Liberated from What?

There’s something peculiar about the language of libertarians. In a modern American context, terms like “liberation” and “community” are old lefty code-words. They have become nostalgic. They lend a familiarity and warmth to affairs here in crazy Berkeley. Our archaic tropes mean exactly as much as the ubiquitous “frankly” does in D.C. It’s hard for me to imagine that our nonsense words mean something to you guys over in Policy Land, but apparently they do.

I guess the idea is that libertarians are triumphantly re-contextualizing the opponent’s symbols. It’s like using the N-word in a whole new way!

What’s with the obsession with old 60s lefty symbolism? What demons are you guys fighting? Are you still upset with the hippie chicks of old who said Yes to guys who said No? Are you suffering from Lysistrata blowback? It isn’t fair. We don’t go around saying “frankly.” You don’t hear Berkeley protesters in the streets yelling, “Frankly, we should impeach Bush!”

So that’s why it’s hard for me to address the idea of Internet liberation head on. Which oppression are we expecting to be liberated from? The idea isn’t well framed. Internet-supported self-improvement, Internet adventure, Internet-based economic development, Internet-based pleasures; these are all ideas that make sense to me.

My wife had to escape the Soviet Union when the wall was still in place, and what my parents and their parents went through under Nazis and Tsars was unspeakable. I have thankfully never had the potential to experience liberation.

It seems to me the rhetorical charge underlying of the Internet liberation question is something like, Isn’t it true that this is yet another case where the promises of the 60s Left turned out to only be realizable by Free Markets? The problem is that some of those old promises didn’t exactly make sense in the first place, so you guys don’t make sense either when you use them as points of reference.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In our techno-Utopian dreams, the advance of the internet is “a little like a cross between Adam Smith and Albert Einstein; the Invisible Hand accelerating toward the speed of light,” says tech visionary Jaron Lanier in this month’s big-thinking lead essay. Yet, according to Lanier, we chug along saddled by the illusion that the Internet is mainly a technological rather than a cultural phenomenon. Software, Lanier argues, is “brittle” and can continue to function only when backed by what he calls “Antigoras”– “privately owned digital meeting arenas made rich by unpaid or marginally paid labor … tweaking the global system of digital devices so that the bits in the various pieces of software remain functional and meaningful.” Antigoras are indispensable, but “if software stays brittle,” Lanier says, “there will be a huge dampening effect on any hyper-speed takeoff plans of the digital elite.” Takeoff velocity requires a reorientation that acknowledges that the “the Net is precisely the generosity and warmth of humanity connecting with itself.”

Response Essays

  • Open source software guru Eric S. Raymond takes issue with Lanier’s characterization of “lock-in,” his antipathy to the command line, and his discussion of ambiguity. Raymond claims that if Lanier’s point was just that the Internet is “a conduit of expression between people,” then he would stop in agreement. But, he writes, “the actual point seems to be to maintain an opposition between capitalism and (gift) culture that I think is … mistaken.”

  • Glenn Reynolds — taking pieces from both Lanier and Raymond — argues that small proprietary zones within the big open Internet — “semigoras” in Lanier’s terms — might prove “very fertile places for innovation and growth on the Internet” with the potential to empower individuals and small groups to “achieve the worker’s paradise” through technology and markets.

  • Ten years after his “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” John Perry Barlow insists that “the Internet continues to be an anti-sovereign social space, endowing billions with capacities for free expression that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.” A liberating future is still ahead, Barlow argues, but we must be on guard against a deep fact of both biology and markets: “New success inspires creativity. Old success tries to kill it.”