For all too many, life without the Internet is evidently no longer possible. Behind the seemingly innocent Internet runs a giant computer network. Yet, the origins of the Internet are – for some very good reasons – shrouded in myths and ideologies.
At its origins, we were promised the entry to The Golden Age of Computer Networks. Instead, what emerged under capitalism was the Internet becoming, rather quickly, a vastly profitable gold mine for a handful of corporations. Today, there are a few companies that have taken very profitable advantage of the original collective enthusiasm for a new creation of a computerized network system that started to emerge during the 1990s.
Today, the Internet and the World Wide Web (www) are the commanding signifiers of social and political – but even more so – for corporate information, control. In short, the much-trumpeted Internet Revolution announced by some intellectuals, a substantial entourage of business writers, all too many politicians, and even several counter-cultural movements, has turned into a domain for a few corporate players furnished with the power to centralize information based on their corporate power.
Virtually all of this started during the mid-1990s under the euphemism of a Digital Revolution – even though there was no revolution. There was no fundamental structural change, neither political nor economical. Instead, capitalism continued to thrive – now, with the Internet. Yet, it was a time during which computer networks started to move onto the global scene, also crossing the threshold from laboratories and universities into private homes.
Until today, the Internet remains one of the most sweeping transformations of the way people communicate, work, learn, study, find one another, and, of course, do business – including B2B. At the dawn of the Internet, Daniel Bell’s post-industrial society was quickly re-christened into Information Society and Information Age. Of course, it came with the adjacent glorification of the so-called Internet’s founding fathers. Relatively soon, Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee has been framed as the inventor of the Web.
Yet, Berners-Lee’s contribution was merely one event in what is presented as a neat linear (1)-(2)-(3) development. It is presented as an unbroken continuum starting with early digital calculating machines or computers. They became the ARPANet of 1969 (1). This was followed by Vinton Gray Cerf and Robert Kahn’s TCP/IP (2) protocol ending with (3) Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web developed in Geneva in 1990 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
Yet, the invention of the Internet has always been flanked by three key ideologies. Like virtually all other ideologies, these three ideologies also serve three functions: to disguise inherent contradictions of capitalism; support the domination of a handful of corporate players; and, prevent the emancipation of people from the domineering, anti-democratic, and pathological structures of capitalism. Unsurprisingly, the rise of the Internet was accompanied by three ideologies. Yet, these ideologies also catered for three sets of people:
The library ideology: The first Internet ideology is that of a digital library (e.g. Wikipedia). It sells the Internet by claiming that the Internet offers endless possibilities of collecting and organizing human knowledge ordered methodically into inter-linked network directories. This ideology caters to those believing in progress of human knowledge without the inference of capitalism, corporations, and profits.
The military ideology: The second ideology appeals to conservatives and militarists favoring a strong state. It tells the tale of the Internet as an invention of the military to provide an alternative communication network for defensive purposes – in the case of a nuclear war. This is the ARPANet project that swings into action after a nuclear strike on the USA, so that DOD-cyborgs can continue to fight.
The democratic ideology: The third ideology caters to progressives, democrats, and liberals. It is a kind of communitarian ideology selling the Internet as a socio-cultural invention. It presents the Internet as being capable of re-appropriating computer networks through democratic bottom-up structures. This ideology focuses on democracy’s we are all equal It sees the Internet as an institution of a democratic Internet. This is furnished with the capability to shape the Internet, e.g. Linux.
All three ideologies have been fired up by Gordon E. Moore’s law which states that the number of transistors in a densely integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. And indeed, over the past decades, Intel processors, for example, have been growing at an almost unimaginable rate.
Much of this fits neatly into one of capitalism’s essential ideologies: eternal growth. In other words, the perpetual growth of information is presented as being proportional to the complexity of society, the military, business, corporations, capitalism, etc.
Yet, the Internet provides another option for capitalism’s hallucination of endless growth. Just as capitalism, the Internet will grow for ever. By February 2020, more than 500 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute. In short, Ted Nelson’s hypertext (1965) can grow and grow – with no end in sight.
Yet, all three ideologies – library, military, and democratic – are also intertwined around one very human and very specific emotion: fear. There might be the real possibility of an imminent nuclear attack stretching from the Cold War (1950s) to Ukraine (2022).
Hence, the military ideology is supported by claiming that there is a need for the ARPANet. This frames technology and the Internet – not as a threat, but the key tool to preserve and protect information in the case of a war – safeguarding US’ military dominance.
