An Open Web

The Myth of Openness

1Some questions may be raised when looking at the current use of the web and the high popularity of Google and social networks such as Facebook. These questions tap into cultural variables that have not been addressed elsewhere in this book but which are important to understand such a revolution. Digital environments such as Google Maps or the walled gardens of Facebook are dramatically changing the way we relate to people, ourselves and the world. Considering the high speed in which they have been adopted one might assume that in fact there are different layers at which representations about the world and ourselves are distributed. What kind of processes are at work on a personal and collective levels? This epilogue is an attempt at drawing a map of what might be considered when thinking of the cultural dimensions attached to the open (or closed?) web.

The Internet is a network controlled by protocols. Alexander Galloway speaks of the protocols that support Internet technology. He attributes to them a disciplinary form of control executed by networks. Inside the Internet there is no escape from protocols, because they are the way computers communicate and distribute information, through TCP/IP and DNS. Protocols are a technology of inclusion he observes, and in this sense change or resistance inside the World Wide Web is to be done within “the protocological”.2

Even if Internet protocols enable decentralization (representing a decentralized circuit), they are based upon forms of control of an invisible kind, iterating through series of different nodes, giving the impression there is freedom—but it is a customised freedom at best, at worst a kind of prison.

Even inside this limited sphere we are losing or giving away our freedoms—more and more people are trading privacy for convenience. Web 2.0, as embodied by Facebook and Twitter, has some resemblances to the shopping mall, being promoted as a way of meeting new people, or getting in touch with old friends, or keeping everyone informed of your activities. It is a social mall where the commodity for sale is personality.

The model of the network is the optimal circuit of control acting upon contemporary civilization.

Celebrated at times as a sort of utopia, networks perform as a modern kind of prison. The Internet is a disciplinary diagram based upon forms of decentralized control. Resting upon the idea of Progress as obligatory, the network has evolved into an optical or panoptical system of control, powered by the optimization of remote communication.

Lewis Mumford in “The Myth of the Machine”3 describes Egyptian civilization, pointing out how writing was the first form of programming at a distance, allowing ruling powers to reproduce precise commands to distant slave workers building the Pyramids. Since the Internet is based on text one could state that from its written nature it has developed newer forms of instructions to be executed over human and social behaviour. The Internet hides processes that instruct commands in an invisible decentralized fashion, these in turn affect behaviour. You can only interact with your Friends in your Facebook account in certain scripted ways, and these transactions hide a growing sphere of corporate initiated absorption of Facebook profile information (but did Facebook ask you?).

Facebook is a good example of a pseudo-open Web resting on weak relations where these socialities (‘communities’) are founded on tenuous horizontal connections or superficial connections where a horizontal terminology is used, but isn’t enshrined. Proprietary social network sites might use the rhetoric of the horizontal, but in a weak and superficial manner since is always subject to the rules of the host which are ultimately contingent, and never so decentralized nor open.

Social networks are sanitized, they don’t contain the dirtiness of body to body contact, they work as separated galleries, clean and constrained and their aim is the commodification of friendship, capitalizing on relations and affection for corporate interests.

Profiles in social networks exemplify a newer form of discipline. Manuel Castells writes about it this way: “In a world of global flows of wealth, power, and images, the search for identity, collective or individual, ascribed or constructed, becomes the fundamental source of meaning. This is not a new trend… Yet identity is becoming the main, and sometimes the only, source of meaning in a historical period characterized by widespread destructuring of organizations, delegitimization of institutions, fading away of major social movement.”4 The search for identity taken to an extreme form such as creating and sharing profile information is changing the way we relate to others.

