How Utopian is our Cyberspace?

The internet is utopian to some, and dystopian to others. Is it constantly clashing between what is right and wrong, whether it be morally, ethically, economically or lawfully. In a world of such ‘freedom’, how ‘free’ are we on the net?

In 1996, John Perry Barlow wrote ‘a Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace’, a short composition outlining the utopian hopes of the internet at the time. The declaration, whilst wildly outdated, addresses the several romantic cyber-utopian views: 

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

GRAPH: Internet Penetration in Africa as of 2012 and it's comparison with the world.

GRAPH: Internet Penetration in Africa as of 2012 and it’s comparison with the world.

Nearly twenty years ago, Barlow stated this. In twenty years of digital development, the internet is still very far from achieving such a goal. For instance, Africa still only has about 15% internet penetration, which is less than half of the world average. Therefore, our current cyberspace is still not a world where “all may enter” regardless of “station of birth.” Furthermore, Barlow addresses the internet as a world without borders, without a government. 

Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions

However, having lived in both Australia and China, and despite being a member of the virtual class, I am constantly a victim to an internet controlled by the boundaries of a nation. Whether it be a YouTube video which “the uploader has not made available in your country” (Australia), or even trying to access YouTube (China). The internet has created borders. These, of course, can easily be bypassed, but are ultimately unessential considering the internet is supposedly a world wide web

Barlow’s 1996 Declaration was created from a cyber-utopian perspective of the mid-1990s. This period, as Hetland (2012) states, is where the general public first encountered the internet as a mass media. These views and declarations, however, can be considered as thought-provoking suggestions, which pull and tug at the idea of border-less freedom. 

Last month the founder of 4chan, Chris Poole, possibly the most controversial social media platform ever created, was interviewed by The Guardian. 4chan is responsible for some of the internet’s earliest and most popular sub-cultures including ‘lolcatz’ and pioneering the infamous hacktivist group ‘Anonymous’. In the interview, Poole (2014) addresses most other social media platforms where a user creates and refines their digital profile, whereas 4chan relies and maintains internet anonymity. Considering 4chan has been at the foundation of internet revolution repeatedly, could internet anonymity rather than digital infamy be the key to a cyber-utopia?

Sources:

Barlow, J.P. 1996, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.

Bernstein, M, Monroy-Hernandez, A, Harry, D, Andre, P, Panovich, K & Vargas, G 2011, ‘4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community. Fifth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, AAAI Publications.

Hetland, P 2012, ‘Internet Between Utopia and Dystopia’, Nordicom Review, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 3 – 15.

Krotoski, A 2014, Founder of 4chan: Chris Poole, the ‘anti-Zuckerberg, podcast, 11 July 2014, The Guardian, viewed 16 August 2014, <http://www.theguardian.com/technology/audio/2014/jul/10/podcast-chris-pool-4chan-podcast?CMP=twt_gu>

 

 

 

 

 

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7 thoughts on “How Utopian is our Cyberspace?

  1. Great post, I like how you have addressed that Barlow’s declaration is wildly utopian and that you recognised that Africa is still not connected to the Internet in this day and age at the same level we are. Your reference to “Anonymous” was relevant and your question at the end is thought-provoking! Inquisitive overall, I liked it 🙂

  2. I very much agree that the internet is constantly clashing between what is right and wrong so this was a very stimulating statement to begin with. It is a very positive view that you took. You mentioned that we are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth but have you thought about the negatives of this as well as the positives you mentioned? Have a look at my post from this week, it works well with yours to show the other side. I didn’t mention many positives so it was interesting to read your more positive side.

  3. Great read and thought-provoking final question. I like how you’ve contrasted the utopian views of the 1990s with the modern realities of the internet and individual’s web use. According to the United Nations statistics on Telecommunications, close to 60% of the global population is unconnected, which is astounding considering how much we (the remaining 40%) value connectivity.

  4. Your references to Africa and China are very relevant. You are correct that the internet is still very far from reaching the utopian ideals that Barlow spoke about. Some factors may be true for the Western world but if you were to look at users in China or North Korea you would see that their access is much more restricted. In China, Facebook and Twitter were blocked in 2009 due to riots in Xinjiang and since then, this ban has only been lifted for a small area in Shanghai in 2013. Crazy.

  5. Great thoughts on the imbalance still impacting the access to internet on a global scale. It’s often easy to forget that the internet is so accessible to us in the west, and tailored to our interests and ideals. It’s funny how the same internet can be so liberating for some and so restricted for others, and can seem so utopic to some and completely dystopic for many others.
    Very insightful take on the topic!

  6. Our comprehension of what a utopia is or what it ought to be is often a direct reflection of the current state of our own social order. It is a historical variable and dependent on the current social, economic and political conditions. Utopian visions are bi-products of the social and material forces that govern our community. I think it is important to comprehended that although the internet has allowed individuals to venture through an entire world of information and to inform and respond to people who would have otherwise been outlying, their is still a silent majority who lack the resources to connect to the global network. However i think that compared with print media itself and its constricted infrastructure,the possibility for an collective democracy of individual expression within the virtual community is exponentially better.

  7. Hey I really enjoyed you blog! I like how you raise the question of whether internet infamy may not be an ultimate utopian and instead that anonymity could be a saving grace in a way. Anonymity is a double edged sword. It means you get to say whatever you want but ultimately, as a person you’ll gain nothing. This may be the most interesting ying and yang scenario in cyber culture.

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