Liberation Technology

This is a slightly modified version of a paper I wrote last quarter. It was originally written for the class “Religion, Space, and Place,” and the paper was styled to make the argument that the Internet is de facto sacred space (and, therefore, misuses of the Internet are desecration). I just cut out the parts which were me sucking up to the professor.

If you are a techie, the paper is a bit simplistic. If you are an academic, my citation style in this informal paper will drive you nuts (I had the prof’s permission, honest!). If you are a Catholic, you probably shouldn’t be reading an atheist blog to begin with — you’ll just raise your blood pressure. However, I really enjoyed writing this paper, and I think it shows.

I’m putting this paper up on my blog, as the first post of 2015, because I have the phrase “liberation technology” stuck in my head. If I say “liberation” in an American context, I evoke the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That isn’t the kind of liberation I’m talking about. If I say “liberation technology,” I evoke “liberation theology,” and I continue to assert various ways in which my prophetic atheism is an explicitly religious worldview.

Without further ado, I give you: “The Internet: Sacred and Desecrated Space.”


While Millennials aren’t the only Americans to consider the Internet a formative part of their identity, my predisposition to view the Internet as a sacred space is certainly rooted in my outlook as a Millennial. I was one of the first people to grow up on the Internet. It provided me a “‘space’ in which to meaningfully dwell” (Smith, Map is Not Territory, 291).

“Millennial” is generational moniker for people born roughly between 1982 – although anyone born in the 1980s is on the cusp – and the turn of the millennium in 2000. Millennials have a number of identifying characteristics, particularly as pertain to their use of technology and their political opinions about technology-related issues.

Asked an open-ended question about why their generation is “distinctive,” “24% [of Millennials] say it’s because of their use of technology” (Pew, “Millennials,” 5). When asked if Edward Snowden should be prosecuted for revealing the scope of the National Security Agency’s domestic spying, 50% of 18-to-29 year-olds said no, the largest percentage of any segment of the population (Pew, “Public Split”); 60% of the same age group said that the Snowden leaks serve the public interest. And while the American public is nearly unified in in their opposition to a two-tier Internet (this means we are generally in support of net neutrality), 18-to-24 year-olds are the most likely to say they “strongly oppose” a two-tier Internet (University of Delaware).

Karen Armstrong writes that a “holy place…is thus bound up with a people’s sense of self” (Armstrong, 191). It makes sense that this formula would also work in reverse. If we know and understand a group’s sense of self, we should be able to extrapolate what places they find sacred. I do not know if my analysis of the Internet as a sacred space would compel anyone who didn’t grow up with the Internet – either designing it or playing on it – to change their mind and to start to view the Internet as sacred. This perception of sacred space may be restricted to a rarified cohort. But what I can do on the strength of my analysis is demonstrate why the misuses of the Internet are so strongly opposed.

It is because some of us see the Internet as inviolate. It is because some of us know the Internet to be sacred.

Profanation by the telecoms, desecration by oppressive regimes, and the pollution of the wellspring of our culture – of the unrestricted liberty, access, communication, coordination, political power, and human potential of the Internet – will not be tolerated.

The Internet is a Space/Place

Humanity has technologically advanced to a point where space and place can refer to physical locations but are by no means defined by physical location. In fact, to make the distinction between something that happens online, versus in “the real world” (or, in Internet shorthand, IRL – “in real life”), is completely meaningless. Place has been divorced from physical dimensions partly because our “real” (authentic) lives frequently take place on the Internet. “The Internet dominates our lives as no technology has before,” writes Matthew D. Lieberman, citing a statistic that Americans spend 56 billion minutes just on Facebook alone every month (Lieberman, 25).

There are many spatiality metaphors for cyberspace to choose from. We speak of going to a site, using the same term for, say, a website like Netflix that we would use for a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Internet is a web, a superhighway, where we navigate, visit, browse, go to, point to or surf the pages available to us. All of these metaphors either evoke a space – the highway, the waves of the ocean, visiting a friend – or remind us of a time we were in place – browsing in a bookstore, leafing through the pages, processes “marked by openness and change rather than boundedness and permanence” (Cresswell, 39). Even an opponent of the free Internet, the late Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), will be forever remembered for coining the single worst spatial Internet metaphor. Stevens’ description of the Internet as “a series of tubes”[1] was the gaffe that launched a thousand memes.

Senator Stevens aside, these spatial metaphors are in wide use specifically because they evoke such a deeply-ingrained understanding: “We see new things in terms of things we already understand: Life is a journey, an argument is a war, the mind is a rider on an elephant. With the wrong metaphor we are deluded; with no metaphor we are blind” (Haidt, 181). The success of spatial metaphors to describe the Internet can be accounted for because “place is much more than a thing in the world – it also frames our ways of seeing and understanding the world” (Cresswell, 110), and to be frameless is to be meaningless (Lakoff, 53).

