“Free, open, keep one web,” World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s is heard provoking us in the 15 second video above.
How can you champion anything that has the totalizing vibe to it as Berners-Lee’s One Web thing? Doesn’t it sound like One Web=One World=First World? Isn’t this One Web pitch a commercial for the global hegemony of Silicon Valley made technologies, standards, and corporations? Wouldn’t a greater diversity of broadband and wifi options be more advantageous to cultural diversity than merely One? The controversial and slightly ridiculous claim I will make now is that the tiering or diversification of the internet, such as we saw yesterday at the FCC, might foreshadow the fragmentation of the One Web into many ethnic and linguistic webs in the future.
Anthropology sits in a strange place in relationship to Berners-Lee’s idea of One Web. On the one hand, anthropology’s agnostic relativity fits well with the open internet that doesn’t prioritize information packets but treats them all equally. But on the other hand anthropology’s insistence on investigating, celebrating, and defending diversity and sovereignty, does not sit well with Berner Lee’s calls for One Web. This totalizing singularity of One Web unifying all private and public information begins to equate with the cheery idea of a modernist One World, sounds like transhuman wackiness, and could be heard to affirm the hegemony of the First World.
Perhaps what is needed are several webs. Perhaps they shouldn’t be interoperable. Perhaps there shouldn’t be an internetwork of networks. Think of it. An internet subscription system for each ethnicity, packed with subcultural-specific algorithmic search engines, coded by language specific folksonomies, honoring the chiefs’ and elders’ specific concerns for protocols and privacy, all housed on ecologically sensitive and publicly owned server farms. Not One Web but a Web for each public.
Isn’t this socio-technical fragmentation of social systems inevitable? Perhaps diversification of internets may better represent the diversity of needs and desires emerging out of the processes of cultural hybridty. What if a second or third slower and weirder internet did indeed develop, a ghetto for those of us who can’t afford the premium First World/One Web internet? On one level that would confirm the digital divide on the infrastructural level. But, as ghettos go, they are places where one can hide, where amateurs can experiment, where revolutions foment. They are uneconomical and therefore less attended to by the state and corporations.
It hasn’t quite play out the way Berners-Lee wanted. Yesterday, in a 3-2 split the FCC voted to allow broadband ISPs to create a second faster premium internet. This is the new policy of “paid prioritization.” Secondly, wifi owners (Verizon, AT&T) can now block certain sites that offer redundant services (VoIPs like Skype and Google Voice) that compete with their services. According to public interest groups Free Press and Public Knowledge, this is a violation of network neutrality–the principle that packets should not be prioritized or marginalized because of their content, but without discrimination be delivered to their destination.
The battle over network neutrality exposes the contradictions in a One World system versus the diversified and globalized world in which we live. Anthropology’s insistence on diversity may run against these populist politics of information. Defenders of net neutrality and the One Web might counter by saying that the open standards internet and decentralized www is a tabula rasa on which any and all cultural expressions adequately find their medium. And yet, the internet never was One, good, egalitarian, decentralized. It has always been owned by a few companies and governed by specific governments. Geert Lovink explains this point about how the feds and major research universities owned the early DARPA internet. What the FCC evinced yesterday was that internet openness is discursively constructed and is a resource that is allottable—to firms.
This diversification of the internet we saw at the FCC yesterday wasn’t a branching off of the internet, its resources, or economic potential into a public sector. It certainly wasn’t a measure to tax internet sales. It was a vote to give opportunities to corporations they are tasked with regulating. The FCC’s tiering of the internet marks a diversifying of the internet based on class, access, and economics. This is clearly a bad sign for anyone interested in media democratization or information equality in the short run. In the long run rich biodiversification begins with the splitting of species from other species, from the one to the many. Finally, network neutrality is a reason to reconsider not just Openness but Oneness in relationship to global information systems.