‘Imagine a world without free knowledge,’ intoned Wikipedia lugubriously last week in lieu of its usually prompt and cheerful way of answering our every query. Next to the message, a large black W cast a long shadow to reinforce the intimation that we might witness in our time the twilight of free speech, perhaps of culture itself.
The internet is not entirely new to this sort of display. Wikipedia suspended its services in Italy last year to protest similar measures to the ones being considered by American lawmakers, while in 2009 the New Zealand web adopted the symbolism of the blackout during the discussion of the so-called three-strikes legislation against copyright infringement. This is the cause that moves us, then: the curtailing of free expression under the guise of combating the illicit traffic of entertainment. For this particular battle is no longer about software, or patents. It’s about Rihanna songs.
It would seem that protecting this young woman’s right to make money from her music – for she currently lives in an abject state of penury – requires granting law enforcement in the United States the power not just to remove pirated copies of said music but to shut down entire websites, which as we have also seen over the weekend is of course a power they already possess and aren’t afraid of using, but that the new laws would have further enshrined and extended. As Glenn Greenwald has argued, these law proposals and the conduct of investigators and prosecutors fit within a decade-long and staggeringly successful dismantling of the very notion of due process in the United States. So I’m not suggesting that the cause isn’t worthy. Merely observing that the internet does not black itself out against war, or for Bradley Manning. It reacts only – and perhaps appropriately, certainly unsurprisingly – to what threatens its ideological foundations. We want knowledge to be free. We want to be able to share and expand this store of knowledge without fear that somebody might come and black it out for us without just cause, or at all.
To underscore the value of what we do, in the tradition of the labour strike, we stop doing it. But the comparison isn’t straightforward. Wikipedia might suspend its services, that is to say withhold the products of our own labour from us; or we might drape in black our avatars on Facebook or Twitter, which is more akin to a silent protest; or we might choose not to update our blogs, or not to participate in social media for a day – in which case what would the repercussions be, and for whom?
In the event, the temporary and partial closure of Wikipedia was quickly cauterised by the social networks in a couple of ways: by poking fun at it – chiefly via the #factwithoutwikipedia hashtag and the assiduous compiling of the most clueless reactions – and by setting up some on-the-fly alternatives, either by pointing out that there are in fact other online sources of information at one’s disposal, or by creating a sort of live crowdsourced version of the thing, which was by far the most interesting response. So on a level one could say that there was no meaningful disruption. And why should there have been? Wikipedia has been around for a mere ten years, which is not nearly enough to make us forget entirely about all previous forms of quick information gathering, such as old fashioned libraries or paper encyclopaedias, to say nothing of online alternatives, beginning with Google itself. For we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, before Wikipedia came along, search engines laid sole claim to the capacity to grant free access to the sum of human knowledge.
The business of individual participation in these protests is a little more complex. If in the flesh world we defy by occupying, on the internet we defy by vacating. We black out our avatars or observe a brief silence. And we go without. Without Wikipedia. Without Reddit. Without Know Your Meme. Without IcanHasCheezburger. (I’m not kidding.) Without all the sites that took what Jimmy Wales called ‘the extraordinary action’ of going black. It’s our new stoicism. We go without these sites as if they were essential, or we write one fewer blog post or tweet as if the gesture symbolised in its own small way the vanishing of the social networks, or the unravelling of the web itself. Which perhaps it does.
Above all, I liked the mechanics of it. It’s not that Wikipedia wouldn’t load, or the appeal page loaded instead of it. First you caught a brief glimpse of the page you were looking for, for less than a second. Then the appeal page would pop up and cover it. This is what digital censorship might look like: a glimpse of the offending content, followed by a take-down notice; the momentary illusion that you might be about to see the page you were hoping to see, to let you know what you were missing, followed by an explanation of why you were missing it.
I put forward some time ago that the image of the progress bar and the experience of having to wait for software or content to load defines our relationship with computing and the internet in a way that may not be sufficiently acknowledged. And that’s sometimes what will trip up older computer users who grew up with earlier electronic technologies: they halt procedures or cause crashes because they can’t tell when it’s required of them to just wait for a few moments. Conversely, to have a webpage load instantaneously only to disappear just as quickly may make concrete and present a peculiarly under-imagined dystopia: that of the end of the internet.
For a while we had Y2K, with its idea of an ‘off’ switch hidden inside the system, ready to be activated at a symbolically charged moment in time and cause the instantaneous collapse of the informational networks. It was a crude narrative, but not without its appeal. However in those days what most people feared the most wasn’t the disappearance of the internet itself, but rather the collapse of functions that it had taken over: say, public utilities, or the banking sector, or air traffic control. The internet wasn’t yet perceived as an essential infrastructure in and of itself. Now the voluntary suspension for a single day of one in a number of online encyclopaedias is a major world event. Wikipedia’s blackout page was viewed by 162 million visitors. 8 million Americans visited the pages of their elected representatives. (Source.) Support in the US Senate for SOPA – one of the two bills targeted by the protest – collapsed, and the bill was hastily withdrawn. This after many commentators, including our own Juha Saarinen, had warned for months that the proposed measures might precipitate that almost unutterable event.
Can we actually fear that of which we cannot speak, or that we don’t bother to imagine? Behind the clever exorcisms of the blackout on Twitter and the like, in spite of the jokes and the workarounds and the instant memes, I think we witnessed an undercurrent of genuine panic the other day. And what made the protest all the more spectacular, effective, terrifying, was that it was so brief, and that it involved such a small number of websites. Because what we have all come to know and to depend upon about the internet is that it is always on. There may be local disruptions, and we have all had experience of being unable to connect at some time or other, but we cound on the network always being there, and perhaps because of its historical origins there is a vague but diffuse and likely exaggerated sense that it would be near impossible to take it down, even in the event of a global military conflict. It is not surprising therefore that any scenario that disrupted this notion, exposing the fragility of the system, our neurotic over-dependence on a particular piece of it, or both, would be a source of anxiety.
Another thing that is always on, another thing whose complete disappearance is very hard to conceive of, so long as there are more than a handful of humans about, is culture. And as is the case with most new communication technologies, we have come to ascribe to the internet some of its essential characteristics. ‘Imagine a world without free knowledge,’ says Wikipedia, as if Wikipedia, or the internet, and not culture, not human agents had invented free knowledge and figured how to share it. The internet is but the latest delivery mechanism. Yet to say that what ought to have been instructive about the blackout was how little it mattered, and that nothing had truly been taken from us, would be to miss the point – for a free and open internet is worth fighting for, in the same way that a free and open press was in its inception, and continues to be.
As is often the case, the challenge, as I see it, is to abstract progress from technology. What would make Wikipedia truly wonderful and transformative, and not just a time-saving convenience, would be if we were able to think of it without the internet. If we could imagine rebuilding it offline, should the inconceivable need arise; and I don’t mean in book form, regressively, but as a form of organization, a working practice. Perhaps we can. Perhaps we would.