Is It Anarchy on the Internet?

By Craig | December 5, 2002

In a word, no. Considering that it was founded by branches of the U.S. government, and today is funded mostly by commercial companies, public and private schools, and the government, it seems like kind of a stupid question. But since countless pundits, some of whom even claim to be anarchists, have maintained that it is, I’d like to state why I think that the Internet does not fit any definition of ‘anarchism’ that I am comfortable with.

The media seem to have adopted the practice of using the word ‘anarchy’ to describe what happens when a government fucks up more than usual–the civil war in Somalia being one of the more recent examples. Anarchists, on the other hand, use it to describe a system of social organization where people and communities take responsibility for their own lives and actions instead of depending on a government to do so for them. Anarchists, in other words, are describing a positive, proactive alternative to the current political system, whereas the popular press are describing the lack or failure of certain acts of the current system. So it’s not surprising to see some of the various services of the Internet, which have pretty much had ”anything goes” usage policies and have remained quite free from government control since their inception, described by the press as ”anarchic.” What is surprising is that I occasionally see self-proclaimed ”anarchists” who seem to agree with this!

The thinking seems to go like this:

From a user’s point of view, most Internet services are truly decentralized. Outside of any given site, there is no central administration, and what hierarchies there are tend not to be rigidly ”enforced.”

Whereas, for instance, it is a crime to send certain items through the U.S. Mail, the internation and open nature of, and the enormous volume of information carried on, the Internet makes such restrictions on content difficult (though not impossible) to enforce.

In many areas, if you look hard enough, you can find a way to access the Internet for free although you often need to own a computer to do so.

In other words, this philosophy seems to define the Internet in terms of what it isn’t [not (usually) centralized, not (usually) censored, not (usually) expensive]. You’ll notice that this fits very neatly into the ”media” definition of ‘anarchism,’ but says nothing about the need for a positive alternative to government-dependent lifestyles, as required by the ”anarchist’s definition” of the word.

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The Internet is a very useful tool. It’s both faster and, for most people, cheaper than the U.S. Postal Service. It’s far cheaper than the telephone, and usually just as fast. It’s also the easiest way I know of to get a message out to a large group of people at once. I also find that I get much more personal feedback from email messages than I get from zines, and sometimes even personal letters, probably because it’s so much easier to do. But there are several downsides that we must keep in mind:

Any computer network or bulletin board is fundamentally classist, because most people simply don’t have access to it. Whereas nearly anyone can receive paper mail or a telephone call, whether or not they have a permanent address, you must have access to both a computer and an appropriate account to use the Internet. Recognizing this, groups in many cities are forming ”Freenets,” which offer (usually) free accounts with Internet email access, and often provide public-access terminals. But today, at least, the majority of people do not have access to these services.

While personal email can be quite useful, few if any of the services meant for large groups of people to use simultaneously, such as mailing lists (like the aaa-web) and Usenet (an enormous ”bulletin board” system) end up being consistently constructive (if, indeed, they are ever constructive at all!). Most are like a meeting where the person who shouts the loudest gets to be heard, and where those who aren’t into screaming tend to eventually leave. Spy writer Chip Rowe asked, ”How much would you pay to spend your evenings and weekends with a room full of con artists, misogynists, computer geeks, snooty academics, rude teenagers, pushy salesmen, Iowa housewives, bad poets, Nazi sympathizers, certified morons, corporate suits, Elvis fans, recovering alcoholics, aging hippies, pockmarked pornographers, and overzealous FBI agents?”

There’s nothing available on the internet that isn’t also served by other means, like letters and zines, albeit not quite as well, in some instances. None of the services that it offers add to our efforts, they simply make them a little more convenient. In other words, truly autonomous communities are no more likely to arise given the use of the Internet.

So while Internet services can be a great way to get the word out about the real, constructive projects that you and your community are doing, please don’t fall into the trap of mistaking use of the net itself as something of any real value to the creation of an autonomous society.

-Craig

Any comments on this article? Send email to the address below!

Craig (stuntz[at]rhic.physics.wayne.edu)

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