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Liberator or Enslaver: Exploring Internets

Sociologist Polina Kolozaridi on Runet and complexities of the global network.

“Jet Folder&Data Tree” (2013) by Lin Ke. Image courtesy of the artist

Polina Kolozaridi is a junior researcher at the Higher School of Economics and coordinator of the Club for Internet and Society Enthusiasts – an independent community of internet researchers. Here, she discusses the different images of the worldwide web and explains why it still retains its liberating potential.

KR: You often see researchers and journalists, when writing about technological progress in general and the internet in particular, take a pessimistic and critical stance. How appropriate are apocalyptic predictions? Is it true that the internet has a negative effect on social processes or, for example, our ability to communicate?

PK: You’re right, there’s this dramatic tone which fascinates me as a researcher: people are prejudiced against technology but, it must be said, this attitude is not at all new. One hundred years ago intellectuals also claimed that everything was changing irrevocably due to technological progress, and that the only answer was to reject it. But other thinkers held the view that technology offered a chance for emancipation, and that tradition has also survived.

In general, paranoid fear should not be equated with critical thinking, which, it seems to me, we don’t have enough of nowadays. When people start talking about the internet, they often re-tell widespread conspiracy theories about how corporations collect the personal information of their users, about the growth of state controls, and about the way we’re becoming the victims of social networks.

But this is a misunderstanding rooted in mistakes made while technologies were adapted for society’s use. It sometimes happens that they don’t act in the way developers intended, and then they’re appropriated by the market and change our way of life in an unprecedented way. That’s exactly what critical thought is supposed to do: embrace this variety, and understand and explain its mechanisms. Only that kind of action can counteract the hysteria and blind accusations aimed at technology which are so abundant in contemporary culture.

There are different images of the internet, all of which can exist at the same time and can vary within different communities and countries.

KR: You mentioned the varied nature of the internet. It’s interesting that, in a recent article, the researcher Benjamin Peters, using the Soviet cybernetic project as an example, discusses the existence of a many different versions of the internet – possible and impossible, past and future, differing from culture to culture. Do you agree? And is it possible to talk about the existence of a specific Runet – the Russian-language online community – that differs from other national global networks?

PK: As much as we laughed at George W. Bush, he had foresight when he spoke about “internets” in the plural. The “alternative internet” is an extensive and relevant topic: there were de facto separate networks, some of which have survived and some haven’t – such as the Soviet cybernetic project. There are also different images of the internet, all of which can exist at the same time and can vary within different communities and countries – its most popular conception remains that of an ideal democratic environment. Even people who don’t think about it, trading with each other on eBay, feel somewhat uneasy when a reseller enters the market. They regard him as a threat to the direct, peer-to-peer interaction provided by civilized democratic networks.

As for Runet, like many early networks it was co-constructed by the creative intelligentsia as an environment for direct communication and the free exchange of ideas. Late adopters, such as big enterprises and political activists, constructed their own domains, all of which overlap and intersect. And recently the government has become an active participant in Runet development. As it happens, at the Higher School of Economics we’re currently carrying out a big investigation into the way the Russian government’s attitude toward the internet has been changing. It often seems that it’s only relatively recently that the authorities began limiting our rights, subjecting internet media to censorship, and controlling network relationships in general. However, this is a false impression. 

KR: Like, for example, the State Duma’s discussion of adopting the “Spring Package” [recent changes made in Russian legislation giving law enforcement agencies access to phone conversations, messages, and data exchanged via internet-service providers – Ed.]?

PK: Yes, that’s a good example. Everyone discussed the “Spring Package” but nobody remembered, for example, the much earlier and unexpected change in [Dmitry] Medvedev’s rhetoric during the second half of his presidential term. While at first he asserted that the internet could help in the fight against corruption, he soon began to talk about the dangers a worldwide network could present. An even more interesting thing then happened: we suddenly started being told that technologies themselves are not dangerous. Only foreign influence presents risks, but with Russia’s own technology, everything’s alright. It’s interesting to see from a historical perspective how the military language of the “Information Security Doctrine of the Russian Federation” [the document providing guidelines for governmental policy on information security approved by President Vladimir Putin in 2000 – Ed.] has gradually taken over the public sphere.

And I think it’s the same in many countries. If you look at U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s preliminary cybersecurity policy, you’ll also see statements about the necessity of expanding offensive resources. And the attempt to create an independent internet service which bypasses the United States is by no means a uniquely Russian phenomenon. Brazil and Germany have been doing the same thing. The internet really is becoming an important aspect of the new kinds of conflicts, wars and state aggression which often appear on the news. But this has nothing to do with the technologies themselves, but with social relations and relations of power, and it’s these that need to be studied.

We might be able to create networks with fewer members – pockets of resistance where relationships are based on completely different principles.

