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MONDAY ⚡️ Internet for the People ft. Ben Tarnoff
The "Pipes" and "Platforms" that comprise today's Internet, and how we might take them back
We at Reboot have been huge fans of Logic Magazine since we can remember (we hosted an event for Logic’s Voices from the Valley back in Oct. 2020 — side note, go read that review because 90% of you weren’t around when we sent it out!!!). We loved cofounder Ben Tarnoff’s “From Manchester to Barcelona”, so of course we were so excited to hear Ben had a new book coming out — and of course we had to have an event for it!
📖 Internet for the People by Ben Tarnoff
Join us next Monday for a Q&A on infrastructure, both physical and digital, and his vision for where to go next.
💰 our take: an atlas of the internet, a map for the journey ahead
By Nate Lane, edited by Deblina Mukherjee
The first time I logged onto the internet was at my town’s public library. I don’t recall exactly what drew me in, but I know I was hooked — I awaited my family’s Saturday-morning trips downtown with eager anticipation. PBS educational-cartoon series Cyberchase launched that same year, and it quickly became my favorite way to fill the weekday afternoons between my own online adventures. The show’s entire run is available on the Internet Archive, and I recently re-watched the first episode: three “Earth kids” are inadvertently sucked through a library computer screen into “cyberspace,” and are sent to a mysterious cyber-island to save benevolent cyber-matriarch Motherboard from data corruption. The trio is given a map of the island, and a brief warning about its severe seismic instability. It is then left up to them to, as per the show’s intro voiceover, “use brainpower to help save everybody.”
Twenty years have passed since the premiere of Cyberchase, but cyberspace still needs saving. No longer a curious novelty, today’s internet is ever-more-deeply woven into the fabric of daily life, but power and access continue to concentrate in the hands of the few. As Ben Tarnoff notes in his 2019 essay From Manchester To Barcelona, our digital realm is a space “made as a network, [but] owned as an archipelago.” Capitalist ownership, with its island structure, has shaped the ’net into a precarious and hostile place; and the only way off, Tarnoff argues, is “by thinking en masse and thinking in motion, while traversing difficult terrain.” Episode 1 of Cyberchase ends with the three protagonists studying their map and orienteering themselves to freedom. And like our young heroes, we, too, now have a map to aid in traversing our difficult terrain, in the form of Tarnoff’s new book Internet For The People.
The core argument in IFTP traces a sort of gross Marxism: capitalist ownership bad, collective ownership good. This uncomplicated thesis is, like any worthwhile Marxian critique, built upon a nuanced and deeply-researched materialist analysis of its subject — a particularly notable achievement, in this case, given the internet’s vast and fractal nature. In order to confront a topic indeed “too sprawling to squeeze into a single frame,” IFTP is structured in two parts. Part one, “The Pipes,” chronicles the development of fundamental network infrastructure from its roots in Cold War military research up through its mass deployment and domination by major telecoms. It is a tale of cooperation and ingenuity, but also one of manufactured consent, neoliberal deregulation, high prices, under-availability, and exclusion. Similar monsters lurk in part two, “The Platforms,” which covers the applications and services built atop the pipes. Spanning the dotcom boom through the rise of today’s tech giants, this section scrutinizes phenomena ranging from “filter bubbles” to gig labor, synthesizing their myriad negative social impacts into the singular Hydra of privatization through a thoughtful conceptual framework of “entanglements.” Tarnoff’s concise historical narratives — Google building an extractive surveillance apparatus to avoid the dotcom bust, Uber losing huge sums of money to put New York cabbies out of business — illustrate the diverse harms collectively produced by letting what could have been a “digital commons” instead fall prey to corporate behemoths.
Though IFTP’s primary territories are marked with warnings of here there be dragons, both sections of the book also conclude with prescriptive arrows pointing towards a frontier of more democratic and equitable possibilities. For “pipes,” this looks like a national patchwork of publicly-operated network links, grown from the seeds of existing community-run infrastructure programs in places like Detroit and from the institutional models of the Tennessee Valley Authority and USPS. For “platforms,” the paths forward are more complex; fediverse projects, workers’ movements, and antitrust legislation all have roles to play, with the collaborative “Technology Networks” of the 1980s Greater London Council serving as a template for how we might focus those disparate elements. Firmly grounded in the past and present, the Utopian futures conjured on the pages of IFTP remind us that techno-optimism does not have to mean techno-solutionism. Often the answer lies not over some unexplored horizon but rather in the places we’ve been before, seen through new eyes.
Arriving into a world of crypto scams and endless Zoom meetings, IFTP represents an important attempt to shift our perspective on the internet. Tarnoff takes readers on a vertiginous journey “up the stack” from the fiber-optic cables at the bottom of the sea to the cloud-hosted algorithms running today’s familiar platforms and services, explaining not only how these technologies came to be but also what kinds of social relations they mediate and why we might want to re-imagine them in more emancipatory forms. Along the way, he manages to address virtually every major current of tech criticism, honing in on effective and illuminating lines of critique while dismantling the shallow or misleading. Taken alone, the elevation lines of this intellectual topography present a valuable reference for anyone interested in frameworks of tech for social good. In aggregate, they also become the landscape on which Tarnoff charts a clear route towards his two-tiered vision of an “internet for all.”
Among my favorite of IFTP’s highlighted interventions is the proposal to center public libraries and public media as network institutions. I grew up, after all, on library internet and PBS — why not grow old in a hypothetical world where it’s commonplace to log into the local library’s open-source social media instance, or to scroll through community-driven content intended to actually inform rather than merely generate clicks? Perhaps these questions have good answers — even the most appealing of possibilities brings its own trade-offs, foreclosing other potential futures. Tarnoff is careful to make this clear in the more speculative passages of the book, asserting that the true path to a deprivatized ’net can ultimately only be determined through the collective imagination of a mass movement. I find it heartening to imagine Reboot members as “Earth kids” on a mission to save cyberspace; even equipped with IFTP as an atlas, however, it will take more than a plucky team of youngsters to build an internet that is truly for the people.
Nate Lane is a tech worker living in Cambridge, MA.
What the failed unionization effort at Mapbox illustrates about tech union-busting more broadly, from Anna Kramer for Protocol
On downwardly-mobile union salts, and what it might mean for class solidarity, from Mie Inouye in the Boston Review
From our friends at New_ Public: Caroline Sinders on “transparency” in machine learning and its limitations
incredibly unhinged [thread]
but for real, 💓 to anyone (esp students & new grads!!!!) goin thru it rn
💝 closing note
Pre-emptive apology if newsletters are a bit erratic this summer. We are all touching grass, and hope you are too! (But still come hang out with us at events we’ve got such a good schedule for the next few months!!!)