Egyptian blogger from Cairo.
Revolutionary Socialist.
Partner & Creative Director at ThePlanet.

Is the Web power to the people?

I finally had the chance to watch Adam Curtis’s documentary, “All watched over by machines of loving grace”. At least the first episode, anyway.

At first it might need some adaptation to the calm tempo and the seemingly unrelated plots, but it soon fits together and connects quiet impressively. With many points to reflect on, one in particular caught my attention; a women by the name of Carmen Hermosillo, was an avid user of the new cyberspace and as early as 1994 published a rant against it.

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You can read the full article here. Her argument is mind-blowing, to say the least. It is so rich with avant-garde ideas that, years later, it leaves you doubting your relationship with the web – something that has long been taken for granted. Summarizing her points would not do her justice, but let’s do it for the sake of the argument.

I’ll dare to say that Carmen’s main point is that the idea of cyberspace giving each person his or her voice is complete falsehood, and at the end of the day, it comes down to converting all sorts of interaction on the web to commodities that are traded like products. She argues that we as users vent out our feelings to feel good about ourselves, and then websites use them to ultimately make money. She went as far as saying that since there is minimal human interaction via cyberspace, we do not act in humane ways and in fact commit unethical actions as result of the medium.

Perhaps more-importantly, Carmen shares the sad-but-true story that the idea of power spreading equally across the masses is an illusion – it is just that power becomes transferred to an elite in cyberspace. We’re just replacing elites with others. Talk about cynical.

For the most part, I agree. Sometimes we as human beings get carried away into thinking that computers and technology will feed the poor, educate our children, and discover the future. We bet our blind faith on ‘innovation’ and technological developments. Our definition of progress is ironically old-fashioned and traditional.

Moreover, our channels of communication are businesses exclusively after making money. In the ‘humdog’ days, it was CompuServ and America On Line, now it’s Google, Facebook, twitter and the likes. Whether we’re nurturing the feel-good factor inside us, or simply expressing ourselves online, we’re ultimately helping a few business make more bucks.

Not only that, but it’s gotten worse because there are a limited number of ISPs throughout the globe controlling a handful of cables that deal with the entire internet traffic all over the world. Therefore, if any website is hosted on a server according to the terms of the hosting provider, any user accessing has to go through one of the ISPs in the country that are allowed to function under government surveillance. The hosts themselves have to stick to their country’s ISPs and governments and travel through the cables. Ultimately, there is no such thing as control-free information on the web.

Added on to that, social networks like twitter gave birth to the term ‘infleuncers’. An influencer is someone who has a lot of followers and therefore his or her word is valuable and results in notable change. People go to an influencer for advice. In fact, people trust the influencer and are less likely to question. In short, an influencer is powerful and has a great say on how matters will be perceived, and thus how we will move forward. In short, an influencer is part of the elite.

But that’s the extent of my agreement with Carmen.

When the makers of twitter put together a startup and gave birth to a revolutionary social network, they had a vision. As fascinating as their ideas might be, they are completely irrelevant. And the reason is that we, the users, are the ones who make the call. We decide how this network is used, and we redefine it, repeatedly. It’s gotten to the extent that twitter themselves would not dare make any decision that we don’t agree on; the backlash would be unbearable.

Thus, as the internet users grow in numbers, we, as a group, become more powerful. There’s no doubt that businesses attempt to squeeze every penny out of us, but that is more of a problem of capitalism on a global scale – something beyond this argument. And of course we have elites who receive special treatment, but it is completely different to elites in a traditional hierarchical society.

The elites in society are born as such, with little social mobility and never earn it. On the web, however, you become part of the elite after consistently providing valuable content for long periods of time. When you work hard, you are rewarded elite status. However, if you commit mistakes, you can lose that status, and therefore you have to keep up. Moreover, as an elite, if you watch a YouTube video, it goes up one count. If you retweet a tweet, the retweets go up one count. If you vote in a poll, your voice counts as one, and only one.

Therefore, the internet’s elite is no more than a wise man (or women) whose voice is given more weight, but he or she can never ultimately dictate the masses.

Our interaction via the web is relatively minimal, yes. But with time it’s becoming easier and cheaper to cut the distance between the two. Thanks to the web, you can now chat live with video, and it’s becoming increasingly available on the phone. That’s not exactly practicing the sense of touch virtually, but it is decades ahead of plain text forum chatting from back in the day.

