The Myth of Internet Freedom

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).

 

According to Barthes, a myth is something read and seen. It “arrests” (p. 125) the reader and “can insinuate itself” (p. 132) into everyday life. However, the essay hints at no producer, or place of origination aside from the ambiguous mythical concept, and the implication that the myth’s signification appears to be natural as opposed to manufactured. Myths are simply present. Entrenched in history, they appear disconnected from their construction. Barthes even describes one myth as “like a magical object springing up in my present life without any trace of history which has caused it” (p. 125).

Just as there are unspoken costs in the myth of Internet freedom, there are unspoken myth-makers. I think that they are all of us. We produce the forms and concepts that bring the myth into being. This process isn’t consciously done. Otherwise, myth becomes propaganda, filled with the intent to coerce.

Myth-making, I contend, corresponds to work. The web may appear free, but more practically it is utilitarian. Martin Heidegger in Being and Time attributes a sense of being through tools and labor. Heidegger designated the hammer as the quintessential implement for articulating the existence of his human who he calls “Dasein.” When we hammer, our sense of being gets subsumed in using the tool. As our hammering becomes more proficient, we cease thinking of ourselves and the hammer separately. “The less we just stare at the hammer-thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is—as equipment” (15:98).

As we hammer, we are in service not of the hammer, but of our intended goal. Heidegger talks about the idea of building a house. Numerous hammers and nails are necessary in its construction. The builder’s intent is to create a domicile and shelter, with the hammers and nails being the means by which to reach this end. As he hammers, the builder’s focus is embedded in his hammering, as he works toward his objective.

Heidegger extended his philosophy of being to his conception of humans and humanity in general. His “Dasein” encompassed both a single human being and the collective knowledge of his humanity, or what might be understood as his culture. Dasein’s very existence was in service of this larger cultural humanity, embedded in the work that he did. “So far as Dasein is at all, it has Being-with-one-another as its kind of Being” (26:163).

If Dasein works at mundane tasks in service of themselves, a new picture of myth-making begins to emerge. Although Dasein’s act of hammering appears separate from the final goal of constructing the home, the work of a thousand hammerings and nails builds what becomes a cohesive whole. Myth-making then can be be seen as a product of a constant state of work. Incrementally, we construct the myths. They are part of a collective work of what appears to be almost unrelated activity. Is this a way of understanding the myth of freedom on the web?

The communication that occurs on the social networking website Twitter provides the signifiers that correlate with the myth of freedom through work. Millions of messages are authored and passed each day, publicly on the site, as well as privately among its users. Some may be informational, others banal, and all require some level of work to compose. When I send a tweet, I don’t conceive of it as a testament to the freedom of speech. More often, I have a fleeting notion of a group of friends, all members of the service, who may benefit from or enjoy my message’s content. Occasionally, as with the Dasein, I fluctuate between thinking about single and collective recipients. Whether directed at one person or many, the work never seems to be with the intention of myth-making. However, instantly, when I add my text to the agglomeration of missives that comprises the “twittersphere,” I bestow one more sign, one more form, to its myth as a public space, where information is free to be read by anyone. This is true not just for tweeting, but for much of web content.

The Standing-Reserve of Technology

            Unusual about the myth of web freedom is its seeming transparency, which is contrary to what Barthes described as one of myth’s inherent functions, to distort (p. 121). This is especially true when the web is seen as a free space in which to wander. However, the web is hardly without constraints. “Googling” has become synonymous with the querying of web information. The methods of browsing this technical landscape are cultivated and curated by Google, who benefits from controlling user activity. Much of Google’s success stems from its ability to both order and frame information gleaned from other websites.

Technology itself, for Heidegger, is primarily concerned with this very ordering. The work produced for the web provides not the “forms” of myths, but the “standing-reserve” for myths in general.

