“God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil.”
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile (1762)
When John Dewey wrote Democracy and Education in 1916, he was responding, in part, to the popular Rousseauian ideal of a return to nature as a prescription for education reform. Dewey felt this was incomplete, pointing out that “to leave everything to nature was, after all,  to negate the very idea of education; it was to trust the accidents of circumstance” in our conjoined living experiment known as democracy.
In the post-industrial, internet age, we find ourselves in the same pickle. Only now, we have added the complications of internet technology. Tech entrepreneurs would have us trust the “natural” effects of the internet on democracy. We must disabuse ourselves, however, of the idea that tech entrepreneurship comes from an authentic desire to change the world for the better. They are far from countercultural actors. Ignoring the accidents of circumstance that are emerging from their laissez-faire approach to direct democracy is already having devastating, border-spanning consequences.
Counterculturalism, by definition, challenges the status quo, and the current economic structure of the internet — directed by their primary influencers as a neoliberal (market first, government intervention last) project—has failed to produce social transformation. The explicit acceptance of toxic behavior as protected by a libertarian ideal of free expression is a project of profit maximization, not societal progress. It’s not connecting people so much as it is ensuring their isolation.
While the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960’s — from which Silicon Valley emerged — carried forth challenges to the industrial production model with heterarchical order and commons-based production¹ (as well as some sexual and psychedelic experimentation, woo), a far more sweeping, capitalist ethos obstructs societal progress in these decades that followed. By the internet age, an emphasis on valorizing markets and profits ensured the strict adherence to “a project to strengthen… the power of economic elites”² instead of bringing diverse voices or any rational civil discourse into the public sphere. After all, the post-industrial, so-called counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s itself was terrain explored almost exclusively by white, upper-middle-class “pioneers” who did far more to invade upon and benefit from communities of color than they did to elevate them.
In the decades that followed, these “countercultural” practitioners who became Silicon Valley’s elite have repeatedly fought against moving the needle on gender equality, racial integration, or gay rights… unless they knew it would positively affect the bottom line. This is not to say that technology doesn’t have a role in combating these issues now or in the future, but without intervention for the sake of the public interest, the profits of the few will continue to be funded with the social cost of the many.
The Problem: Cloistered Communities
Carmen Hermosillo, better known by her online handle “humdog”, was an early observer and theorist of our societal echoes in cyberspace. Her standpoint³ as a queer woman of color — in a space dominated by white, cisgendered men who extratextually identified her as male — gave her unique perspective with which to understand the emerging social space she inhabited.
the very first understanding that i had that it was not a place like any place and that the interaction would be different was when people began to talk to me as though i were a man. when they wrote about me in the third person, they would say “he.” it interested me to have people think i was “he” instead of “she” and so at first i did not say anything. i grinned and let them think i was “he.” this went on for a little while and it was fun but after a while i was uncomfortable. finally i said unto them that i, humdog, was a woman and not a man. this surprised them. at that moment i realized that the dissolution of gender-category was something that was happening everywhere, and perhaps it was only just very obvious on the net.
With a better perspective on what was emerging, she wrote presciently on the internet before the turn of the century. In her most famous piece, pandora’s vox: on community in cyberspace, she noticed that “so-called electronic communities encourage participation in fragmented, mostly silent, microgroups who are primarily engaged in dialogues of self-congratulation. in other words, most people lurk; and the ones who post, are pleased with themselves.” While cloistering can have counter-hegemonic benefits for marginalized groups⁴, groups she was able to find for herself, the phenomenon occurs just as easily in spaces interested in preserving the status quo; there are two-tails to the distribution. And because of their fragmented, masturbatory nature, it breeds antagonistic contact between opposing groups as opposed to a liberating and diverse public sphere predicted by some academics⁵.
The Incentive: Hate for Profit
Many misogynistic and racist spaces emerge and reside in dark (and more recently, not dark at all) corners of the internet such as 4chan or deep sub-Reddit pages. There, the historically-grounded, classically-liberal stance towards individual expression undergirds discourse and, by extension, the economic engine of the internet. The affordances of internet technology allow for safer, counter-hegemonic spaces for #BlackLivesMatter but also coalitions of Nazis. The affordances of anonymity, too, are a double-edged sword: Where it on one hand can protect individuals from targeted harassment, on the other it allows individuals to perform targeted harassment without accountability. At scale, this same bifurcated, “natural” result can shape governments and swing elections, which in turn, again shape the affordances.
