The Internet has no place, on the internet you have no face

November 5, 2019Computing in Context

Prompt

In 1996, John Perry Barlow, founder of the EFF, published his soon-to-be famous Declaration on the Independence of Cyberspace. In it, he insists that “Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.” Using the readings, write a 400-500 word response to the central idea in Barlow’s declaration.

My Response

I disagree with Barlow's ideas, at it implies that cyberspace is and should be, free of physical constraints and doesn't concern physical bodies. I think it's a common myth that many people take for granted as truth, and I believe Drucker's theories on Performative Materiality provide a lens from which we can observe how that myth - that the internet is divorced of physical constraints - forms.

Drucker's Performative Materiality is a way we can unnderstand technnology through the effects it has on participants (what it does), shaped by the context and relationships that surround its materiality (what it is). I see the myth of the internet - as a faceless, locationless space - as formed through the way many user-facing factors come together way to give it that effect through repeated use.

Drucker explains interfaces as a means for observable, material details of a technology to work together to perform some interpretation for a user: "Interface is a space of affordances and possibilities structured into organization for use. An interface is a set of conditions, structured relations, that allow certain behaviors, actions, readings, events to occur."

A lot of examples of how interface affects readings of the internet as faceless and spaceless comes to mind. When we signup for some user accounts, we are given the illusion that we can start as a fresh identity, even though behind the scenes systems are still tracking who we are through what devices we're using and what our other browsing history is. Another example that speaks to this is the processes of reporting content on Facebook. Facebook recently had an exposeé on the NDA-bound contractors that are required to sift through disturbing content as part of Facebook's content moderation system. Part of why this news comes off so disturbing, in my opinion, is the perception many people have that disturbing content moderation is handled by algorithms, not people. I think this is a result of how user interface patterns work to establish and reinforce (faulty) narratives of what's going on behind the scenes. We are so used to seeing similar interfaces for other automatic things: the UI for reporting a post kind of looks like muting a post or unfollowing someone, so it makes sense that the human-implications aren't at the forefront of our mind.

I resonate with Barlow's ideas that cyberspace has its own culture, that it connects people of different backgrounds and nationalities in ways never before. I think he is wrong to assume, however, that that cultural creation can be done separate from political implications. In the Experimental Geography piece, Paglen says: "Experimental geography means practices that take on the production of space in a self-reflexive way, practices that recognize that cultural production and the production of space cannot be separated from each another, and that cultural and intellectual production is a spatial practice."

One statement that Barrow made was indicative of this idea that the two cannot be separated: “Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion.” I think this is true, to the extent that sometimes you are able to escape the law by the power of anonymizing technologies - but at some outside cost that does exist in the physical world. The incidents described in the Kansas article are a prime example: hackers might have been able to get away with crimes using an IP address that’s centered in the middle of Kansas, but at the cost of impacting real people who have nothing to do with it. IPs are needed for the internet to function the way it does now, and the fact that they are (imperfectly) related to geographical locations means the internet is political and in the world of bodies and physical space.