The Beginning and End of the Internet

A few weeks ago, I was able to attend the 2013 Frontiers of New Media Symposium here at the University of Utah. Due to growing concerns over censorship and surveillance in the wake of the recent NSA scandal, the symposium, which looks at Utah and the American West as both a geographical and technological frontier, took on a somewhat more pessimistic tone than in previous years.  Its very apt theme, “The Beginning and End(s) of the Internet,” refers to Utah as being both one of the original four nodes on the ARPANET and being the future home of the NSA’s new data storage center, which, as a number of presenters pointed out, may indeed be part of the end of the open Internet as we know it.

While the main themes of the symposium were censorship and surveillance, the various presenters connected these themes to a much broader scholarship.  As always, the importance of physical geography to online interactions was a frequently discussed topic.  With the knowledge that the NSA has extensive ability to surveil any data that is stored or even passes through the United States, discourse that envisions “the Cloud” as an ethereal, placeless entity becomes very problematic (or at least more so than it already was).  There was also considerable discussion of the ways in which the Internet and online behaviors have changed since the early days of the Web.  While there was not always consensus on how accurate our vision of the early Internet as a completely free and open network was, everyone seemed to agree that a great deal has changed, perhaps irrevocably.  As Geert Lovink pointed out in his keynote, people no longer “surf” the Internet.  They are guided through it by social media.  Additionally, the user base of the Internet is shifting away from the United States and the West.  Brazil is trying to create its own Internet, while oppressive governments around the world are essentially trying to do the same thing that the NSA has apparently been doing for years.

With so many weighty matters on the table, there was certainly a lot to take away.  One theme that stood out to me, however, was the importance of understanding code in relationship to Internet participation.  This might seem counterintuitive to most current discourse surrounding the Internet, as technologies like Dreamweaver, WordPress, and Wikis are lauded for their ability to lower the barriers of entry to Internet participation and almost completely remove the need to learn code at all.  Why does anyone need to learn HTML in this day and age?

One of the topics that I always try to stress in my classes is that of media literacy.  In most popular discourse about Internet literacy, there is an inherent assumption that kids who grew up after the birth of the World Wide Web are endowed with this ability from an early age, generally surpassing their parents and older siblings by nature of being “born into” the Internet age.  Internet literacy, however is much more than the ability to open up a browser and update your Facebook page.  Literacy is not simply passing the minimum bar for using a medium.  It also involves being able to create and understand messages in that medium.  While basic ability to use the Internet is becoming more and more widespread, the prevalence of phenomena such as cyberbullying, phishing, and even trolling demonstrate significant and potentially dangerous deficiencies in many people’s understanding of how the Internet works.

While technologies such as Facebook, Instagram, and Wikipedia give many users the ability to become content creators, this ability comes at a price.  In exchange for ease of use, these technologies dramatically limit the kind of content that can be created, as well as the social and legal contexts in which this content can exist.  Lovink referred to these restrictions as a loss of “cyber-individualism,” where the personal home page has been replaced by the wiki and the social network.

These changes were perhaps best illustrated by Alice Marwick’s presentation on the transition from print zines of the 1980s to the modern blog.  Print zines, which were generally small, handmade magazines created on photocopiers, embodied the punk rock ethic of do-it-yourself culture.  Zines were most often had a subversive or counter-cultural aesthetic, and many zines had a strong feminist thread running through them.  Many of these same values and aesthetics migrated to early web zines and personal homepages, spawning a number of feminist webrings (remember those?).  However, as homemade HTML pages slowly gave way to blogging software and other accessible content management and hosting services, the nature of these publications changed.  While zines and many of the early text files that were passed around the Internet were largely anonymous, true anonymity on the Internet had become difficult long before the NSA started undermining online security.  Most bloggers don’t host their own sites, which means that their content has to comply with the rules of Blogger, LiveJournal, Tumblr, or whatever other service they might be using.  These rules are in turn shaped by legal and economic factors that rarely shift in favor of small content creators.  The subversive counter-culture, feminist, and anti-capitalist themes that were a significant part of zines as a medium are rarely found in the modern blogosphere.

Fortunately, there are still small but determined groups that still embrace the do-it-yourself ethic as a means of self-expression.  In the field of videogames, some of the most interesting (though often overlooked) games are dubbed “scratchware” after the Scratchware Manifesto, which condemned many of the destructive industry practices that arose in the 1990s and demanded a revolution.  Though the videogame industry itself has done little to address most of the issues brought up in the Manifesto, a number of talented creators have taken its ideas to heart, including Anna Anthropy, author of Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and developer behind games such as Mighty Jill Off, dys4ia, and Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars.  Although much of what was zine culture has been absorbed into the more homogeneous mainstream, there are still people out there bringing the zine into new media.

Even if you don’t necessarily fall into the counter-cultural zinester category, if you participate in Internet culture, it is important to learn about code, even if all you learn is HTML.  If not, you will always be limited to participating on someone else’s turns, whether it be Twitter, Google, or Facebook (all of which, at this point, might as well be the NSA).  Sites that offer introductory courses in coding like W3Schools and Codecademy have made it so that the only excuse for not knowing how to code is simply not trying.

While it may not be possible to return to the (possibly mythical) beginnings of the Internet, it needn’t end here.  Anyone can code.  Anyone can hack.  Clouds can be dismantled.  Censorship can be circumvented.  It’s time to take the Internet back.

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