The Confused, Ice-Cream Stained Dogs of the Internet

I'm about to delve into a very confusing theoretical world. But don't worry—no matter what happens, we always end up popping out into reality on the other side.

In this world, people with confusing names do confusing things to confusing objects. Writer's write about writing, and theorist's theorize about theory. Then theorist theorize about writing, therein, writing it down. After which, writers write about theorists, and theorists write about theorists (they tend to talk about themselves). The writers write more about writing, which is then theorized, and possibly serialized by the theorists.

At the first call of serializing, the publishers show up. They can charge money for that! The publishers publish writing, not really caring what its about. This shocks both the writers and the theorists, who write and theorize about the publishers and publishing. Then eventually come to a conclusion: publishing is not writing. They proceed to write that down, and then the publishers publish it.

It's true: the publishers don't write much, or theorize either. It leaves them in a poor position to respond to the writers and theorists. Luckily, there are plenty of theorists and writers who write and theorize about theory and writing. The publishers publish this. Now the writers have theories about who is more responsible for publishing the publishing angle, and the theorists write many angry letters. The publishers publish these too. Eventually, everyone decides to scrap the publishers, and just write and theorize. Everyone agrees except the publishers (who don't write a damn thing about it), and they all go start a blog.

But then, they realize all their blogs are belongs to Google. Then shit really flies off the handle.

“Are belongs to”, in case you are not aware, is actually a complete possessive verb, not a grammatically incorrect infinitive. It is part of this very confusing world. It denotes ownzorship in the dimension of the Internet. Anything, singular or plural, can “are belongs to”, and most often it is “all” of whatever the subject noun happens to be (the etymology is vaguely bastardized Japanese, and Cuteish-English, see also “teh internets”). This is merely the way of the Internet, a dimension in which things are large in scope, and what is not included often doesn't exist.

None of these writer-theorist-publisher people actually exist either, at least not in the defined terms of these jobs as separate entities. I have just wasted your time by letting you try to follow my confusing little maze. I'm sorry. But many people are also wasting your time by having you think about things in confusing ways, and none of them have the shame to apologize for it.

But what I actually want to talk about is Hannah Arendt.

Hannah Arendt does not are belongs to teh internets, though it is hard to understand why not. Arendt is profoundly American philosopher in my opinion, despite her European lineage in both philosophy and nationality. Her philosophy is fairly easy to understand, and delves into topics long important to Americans and their other associated theorists—this being the republic that it is (all your greco-roman philosophers are belongs to e pluribis unum). And since many people would like to make the Internet a mirror image of our great (not to mention, well-designed and always functional) nation, one would figure... but, well, no.

But what I actually want to write about is the Internet. Since this requires a bit of theorization, I'm going to have to theorize about theorists to get to the theory. And this is what I'm going to write about. Starting now. No more philosophy/Internet jokes.

Henry Porter hates Google, and writes about it the way a dog would write about being pet by a four year-old. The dog understands that petting is often very good. It understands that hitting is very bad. But it does not understand why these small persons smelling of dirt and mashed foodstuffs run toward it with open arms, as if to pet, and then precedes to wack the dog about the ears and eyes with wide-open palms. Why? Why are they doing this? What should I do? Should I bite? Should I run? Fuck. I think I'll just lay down and accept it, and when all the people are gone, I'll pee on the rug.

“Google presents a far greater threat to the livelihood of individuals and the future of commercial institutions important to the community. One case emerged last week when a letter from Billy Bragg, Robin Gibb and other songwriters was published in the Times explaining that Google was playing very rough with those who appeared on its subsidiary, YouTube. When the Performing Rights Society demanded more money for music videos streamed from the website, Google reacted by refusing to pay the requested 0.22p per play and took down the videos of the artists concerned.”

Oww, ow-ow! You're supposed to be petting me!

Maybe my analogy was a little disingenuous. It's not very good form to compare editorial writers to animals, at least in the context of intelligent debate. Actually, he sounds more like a lobbyist for a bank or a large automaker, outraged at the idea that the federal government might force them to run an unprofitable business unsubsidized. Look—no one wants our product. Indeed, we admit that it is not worth what we say it is worth. But our livelihood depends on us getting money for it! You have to pay us! The future of this failed institution depends on it!

