From its inception, the Internet has always been a place that was rife with controversy, it has been both the source and battleground for many contemporary debates over purity, control, and public safety. Increasingly the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed to the world that some very fundamental and base problems exist that are extant within our current society in relation to economic issues. The ability for much of our society to function entirely through digital means has revealed many structural inefficiencies that were present in our economy and provide a very strong case for why the Internet might be seen to us as a necessary prerequisite for many other economic activities to take place. This sort of treatment is one that is not unprecedented, water and electricity are also viewed as public utilities as opposed to being left to the whims of the private market to regulate and price these widely used resources.
As it exists today, despite how ubiquitous the technology seems to feel, the Internet only services 59% of the global population, and it isn’t particularly surprising who exactly we find is actually disconnected when we look closely at the infrastructure. Patterns quickly come to the surface which reveal the ways that modern gaps of Internet access follow along the same lines that imperialism spread across the world, exploiting less developed areas for their land, resources, and man-power without any of the requisite wealth that generally is associated with normal economic development. When we compare developed and developing nations, we see a disparity in access of 86.6% to 47%, respectively. A similar trend can be seen even inside these “developed” countries, the lines of access remain geographic ones;
“19 million Americans — 6 percent of the population — still lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds. In rural areas, nearly one-fourth of the population — 14.5 million people — lack access to this service” (Eighth Broadband Progress Report, 2012).
The connection between underdeveloped and rural areas is that both represent places which have been exploited for various resources, but left without any of the normally associated economic developments for their labor, due to the ways that urbanization and colonialism have created similar outcomes in the communities they affect.
These areas that were held under the thumb of not just growing empires like the US & Britain as we have often been taught, but been all but prevented from developing their own economies, and in the face of increasingly powerful new tech industries like big data, new opportunities for colonization and exploitation make themselves clear. Colonialism has largely relied on the discovery and acquisition of new resources, and therefore, new territory. This inherent need for spaces in which to develop and exploit for the means of capitalistic development is one that has driven the development of both colonial and colonized nations across the globe.
In any conversation regarding either the Internet or its effects on society writ large, it is necessary to ground the analysis with the fact that the Internet was a creation of publicly funded military research, an arm of the US department of defense known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The basic packet switching technology that we know of as the basis of our broad contemporary Internet infrastructure first arose in the late 60’s under the auspices of this research combined with the work of those in private institutions like MIT. These early predecessors to the internet were the first examples of any form of mass communication over a wide area between multiple terminals, but even so they were limited to smaller geographical bounds than we can conceive of today.
These early packet-switching networks gave way in the 80’s to what we think of as the Internet today with the development of parallel technologies like the personal computer and smaller local-area networks (LANS) that spread the Internet from a niche technology that was previously used to facilitate research/communication in certain highly technological institutions into a technology that could be accessed at your local college or at a library even (Leiner, Barry., Cerf, Vinton., Clark, David., Et. all., 1997).
This change towards a more open and widely spread technology is what has allowed the Internet to not only have longevity, but to have established itself as the dominant mode of communication. Even those who mostly just text rely on the Internet in more indirect ways still owe a high degree of comfort and efficiency to the advent of digital technologies as the infrastructure that increasingly dominates all modes of economic function.
Just as private industry was a massive player in the historical disenfranchisement of what we now conceive of as “third-world countries” (a term that is rather outdated; developing nation is generally preferred, but brought up for clarity) by companies like the East India Company gaining massive profits from the exploitation of opium farmers in India, we can also see a similar pattern when we look at the contemporary digital economy. Except now the power lies in the hands of Internet Service Providers (i.e., Comcast and Xfinity) and large data companies (i.e. Google and Facebook). Following a materialist lens, you can see throughout history that whenever private business has been historically allowed to control the means of creating and spreading whatever commodity it is that is desired, an exploitation of smaller and less political powerful countries seems to occur.
As far as effective resource allocation goes, many have made arguments that holding onto a Marxist view of history, or rather, one that focuses on dialectical relationships between the working class and those who have control over the means of production and capitalism having less power in general over digital spaces would actually make those spaces more accessible and more effective at disseminating information. The state of affairs today for the Internet is a highly capitalist one and one that largely gives free domain for business to increase their sales, often at the expense of the consumers’ best interests.
We have seen this outcome time and time and again with various sectors of the Internet economy all predominantly belonging to private business, and with that we have also seen the proliferation of an increasingly massive wealth class, at the expense of those creating much of this profit. For example, in my lifetime, we will likely see the creation of the world’s first trillionaire in the form of Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos. Amazon is a great example of a company that is reliant deeply on the economy of the Internet, and one in which the labor of it’s employees who work to fulfil the thousands of orders which filter through Amazon warehouses everyday creates the entirety of the company’s value. This company has been able to practically corner the market on online sales in a matter of years, making it’s predecessor Ebay look almost archaic in comparison, and this ability is in no small part due to the free reign which Amazon has in its home country to not only monopolize the online sales market as a platform, but get into the business of content creation and becoming a retailer on it’s own platform. This is what is known to some in the business world as vertical integration, and it is a process that is widely seen as bad for economic development on a large scale, as it discourages competition and variance within the market.
