“The Internet” as Ideology

I have an essay in the LA Review of Books on Jenna Burrell’s new book, Invisible Users. The book is an excellent ethnographic investigation of the youth in Ghana’s Internet cafes. More generally, it is a carefully argued and theoretically informed study that I think highlights some weaknesses in the dominant trends in Internet studies:

Burrell’s book suggests what is perhaps a more fundamental weakness in both academic and lay discussions about the Internet. Debates about the significance of the Internet – from its role in the Arab Spring to political polarization – usually revolve around a few positions. The Internet, it is held, is either (a) good or (b) bad for a set of values, such as democracy, but when this raises the specter of technological determinism (which it inevitably does), both sides tend to agree that the Internet is (c) a neutral tool, to be used for good or bad depending on the social context.

These positions take for granted a fixed Internet, a predetermined and knowable entity, an artifact distinct from its social utilization. But the analytical divide between technology and society is misleading, and invocations of “the Internet” often serve symbolic or ideological goals rather than corresponding to any static reality.

This dominant reductionist approach defines certain values, practices and technologies as “the Internet”, and ignores many others, especially the concrete ways in which it is experienced everyday, such as by the youth in Ghana’s Internet cafes. Of course, shorthand is useful, and endless precision is both tedious and implausible. But perhaps to really understand “the Internet” we need to forget it as a unified “it” altogether, something that exists within a context and can be used for good or bad. This instrumentalist conception too often prompts the wrong questions and obfuscates differences and changes. Indeed, the important and interesting questions related to “the Internet” are almost invariably the ones where it isn’t a unified whole, but rather messy and fractured, in ongoing relationship with people.

As an example, consider the furor over L. Gordon Crovitz’s WSJ op-ed a few weeks ago that argued “It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet.” The piece was widely condemned, and while I have no great affinity for Crovitz’s political agenda or factual errors, the same debunkers that were ready to show that the government did launch TCP/IP are almost certainly guilty of using “the Internet” to refer to more than that suite of protocols.

You really need to look no further than  The Internet Defense League (formed by many at the opposite end of the political spectrum than Crovitz); surely they are not only concerned with defending TCP/IP, but there has been no great debunking of their definition of the Internet. Or, as Evgeny Morozov pointed to the other day, consider this hilariously nonsensical TechCrunch headline: “The next battle over Internet freedom could be over 3D printing.”

The fact of the matter is, “the Internet” is usually used as a symbolic claim to a certain worldview rather than any particularly accurate definition. And given the lack of fixity, such an accurate definition is unlikely to be universal. As such, it has lost much of its analytical value, but books like Burrell’s show that by turning to everyday practice, representational discourse and the multiple forms of power, studies of “the Internet” can begin improving our understanding of the phenomenon.

You can read the full review here.