or Galt’s Gulch?
Starting a couple of years ago, the first major clashes between these internet principles and those of the established world started being felt around the world. Dissidents around the world have increasingly taken to the internet as a way to communicate when the government controls the traditional media. The green revolution in Iran, the arab spring, and many other movements have looked to the internet as an infrastructure that can be used to disrupt and organize. Along the same ways, in the United States, the Occupy Wall Street movement and its sub-groups have leveraged many of the internet core philosophical principles and are still working on merging them with some anarchistic ones in an attempt to highlight economic inequality along with a number of other issues that may appeal to more populist individuals.
Meanwhile, the more libertarian strain of internet philosophy has people looking to move more of the economy under internet sovereignty and away from traditional jurisdictions. In a sense, we may look to those individuals as trying to reject some of the ways in which developed countries operate and create their own virtual version of Galt’s Gulch, after the fictional place in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
Those two pulls on internet ideology are consistently at odd with each other and help maintain a balance towards the center that allows for attracting more members to it. Whether that balance helps internet philosophy turn into a movement is only a question of time but how that manifestation will turn into a political force is a question that may become central to many elections in the near future.