Imperialism was a practice of nations attempting to gain more sovereign power over other lands and territories outside of their direction sphere of geographical influence. This expansion across the globe, and towards the creation of larger and larger amounts of territory existing under the control of one single country with a unified culture is often spoken of in terms of advancement rhetoric. Or rather, the idea that the world inherently grows towards good and that technological development and the development of countries will follow suit. Some might argue that the expansion of imperial empires through the creation of various colonial states is one that is attributed more towards the nature of power and sovereignty, but I would argue in the tradition of Marxists that it was the desire to develop the private coffers of any one king or nobleman that likely had far more influence on the expansion of imperialist powers. As brought up directly by Marx in his reduction of the capitalist state,
“The urgent desire for cheaper and more subservient labourers — for a class to whom the capitalist might dictate terms, instead of being dictated to by them…. In ancient civilised countries the labourer, though free, is by a law of Nature [sic] dependent on capitalists; in colonies this dependence must be created by artificial means.” (Marx, Karl, 1867).
This artificial creation of colonialism that allows for spaces that formerly existed as egalitarian and free of the confines of capitalist production is one of the most damaging forces that imperialism can exert on a given society. By redefining these formerly free spaces as ones that not only can be exploited for the profits of capitalists, but placing participants under the hegemony of believing that this system is actually benefiting them, rather than the opposite which we have observed to be true.
When we refocus back onto the modern day effects of digital colonialism, or the recent ability of large multinational companies to act in the historical position of imperialist nations in extracting the economic resources of newly created digital spaces (as opposed to geographic ones). Through this, we see programs that large companies roll out which may visually appear to be PR campaigns focused on getting more people connected but end up being little more than thinly veiled attempts to monopolize an untapped market. There are even some materialists who argue that this contemporary colonialism can no longer be defined so succinctly under Marxist terminology like capitalism and the working class.
“This is not capitalism anymore; it is something worse. The dominant ruling class of our time no longer maintains its control through the ownership of the means of production as capitalists do. Nor through the ownership as landlords do. The dominant ruling class our time owns and controls information” (Wark, Mckenzie, 2019).
For some, this semantic distinction is one that might go unnoticed, but for the purposes of exploring a better, and less capitalistic Internet, it is important to first truly define the scope of our current problem.
But what exactly does this mean for the everyday users of the Internet? What does it mean for the 59% that are already connected to the Internet, and maybe more importantly, what does it mean for the other 31% that remain disconnected. Theory is only so helpful insofar as its ability to effectively capture and provide a tangible alternative to the current state of affairs. Having a firm understanding of the historical cycles of power that have allowed for private business to largely dominate the affairs of these emerging digital spaces allows us to have a more nuanced conversation about the ways that these resources that are prerequisites to the functioning of the Internet might be better controlled elsewhere. The main barrier existing now to this egalitarian Internet is that in the majority of countries around the world, ownership over the physical infrastructure underlying the Internet and its mass network of undersea cables and data centers currently lies in the control of private business. Industry has become largely uncompetitive Internet markets in places where private business has been allowed to dominate, with the US for example showing only access to as many as three ISPs in any one geographic area, and prices continue to skyrocket in the US as opposed to other nations of comparable economic scale.
Some of the first steps towards combating these problems would be to begin a campaign to reappropriate these resources, or take steps to build new ones, but this time in the name of the state instead of a single business. These steps are not unprecedented internationally either, with some countries like Switzerland, Finland, Spain, and the UK all guaranteeing some form of universally available broadband to their citizens, and Botswana, Belgium, Canada, and Sweden all announcing steps to provide similar service to their citizens. In these countries that have broadband available to everyone, we also see the proliferation of better rates of penetration into rural communities, and higher overall rates of internet access than in countries where the Internet remains under more private control.
For many people in the world, this pandemic has also revealed that much of the economy functions in a way that a majority of economic activity can actually continue to take place purely through digital means. The pandemic is increasingly revealing to us that the Internet is only going to become more ingrained into every single facet of our economy. In only 25 years, we have seen the proliferation of Internet access to more than half of the global population. Although this growth will likely continue to trend upwards, it seems very unlikely that without some sort of specific and deliberate intervention, that there will always be certain areas of the globe which remain without access to the benefits of these digital technologies.
These steps are a good start towards bridging these divides in access, but at some point I think that humanity is going to have to reconcile more forcefully with our relationship to technological advancement and how we have historically viewed invention as the mythical panacea for all societal problems. What I think remains clear is that even though technology has made the lives of many people better and more streamlined, that it has failed to provide meaningful avenues to change any of the systemic social problems which plague predominantly poor communities and social minorities. As we are seeing with the growing climate crisis and even with the calls to defund police departments from young activists across the US, there is a growing need for us as a society to have some sort of deliberate split from capitalist modes of production which are proving to damage our society in scarring ways.
What exactly this will look like is open to debate, but increasingly it is of my own opinion that capitalism is only revealing more and more that it’s fundamental nature is antithetical to any sort of real moral structuring of the economy which might actually allow us to begin to conceive of everyone having access. Inherently the idea of access under capitalism is something that is tied to ones level of wealth/ability to participate freely in the economy, something that is not universal under an economic system which rewards generational wealth above all.
Eighth Broadband Progress Report. (2012). Retrieved December 11, 2020, from https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/reports/broadband-progress-reports/eighth-broadband-progress-report
Leiner, Barry., Cerf, Vinton., Clark, David., Et. all (1997). Brief history of the Internet. Internet society. https://www.internetsociety.org/internet/history-internet/brief-history-internet/
Marx, Karl (1867). Economic Manuscripts: Capital Volume 1. Progress Publishers.
Wark, Mckenzie (2019). Capital is Dead, is this something worse?. Verso books