The most important reading of my comps?

And it’s only a page or two?

First things first: I’m behind in blogging. Okay, I’m WAY behind in blogging. These things happen. Instead of continuing to wade around this pool of guilt in which I’ve resided for the past three or four weeks I am going to accept the situation and move on. And in the spirit of moving on I give you…a new blog post!

After a day of mass photocopying, my lovely self-made volume of hypertext/cybertext/electronic lit/writ/wit beckoned with its exciting content, overwhelming the call of my equally lovely, though perhaps more opaque, volumes of foundational cultural studies readings. So even though I wasn’t “supposed” to read topic paper stuff yet, I succumbed to jump ahead a reading or two (or three). The old stick-to-the-schedule Pam would lament this reading diversion but reading is reading and the new “Anything goes!” Pam has decided it’s alright to leave (for the moment) my drafted blogs on Frankfurt, the structuralists, the Marxists and Foucault and move right into this message brought to you by John P. Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Why? Because it might just prove to be the most important reading on my entire comps list…all 1200 words of it…including the introduction.

As book after book, volume after volume, blog after blog debate this great Internet and what exactly it is/means, Barlow manages to address, summarize and challenge the entire situation with considerable brevity. The content of his short piece is perhaps exactly what one would expect from something so-titled, but it’s no less impressive to note it’s all there: questions of “liberty,” “enforcement” and “consent,” delineation of “borders” and “codes,” utopic visions, revolutionary revelations and power-of-the-people exclamations. “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of the Mind,” begins Barlow, establishing his target (“Governments of the Industrial World,” primarily the United States), his context (the meeting of man and machine) and his home-team pride (cyberspace, “the new home of the Mind”).

Now, I don’t know everything about Barlow, and I’m thinking it might be a good idea to learn more about him before I take on his “Declaration” in my topic paper. (What I’ve learned so far? He’s a pretty interesting dude. Worked as a lyricist for the Dead for a time – yeah, uhuh, like the Grateful Dead – and co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) with Lotus-founder Mitch Kapor and John Gilmore of early Sun Microsystems.) But I do know the “Declaration” was written in response to the passing of the Telecommunications Act (Telecom Reform Act) of 1996, which, as Barlow explains in his introduction, made it “unlawful, and punishable by a $250,000 to say ‘shit’ online. Or, for that matter, to say any of the other 7 dirty words prohibited in broadcast media. Or to discuss abortion openly. Or to talk about any bodily function in any but the most clinical terms.” In the interest of publishing a new blog entry some time this month, I have not yet read the act from top to bottom (for those interested, the whole act can be read here). Here, briefly, is what I’ve gathered from my limited investigations, in particular that information that pertains to online communications:

Wikipedia tells me the act came as an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934- you know, the one that created the FCC.

Presumably the section in question is Title V of the Telecommunications Act, also known as the Communications Decency Act and, I would wager, Barlow is particularly inflamed by sections like 223 2.2.1.b (I have absolutely no idea whether I’ve cited that correctly) that holds legally accountable

Whoever uses any interactive computer service to display in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age, any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs, regardless of whether the user of such service placed the call or initiated the communication.

Having read a little further, I can say that the tenor of the amendment (and this section in particular) seems to have a lot to do with children, and the risk of their being exposed to “indecency and obscenity” (thanks, Wikipedia) online (and elsewhere, by telephone, etc.). Protect the wee ones, I believe that children are our future and all that, sure. But it’s not hard to find fault with the above passage. After all, the Internet IN TOTO, in its ever-expanding entirety might be said to be “available to a person under 18,” and thus the proposed restriction could necessarily apply to all contexts/contents and all users, regardless of their age (in other words, to make it painfully explicit, we’re looking at a big pile of unlawful censorship). And as it always seems to be with regulatory legislation, the terms are unclear: what, for instance, constitutes “terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards?” What constitutes “contemporary community standards,” for that matter? And so on. I can see how, as the first piece of communications legislation passed in over 60 years, this would tick off Barlow and company. In his words, “Well, fuck them.”

And not just fuck them, of course, but forget them, too. Consider the following excerpts, the introductory and concluding sections of the “Declaration:”

You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty. We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear. Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.

