In Mythologies, French philosopher Roland Barthes does not examine universal experience, but instead conveys his observations through a lyrical collection of succinct, modern myths, not unlike the following reflection:
The Myth of Internet Freedom
The World Wide Web is an arena that affords its users a plurality of freedoms. While other communications media previously exerted an implied control, the web liberates its inhabitants. Time, space, even politics and identity no longer bound this digital landscape.
Much of the freedom of the Internet emanates from its inherent nature and how it processes information. Discrete packaging (bits) undergirds all Internet communication. Information is parsed, broken down into equal-sized pieces, which can be reassembled and retrieved by any computer in the world. Unfettered access conceives new modes of association, action, and individuality.
Emails and messages can be sent and received instantly from across the globe. Communication enters new frontiers beyond interpersonal and public broadcasts. A message can be transmitted into the virtual ether, and present a user’s singular thoughts and emotions to countless others, known and unknown. Similarly, the dichotomy between private and public information is eroded as the web becomes a haven for the public dissemination and declaration of innermost feelings. In this new free space, bacchanalias of brutality, lasciviousness and vulgarity often transgress the rules of propriety with impunity.
The web is a freeway whose traffic speeds the toppling of dictators, and rallies 99% of the population. On its lanes, serendipity and spontaneity course while control is lax.
Most revolutionary is that it requires so little to access the web. Only a modest computer is necessary to unlock the door to an infinite wealth of information. Freedom sustained by the web is, at moments, so liberating, that it becomes unnerving. All a user needs to do is search and uncover information that is suspended in the web’s cloud. Surfing the web becomes a kind of journey, something between a flaneur and a walkabout. The web indulges unregulated wanderlust and the aimless browsing of information. The Internet space is a province of pure freedom, an unexplored and unprotected wilderness.
Dispelling a Myth
Written in 1957, Barthes’ revelations about different current media and materials, ranging from automobiles to toys, film, and, even, plastic dominate Mythologies. Barthes envisioned these objects as imbued with cultural signs. Greta Garbo’s face was an icon for the stoic beauty of black and white cinema. Professional wrestling was an intricate ballet of the “perfect intelligibility of reality” (p. 25). Barthes discerned symbols in both specific items and larger cultural forms. Toys and soap detergents, or at least the French versions of them, contained as much of mythical quality as Einstein’s brain.
Certainly today there are no shortage of myths about the Internet. The medium itself is a kind of myth. The “World Wide Web” and its computer language HTML is the mythical emblem of a diverse technical ecology. It includes miles of cables, satellites, mobile phones, computers, protocols for data transmission, and thousands of applications.
Just as Barthes suggests that “everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by discourses” (p. 109), this cornucopia of 21st century communication devices has many discourses embedded in it. One of the most prevalent revolves around the Web as both a free space and one that facilitates freedom. Free speech on the web has been reported as an impetus for the organization of social movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. New channels of collaboration have stimulated prodigious enterprise, from reams of digital code, to virtual stores, and, even, innovations funded by the website Kickstarter.
If my introductory myth seems a bit hyperbolic or bewildering, it is not surprising. Like many of Barthes’ anecdotes, the understanding of myths is highly personal. Myths are limited by the languages and histories of their particular cultures. It is within these cultures that an individual is able to fully comprehend myths. Yet some myths resonate with our own experience. Barthes describes some mythical concepts as seeking him out (p. 125). Other myths, by contrast, are aspirations unrelated to reality. Such is the case of the myth of Internet freedom.
Unquestionably, the Internet furnishes certain conveniences in terms of communication. It allows users to send messages via various platforms both privately and publicly. It provides a vast array of information. Whether or not the web resembles the portrait of freedom depicted in my myth or whether or not it ascribes a roadmap to the hopes and desires culturally embedded within that myth, I am going to try to ascertain.
Access to the web is circumscribed by a wide variety of monetary restrictions and technical boundaries, starting with the rules imposed by HTML and the web’s protocols. These create the grammar and language of the web. Beyond this syntax, much of our communication on the platform is commoditized, from the bandwidth of data we consume, particularly in the mobile industry, to the content we generate, which advertisers use to market to us. In addition to these apparent expenses, a more important conflict is evinced with the myth of Internet freedom. Ultimately, the experience of the web is highly dissociated from the myths about it. Sending an email does not feel like the transcendence of time and space. Rather it is, often, if not always, the fulfillment of an obligation, born from conversations or preconceived desires to a particular end. It is, in short, work.
Working at Myth
In Mythologies’ final essay, Barthes explains how the modern myth is fashioned and its relationship to different parts of the political and social milieus. The myth is originated through signs, embedded within a given form, and imbued with meaning by concepts taken from historical and cultural precedent. As Barthes puts it, “the knowledge contained in a mythical concept is confused, made of yielding shapeless associations” (p. 119).