I would never let a dog starve.

Oh, but I'm rapidly proceeding in the wrong direction. I wanted to write about the Internet.

You might have thought all the dogs would be excited that there are people willing to pet them at all—and you would be right. The Internet is a remarkable resource because ________ (insert O'Reilly article, WSJ article, Google Army Oath of Allegiance here), and I think everyone is glad it exists. Kind of like a, say...

Democracy. A democracy of dogs. No, just kidding, a Democracy.

Democracy let's everybody have equal access to resources (supposedly), let's everyone have equal representation in distributing these resources (purportedly), and let's anyone say whatever they want about the state of the resources, its distribution, and editorial writers (woof). Democracy gives us something called the “public sphere”, a marketplace of ideas and personalities, in which we can mostly peaceably shape our world. A space of individual action, in which we can fully be our potential as human. This is the ideal, at any rate, and it is an marvelously high-minded ideal. But don't listen to the dog, here's Hannah Arendt:

“...the heart of the polis, in the sense of a “space of appearance” or a “public space,” sees an action (praxis) that is not a fabrication but the “greatest achievement of which human beings are capable.” […] The polis is not an actual location, as was the Roman city-state, with its legal underpinnings, but and “organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together” that can emerge “almost any time and anywhere” as long as “I appear to others as others appear to me.” The pois is thus the locus of the in-between, a political model that is founded on nothing less than “action and speech,” though never one without the other.” (Julia Kristeva's Hannah Arendt, 71)

This is actually Kristeva speaking about Arendt's On the Human Condition. Sorry, I own a copy of the former, not the latter. But I believe she is quite on point in her descriptions, so it will do. Theorist about theorists, etc. Blame it on distribution problems.

Based upon these ideals and the function of the Internet, one would think we would be heralding Google into our lives: a wonderful super-polis of action and speech. Google is not merely a sales-site, or a marketplace. It is a conjunction of services that help one articulate oneself to others. This is more than your blog or your email. This is your phone, your location, your data and documents, and even your health records. This is not a crappy Second Life avatar! This is your real life, available for you and your Contact list, in real, extra-legal, democratic polis.

What do you think, Henry Porter?

“Despite the aura of heroic young enterprise that still miraculously attaches to the web, what we are seeing is a much older and toxic capitalist model - the classic monopoly that destroys industries and individual enterprise in its bid for ever greater profits. Despite its diversification, Google is in the final analysis a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time.”

Whoa! If I wanted to ask some radical Marxist, I would have asked myself.

Porter is absolutely wrong. A parasite is an organism living off of a single host creature, sustaining its life at the detriment of the host. Google is not a thing, but a network, and if it wasn't for its users, it wouldn't exist. One might as well call god a parasite, for forcing humans to build churches and nail each other to stuff. Send your complaints to Google Groups, man, because the big G's projected upward in your image. (Goodness, am I saying that god doesn't exist, or saying Google is god? Which is worse?)

And a “little aggregation” is a pretty idiotic thing to say. Sure, the most widely used, best-functioning search engine in the world is merely categorizing some apples in order of size. Mr. Porter must be a strictly Yahoo-man, I guess.

He is wrong yet again when he says this is an older capitalist model. (see the “other” Marxist, above). Clearly, a company that can earn $5.7B (his figure) in a quarter by doing nothing more than offering a “little aggregation” has stumbled on a goddamn machine that makes money, like, as if it new how to put ink on paper that looked like money, or something.

I've said it before, so here's another time: the business is access. By showing every person entering the Internet agora an ad, you are going to be pulling it in, hand over fist. No, you are not producing anything; you are cornering distribution. A capitalist activity for sure, but certainly in a new mode, because the digital product being distributed, according to our little theory of democracy, is not just crappy pop songs, but people's lives.

This moralist—because that is what he is, a propagator of one strange fold within the shifting sands of value—cannot even identify what is going on here. He only seems to know he doesn't like it, and writes up some writing tropes about publishing that sort of make it seem like he has a reason for this dislike of a particular company and its business, when in actuality he doesn't seem to understand the technology, the product, or its producer and user.