“I have been told many times, you don’t exists if you don’t have Facebook, but actually even if I don’t have a Facebook account my spectral presence is animated by my friends accounts, their pictures, their statuses. Like my former boyfriend, he changed his status from “engaged” to “single” four months before we actually broke up. I couldn’t know because I have no Facebook account, but all his Facebook friends knew about it and some were asking me how was I dealing with it. Dealing with what? -since I had no notice of new status”. Or the man approaching me in a club in Lima: he saw me dancing and came to me to give me a piece of paper and left without saying a word. The paper had his e-mail address and the message “add me”. These examples may show how social networks recreate a separated world that in some way has dominance over the real world. Perhaps we may even speak of network produced human relations as a vertical power accessing real life being reproduced in social network platforms.

Social networking is a form of production. Following Maurizzio Lazzarato,5 life-styling becomes a form of capitalist production where capitalism co-opts consumers as life-style workers creating the conditions for commodities to be sold. The possibility of making a profile gives the impression of freedom to design what you are or the way you want to be seen by others, but it is hiding a deep fragmentation of human relations, of the way we relate to our bodies and the way we relate to the world. They produce an ideological environment in which to shape subjectivities, e.g. the Facebook community, to extract, and ultimately to profit, through profiling and data-mining.

In Facebook the necessity of showing off your face, only a part of your body, the upper part where the eyes are, a section dominated by the visual dimension, has taken over other parts of the body, which is shown, here and there, as fragments.

As a “walled garden” this popular social network mall threatens openness from a cultural perspective, but it may also have an effect on the structure of the web. As Tim Berners-Lee warns, social networking sites that do not allow users to extract the information they put into them could mean the web is “broken into fragmented islands.”6 “The web evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles,” he said. “The web as we know it, however, is being threatened in different ways. Some of its most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles.”

Network vs Web and their origins

From its inception the Internet is closed. If we look for an origin, one source would be rooted in graph theory in the 18th century, in the mathematical definitions of Euler. “A graph” in its mathematical definition “is pair of sets (…) of vertices (nodes in a graph) and a set of edges denoting the links between the vertices.”7

One case is the model of scale free networks—“Barabási and collaborators coined the term “scale-free network” to describe the class of networks that exhibit a power-law degree distribution (…) Scale-free networks are noteworthy because many empirically observed networks appear to be scale-free, including the world wide web, the Internet, citation networks, and some social networks.”8

A general consideration is that graphs are focused on nodes and that all real life networks are finite. Being finite co-ordinate systems, networks contain in themselves means of ideological control.

Another starting point to place the origin of the internet is the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (Arpanet) whose military aims were based on survivalism. The network of networks was created so information could survive to a global nuclear attack.”the arpanet was the world’s first operational packet switching network and the core network of a set that came to compose the global Internet. The network was created by a small research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States Department of Defense.”9

We could explore as an analogy a model of a web as described by the shamanic geometrical designs of the Peruvian indigenous tribes of the Shipibo-Conibo. In their drawings they graphically describe a web based on the intertwined communication paths of all existing forms being animated or not.10 They draw these networks under the effect of psycho active endogenous plant agents and describe them as paths that interconnect everything to everything. They even see networks coming out of written text as in books. Their emphasis is placed not in the nodes but on the paths, the infinite relations between agents. Reality is then knitted through the flow of energy of this infinite web.

“Whereas we perceive these designs as visual abstractions, the Shipibo-Conibo perceive them as matrices of intersensory perception, since these geometric designs are at the same time musical scores and perfume recipes. They resonate in each of the senses at once. They are not simply addressed to the eye.”11

The contrast between western models of networks such as the Internet, and the aboriginal intersensory experience of an infinite web of relations, is drawn to make explicit the difference of dynamics between the two models of web and networks, by considering the latter as iterations of well-defined relations with finite limits, versus a web of knowledge and a related freedom springing out of developing narratives through intoxication. Intoxication and infection are also related to the nature of text, words and writing (word is a virus Burroughs reminds us12).

There is liberty contained within the strings of text shared on the Web. Content is a filigree knitted through text, a soft layer that has the tendency to resonate and overcome limits.

