What is the Internet and who owns it? These are not simple questions; their borders are muddy. Most people would agree that the Internet encompasses the physical infrastructure and physical networks – the satellites, radio towers, and fiber-optic cables, above ground and underwater, that connect our devices – but you wouldn’t. does it also refer to the content they carry? And how can one meaningfully distinguish between that content and the servers that host it; the software that translates it into readable form; the eyes and ears that consume it; the hands that build and maintain it? US Senator Ted Stevens was once laughed at for describing the Internet as “a series of pipes,” but his metaphor was about as accurate as one could hope for in so few words. The only problem is that it’s hard to tell where the pipes start and end.
In an opening salvo in the third issue of Logic, a small magazine dedicated to the critical evaluation of modern technology, the editors wrote that “The Internet, once viewed as our savior, increasingly looks like a destroyer.” That problem surfaced in December 2017, at the height of the first major Bitcoin bubble, and as Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission was pushing to kill off net neutrality. If at the time that declaration seemed timely, the following years have certainly confirmed the foresight of the publishers. According to a 2020 survey by the Knight Foundation, 74% of Americans were “very concerned” about the spread of misinformation online; 77% of respondents reportedly felt that major tech companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple had “too much power.” It’s now widely believed that something has gone terribly wrong with the internet, but as with anything so hard to pin down, the outlines of its fault lines are blurred. Solutions, of course, proved even more elusive.
Internet for the peoplea new book written by Logic editor and co-founder Ben Tarnoff, points to these solutions by working backwards, in the manner of a software engineer, through the maze of inputs and decisions that created the Internet as we know it now. In doing so, Tarnoff traces part of the history of the network, tracing important developments in the service of highlighting overlooked possibilities, those moments when the Internet may not have become so dominated by private industry and may instead have taken a more communal turn. Tarnoff points to the disappointment of eBay’s libertarian founder Pierre Omidyar, for example, detailing the idealistic underpinnings of the systems he developed and their eventual co-optation by the relatively ruthless Amazon. Omidyar once envisioned the Internet as a medium for direct peer-to-peer exchange, but power has repeatedly demonstrated his persistence in finding ways to sneak back and lock up the commons again as they multiply into new dimensions. Tarnoff brings a materialist approach to these stories, humanizing and demystifying some of the internet’s arcane underpinnings and missed opportunities. Yet while Internet for the people he plunges into history, ultimately lives in the present and aspires to the future. Tarnoff’s long-term aspirations are necessarily imprecise, but broadly speaking he aspires to imagine a more socialized network.
TThe book opens with a chase scene worthy of the Fast & Furious franchise, following packets of data along an improbable path from a mobile server installed in California to Norway, England, space, West Virginia, Massachusetts and back at breakneck speed. The high-speed chase took place on November 22, 1977, and the occasion was an American military experiment that served as a proof of concept for a universal computer language to be used as the basis for a network of interoperable computer networks, what we now call the net. The experiment transmitted the data through “multiple networks and multiple mediums — radio, satellite, landline — while arriving at its destination completely intact.” It was, in Tarnoff’s words, “the first real proof” that such a system could actually work. In scenes like these, he brings to life events that might seem like serious episodes in less capable hands.
In the preface, Tarnoff describes Internet for the people as “not a manifesto in the traditional sense” but “in the sense that it seeks to make something manifest”. The book isn’t without its technical details—the average reader will walk away with a heightened understanding of how, exactly, the Internet downloads data around the world—but more importantly, Tarnoff knows the value of metaphor in making sense of an incomprehensible scale information system. In his hands the Internet is indeed a series of tubes, but it is also a stack, a language, a vascular system. Such terminology is imprecise, but Tarnoff is clear on the limitations of language and embraces imperfection as a liberating necessity.
While Internet for the people it’s not overly prescriptive, it channels a certain Marxist perspective, albeit more as a heuristic than a worldview. As with Marx and many writers in his tradition, Tarnoff devotes a decent portion of the book to defining terminology and questioning the “common sense” metaphors we use to discuss the internet, in many cases suggesting alternatives while maintaining a constant sense of inherent materialism on the internet. He argues that what we call “platforms” would more accurately be referred to as “virtual malls”; that “the cloud” is an ethereal term masking a digital reproduction of the capitalist factory. In suggesting new Internet vocabularies, Tarnoff’s main concern is to translate apparent mysticism into the more concrete language of political economy. In doing so, his greatest strength is synthesis, presenting highlights and triple-distilled contributions from a wide range of thinkers, from Wendy Brown to Shoshana Zuboff.
The book itself is divided into two layers, addressing internet pipes and their content, respectively. Everywhere faces them in terms of work, property and power. Tarnoff sometimes reiterates a central point – that the backbone of the modern American Internet was adapted from the publicly owned NSFNET, for example – but also considers the structural implications of the fact that this predecessor was originally funded by the Department of Defense with military applications in mind. As far as software is concerned, he explores the mechanisms through which private ownership of content incentivizes virtual structures that generate passive consumption and put online experiences on discrete tracks. Of course, today tech giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix are increasingly consolidating control over these tiers by buying or building their own data centers and cable systems.
Tarnoff spends a lot of time in the weeds, but he does so in the service of discovering patterns rather than attempting to build them into a complete picture. The general pattern is an ongoing struggle between privatization and popular control; the former has historically predominated in the development of the Internet, but Tarnoff shows that the trend towards private closure has never been inevitable, nor has it ever proceeded entirely without resistance. In doing so, he approaches privatization as a social process rather than something intrinsic to the material existence of the Internet. This process remains protected by powerful interests – it has been secured over time through state power and backdoor negotiations – but Tarnoff finds optimism that processes are always subject to review.
As the title suggests, Internet for the people it contains more than a few propositions for what a people-centric Internet might look like. To that end, Tarnoff identifies most of today’s Internet reform advocates as single-issue or anti-monopoly regulators, suggesting that a third avenue, privatization, may prove more fruitful. For Tarnoff, the Internet already belongs to people. The task that awaits us, in his opinion, is to do it again for They.
It draws propositions from case studies of publicly and cooperatively owned ‘community networks’, for example, and advocates open source decentralization on the content side. Ideas such as these are neither revolutionary nor strictly programmatic, but they are concrete and therefore may be useful to their supporters, politicians and frontline agitators, all of whom may find this book of practical use. By addressing this imaginary audience, Tarnoff seeks to strike a balance between centralization and decentralization, while simultaneously calling for more federal funding for an Internet-based common good and creating structures to allow individuals to exercise greater agency over and within networks. digital that includes.
At its best, Internet for the people finds a happy middle ground between technical history and controversy. Tarnoff addresses the Internet as a technology in the Heideggerian sense, as a product and mediator of social relations: “that setting which brings down man”. Readers will likely walk away from this book more familiar with a whole realm of relevant literature. And while Tarnoff’s presentation of the Internet’s origins may seem grim at times, he’s ultimately optimistic about the direction of its possible evolution in the years to come.