Without the spatial metaphors, there would be no colloquial description of the Internet at all. In other words, we must perceive the Internet as a place in order to meaningfully engage with it. Human beings see place as primary since “it is the experiential fact of our existence” (Cresswell, 32).

Metaphors are not just world-explaining; metaphors are also world-creating. Metaphors, of course, are “real” (physically exist in the mundane world) because, as cognitive science teaches us, metaphors are structures in our brains (see Lakoff). We humans embody metaphors, carry them with us and bring them to life. We build with metaphors. We understand and navigate our environments through metaphor. To say that something like the Internet uses spatial metaphors is not to somehow differentiate the Internet from “real” (physical) locations but is actually a validation of the understanding that the Internet is a “real” (existent and meaningful) space.

The Internet is Sacred

In order to effectively argue the potential and practical aspects of the Internet as sacred, I’d like to address characteristics of the “sacred” versus the “mundane” while discussing different ways that have developed for relating to the Internet as a sacred entity – specifically, a religion called Kopimism, along with various freedom-enhancing political projects. I would like to stress that my definition of sacred is not tied to a particular religious worldview but is a category which includes the life-affirming and excludes the life-denying.

Defining what is sacred is always an argument, even between two parties who both believe that the sacrality is inherent and completely obvious. I, however, agree with Jonathan Z. Smith, who wrote, “There is nothing that is sacred in itself, only things sacred in relation” (Smith, Imagining Religion, 55). Along these lines, I would argue that the sacrality of the Internet is derived from its human potential. It is what people can do with the Internet that bestows the space with its sacrality.

Other people have argued that parts of the Internet are meaningful because of similarities to traditional religions and to traditional religious spaces. “If Facebook were a religion (and some argue that it is), it would be the world’s third largest behind Christianity (2.1 billion) and Islam (1.5 billion)” (Lieberman, 25) – the 56 billion minutes Americans spend on Facebook, which I mentioned earlier, is compared to just 84 billion minutes per month engaged in religious activities.

Jonathan Haidt describes Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and Profane as arguing “that the modern West is the first culture in human history to strip time and space of all sacredness and to produce a fully practical, efficient, and profane world” (Haidt, 193). Of course, Eliade was writing in 1957 and is an anachronism in any discussion of the Internet. Practical and efficient are bywords of decent technology. What seemed sterile in Eliade’s world is imbued with new potential in our world.

An official religion that would strenuously disagree with the pairing of “practical and efficient” with “profane” is Kopimism. The Missionary Church of Kopimism is a legally established religion of the free Internet.[2] Kopimism derives from the word for “copy me” in Swedish. The Church of Kopimism has guiding principles such as “The circulation of knowledge is sacred,” “The act of copying is sacred,” and “Communication is to be respected.” CTRL+C and CTRL+V are sacred symbols in Kopimism. The great sins are monitoring the communications of others and eavesdropping on their conversations.

It is difficult for me to believe that the Kopimists are wrong in any meaningful way. Copying is the source of all life on Earth. Your cells are copying themselves even as you read this. Organisms spawn offspring which are, in the big picture, only slight variations on the previous generation. Copying your genes is the claim to biological immortality – a humanist spin on life everlasting.

Copying is also the cause of the greatest upheavals in human history: “As a force for disruption, few events in history could approach the invention of the printing press. The development of the Internet surely comes closest” (Dwyer, 78). There is little philosophical difference between the ability of layman to read the Bible for himself in the 15th and 16th centuries and the ability of today’s layman to download Linux, the fastest operating system in the world, for free.

If part of the definition of the sacred is that it cannot be “sullied,” we have to take a moment and address some of the sleazier uses of the Internet.

Does the presence of pornography on the Internet pollute the Internet? I would highly doubt so. The presence of Playboy on a magazine stand in no way diminishes The Atlantic. The publication of The Story of O does not taint any copies of The Joy of Cooking which later roll off of the same printing press, much less the recipes themselves. We simply don’t perceive content to exist in permeable boxes in any other arena of human production. At any rate, pornography is not as profane as spying on the porn habits of political radicals[3] – but that discussion will have to wait for now.

What about Internet hookup culture? Thanks to dedicated websites and applications, it is theoretically possible for any person to locate a new sexual partner within minutes, so long as the searcher is not too picky. However, casual sex was not an innovation of the Internet. Furthermore, as a counterargument, the ability to purchase sex toys online, for people who live in states where selling a dildo is illegal, is both liberating and life-affirming.