But what would Hannah Arendt say?

Few would ask. But check it: included in her notion of this public arena, is also the private sphere. The private sphere is, well, private—concerning the less-ideal world of homo faber, the productions of the home and the body, and the private “plumbing” of the individual. There is great power working in this individual realm, often tyrannical power. The forces of desire act with unrestrained cruelty on occasion, as much (or in concert) with love as anything else. And the body functions, well—don't let us get started. But this is where these unfortunately unideal, yet necessary activities and their vulgar, undemocratic power and productions remain: the private. And by this the public sphere remains free and uninhibited. Ideally, it sounds okay.

“Once the needs of production surpass the limits of the family and encroach upon the city-state itself, the ensuing flow of household concerns (oikia) into the public realm erases the boundary between the private and the public, which puts various sorts of freedom in jeopardy. At that point, public activities are conceptualized according to the model of familial relationships: the “economy” (from oikia: “household”) is what eats away at the polis and transforms it into a “society”. […] “Society equalizes (and) normalizes” to the point where “the most social form of government” is “bureaucracy”.” (Kristeva, 159-60)

So, if the personal, private, animalistic “needs” of humanity are appointed to the control of the public arena, the ideal polis is reduced to an economy, a control of resources, and often in a way that is nothing like “free”, despite the promises of society. And how could it remain free? Many have written about how brutal we are in pursuit of our material needs, despite our hopes to the contrary. So if fairness, justice, and democracy are put in charge or their procurement, is it so surprising to see the polis lean towards oppression and prejudice? If one has read Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, one can see where she is going by mentioning “bureaucracy.”

So which is the Internet? Is Google keeping the polis pure by not charging money for YouTube views, or is it already too late, because it is attempting to create a society in what should be a pure medium, by letting us conduct our private needs in person? And what would Arendt have us do?

Porter, by way of contrast, is one of those most enlightened neo-liberals who says the corruption of bureaucracy and distribution can easily be overcome, as long as everyone listens to what he thinks is fair. Newspapers, according to him, are bastions of democracy, while Google is “anti-civic”. He can equally chastise Google for censoring the Internet via its services in China, and defend those who feel violated when their homes are pictured on Google Street View. The high-point of liberal capitalist values are here—everyone should be able to hear my words, but nobody should be allowed to see my property. Hedges and billboards go hand in hand, it seems. Google sure “owes” him a lot, after all, he's a conscientious tax payer!

With Arendt, it's not as clear, thankfully. She never wrote or theorized about the Internet, so it is difficult to say where she would have lined up digital productions—is this the free speech of the polis, or the private machinations of the home?

Well, I wonder, what's the difference? These days, our speech is about our homes, we work out of the home, and we speak about our work. Our homes are no longer private places, now grouped in stacked architectures, as is our work, and as are our lives. Our home life is often conducted out of property proper: at the restaurant, the workplace, or any place with wifi. As is our work, which more often now, is being conjoined and intertwined to our lives. Even the wage slaves among us are feeling this clock-punching as yet another rhythm of our internal clocks. Perhaps it's alienation, or perhaps we always were the aliens—dividing up the labor of our world since long before Aristotle's perfect state. Work, it seems, is more and more of what human beings call home. And we're more than willing to talk, email, video blog, or twitter about it.

This is simply going around in circles, back to our little game of writing, theorizing, and publishing. Is any of it really different here? We've made these ideals, these constructions, and we refuse to look through them to the actual machinery. We can build walls around our homes, with proprietary speaking tubes built in, demanding free concrete from the government with the best sound transmitting capacities available. Or, we can stop for a minute, and think about what the hell we're talking about.

Googles, gods, and gadflies, all.

Here's the thing: there only ever was teh private sphere, all are belongs to you. It only keeps getting increasing. We're running out of public space in which to build our private sphere.

The private sphere was that nice little cozy place inside your head where everything was yours. What needed to be distinguished from the anything else? All was a lovely muddle of sensation, and no one could tell you otherwise.

