Law in the Internet Society

Human Freedom & Internet Society: A Materialist Meta-Critique

-- ShayBanerjee - 17 October 2015


The Internet is not a closed system, so we should not 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, amusing, fully voluntary, and undisturbed by outsiders.

If all the above is true, my writing this essay and your reading it is what we call "freedom." Breathe it in. Kick back and enjoy it. But I must ask: how did we get here? At one time and place, this essay was yet unwritten. At another, you were alive but had not started reading. At still another, another person on Earth never had the chance. The difference between those coordinates and the “here and now” depends on factors unrelated to the mediums we have chosen to read and write. If we truly love freedom, we must examine those factors and fully comprehend their significance.

On Subsistence

I struggled with 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 took our dog Dexter for a walk, making a stop at a Chipotle on Ninth Avenue. Since the weather was nice, I ate outside, sharing a portion of my burrito bowl with Dexter. Needless to say, when I got home with a belly full of food and a smiling face covered in dog slobber, the words started flowing from the keyboard.

I do not know where you are right now, but I can make some educated 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, help 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, this sort of freedom is unimaginable. The really existing material conditions surrounding the poor 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. If we want them to enjoy the same kind of freedom you and I possess during this shared moment together, we must provide for their material wellbeing. Expecting them to read, write, and learn without doing so is repugnant to the very concept of human liberty.

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 my limited free time with them or on personal projects like this one is often difficult. If I work at a corporate law firm in two years, billing 1800-2500 hours annually, 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 you find more personally fulfilling - such as reading this essay.

For freedom to mean anything, people must actually have the time to experience it. This is problematic because industrial economies deprive humans of the ability to fully determine how they spend their time. The resultant activities are also not socially optimal: arguably far more labor time today is 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 limited resources and time available for advocacy. As an 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 over the last several hours, perhaps costing me a few minutes of productivity and giving Mr. Zuckerberg fresh log files, but not substantially impeding the creation of this writing. Had I chosen to publish on a proprietary system instead of a TWiki, you the Reader may have sacrificed some privacy, but still could have gained access to this essay with a few dollars or a baseline 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 in our lives that is not freedom? Is it really the software, or is it something else?



Webs Webs

r24 - 19 Oct 2015 - 18:54:19 - ShayBanerjee
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