New essay for openDemocracy: The Freedom Cloud

Today, openDemocracy published my first essay for them in just under four years, and I’m really excited about it. It’s called “The freedom cloud” and it poses the question: what if what we’re witnessing in the Arab world is the end of the web’s liberating promise, and not the beginning?

The essay takes a tour of some of the ideas about the internet’s global development that most got me thinking recently, including Ethan Zuckerman’s observations on hypergiants, and Evgeny Morozov’s take on the need for cyber-pragmatism. It ends up at Eben Moglen’s recent call for a recovery of the net’s original system architecture, through the development of “freedom boxes”, a call that has been echoed by Douglas Rushkoff.

Here’s an excerpt:

Hackers are an inclusive bunch, and usually don’t object to extended use of the term. In their own way the dedicated, self-motivated activists that helped seed Egypt’s revolution are also hackers. This is reflected in the media’s resort to the jargon of the techno-utopian world of the 1990s to describe them: “small pieces loosely joined” in a “network” that is “connected”, whose news and appeals spread “virally” in a way that allows them to act in an “agile” yet “loosely coordinated” way, organising protests that become a “meme” and ultimately even the revolution – a “network effect” itself.

Yet the promiscuity of language is also a trap, in that the web tools of the Arab renaissance are very far from those of the cyber-utopians. Facebook is a hierarchy, not a network. Twitter is a hierarchy, not a network. Gmail is a hierarchy, not a network. Yes, those of us who use these tools are “networked”: we are, as the utopians would say, loosely joined. But we are also fused to the corporate giants that provide and profit from these tools, through whose buzzing servers our intimate or banal exchanges pass.

Read the rest.

It also gets into Wikileaks territory – although, on the advice of oD’s excellent Deputy Editor David Hayes, I’ve cut-and-saved a lot of this material for a subsequent piece. Given the proliferation of comment on Wikileaks since events escalated in December last year, more of the same is probably not too thrilling a proposition for most people. Wikileaks took discourse on net freedoms into what I heard one participant at last year’s Chaos Computer Congress describe as “a different theatre of operations”, and I don’t mind telling you that it freaked the hell out of me. So finding myself in a position where I feel able to write something useful and interesting about it is, personally, a big deal.

There is much more to come. For the last year-and-a-bit I’ve been writing a book which explores the origins and the future of cyber-utopian ideals and which features interviews with Stewart Brand, Rop Gonggrijp, Cory Doctorow, Ethan Zuckerman, Daniel Schmitt and Phil Booth. It also has one of the earliest interviews you’ll read with Julian Assange. Thanks in part to Wikileaks, as I was writing it, the metaphorical ground I was on shifted under me, making what was an exercise in cultural anthropology turn into something more like an adventure story. The book is called Barefoot into Cyberspace, and it will be published in the coming few months.

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