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, 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 on which we have chosen to read and write. If we truly love freedom, we must examine those factors and fully comprehend their significance.

This takes too many words to say too little. By now, the reader should know what the central idea of the essay is, and she does not. Substantively, whatever defitnion of freedom is in use is very thin indeed.

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.

I'm not sure why. Societies incapable of securing everyone a material competence have nonetheless been able to provide universal education, of which the material results are always good. Why this is repugnant to human liberty it would be useful to explain carefully.

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.

The prevailing view, also reflected in some essays submitted here, is that human beings in industrial economies have far more leisure time available to them than could ever be developed in subsistence economies. The evidence on this point is strong enough that you should at least confront it.

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.

Even if the piece had been written using some proprietary services, your "without worrying or wondering" could still be true, particularly because the users of such services rarely wonder or worry. And so?

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.

That's odd. It seems to me to have been obviously a resounding success: it put all the world's manufacturers onto building post-Windows ultra-light notebooks, which had an immense and valuable effect on technology everywhere. Sugar, it's user interface, is available everywhere as free software to run on all sorts of hardware, and is widely used. Perhaps the criteria of success and failure should be defined.

Simply handing poor children a free software machine does not improve learning outcomes, precisely because it does not alter their surrounding material circumstance.

I'm not sure what your evidence is for this statement. I have seen both lots of data and have acquired lots of personal experience showing precisely the opposite. I'm not sure how to explain to the kids at AC3 in Bangalore, for example, that computers didn't change their lives because after they began learning, they and their families were still very poor. I don't think that's how they see the matter, any more than it is how I do. Given that what you say doesn't accord with experience or what I think I know, is it too much to ask for some data, of any kind, to back up this otherwise completely unsupported and counter-intuitive assertion?

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?

I don't know what makes it the right question, but if it is the right question, how about beginning the essay with it, and helping the reader to understand the effort you then go on to make to answer it?



Webs Webs

r27 - 10 Nov 2015 - 16:41:36 - EbenMoglen
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