Whether the fear of war, the fear of not being able to access information, or the fear of a non-democratic digital divide, all three ideologies – library, military, and democratic – justify and legitimize today’s corporate use of the Internet. All three longstanding ideologies should also be seen as a kind of rhetorical brickwork running its secret transcript – the corporate takeover of the Internet – hidden behind the three ideologies.
From the very beginning, the Internet was always a geographical, if not a geo-political, operation. In 1995, a whopping 63% of all Internet users were based in the USA. The USA is also the place pushing terms such as, for example, cyberspace and the information superhighway. Both sound rather antiquated today. Despite its outdated language, the year 1995 remains imperative.
It was the year when John Perry Barlow wrote his celebrated Cyberspace Independence Declaration. His declaration was announced at the Davos meeting in Switzerland in January 1996. In 1995, not only his declaration was written but behind all this, something even more important occurred: it was the year in which the World Wide Web was opened for commercial use.
To complete the corporate takeover from 1995 onwards, plausible ideologies were urgently needed. One of these ideologies even claimed that the advent of the Internet was the biggest thing since Gutenberg (1440) – the inventor of the printing press.
Beyond all three ideologies that legitimized the corporate takeover of the Internet – global library; cyber-security and military; and communal-democratic – are based on two essential dogmas: a glorious corporate future and the infinite growth of capitalism, information networks, and the Internet. In network technology, the future is to time as what the capitalism’s infinity is to corporate enlargement. Both are ever expending – without an end.
The entire ideological PSYOP operation is cranked up further by the concept of an ever expanding cyberspace. Until today, this is made to appear as unstoppable. Interestingly, this has been related to three imminent and seemingly unavoidable changes: the end of history, the end of physical distance, and the end of traditional political systems, as electoral and political advertising is now determined by the Internet.
Meanwhile, the ideology of an open and global library of knowledge that is free for all promised a boundless and timeless space as well as, collective freedom and communitarian partnership. Within this, shared values became not just as the nucleus of a new digital society and its democratic organizations, it was also sold as the future of the Internet with limitless knowledge unbound by corporations. This clearly did not happen.
Instead, what really happened wasn’t an Internet revolution as imagined by some advocates. Soon, the crypto-romantic hallucinations of an Internet as a chaotic, unpredictable, and at times even anarchistic space for individual cyber-adventures was destroyed.
The alluring dreams of cyber-romantics about an unmolested Internet free of capitalism were slaughtered quickly. What we got was an online shopping mall-profiting corporations like Amazon. By 2021, e-retail sales surpassed a whopping 4.2tr dollars worldwide – roughly the value of Germany’s entire economy ($4.5tr).
The answer to the question why do these three Internet ideologies exist? is rather obvious. Ideologies shelter the truth by giving all three – global library, cyber-security and military, and communal-democratic – two ideological appearances: a) being natural and b) by assuming to have a taken-for-granted quality. Both can render the colonization of the Internet by corporations as a given, and as a natural development.
Even a somewhat outdated idea like Al Gore’s information superhighway, was never more than a metaphor for economic progress from above. It aided companies and corporations. To achieve the tasks set by ideology – to disguise inherent contradictions, support domination, and prevent emancipation – quasi-mythical hallucinations were invented.
One of which tells us that in the world of the Internet – everything is connected. Ideologies such as these have assumed a special status. They aid the idea that the Internet is simply a network while de-emphasizing that a handful of corporations control the Internet.
Worse, they smokescreen the fact that the Internet was never democratic. Instead, its hierarchical structures were driven by technology in the hands of corporations until today. The alluring idea that the Internet is an organizing tool for horizontality and egalitarian life remains an illusion.
Most importantly, it was not only directly linked to conceptual models of networks but it aided the un-questioned acceptance of the Internet controlled by corporations. Actually, access to the Internet occurs more often than not through just two corporations: Alphabet’s Google and Facebook. In other words, the Internet might better be called “corporate Internet”.
Key to the network ideology is none other than the infamous RAND Corporation where a certain Paul Baran worked in 1964 on something called Distributed Communication. Baran’s idea is relatively clear, simple, and straightforward. It depicts three models of computer networks: a) a centralized network or what he called, the star model; b) a decentralized or tree network; and, c) distributed network.
While these three present rather seductive images, the most famous – the distributed network – was never built. Even better is the fact that this is irrelevant. What is relevant for the ideological of the Internet is that it places an image into the head of many. This image helped making the Internet and its subsequent takeover by corporations acceptable. The image overlaid reality.
When people hear the term “network”, they tend to think about the distribution model with no hierarchy and no top-down arrangement. And best of all, with no corporations running the Internet for a profit. This is the power of the image working rather neatly as an ideology to legitimize the corporations that dominate the Internet.