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Progress does not necessarily mean gadgets and wires, it has a much more profound meaning to that. But the human race hasn’t done much progress since poverty and misery are only getting bigger. However, such a drastic change requires some sorts of revolutions, and it is the web that is the ideal tool to exchange information across space and time and mobilize the people. In theory, if we were all on the web, bringing about social change would be as easy as wanting it. I said in theory.

One major player that Carmen failed to mention (and understandably so, it was .94, remember?) is open-source. This is a true demonstration of effective collaboration via the web that creates products and services whose sole function is make our lives better and they are all absolutely free.

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Open-source single-handedly fights the disadvantages of the web. For example, the issue of lack of privacy and controlled information via the monopoly of the ISPs and the cables could be solved via Tor – which is a web of virtual channels that ensure communication is encrypted. There are infinite examples of open-source projects that help protect the people from censorship, surveillance and lack of privacy.

In conclusion, Carmen was right. Cyberspace is mostly a silent place, a commodification of its users. That is what cyberspace was. However, the web is different. We, the people, the users, the masses, have taken control and redefined what the web means and how it is used. We have given birth to an organic system that grants the elite status to those who deserve it, but is purely prestigious in nature – we each have no more than one vote. We have embarked on an information super highway where companies have learnt not to go against us, or even attempt to push us in a certain direction.

And what better way to illustrate than with my all-time favorite YouTube video?

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This is, my friends, power to the people. And it’s just getting started.

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7 comments

Alex

July 26, 2011

Isn’t access to the internet still limited to an elite, though? Especially in developing countries?

Open-source itself also serves a sort of elite, since to contribute to a project you have to have a set of requisite programming skills, familiarity with certain programming libraries, and to be well-integrated with the community and maintainer of the project.

– A

Tarek Shalaby

July 26, 2011

Hey Alex! Thanks for the comment.

You’re absolutely right, but both Carmen’s argument, as well as mine, are looking at the people who are already online. Getting the rest on the web is a difference story, but it’s definitely something we need to work on.

As for open-source, only a part of each project is programming. In fact, the most important aspect of any open-source project is testing and reporting bugs. This is done by the users, just by using the software and allowing for automatic reporting. You also need translators, lawyers, copyrighters, designers, etc. You are part of the open-source community simply by embracing its products and services.

AR

July 26, 2011

Tarek, you ever heard the phrase: “the medium is the message”. I hate to be name-dropping but Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase is worth looking into.

The fact that governments, ISPs and telecom operators own and control the internet ‘backbone’ goes to prove that whether we (the people) like it or not, we are not in complete control of the medium. The Egyptian/Iranian/Chinese/Syrian/(insert authoritarian regime el leek sho2 feeh) government can at any point switch off the internet, censor pages, track its users and make arrests, let alone broadcasting their messages to the masses of internet users, ever so subtly just because they own and control the infrastructure.

Even if you consider that influence on social networks is well-earned, which is a poorly supported argument, the architecture of the internet is inherently hierarchical and therefore open for authoritarian abuse.

open-source is great and an open-source society sounds even better but like Alex mentioned, it is still the programmers who make the calls, and sorry but testers and bug-reporting-users are not exactly a good measure for balancing out the power distribution in an open source community. Douglas Rushkoff wrote about this dilemma and what could be done about it, if anything, in his book “Program or be Programmed”. Excuse my namedropping again but there is just so much literature that goes beyond the internet and open source as power to the people. Evgeny Morozov and Andrew Keen are two amazingly eloquent internet dissidents who make it difficult to sustain our rosy view of the internet.

I think it is very important to ground your cyber-optimism with some of the real-world examples of cyber-coercion than to blindly concede that the internet is all rosy and free. I have faith in new research in mesh-networking where WE (the people) become the routers and content-centric networking where data resides closest to wherever it is needed without depending on huge centralized data silos as is the case now with facebook, twitter, Google et al. who are the new cyber-elite with enough power and data to take over our lives.

Tarek Shalaby

July 27, 2011

Hi AR, thanks for the long comment. I’m a little surprised you’ve taken a bit of a defensive mode, I didn’t think the web would be such a sensitive issue to anyone.

It’s interesting that you mention McLuhan, who died in 1980. He reflected on the Vietnam war just like millions around the world did, “Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America – not on the battlefields of Vietnam.”

So if McLuhan admitted that TV ended a war in the 70s, what would he say about the web in the 21st century?