These increasingly hostile and colonial measures place us in the same position as those previous lovers of freedom and self-determination who had to reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers. We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies. We will spread ourselves across the planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts. We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.

(Note: The V for Vendetta poster does not appear in the original “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” That was my own artistic flourish.)

Remember The Labyrinth? Remember how Sarah finally defeats the Goblin King (i.e. David Bowie with really big hair and really tight tights)? Here, let me refresh your memory.

“Just fear me, love me, do as I say…” Then, BAM: “You have no power over me!” Annnnnd, PWND. Defeated. Good triumphs over evil by refusing to acknowledge it. Bedroom party!

It’s nice that Barlow would like to take down the Goblin Kings of the Industrial World in the same manner as Sarah broke Bowie. It’s nice that Barlow truly believes that “[e]very existing power relation is up for renewal with cyberspace” (and this from an interview in 2004!). (I should note here that in that same 2004 interview, Barlow, in response to a question about his ‘nothing can stop us now’ attitude of 10-15 years previous, does concede, “We all get older and smarter.”) It’s nice that, with wide-eyed naivety and rebellious fervor, as “the Thomas Jefferson of the wired generation,” to quote Brian Doherty, Barlow can dream of a new city upon a hill.

But wait…is it? Does the wired generation need or want a Thomas Jefferson? Is conceiving of the Internet as a city of any kind – on a hill or otherwise – not precisely the problem? Yes, Barlow suggests that “[o]urs is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.” Yes, he adds, too, that “[y]our legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter. There is no matter here.” An acknowledged body-less, matter-less realm, but he nevertheless continues to see it as a “global social space,” a “civilization of the Mind.” By invoking the framework of Jefferson et al’s declaration of national independence, Barlow has imposed the frameworks of the very world he argues he can escape on a new world he claims has been constructed apart from it.

I’m just getting into McLuhan now (I read/experienced The Medium is the Massage yesterday, even though I should have been reading the intros and conclusions to Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy) and therefore cannot speak too knowledgeably on the matter, but before my grand finale I would like to bring him into the conversation. What I like about McLuhan’s arguments (which is not absent from Barlow’s, simply lacking elaboration) is the persistent assertion that in order to speak of a “new media” we are in need of new terms with which to do so. In The Medium is the Massage McLuhan writes, “When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavour of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future” (74-5). McLuhan urges his audience to reframe, re-envision, reconceive. If we extend his arguments (as is so easy to do) to the Internet, we agree: this is a new, different environment, a defining medium, pervasive.

But even after acknowledging “a brand-new world of allatonceness,” a place where “‘time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished,” McLuhan, too, falls short in its appellation: “a global village” (63). I know it’s a tall – let’s just say it, impossible – order to understand a space, a medium without invoking the terms by which we have understood spaces and media to this point, but I can’t escape its theoretical necessity. But oh, the dilemma! Just as we must use language to demonstrate all that language lacks, overwrites, rewrites, alters, limits, etc. (and yet, cannot escape our existence, our mediation within it), we are bound to define the new (media or otherwise) in relation to the old (or x in relation to y, always relationality- practically the theme of everything I have and will read in my “theoretical foundations” comps); we must define webspace, cyberspace, the Internet/web by the problematic, limited, downright incompatible means we have handy. How do we escape? (Spoiler alert: We don’t.)

With Barlow writing (typing? posting? emailing? forwarding? even “writing” is caught up in a system that has, if not past, been greatly transformed) in 1996 and McLuhan in 1967 (seriously, 1967??? I know, Mind. Blown.), it is surprising to find the new media discussion practically right where they left it. And if we really can’t create a new terminology (and by extension a new philosophy) for this “global village,” this “civilization of the Mind” (though I refuse to give up completely on the attempt), we are at the very least in need of new questions, of extending our inquiries beyond the contexts of man/machine, control/democracy, restriction/freedom and so on. “Internet” is not a variation on “village” or “nation;” it’s something else.  We need new critical contexts to account for the new context we already have, and in which we increasingly function.

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~ by pamelaingleton on 26 July 2010.

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