 KR: There’s another widespread preconception that in Russia the internet is only used in big cities, while everyone watches television in the provinces, and that’s why, let’s say, they vote for Putin there. Or that Facebook is used by politically active elites, while the Russian social network VKontakte is used by schoolchildren to share memes. Are there any statistics to back up these assumptions? 

PK: Yes, I see what you mean. It’s an attractive and catchy idea, but it has no underlying foundations. According to data collected by FOM Group, more than half of the population living in the smallest Russian villages uses the internet. But they don’t use it for political debates – which, by the way, is yet another manifestation of the myth of a free, democratic internet – but for listening to internet-radio, for example.

And VKontakte offers users tremendous variety. It exists not only for meme sharing, but for everything from free music and films readily available via the search engine, to fashion blogs, to groups created for the purpose of exchanging theoretical academic texts. That’s probably the reason behind its overwhelming popularity: nearly a quarter of all internet users in Russia voted VKontakte the most important social network. 

Whether there is correlation between political activity online and changes in societal structure is a big question. I suppose there might be correlation, but not causation, as technology does not change anything by itself. Information spreads more quickly on the internet, it’s true, but it disappears just as quickly. And there’s no segregation of society into an elite and the masses. There are just different modes of behavior that bring new inequalities: some people consume more information, others produce more. Viewing the majority of internet users as some kind of mass which needs to be dealt with is a dead-end road but one which is popular among intellectuals. 

I personally believe that it’s necessary to look at the internet more closely and from an untried angle. According to anthropologist Daniel Miller, we live in a situation of polymedia, where various services and elements of the digital environment are used in different and unexpected ways. Instagram is usually perceived as a means for sharing pictures of cats and food, but in situations when no other media is available – during earthquakes, for example – people may actually use it to establish connections.

At the moment my colleagues and I are preparing an anthropological study of how people in different Russian regions use the internet. It turns out to be used in many different ways, often not so obvious. WhatsApp, for example, is extremely popular among people in the Yakutia region due to limited access to cable internet and the growing usage of inexpensive smartphones. People of all ages use WhatsApp to communicate with each other, read news, and even receive notifications from government services. It is possible that our study will find other unique trends, which will hopefully tell us much more than just popular misconceptions.

KR: This seemingly inexhaustible internet variety reminds me of 1990s utopian dreams and anarchistic hacker manifestos. Can we still regard the internet as a universal, liberating mechanism?

PK: You know, I like this idea of emancipation but I’m afraid that there’s increasingly less room for it. The online utopia of the late 1990s promised us the opportunity to establish each user as author of their own self in the virtual world. But at the moment on the internet, where non-anonymous services such as social networks dominate, the user’s reputation limits their opportunities for self-expression.

But there’s a good side to it. Now, in the words of David Nye, we’re living in a “nos-topia,” or a nostalgic utopia. The predictions and dreams of the 1990s regarding the internet haven’t come true, but we continue to identify ourselves with this past, which, just as before, holds great potential. Most likely we won’t be able to change the global trend of internet development, but we might be able to create networks with fewer members – pockets of resistance where relationships are based on completely different principles.

The internet has taken away communality but has nonetheless provided the opportunity for everyone to live in their own fragment of reality.

KR: In a recent interview media theorist Boris Groys claimed that the appearance and development of the internet marks the end of community, but gives more weight to artistic or theoretical expression, which enjoys a smaller zone of circulation. It seems to me that this is precisely linked to this prospect of alternative “internets” which could be set up.

PK: Yes, exactly, it’s the same idea just expressed in the language of applied social knowledge. The media-ecologist Neil Postman says that for every advantage technology offers, there is a corresponding disadvantage. The internet has taken away communality but has nonetheless provided the opportunity for everyone to live in their own fragment of reality.

In a sense, the internet has become the absolute manifestation of early 20th-century sociologist Georg Simmel’s ideas. He described how the inhabitants of large cities, overwhelmed by the constant flow of information, were nonetheless given the opportunity to escape their own identities. Every person, in one way or another, feels this when they go down into the Moscow subway. This is in stark contrast to life in small settlements, where the identity of a person is strictly defined by their origins, profession, and so on. The internet is a logical continuation of this city structure. It’s just that it doesn’t liberate everyone and, just like in a large city, it naturally brings about a feeling of discomfort in a lot of people. It’s not totally clear what will happen to this structure in the future – history progresses along a complex, non-linear path, after all. 

But, returning to Postman’s ideas, I must say that we should not mystify technology and perceive it as some kind of absolute. When we do, we are, in essence, relieving ourselves of the responsibility for its future development – this is a very conservative position. It’s essential for us to study technology and form new practices of using it. After all, the internet is neither an enslaver nor a liberator – it contains many possibilities which can only be realized through encounters with us.