The fact the governments arrest those who mobilize via the internet just proves how effective it is as a medium. Intelligence services in many dictatorships imprison activists for phone calls and SMSs, why don’t we attack cell phones and telecommunication in general? The argument here was that the Web is the ideal tool to exchange information, not that it would allow you to do so without getting in trouble.

I’m assuming you use the internet every once in a while because you’ve read this post and commented, so unless you’re a regular at the official website of the North Korean authorities, how on Earth did you conclude that the internet is “inherently hierarchical”?

Any person, anywhere in the world, can buy a domain and get basic hosting (for real cheap), easily install an open-source CMS (like WordPress), and share whatever it is he or she feels like. With consistent, valuable content, the readers will increase and the engagement will grow. Where did you get the authoritarian abuse?

As for open-source, I think you just haven’t really looked into it before. Here’s a website that shows you the plethora of roles that are required in a given open-source project – none of which are related to ‘programming': http://www.oss-watch.ac.uk/resources/rolesinopensource.xml

Thanks for sharing a couple of names of people who are cynical about open-source and/or the internet. Here are 10 names of those who are big advocates: Michael Wesch, Matt Mullenweg, Jimmy Wales, Craig Newmark, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, Lawrence Lessig, Tim Berners-Lee (of course), Loic Le Meur, Michael Arrington and Arianna Huffington.

We all know we live in and are a part of a corrupt global system, does that mean we’ll start printing our own money and try to make a parallel, corrupt-free world? It would’ve been great to have our own infrastructure without anyone controlling it, but practically, we have much more important battles to fight. Let’s stick to the current setup because we CAN make the most out of it. It is very possible to use centralized data centers while staying safe. I don’t care if everyone can see what I post on twitter, the whole idea is to make this information available to anyone and everyone (even if it’s the enemy).

So lighten up and embrace the web, it’ll make your world a better place.

taha

July 28, 2011

I think there are a number of really interesting and provocative points being made in the post and in the responses to it. I should also mention I think it is a huge and very complicated issue that is being discussed here (quite likely endless as well).

Forgive me if I am just repeating what you already expressed in the post – but I think one of the main threads throughout the documentary is the idea of power never disappearing. And Humdog’s rant fits neatly into this idea because as you say it argues that the internet or cyberspace has simply replaced one elite with another.

The documentary claims that initially the internet was thought of as an all-benevolent, all-democratizing, all-freedom giving system – and therefore a system which could potentially be an alternative to the current power systems/structures. An alternative that would eliminate power structures altogether because we could all be connected and rely on the system/network (and feedback) to balance everything. The current power structures we are living with would then be unnecessary and irrelevant.

The documentary tries to reveal that idea as an illusion. Making the claim that power has not disappeared it has just moved, or changed hands, transferred. The notion that a network to which everyone was connected to would lead to a ‘natural’ balance of power is questioned.

How the network came to be seen as a reflection of nature (which suggested that the “network” and “feedback” was a natural thing), and the idea of a harmoniously balanced ‘ecosystem’ that exists in nature is taken apart in the second episode of the documentary. Which relates to the theory that if we were all connected to the web…and to your reference to the web as organic. It may be organic but the fact that it is does not mean that equality reigns and there is a balanced distribution of power.

The point made about twitter being controlled by the users is debatable. I think you’re right to an extent, especially as it continues to grow and as long as it wants to grow Twitter will likely accommodate its users but once it reaches a certain point (a certain number of users say) and it decides it wants to make money so for example starts to incorporate advertisements – what will all the users do at that point? Based on what happened with Facebook I would assume that users would rather put up with it rather than move to the next latest ad-free social network.

As more and more users join Twitter the users do become more powerful but so does Twitter – it can continue to entice more money from investors claiming that it has millions of users. And with more users Twitter’s own influence/power continues to grow – where it gets to a point where it becomes necessary for everyone to have a Twitter account. From what I understand and I could be totally off point/target here at the moment Twitter isn’t making any money, or rather the money it makes is based solely on its potential (users and their info) to make money. Already companies targeting a youthful, educated audience (assuming that’s the crowd that uses twitter mostly) must have a Twitter account in order to market itself, so it is already quite big/powerful.

Also the point made about becoming an elite on the web only after providing consistently valuable content/information – may be true in Twitter (but even in Twitter it is debatable, some of the biggest ‘influencers’ are celebrities like Lady Gaga- which also brings up the question of valuable content to whom?).

And rich companies that want to quickly become influencers (for example always come top in a google search) can pay for that service or that influence and do not need to earn it.

