The central challenge of the internet is that it renders status quo impossible.
The power to access, contribute to, and direct the flow of cultural information has been one of the primary mechanisms of social power throughout recorded history. During the era of mass media, which coincided with industrial “late capitalism,” a hierarchical social architecture was inscribed in professionalized cultural aesthetics, and enforced with a concentrated media infrastructure. “Superstars” emerged to dominate our aesthetic landscape (most for only a brief period; they were necessarily treated as ephemera by the industries that made them), and highly powerful cartels emerged to dominate fields such as broadcasting, cinema, print publishing and recorded music.
Because these cartels served as cultural “gatekeepers,” their revenues and social power resided in their ability to restrict, rather than enable, access to the public sphere. The result, as many researchers and theorists have argued, was that only a select few retained the ability to contribute meaningfully as producers, and the majority of us were relegated to the role of consumers. Of course, we were never purely passive – resistance to cultural hierarchy took many forms, from quotidian channel-surfing to outright protest, in practices ranging from flamboyant pranksterism to “pirate” broadcasting to sober policy lobbying. Nonetheless, this pattern of cultural regulation and resistance comprised a détente of sorts; if the media cartels couldn’t compel passive consumption, neither could even the most active consumers cross the invisible barrier separating them from the means of production.
By blurring the lines between production and consumption, and bypassing the central roles of the traditional gatekeepers, online sharing has thrown this longstanding cultural détente – and therefore the entire social order – into crisis. Legacy gatekeepers stand to lose billions of dollars in revenue, as well as well-established social privilege. Consequently, they have sought to bolster their eroding walls with legal bulwarks, amplifying surveillance and censorship powers in the name of defending copyright. The state, which faces equal threats from social and economic turmoil, has thus far been their willing partner. Yet, ultimately, the cost of pursuing these policies to their logical conclusion will be the evisceration of democratic society itself; without free speech, privacy, and the right to innovate, neither the public sphere nor the marketplace can operate as efficiently and autonomously as it once did.
Together, as a society, we must choose between two risky paths, both of them as yet unexplored. Will we privilege sharing over property, and risk our security? Or will we privilege property over sharing, and risk our liberty?