But then, you found the others. You tried to ply them with your sensation, but the connection just wasn't there. You needed something more, a way to distinguish ignored desire from acknowledged reaction. And so, you found yourself, and the others, as separate beings. So many interesting private spheres out there, with their own furnishings and color schemes! Could we ever visit them all? Let's set up a public space—and call it “the world”. You can build your own avatar called the ego, and walk it about—talk, dance, and buy stuff, even though most of it is worthless.

The undifferentiatedness was still below, offline. No matter how public you became, that private part of you was still within. It would lurch skyward, blocking the sun from shining on the brilliant buildings you and your friends had constructed from those lovely cultural polygons. But what still lay in that darkness, and why did it persist, no matter how civilized you had made yourself to be? Chaos' horrible ocean was always waiting just beyond the ever-so democratic light of day. Under the person, the animal still remains.

And thus, we learned the power of “we”: the majority, the restraint of purpose against will, the state against the people. Justice, form, control: the super ego. Super users, admins, and designers. The sorts of people who make the decisions about which now we can make decisions. And what's more—a special little censoring admin for each of us, telling us when we can enable our anger function, and whether our custom skin is appropriate for any given interface. And these functions don't even mention below the surface, below the face of our license agreements with ourselves—this opaque, liminal space where our super egos censor our comments and our desire-searches, and make undercover deals to sell our personal data to so-called “loved ones” (all for the goal of 'giving us a better consumer relationship', right?) and use us as test marketing and advertising guinea pigs to shape our likes and dislikes according to the availability out there in the polis, which is quickly becoming a marketplace—or maybe it always was. Some say the mind is a free-market, but if there is one brain controlling all my decisions, how free can I really be?

Super ego and its metaphoric counterparts, have run rampant through our society. From Porter, and the dogs of morality, to the well-meaning Arendt and her Platonic Ideals, we still attempt to control what we fear by covering it, dividing it from our “true” selves, from “real” society. Bureaucratic constraint over the unconscious manifests itself in every “I” statement; the small fascisms of “appropriate, state-sanctioned, volk-positive” desire still reign over our sense of outrage, offense, and indignation; the penny-pinching boss of our corporate ego still cracks the whip over the unruly factory of our emotions.

But this—what I'm doing here with this crafty unification between the necessary limits to our conscious self, and the world of information and “real-life” production—this publishing, theorizing, and writing is itself only a form of control. We can never get at that private sphere or set it truly free. We can only build endless marketplaces where we hope it will show up one day, for a chat and perhaps a little pleasant business. It is the unconscious after all, and to our ego's—our false ideals of consciousness out here in the real world—it is nothing more than an overriding metaphor, hidden in the dark ink of words on a page or a screen.

If it is all a pleasant, metaphoric dream, then what is public and private; what is proper and what is piracy? We could loosen up our constrictions, and pause our accounting for just a moment. After all, when dealing with resources and digital production, in the end we really are dealing with people. People need the data, and people need the access. It is not an ultimate good, but it is a mostly-good. This is what we have to ask of Google, and anything that attempts to tell us how to act in public or private, in a marketplace or in a polis. What is in it for us: the egos, the unconsciousnesses, the producers, the consumers, the people themselves. Enough of your ideals, both puritan and democratic. This is the question of human's material existence, as it is currently best phrased. How do the means of digital production best benefit the production process, from creator, distributor, to consumer? Any other theorization of the problem must fall upon some notion of an ideal, so loosely defined, shifting sphere of action simultaneously including that which is not unified and excluding elements of the equation. Only consideration of the material as material, hence, as product in relationship with production, can attempt to consider it in its true state, not as owned, free, public, or private, but as information, completely material only in the dark processes of our imagination.

Yeah, it's a hard materialist-psychoanalytic line to follow. I will say, true breakthroughs very rarely come from the “common logic”, or “public view” (as if this was at all convincing). And anyway, you could spend your time writing what the super ego tells you to write, or you could theorize what your consciousness couldn't imagine. I'll tell you this much—regardless of which category resembles Blogger, one of them is a lot more fun.

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