Quick reference to McLuhan discussion: While I would agree that the medium played it’s role (the TV or the photograph) in ending the war in Vietnam (which again is debatable as some would argue the gov’t had already decided it was time to bring it to a close – and only then the media started to “turn against” the war) it has done little to prevent the plentiful wars since Vietnam despite the fact that they have been even more well documented.

I feel the need to say that I’m not trying to be completely cynical here – the Web is amazing there is no doubt (an understatement). And while it can be the easiest and cheapest way to exchange information that doesn’t mean it is uncontrolled, or that it doesn’t still serve the interests of those in power.

With regards to open-source, while it may be closer to a model or system that could be useful it remains a long way from becoming popular. Most would still rather use pirated copies of software rather than explore and have to deal with open-source. Very few people use GIMP instead of Adobe Photoshop (for good reason!). So how effective is open-source really? We rely on open-source where we can – Firefox is an excellent example – but then we also rely on commercial software for more professional uses (and pirated versions of that software – it is still that good).

Things like Tor are developed and used by a minorities who are aware of the issues of privacy and security. And they are only developed because of the “powerful” forces working against it – in this case the ruling government that would want that information to locate and stop you. But at the end of the day – if enough people got into using Tor the ruling government could always just shut down the internet (granted they would be taking a huge risk in doing so – we saw what the repercussions were in Egypt). In China and Syria for example there are Web users who know how to get around the obstacles that the government puts in place – but those obstacles are enough to prevent the majority from using the Web services that they don’t want them to use. So the authorities are ok with letting a few people get away with it, or at least they’re not an urgent matter. (this paragarph is weak, hastily written paragraph)

The Web is immensely fascinating and it has caused and will continue to cause massive change (to say the least) it has made us rethink all those things mentioned in at the end of the last youtube video – and in particular media and information (which could use a whole post) but it does not yet seem to have changed or dissolved power in a fundamental way.

Tarek Shalaby

July 28, 2011

taha: You’re comment is spot on. Many points to reflect on here, but I guess what comes to mind is: If we’re not going to be firm believers that the web is the ideal medium to exchange information and mobilize people to bring social change and an end to the unjust power structure, then what options do we have?

I’d like to be optimistic overall (despite the current phase I’m going through with #jan25), and I think communication is key. No other medium has come close to doing what the web is potentially capable of, and I’m willing to bet all my resources on it to take us forward and help us progress (and by progress I mean few miserable people, and mostly happy people on the planet).

So overall, I agree with you, but I will argue that open-source is growing in ways that its users are not very aware of (you’ve just used an open-source CMS with an open-source editor on an open-source browser with open-source add-ons to complete your experience).

We’ve got a long way to go, that’s true, but I’m not going to accept that the people of the world will continue to suffer with endless problems forever. Revolutions, in all forms, will take place to bring change, and that is impossible without access to information, and exchanging it to mobilize. And until there’s a better medium that shows up, I’m going with the web.

HK

September 13, 2011

Tarek, what an interesting post for techies and tech incompetents such as myself. The questions and points raised by Humdog were in a sense quite prophetic as we contemplate the questions of ownership, censorship and privacy on the web today, almost two decades since she wrote her article.

I’m in two minds about what you said about online influencers earning positions/titles or recognition as elites. Yes we’re living a moment when online personalities can lead and sway tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people through a medium such as Twitter, but I think we have yet to learn what the long term influence of these personalities could be as contributors to the online community and offline. I think what we’re seeing now is merely immediate reactions as opposed to long term effects. Let’s not forget that some people are using this power incorrectly or abusing it altogether, and I think it’s a question of developing a sort of intelligence and maturity about how to be an online “leader” or personality. I wonder how much real power could be translated into activity and results that are tangible over the long run by these people as well.

Also, I have yet to consider the ‘net power to the people until we have fully controlled and ensured the internet as a medium and tool that can never be controlled or monitored by a group of people who ultimately can make decisions such as censorship or simply cutting off service. Perhaps naive and utopian myself, but I think regardless of the advancements the world has made with its use of the internet and the medium itself thus far, we have yet to learn how to fully manipulate and control it for the good of everyone with no exceptions.

I really liked your explanation and arguments about open source, for a non-techie such as myself, I find it fascinating that software etc. is being produced/developed by hundreds of thousands of different people. It’s perhaps the most democratic, egalitarian and socialist production phenomenon and industry we currently have. I can’t think of any other industry that follows such a model or ever has. Thanks for the great post. I’m sure these are the questions and arguments that we and future generations will be having for quite some time.

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