Law in the Internet Society

The Internet & Human Freedom: A Materialist Critique

-- ShayBanerjee - 17 October 2015


The Internet is not a closed system, and to treat it as such is to ignore the set of material forces that generate human-machine interactions in the first place. Take this essay. I, the Writer, sit in a four-bedroom apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan on October 17, 2015, typing on my 2014 MacBook Air. You, the Reader, are likely somewhere else, on a different machine, and in a different time. Yet here we are, engaged in a mutual venture, one that is hopefully enlightening, enjoyable, fully voluntary, and undisturbed by outsiders.

To be clear, I believe that my writing this essay and your reading it is what we call "freedom." Thus, if we both love freedom, we must examine what we did to get here and determine what we require to produce similar experiences. That is already plenty to keep us busy, but if we are real freedom fighters our inquiry must not stop there. Our ultimate goal is to replicate the enjoyment of freedom as often as possible, in as many places as possible, and for as many people as possible—until the entire world is cleansed in the holy waters of human liberation.

On Subsistence

I struggled with the topic and structure of this essay. After spending the first half of the day brainstorming with little to show for it, I realized I had not eaten in 14 hours. Thus, I decided to take our dog Dexter for a walk, making a stop at a Chipotle on Ninth Avenue. Since the weather was nice, I ate outside, sharing about a portion of my meal with Dexter. Needless to say, when I got home with a belly full of food and face covered in dog slobber, the words started flowing.

I do not know where you are right now, but I’ll make some guesses. You most likely have a roof above your head, ready access to food and water, and little fear of immediate bodily harm. You are probably in a developed country, reside in a neighborhood with relatively little criminal activity, and possess a stable source of economic security. Perhaps the weather outside is pleasant over there, and maybe you, like me, care for a companion that brings joy and comfort into your life.

At the date of this writing, most people do not have what you and I have. For the majority of humanity who live in poverty, the sort of freedom you and I enjoy is unimaginable. The really existing material conditions surrounding them are producing permanent damage to their cognitive development; are placing them at risk of alcoholism, drug abuse, and delinquency; and are directly causing depression, anxiety, and illness. The obstacles facing their lives are repugnant to the very idea of human freedom.

No discussion of freedom in the Internet Society can begin without fully addressing the problem of subsistence. You and I might be free during this shared moment together, but as long as we fail to provide for the material wellbeing of billions of people, the human race never will be.

On Alienation & Use Value

Throughout this writing, I resisted offers to go out drinking or play football at the park. As a law student, I am lucky enough to have free time on the weekends, but Monday through Friday I am busy with classwork. Socializing with my friends is an important component of my freedom, and having to choose between spending free time with them or on personal projects is often difficult. If I work at a corporate law firm in two years, the choices will only become harder.

If you are like most people in the developed world, you are an employee of someone else, you find much of your job mundane and repetitive, and your work imperfectly aligns with your individual interests. You nonetheless stay at your job for fear that you will otherwise fall into poverty or out of favor with friends and family. In the process, you lose time to spend on activities more personally fulfilling.

For freedom to mean anything, people must actually have the time to experience it. This is problematic because contemporary economies deprive humans of the ability to fully determine how they spend their time. The resultant activities are also not socially optimal: much more labor time today is arguably dedicated to mobile app development than solving global hunger, for example. Absent structural change in employment relations and the utilization of labor, the pursuit of freedom in the Internet Society is necessarily constrained.

On Software & Freedom

You are likely reading this essay without passing through a pay-wall, worrying that a stranger is tracking your behavior on a remote server, or wondering if a corporation or government manipulated the content. Free software is an important component of this essay’s status as an expression of freedom, and I do not intend to fully diminish that reality.

My contention instead is that dedicating social force to free software development is not an optimal use of the resources and time available for advocacy. For example, I consider the once-hyped “One Laptop Per Child” program to be a proven failure and a waste. Simply handing poor children a free software machine does not improve learning outcomes, precisely because it does not alter their surrounding material circumstance.

On the other hand, I expressed my views here despite using a computer lacking RYF certification. I visited Facebook multiple times in the process of writing this, perhaps costing me a few minutes and giving Mr. Zuckerberg fresh log files but not substantially impeding the production of this writing. Had I chosen to post on a proprietary system instead of a TWiki, you the Reader may have sacrificed some privacy, but still could gain access to this essay with a few dollars or a tolerance for advertisements.

If we are to fight for this, we need to ask the right questions. What is the real difference between this essay and everything that is not freedom? Is it really the software, or is it something more substantial?



Webs Webs

r21 - 18 Oct 2015 - 23:36:27 - ShayBanerjee
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