In one of a series of significant talks over the weekend by the world’s foremost Internet freedom activists, Julian Assange spoke on MSNBC about the central “battle” of the Information Age: “On the one hand, we are in many ways heading towards a transnational dystopian total surveillance society the likes of which the world has never seen . . . and on the other, people are coming together. Whenever people can communicate, they develop new values and a new consensus and a new polity. That is something that all young people are exposed to. . . “
In other words, the Internet is the new central terrain of human discourse and conflict, encompassing the full range of human personalities, from the authoritarian to the radical to the entirely banal. That these tendencies have endured the development of new communication technologies is not particularly noteworthy. What is quite interesting is that this new terrain does not generally conform to rigid geographical, social or cultural structures. Information does not flow in one direction, but in any direction, or many directions at once. It is “rhizomatic” in nature. In their seminal work on the subject, A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari explain: “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance.”
As Assange references in his interview, previous geopolitical structures have been reformulated or even reversed: activists and journalists now seek refuge FROM the United States, fearing the fate of Chelsea Manning et al. The fact that Snowden finds himself in exile on the other side of the Iron Curtain is especially telling of this. America is now the nucleus of the goon state, encompassing its broad network of security and police forces as well as its army of spooks: the effective antithesis to the rhizomatic realm of near-infinite possibility.
It is not that Russia is any less authoritarian than the United States, but that Putin has no incentive to hand Snowden over, and this is a man frozen in the world of realpolitik. His American counterpart, meanwhile, functions from within the liberal tradition: another dinosaur of a bygone era, desperately seeking to maintain control of a world slipping out of his grips. He has been repeatedly outflanked by Putin on the diplomatic front, because the amorphous blather of bourgeois liberalism stands little chance against stern Slavic nationalism, at least when the latter is the honest broker.
Meanwhile, there is no room for window-dressing in the battle for the Internet. Whether politicians call themselves liberal or conservative, they derive their legitimacy from the support of the victorious villains of the last major technological era: the digital age. It was here that finance capital was revolutionized by the heightened capacity to run complex algorithms and models on arcane investments, giving bankers and hedge fund managers more ways to make money, and also more incentive to skirt regulations by hiding behind the wall of complexity. Meanwhile, the pace of atomization increased dramatically, as union membership plummeted and the country became less community oriented. Traditional gathering places like bowling alleys and bingo parlors began closing en masse, political participation fell, and the public commons were privatized and commodified. Arboreal linkages disappeared all around, and the behemoth banks obliterated the isolated nomads beneath them.
Finance capital won the Battle of the Digital age, with the top 1% realizing some 95% of wealth gains from 2009-2012. A precarious population of baby boomer children rose to fruition, steeped in egregious student debt, facing an economy of permanent precariousness, and then a freshly emergent threat. As digital communication gave way to a nearly universal Internet, at least in wealthy countries, the propensity for a thoroughgoing intelligence and surveillance capacity emerged. J Edgar Hoover’s fantasyland had arrived. The goon component of government and its private counterparts could now gather information on everyone, everywhere. It could squash a radical idea before it had the chance to germinate. It could fire a drone on alleged terrorists from the comfort of a command center. The goon state could entrap defiant political leaders in scandal, like Hoover did, but much more ruthlessly and efficiently. It could strike fear into the young and aspirant, by making quick example of activists peacefully assembled in public parks and pavilions.