What would the world be like without borders, without states, without governments? A world with no taxes, no police, no social housing. Rather than going down the pub and talking to the resident anarchist, there may be an easier, and more instructive, way to find out. Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, has called the internet the “the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had,” and it is easy to see why.
In the early years of the internet, when dial-up was king, it was seen by many as a utopia, free of government intervention. Like minded users would club together and create their own rules, in their own online communities. They would democratically vote on everything from leaders to banishment, working together to create the world that they felt their governments had failed to create in the real world. Any attempt at law making was vigorously protested against. In any event, how would governments regulate? There were no borders, no method of police, no jurisdiction. Laws were not written for actions taken in cyber space.
Of course, the situation has changed and regulations have creeped in. But the inability of governments to build trust on the internet, or to show authority on the internet, allowed individuals the space to build the world and the platforms that they wanted, rather than one dictated by government. So what does anarchy look like?
Apart from being a porn repository and shopping centre (and excluding China as it shut down the experiment within its borders), the internet, socially speaking, is essentially three websites: Google, YouTube, and Facebook. On search alone, Google has about 1.17 billion monthly unique searches (although it has a number of other sites, adding to its number of visitors). YouTube (a Google website) has over a billion users and Facebook has about 1.79 billion active monthly users. One billion equates to roughly one third of internet users. So basically, if you want to find out something, interact with someone, or watch someone do something, these are the sites you are most likely to use.
The largest experiment in anarchy has resulted in our online lives being shaped by three websites and two companies. The way we interact, what we can search f0r, what we can say, who we can see, is all decided by two companies. Their decisions are made without any democratic input and designed to increase the number of users they have. Want to #freethenipple? Convince Facebook that it doesn’t need socially conservative or deeply religious users on its website. Freedom of expression is only allowed to the extent that it does not offend another user, which isn’t really freedom of expression at all. If you don’t like it, use another social media site that none of your friends use.
And why does Facebook want more users on its site? Is it because it is diligently, stoically, fulfilling its mission to make the world more open and connected? Or is it because it wants to increase its revenue? Facebook has a revenue of about $18 billion, Google a whopping $75 billion. Being free services, they make the majority of this out of advertising revenue. And this isn’t the old placing an advert in a newspaper to reach a wider audience type of advertising. This is a highly targeted type of advertising. Facebook and Google track everything you do on their – and related sites – sites to individualise you, to understand you, to know you. They do this because they are not really selling advertising. They are selling you. A perfectly demarcated, tabulated, broken down snapshot of you so that advertisers can target you better.
Their business model is one in which you are observed, observed as a consumer, understood as a consumer, finally turning you into a consumer. This is the panopticon privatised. When you are prompted to like Coldplay, it’s so an advertiser will know that you like them, so that they can sell you something based on the demographic of people who like Coldplay and live in Barrow-in-Furness, for instance.
Soon they envisage a world where even contracts will be ensured through data, so for instance if you don’t pay your car insurance, the insurance company will be able to shut down your car and collect it. This will bastardise freedom of contract into something without gradients, where everything is black and white, and where, importantly, it is the company with the technology that has the power. They can enforce the letter of the contract, even if this would not be the solution in the court of law. They could ban a user from all their Google accounts – their online world – for exploiting a loophole in a phone contract, for instance. This imbalance of power in contracts creates a form by which one party is subservient to another.
They are using your personality to get rich. They are reducing freedom of expression to get rich. And they are turning contracts into a relation of superior and subordinate, creating a social space built on mistrust, to get rich.
The largest experiment of anarchism in history has resulted in a social duopoly in which people’s freedoms are restricted and in which people’s actions are watched in order to be profited from. It is a world where free labour is happily exchanged for social interaction – where social interaction is labour -, in which free labour makes a few people incredibly rich, whilst the rest get nothing. A world where the many are subject to the whims of the few. It is neoliberalism gone wild. Anarchism has resulted in an internet ruled by surveillance capitalism. Anarchism has led to humans essentially plugging themselves into the Matrix, letting Facebook and Google survive on the energy of their clicks.
The logic of the market has been shown to be the logic of control, of lack of choice, of societal fragmentation and of intense individualisation. It is a privatised Soviet Union. Importantly, it demonstrates the necessity of state intervention in the ‘free’ market.