The State of the Net


‘So, Bill, how do we unfuck this?’

(Uploaded in haste via iOS app from a moving vaporetto. Now corrected.)

These are dangerous days.

We see it in the renewed attacks on secure encryption embodied in laws like the Digital Economy Act and in press coverage that holds end-to-end encryption responsible for interfering in due process, echoing the political line but also putting pressure on those communications channels that are outside the control of the established media owners.

We see it in continued attacks on freedom of expression on the open web, although since people continue to flock to private services with their own community standards in preference to places that make open expression paramount, there is little push back.

We see it in the imminent debasement of the idea of net neutrality to serve those US interests that fund the current administration, breaking the core principle of the end-to-end network to serve commercial interests.

And we see it in the successful attempts – in the US at least – to treat all data as a commodity to be traded and to devalue the idea of data protection.

This is against the background of a planet that is undergoing significant climate shifts as a result of human activity, and where there is simply no prospect of consensual action on the political stage to deal with the implications, attempt to arrest the process, or ameliorate the consequences.

A lot of people will die earlier than they might have done as a result, and the conditions under which advanced technological civilisation emerged will vanish for at least several thousand years.

We may be able to use our skills to survive as a species, with some quality of life for some. Or not.

Sometimes I can sense superposition of wave state that defines current lived reality- it feels like a mist. Sometimes it’s like Douglas Adams’ Asgard, glimpsed when you turn your head just… so… But I am aware of it, and realise that it will collapse.

On one side is a grim meathook future: like Riddley Walker but with Kent flooded and the Ardship of Cambry fled to the welsh hills. We ask how many we can sustain, and look for fresh water.

On the other we tend towards a Singularity, never to arrive, of course, but shiny happy technologies deliver the possibilty of some forms of a good life, even if it is a Brave New World of control and careful limits on expression.

The probability of the world dimly glimpsed over years of Opentech and NotCon, dreamed of at PuntCon and fought for at Newspeak House, seems low. Not a stable energy state.

Perhaps we are on the wrong side of history. Perhaps our belief in the sacerdotal authority of the engineer has led us down the wrong path, and the rose garden is elsewhere.

Sometimes the world gives you the right thing to read. For reasons related to the recent local elections, I found myself reading the draft of a friend’s PhD thesis about the emergence and development of theories of civil religion in Hanoverian Britain, in the aftermath of the seventeenth-century wars of religion.

Civil religion – if I may massively oversimplify – is christian religious practice that is at the service of the state, which, since the monarch is appointed by god, is fine. It is contrasted with priestly catholicism, which places the Pope above the monarch and which grounded in superstition, can never provide a basis for a stable civil society – one in which order is maintained, the aristocracy can retain its power and all are content with their place.

At that time theorists of civil religion sought to render Protestant Christianity a faith whose ecclesiology was compatible with the civil state and whose practice encouraged civilised society.

I was also thinking about what I wanted to say here this year, as part of my regular double act with Gavin Starks. I’d been musing on the title ‘so, Bill, how do we unfuck this, then?’, given the changes in the world since I last appeared. I was going to talk about the attempts to defy mathematics and regulate for secure cryptography that could be used to exchange messages that are readable only by the intended recipient and the approved agents of the state, when I realised that appealing to maths was rather like appealing to a deity – or at least a pope.

Our current debates about the network have become theological in nature, and are now as convoluted as the discussions about popery and priestly conduct and religious observance.

Do we need our own Reformation, to tell new stories and find a new basis for our role in the wider society? Are we vicars of the network?

I don’t think this one is going to be easily sorted unless we engage fully with the wider society and get ourselves some old style political power from a network perspective – ground our movement in the affordances of the network.

Let’s bring an AT-AT to the knife party.

Why did we let them build Facebook so that its tools could be used to shore up their hegemony?

Why do we continue to let them write the rules to favour their preferred outcomes?



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