Heidegger identified standing-reserve as a “word [which] expresses here something more, and some­thing more essential, than mere ‘stock.’ The name ‘standing­-reserve’ assumes the rank of an inclusive rubric. It designates nothing less than the way in which everything presences that is wrought upon by the challenging revealing” (p. 17)

Heidegger’s prime example of the phenomenon is the Rhine river, which, inspiration for Germanic hymns (p. 16), was transfigured by the technologist. He conceived the “standing-reserve” of the river as merely energy for a hydroelectric plant. The Rhine derives its meaning only from the technology itself. Heidegger was troubled by this reduction in all substances. As he concludes in “The Question Concerning Technology,” “The coming to presence of technology threatens revealing, threatens it with the possibility that all revealing will be con­sumed in ordering and that everything will present itself only in the unconcealedness of standing-reserve” (p. 33).

There are some metaphorical similarities between “standing-reserve” and the underlying logic of the Internet. Its “packet switching” system can easily be associated with an almost liberating uniformity in the parsing of data. At the same time, packet switching is a way of converting all online communications into a kind of standing-reserve, latent information energy that is meant only to be capitalized by corporate interests.

This definition verges on creating yet another myth around data. Still, there is a relationship between standing-reserve and myth. Even Barthes saw bourgeois myths as being made of “computable appearances” (p. 154). The bourgeoisie, according to Barthes, retained power through technical and “scientific progress” (p. 141), which allowed for “an unlimited transformation of nature” (p. 141). This statement echoes Heidegger’s own fears of technology putting upon “nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such” (p. 14).

Much of the signs of myth share distinct commonalities with standing-reserve. Barthes describes myth as a glass window, which is both present and absent at the same time. This is comparable to Heidegger’s ever-present standing-reserve which, like the energy of the Rhine, only needs to be revealed. Barthes argues that myth, as depoliticized speech, “purifies them [things], it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification…” (p. 143), an essential quality of standing-reserve. Barthes claims myths both “[abolish] the complexity of human acts” (p. 143) and “[organize] a world which is without contradiction” (p. 143), which adheres to Heidegger’s technical system.

Most relevant to computer technology is Barthes’ description of myth as a “pure ideographic system” (p. 127), or a system based on graphic symbols that represent ideas. Cyberneticians, the philosophic progenitors of computer scientists, envisioned computers in a similar ideographic fashion. Their technical system, like standing-reserve, was composed of uniform, universal and discrete symbols. If a myth is an ideographic system, and the Internet is based on the ideographic system of cybernetics, then contained in the predominant myth of the Internet is standing-reserve.

Under this interpretation, the Internet’s myths are subtly different from those of Barthes. Barthes, for instance, sees myths as being based on intention and motivation. In the case of standing-reserve, intention is present, but all things tend toward standing-reserve, “revealing” (p. 12), to use Heidegger’s language, rather than intentionally made for the sake of the common reserve that they can be. Barthes describes the task of myths as moving signs from history to nature. Standing-reserve is, in many ways, one step beyond nature, revealing it as merely a product to be exploited by man. “It remains true, nonetheless, that man in the technological age is, in a particularly striking way, challenged forth into revealing. That revealing concerns nature, above all, as the chief storehouse of the standing energy reserve” (Heidegger, p. 21). Ultimately, those things that fall into standing-reserve become a kind of store of potentiality, devoid of meaning except as a source of energy for humanity in the end, losing not only their historical quality, but also, in many ways, their mythic quality as well.

Missing the Myth

            If the myths of the web are the product of a kind of work, and correlate to standing-reserve, then the true “myth” of the Internet extends beyond freedom to something more portentous. Within this myth, users are workers whose collective actions produce a standing-reserve of information. This reserve then becomes the raw material for not just freedom, but all myths. It is an ideographic store of empty symbols, devoid of culture or history, merely a byproduct of other interactions, ready to be used as the fodder for any myth.

Disturbing in this scenario is the disconnect between the myth-makers and their myths. At once, we are collectively working at making myths, yet the work we do has no connection to the myths we construct. Our work is meaningful to its own end. While enthusiastically investing in it, we, at the same time, produce myths almost completely out of our control. As a consequence, each email I send has the potential to add to myths of freedom. Each tweet I post adds to a myth about the end of privacy. Every file I save to the cloud adds to a myth about the infinite memory of the Internet. I have contributed to all of these myths, while I have worked at none of them.

References

Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies (First.). New York: Hill and Wang.

Heidegger, M. (2008). Being and Time (Reprint.). Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

Heidegger, M. (1977). The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Harper Torchbooks.

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