Open standards carry within the historicity of technical developments. The cultural movement that has resisted closeness, the desire to overcome limitations imposed by elites over knowledge. There is something such as the open web as a layer working on top of close instances, that may improve the way we engage to daily life, people, work and knowledge. Considering this potential, why are you exercising your right to be in prison?

Dystopia, Open as propaganda

We may see there are, at least, two diagrams at work: one that is closed and finite, the Internet infrastructure based on protocols; and another that is open, the Web, that is based on open standards which have sprung up from the unstoppable desire to open the way people and communities relate to information and to knowledge. There is a juxtaposition of diagrams where instances of open and closed gates are at work. The desire of being found in a Google Map, an opening gate, clashes with the corporate means of aggregating located information, a closing gate. Google Maps exemplifies the power and virtuosity of this optical system of control.

One looming threat to openness today is increasing access to the Internet from mobile devices. Mobile devices are a good thing of course, but they also create another opportunity for rent seeking from commercial players, who could introduce, for example, proprietary standards in the way they “mobilify” websites for access from smaller screens. This would affect everyone, but particularly people in developing countries just coming online now for the first time, whose Internet experience is more likely than not to be through mobile phones. In Jamaica, for example, more people access the Web from mobiles than from desktop or laptop computers, in a stunning case of technological leapfrog. There are already millions of smart phone users in China, not just the rich, but students who will save for months to buy a phone that gives them Internet access.

In 2009 the Chilean government made an agreement with a Malaysian telecom company to “illuminate” with wireless Internet all rural zones of the country using WiMAX technology.13 Their attempt was to provide free internet for three million people and in this way work towards breaking the digital divide. However the people living in the countryside, 13.4% of the population, have scarce knowledge of the Internet and low computer literacy. What may be seen in this case is that access to the Internet works as a command to progress. Technology will perform “illumination” with internet. Economical dependencies established by such an implementation are direct since the infrastructure is built as a free asset to later become a private paid service. This technology has been adopted as a blind command for progress without having a concrete plan for using it to increase economical production, even though this was the original intention. Earlier the government had vaguely envisioned developing educational initiatives. We can imagine that Internet in this type of arrangement and environment might have a low degree of adoption amongst the local community, so instead of bringing knowledge, the open wireless Internet infrastructure works as a propaganda of progress, destined to become open electromagnetic pollution.

  1. This title is named paraphrasing Lewis Mumford essay “The Myth of the machine” “Mumford insisted upon the reality of the megamachine: the convergence of science, technics and political power as a unified community of interpretation rendering useless and eccentric life-enhancing values. Subversion of this authoritarian kingdom begins with that area of human contact with the world that cannot be successfully repressed—one’s feelings about one’s self.” Lewis Freid, Makers of the City, Univ Massachusetts Press, 1990. p 115.^
  2. Alexander R. Galloway. Protocol: how control exists after decentralization. 2004. MIT Press.^
  3. Volume I Technics and Human Development. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publisher, 1967. Edición sudamericana: Emecé, Buenos Aires, 1969.^
  4. Castells, Manuel. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture; Volume 1: The Rise of The Network Society, 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell. p. 3, 2000.^
  5. Maurizio Lazzarato. From Capital-Labour to Capital-Life. Ephemera, 2004.^
  6. Tim Berners-Lee. Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality. Josh Halliday. Facebook could fragment web.^
  7. Reuven Cohen, Shlomo Havlin, and Daniel ben-Avraham Structural Properties of Scale-Free Networks , 2002 ^
  10. “Which are said to originate in the markings of the cosmic serpent, Ronin—are woven into textiles, incised on pots and houseposts, painted on faces, and even recorded in folios which were supplied by the first missionaries who made contact with the Shipibo-Conibo (see Illius 2002). However, their foremost use is in the context of Shipibo-Conibo healing rituals. David Howes, 2006. p.76.^
  11. The Aesthetics of Mixing the Senses. Cross-Modal Aesthetics David Howes (Concordia University), 2006^
  12. The Electronic Revolution, essay collection by William S. Burroughs first published in 1970^