In the darkest corners of the Internet, many things occur that are not possible to justify, including a range of life-denying and criminal practices. Even in the defense of the Internet, I would ordinarily tend to shy away from the low-hanging fruit of sex abuse scandals in world religions. That being said, it would be wildly disingenuous for anyone to pretend that children are somehow less safe on the Internet than they are in certain Catholic parishes.

“This Machine Kills Fascists”[4]

From the Stasi, we learned that the control of information is an exquisite tool of oppression. From the Internet, we have learned that the freeing of information is even more exquisite and is a tool of liberation.

“We have a very special place in the history of the campaign for social justice. We have some very special infrastructure. We have new means of economic development available to us. We have got proof-of-concept. We have got running code. That’s all we ever need…We need to be uncompromising about principle even as we are very flexible about modes of communication.”[5]

The goals of the free Internet, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are: the defense of free speech online; to fight illegal surveillance; to advocate for users and innovators; and to support freedom-enhancing technologies. I believe that freedom-enhancing technologies, also called liberation technologies, are the driving force behind the Internet’s sacrality.

The Arab Spring is currently the go-to example of liberation technology in action:

“Tunisia (with a very large population of Facebook users) and Egypt (with more Internet users than any other country in the region, except Iran) saw greater civil disobedience and resulting pressure toward change…popular frustration had not been translated into action until cell phones and the Internet became available, helping to unite disparate grievances in a common agenda and turning localized patches of discontent into a ‘structured movement with a collective consciousness about both shared rights and opportunities for action.’ Social media provided the movement with necessary scaffolding and a means of organizing outside the control of the state.” (Farrell, electronic)

The key part of this excerpt is that the means of organizing must exist outside of state control. The presence of the Internet, and easy access to the Internet through smart phones, are the 21st century technological baseline. However, encryption is also necessary so that the state cannot insert itself into a private conversation without first getting a warrant. Encryption is the technological equivalent of the legal principle of separation of church and state — the thing that keeps cops out of your confessional box.

Because a sacred space is defined both by what is included and excluded from the space, encryption serves a second purpose: We are not just speaking of a standard of evidence the state must meet, but also a boundary signifying what is correctly included within our sacred space and what is correctly excluded.

Because we are aware of that boundary – more specifically, because we have a concept of privacy in our discourse about the Internet and we have a wide range of methods to protect our privacy (with varying degrees of success) – unwelcome intrusions into our sacred space are met as desecration. When our inner lives play out on the Internet, the decisions about who to include and exclude become very important indeed.

It is the desecration of the Internet, its twisted use as a tool to repress and oppress, which I turn to next.

The Desecration of the Internet

If the Internet is space and the Internet is sacred, as I have attempted to demonstrate, then in combination the Internet becomes sacred space, and the misuse of the Internet – particularly authoritarian uses which are contrary to the Internet’s role as a liberation technology – is sacrilegious use of the space. The total information awareness promoted by the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as de rigueur Internet censorship in no fewer than forty countries (Dwyer, 81), is an act of profanation. Technologies of surveillance pollute technologies of liberation.

If you’ve been on the Internet recently, it should be immediately apparent that 20th century definitions of privacy don’t hold up very well in a 21st century world. As Jacob Appelbaum observed in the documentary Citizenfour, “privacy” today means what “freedom” meant during the 20th century. I am positive that it is not possible to be free in a panopticon.

Up until the Patriot Act was signed into law on October 26, 2001, most discussions about the semi-mythical right to privacy were centered on either women’s reproductive issues or on the unreasonable disclosure of damaging personal information. While there wasn’t a well-defined right to privacy, there was at least a loosely-defined right to be left alone. In the Clinton years, privacy was about sex. After 9/11, privacy became about surveillance.

One of the things that should make the Internet a safe place to express dissident opinions is the anonymity. When every keystroke, web search (even searches you begin to type, think better of, and delete), or site visited is collected, there is no anonymity. The metadata in aggregate paints a far more detailed portrait of any given person’s life than a mere wire-tapped phone conversation ever could. The portrait could be accurate or inaccurate, and both possibilities carry threat. It doesn’t help an Internet user to be anonymous online if he or she can still be positively identified by a national spy agency.

While politicians preach that the innocent have nothing to fear from the widely-cast surveillance programs of the United States National Security Agency, I would beg to disagree. I believe that the innocent have a great deal to fear from specifically the type of people who claim that the innocent have nothing to fear.

Personally, I don’t feel relief when I think about how I’m “innocent.” I experience the gathering of my data as a violation because part of my life is lived in those bits of data. If I was under indictment or being prosecuted for a crime, it would be different; I would expect to turn over relevant information during an investigation, and I would likely share information in order to advocate for my own best interest. And the only reason it would be at all acceptable to surrender my data would be the legal protections afforded to criminal defendants. As an “innocent” American citizen, it feels as though I have no legal protections at all. I’m just collaterally caught in the net.