And these affordances are no accident. They are part and parcel of how expression is commodified on the internet. These social interactions do not happen in a vacuum but exist in a myriad of private, online spaces that accrue significant capital for companies that provide access with physical hardware, surreptitiously harvest personal data from user input for advertising⁶, or both. Humdog, still our prescient guide, points out that
“proponents of so-called cyber-communities rarely emphasize the economic, business-mind nature of the community: many cyber-communities are businesses that rely upon the commodification of human interaction… [T]he result of computer networks had led to, not a reduction in hierarchy, but actually a commodification of personality and a complex transfer of power and information to companies.”
The tech platforms have little desire to draw attention to themselves or become entangled with the communities themselves, whose actions they tacitly approve by eschewing accountability. While Twitter, Facebook and others might point to the inclusion of historically excluded voices or revolutionary activism under oppressive regimes, they remain culpable for the preservation of the status quo by adhering to the convenience of being a platform — a key legal category — and not a content provider like any media company that would otherwise have to regulate content to avoid liability. In the US, the privileged status as a platform comes from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. It gives tech companies broad legal immunity from the content their users post on their platforms.
[T]he term is a valuable and persuasive token in legal environments, positing their service in a familiar metaphoric framework — merely the neutral provision of content, a vehicle for art rather than its producer or patron — where liability should fall to the users themselves⁷.
This has been the de facto protection that companies have employed and continue to employ, not just from Facebook and Twitter. Small-scale chat app Yik Yak has refused to police anonymous harassment on college campuses. Retail giant Amazon refuses to be responsible for dangerous products or misleading reviews on their site.
A catastrophic recent example was how Twitter-alternative Gab provided a venue for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter to develop a murderous, anti-Semitic ideology that resulted in the shooting of nearly a dozen Jews in their place of worship. Platforms are incentivized to avoid confronting these issues to keep users on their base for advertising or subscription, and the primary victims are going to be already marginalized groups.
The Result: Transcoding (misogyny, among other things) to Mainstream
Google engineer James D’amore, apparently upset by sensitivity training he had to participate in, penned a 10-page, misogynistic manifesto entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” that argued women are inferior engineers to men because they are excessively neurotic. He circulated it among his fellow employees on an internal message service and was quickly fired for what are odious, incorrect, and archaic views of gender. His piece cites studies whose authors come forward and explain he misrepresented or misinterpreted their findings and D’amore even links the Wikipedia page for neuroticism as evidence. He was fired.
Fellow Google engineer Yonatan Zunger, who departed the company shortly after this event for different reasons, wrote in his blog to D’amore, justifying his firing by pointing out that he
could not in good conscience assign anyone to work with you[.] I certainly couldn’t assign any women to deal with this, a good number of the people you might have to work with may simply punch you in the face, and even if there were a group of like-minded individuals I could put you with, nobody would be able to collaborate with them. You have just created a textbook hostile workplace environment (2017).
The popular reaction, however, was categorical in almost the complete opposite respect. Both right-wing and left-wing publications centered the issue around the question of censorship, as opposed to misogyny, as if the issue somehow wasn’t settled science or broadly understood.
The irony of the historical record is that the very word “computer” was originally coined for the hundreds of women who did ballistic missile calculations and perform programming operations on ENIAC, America’s first electronic computer. Jennifer Light’s 1999 piece, When Computers Were Women, points out that this machine would ultimately
take their name and replace them, a machine whose technical expertise would become vastly more celebrated than their own. The omission of women from the history of computer science perpetuates misconceptions of women as uninterested or incapable in the field… History has valued hardware over programming to such an extent that even the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing issue devoted to ENIAC’s fiftieth anniversary barely mentioned these women’s roles.
The D’amore event demonstrated how the cultural effect would emerge from the economic values of the internet and move into real life; the popular reaction mirrored the libertarian ethos of the internet and censorship, the negative freedom (freedom “from” not freedom “to”) of the 1st amendment that values speakers over speech.
This is a larger case of what Lev Manovich (2001) coined as transcoding, a phenomenon of major conceptual transfer between media and culture. Media and culture are perpetually having influential two-way conversations: Media influences society, and society influences media. In speaking about contemporary, computer-created “new media,” Manovich explains that media and culture “are being composited together. The result of this composite is the new computer culture: a blend of human and computer meanings, of traditional ways human culture modeled the world and computer’s own ways to represent it.”