With that, this image of a network quickly became a multi-dimensional object of corporate desire, even as a fetish. Today, the image of a horizontal network determines virtually all thinking of such an assemblage of a server-linked Internet network.
We are left – not with Baran’s reality – but, with a technology of the mind as the symbolic image of Baran’s network. This has set the tone, discourse, and image of a techno-network aiding the hallucinations of an Internet free from corporate influences.
Beyond all that, this ideologically-shaped Internet imagination is based on the picture of a distribution network. It camouflages the hierarchically structured corporate organization. It obscures the hierarchy and command-and-control structure of virtually all business organization that lurks behind the two key elements of the Internet: firstly, its material infrastructure (actual computer networks with fiber optic cables, etc.); and, secondly, the way users reach information by means of powerful corporate systems in managing, controlling, and exploiting information access – Google, Facebook, etc. Both work for the benefit of corporate profits.
Of course, the reality of a distribution network remains an impossibility. Under corporate capitalism, it cannot be created because of economic, political, and even geographic imperatives of capitalism. Virtually all of them run against such a consideration. The Internet’s global fiber-optic cables, for example, connect the centers of capitalism – not people to people.
Worse, the US’ dominance over the global undersea of data infrastructure becomes quickly evident on the Sub Marine Cable Map. Unsurprisingly, the factual physicality and materiality of global networks remain a key indicator of the corporate and geo-strategic power of the political economy.
To legitimize this, the three ideologies play a key role in concealing the “clear and present danger” of a corporate monopoly of global information control. Today’s Internet monopoly is operating a centralization model dividing the cake into a handful of monopolies:
+ there is a monopoly to search the Internet: Google;
+ there is a monopoly for social networking: Facebook;
+ there is a monopoly for Internet shopping: Amazon;
+ there is a monopoly for online videos: YouTube;
+ there is a monopoly for online movies: Netflix;
+ there is a monopoly for micro-blogging: Twitter
+ there is a monopoly for online taxi service: Uber;
+ there is a monopoly for online room bookings: Airbnb;
+ there is a monopoly for online payments: PayPal; and,
+ there is even a monopoly for quick hook-ups:
Beyond all that and on a more serious note, monopolization – the creation of monopolies in the area of the Internet as in many other markets – remains a key trait of capitalism, and of virtually all corporate players, its political henchmen providing a fitting and obscuring ideology (e.g. the free market), and geo-strategic power holder (read: US).
Beyond all that, the three ideologies outlined above remain imperative for two reasons: firstly, Internet ideologies are crucial for what they reveal. In some cases, they depict a genuine desire for community involvement outside of the imperatives of markets and capitalism. Secondly, they also signify a human quest for democracy. But these ideologies are also relevant for what they obscure: the ever growing concentration of communication power in a handful of corporate media businesses.
Of course, determinism (all events are determined completely by previously existing causes), solutionism (believing that every problem has a technical solution), as well as a blind faith in IT technology are additional forms of Internet ideologies that have helped the corporate takeover along rather nicely. These three – determinism, solutionism, and blind faith – assure that people believe that there is a neutral role which digital media companies and corporations play.
Most importantly, the three Internet ideologies are also useful in hiding economic and political processes promoting some corporations (e.g. Microsoft) while, simultaneously, cutting off others (Netscape) from the so-called market, i.e. the Internet oligarchy. Aside from all this, these ideologies are also smoothing capitalism’s process of a concentration of information in the hands of a few Internet corporations.
Finally, the three Internet ideologies thrive through constructing the classical elements of a Hollywood and Bollywood movie. There is the Internet super-heroes, born free, smart, strong, and admirable who protects us from evil. Unsurprisingly, the top-5 heroes of the Internet are all men: Aaron Swartz, Robert Caillou, Tim Berners-Lee, Van Jacobson, and Stephen Wolff.
They – together with others like the innocent ex-spy-on-girls-undergraduate Zuckerberg (valued at $68bn) creating Facebook – have mutated into crypto-mythological creatures. As in any good movie, they are presented as powerful actors who made the Internet possible.
Yet, some of these actors have managed to superimpose their names and brands on the term Internet and social media. Best of all, this – together with the three foundation ideologies of the Internet – has been capable, at least to some extent, to cover-up the commercialization of the Internet by a monopoly of a handful of corporations capable of organizing information (Google), organizing social media (Facebook), organizing shopping (Amazon), etc.
All of this depicts – again – two essential features of capitalism: capitalism has an inherent and unstoppable tendency to create monopolies and, secondly, capitalism needs good public relations and what Chomsky calls The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. Both remain imperative for today’s media capitalism.