When I say “gathering of my data,” I am not referring to the content of the actual conversations that took place in email, text message, or over Skype. As upsetting as it would be to know what my most personal discussions are accessible to a stranger, far more disturbing is the possibility that all of my actions are recorded and identifiable. Looking at my browser history just now, I estimate that an unintelligent person could reasonably predict where I will be this coming Friday night. I’m interested in movie times for a new release and I’m interested in vegetarian cuisine near local theaters. Add in access to government records and you’ll also be able to predict who I’ll attend the movie with (my husband) and how we’ll get there (the car we have registered). And that – that – is pure desecration. That is taking the grand human project of the Internet and twisting it into something petty and manipulative. My movements are no longer my own. I am not private; I am not free. I will, however, be in a [make/model] in the parking lot of the Alamo Drafthouse in [town] this Friday, should you wish to locate me for the purpose of extraordinary rendition.

Conclusion

Op-ed pieces accusing Millennials of having no regard for privacy are common but are missing the point. Yes, we are the group most likely to post pictures of ourselves online. However, seeing my face reveals no meaningful information about me, and we Millennials are not likely to include our full name, address, and Social Security number in the picture’s caption. Privacy is worthless if it only consists of hiding one’s face. Nor is privacy meant for the single gigantic secret you want to keep from everyone. Hallmarks of privacy – keeping beliefs to yourself, keeping identity to yourself, not having the government or search engines or whomever else know where you are every single second – are gone. Only by reclaiming the Internet, by reestablishing our sacred boundaries and enforcing an ethic of privacy, sacrality, and care do we have any chance to keep the Internet functioning as a technology of liberation.

Reform is not the answer. Even Edward Snowden, who literally risked his life so that we could gain the knowledge necessary to protect our online lives, doesn’t expect the governments of the world to accomplish anything through policy: “In the end, Snowden thinks we should put our faith in technology – not politicians. ‘We have the means and we have the technology to end mass surveillance without any legislative action at all, without any policy changes’” (Bamford).

On the Internet, from the beginning, the most creative users have had the greatest impact. Let’s not wait for anyone to save this space of ours. Let’s just save it ourselves.


[1] It seems ridiculous even citing this meme, but nevertheless: http://boingboing.net/2006/07/02/sen-stevens-hilariou.html

[2] It’s a Swedish church, but there’s an English language site: http://kopimistsamfundet.se/english/.

[3] “Another troubling discovery was a document from NSA director Keith Alexander that showed the NSA was spying on the pornography-viewing habits of political radicals. The memo suggested that the agency could use these ‘personal vulnerabilities’ to destroy the reputations of government critics who were not in fact accused of plotting terrorism. The document then went on to list six people as future potential targets” (Bamford).

[4] Woody Guthrie’s 1941 message adorning his guitar, “This Machine Kills Fascists,” is today living a second life as a favorite laptop decal. Buy your own here: http://store.dftba.com/products/this-machine-kills-fascists-laptop-decal#

[5] Quote by Eben Moglen, lawyer with the Free Software Foundation. Plone Conference Keynote Address, 2006. http://youtu.be/NorfgQlEJv8


Sources

Armstrong, Karen. “Jerusalem: the problems and responsibilities of sacred space.” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 13, No. 2 (2002): 189-196. Electronic.

Bamford, James, “The Most Wanted Man in the World.” Wired. August 13, 2014. http://www.wired.com/2014/08/edward-snowden/. Accessed November 2, 2014.

Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction (London: Blackwell, 2004). Electronic.

Dwyer, Jim. More Awesome Than Money: Four Boys and Their Heroic Quest to Save Your Privacy from Facebook (New York: Viking, 2014). Print; advance release copy.

Farrell, Henry. “The Consequences of the Internet for Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science 15 (2012): 35-52. Electronic.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York: Basic Books, 2006). Print.

Lakoff, George. The Political Mind (New York: Viking, 2008). Print.

Lieberman, Matthew D. Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (New York: Crown Publishers, 2013). Print.

Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “Public Split over Impact of NSA Leak, But Most Want Snowden Prosecuted.” June 17, 2013. http://www.people-press.org/2013/06/17/public-split-over-impact-of-nsa-leak-but-most-want-snowden-prosecuted/. Accessed November 16, 2014.

Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends. “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next.” February 2010. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2010/10/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change.pdf. Accessed November 16, 2014.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “Map is Not Territory.” Map is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978). 289-309. Electronic.

Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982).

University of Delaware Center for Political Communication. “National survey shows public overwhelmingly opposes internet ‘fast lanes.’” November 10, 2014. http://www.udel.edu/cpc/research/fall2014/UD-CPC-NatAgenda2014PR_2014NetNeutrality.pdf. Accessed November 16, 2014.

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