With Manovich as a lens we can see how neoliberal internet platforms and their regressive cloisters have preserved “truths” about gender or for-profit companies instead of allowing clearer understandings.
The internet has become a capital production model that subsumes the social. It captures your daily life as well as your most private/personal understandings. They are being monitored by a system that is attached to commercial processes. But as Terranova (2000) points out that
the question is not so much whether to love or hate technology, but an attempt to understand whether the Internet embodies a continuation of capital or a break with it… [I]t does neither. It is rather a mutation that is totally immanent to late capitalism.
With this understanding, we can better understand its impact on democracy. Returning to Dewey from over a century ago remind us that this problem existed before the internet and will persist through it.
Diversity of stimulation means novelty, and novelty means challenge to thought. The more activity is restricted to a few definite lines — as it is when there are rigid class lines preventing adequate interplay of experiences — the more action tends to become routine on the part of the class at a disadvantage, and capricious, aimless, and explosive on the part of the class having the materially fortunate position… [A] society which is mobile, which is full of channels for the distribution of a change occurring anywhere, must see to it that its members are educated to personal initiative and adaptability. Otherwise they will be overwhelmed by the changes in which they are caught.
The deeper penetration of the movement into the social consciousness hasn’t been a challenge to the status quo with greater freedoms for all, as Silicon Valley elites might suggest, but it has instead been a boon for capital and privileges only to the elites themselves. We are being overwhelmed by these changes; it’s past time that we hold those that have the fortunate position accountable.
³ Standpoint theory is feminist theory inspired by Hegel’s work understanding standpoints between slaves and their owners in the early 19th century. It was first adopted for understanding gender by Harstock (1983).
⁴ Fraser (1990) theorizes an expansion of Habermas’s concept of the public sphere. She argues that the ability for marginalized individuals to find each other and form safe communities can serve to challenge the status quo. Habermas largely ignores the colonial reality of inequities due to race, gender, or class that can render his proposed market solutions of public debate inert. It is important to remember that actual revolution, historically, is led by the poor and disenfranchised and not the bourgeoisie elite. Fraser (1990) contested, among other things, that equality must not be ignored and brought in the idea of “rough equalities” that are more realistic than Habermas’s absolutes. She points to secretization from the point of the view of the subaltern as not necessarily detrimental to the nature of democracy. Marginalized groups that splinter partially away from a single, dominant public sphere can become “bases [or] training grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics” in interest of achieving greater power or equity.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. Macmillan.
⁵ Diamond, Larry. “Liberation technology.” Journal of Democracy 21, no. 3 (2010): 69–83.
⁴ Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy.” Social text 25/26 (1990): 56–80.
⁷ Gillespie, Tarleton. “The politics of ‘platforms’.” New media & society 12, no. 3 (2010): 347–364.
Habermas, J., (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. MIT press.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Femi- nism and the Priviledge of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14:575–99.
² Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
humdog. “Pandora’s Vox: On Community in Cyberspace.” High Noon on the Electronic Frontier: Conceptual Issues in Cyberspace. Ed. Peter Ludlow. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996. 437–444.
⁵ Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. Penguin, 2008.
Jennifer S. Light. “When Computers Were Women.” Technology and Culture, Vol. 40, №3 (July, 1999), pp. 455–483
Terranova, Tiziana. “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.” Social Text 18, no. 2 (2000): 33–58.
¹ Turner, Fred. “Where the Counterculture Met the New Economy: The WELL and the Origins of Virtual Community.” Technology and Culture, Vol.46, №3 (July, 2005), pp. 485–512.
¹ Turner, Fred. “Burning Man at Google: A Cultural Infrastructure for New Media Production.” New Media & Society, Vol.11, №1–2 (April, 2009), 145–66.
Lev Manovich, “Principles of New Media,” from Manovich, The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001. 27–48. (read manuscript on Canvas, pp.43–66)
⁶ ⁸ Zuboff, Shoshana. “Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization.” Journal of Information Technology 30, no. 1 (2015): 75–89.
Zunger, Y. (2017). So, about this Googler’s manifesto. Medium. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/@yonatanzunger/so-about-this-googlers-manifesto-1e3773ed1788