A social history of the internet


Of conjuration, bubbles, and subsumption to capital

1. Unstoppable forms of untamable social content

The initial public appearance of the Internet (1990s, with the World Wide Web)1 generated a series of unprecedented social circumstances which capital for decades was unable to really subsume to the commodity- and capital-form. For about twenty years, piracy (of software, knowledge, and art) was irrepressible and widespread. There were literally thousands of media (debate forums, sites dealing with specific themes) where it was possible for anyone — usually operating under pseudonyms — to appropriate, develop, create, and share all sorts of knowledge and art for free, directly, with any human being on the face of the earth searching for them on the Internet.

The physical infrastructure of the initial Internet was a material form reared and fattened by an immense influx of capital from around the world, in crazed pursuit of promising ventures for accumulation. A side-effect of all this was to create unruly [selvagens] technical conditions, which gave rise (at least intellectually and artistically) to a proliferation of free social content. Here the principle “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” was directly practiced, as a general rule, not merely given lip service.

Faced with this social content, private property — and therefore the extraction of surplus value — was not only inadequate, but impracticable. There was formal subsumption to capital, since the physical infrastructure was privately owned (such that access to it had to be paid for), but no real subsumption, since the social content which emerged from this physical infrastructure was beyond the reach of capital. Companies tried all the time to really subsume this content, but always failed. The locus classicus of such attempts during this era was the ISP AOL with its walled garden, the first attempt, totally defeated, to imprison Internet users inside bubbles which isolate them from the contents made universally available on the Internet. Unable to capture them inside bubbles (digital enclosures) so as to extract profit, the immense influx of capital pouring in from around the world turned the Internet itself into an immense financial bubble, one that would burst in the early 2000s (the infamous “dot-com bubble”).

Of course, this online effervescence by itself was not enough to overcome or abolish capitalist society, since this depends on the struggle of the proletariat. The proletariat meanwhile was still suffering all the consequences of the defeat of the global wave of struggles stemming from 1968. Private property remained offline and intact when it came to the “physical layer” of social conditions (including the very form of the Internet, means of connection, telecommunications). Despite this, delightful relations emerged which, though extremely marginal (since only a small proportion of the world’s population had access), were not substantially subsumed under capital.

Leaving aside all the ideological illusions of that era, which were not a few, it was not unusual to take the restructuring of global society according to the principles of the world wide web as feasible and obvious: a society in which not just intellectual and artistic private property, but even its “physical” counterpart, would be abolished along with commodity-production, capital, borders, and the State.2 Many assumed this would happen automatically, once the separation between the online and offline worlds was gone.3

2. Conjuration of uncontrollable creative forces

All the untamed effervescence [efervescência indomesticada] unleashed in this moment was subject to a great deal of criticism. Some said it was no more than technological fetishism, an illusory form of virtual liberation that had nothing to do with struggles in the offline world. To such critics, all this was merely an escape from “raw and undigested” [crua e indigesta] reality, whose essence was pain, sacrifice, and death, where “real value” was measured by self-denial, by suffering heroically buoyed along only by hope.

In reality, class struggle — the movement of direct and universal association in which workers affirm their desires, augment their capacities, and strive for the satisfaction of their needs in opposition to capital, private property, and the state — historically never occurs against such an empty (much less funereal) background. Nor does it occur by mere force of will, by individuals or collectivities holding out hope in the face of “brute reality.”

Quite the contrary: the struggle for control over the productive forces of humanity always takes place within the human species itself. It consists precisely in developing the needs and faculties of human beings as ends in themselves, not as means for the ends of others. This is what periodically puts at risk the production and reproduction of capital, which nevertheless cannot expand without invoking these very forces. But it invokes them only to separate them violently, using the policial-penal wedge that is private property. On the one hand, in order to control and shape human needs (subjecting them to continuous scarcity, as this is the only way to continually sell commodities). On the other hand, in order to exploit and extract surplus value from human faculties (for continuous scarcity requires that money constantly be procured to pay for it, imposing competition every individual to continually sell his own capacities, his very self, to capital in the labor market). From there, proletarians are variously subjected to threats of punishment or promises of reward to keep them working to the max, producing commodities that will be sold so as to realize surplus value and thus reproduce capital on an expanded scale [ampliadamente].

In short, since the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century the expansion of capital cannot occur without provoking an irruption of productive forces — human capacities and needs — which periodically escape its control and overflow its limits, threatening to abolish or defeat it. Capital then struggles against these living, creative energies, trying to contain them. They must be transmuted into deadly, destructive forces that deny, dull, diminish, vampirize, and impoverish the faculties and needs of the human species. Nevertheless, capital is nothing other than these same capacities and needs (the productive forces themselves) which turn accidentally against themselves, through a mechanism (dead labor, capital) that reproduces cumulatively as if it were a self-moving, automatic, and spontaneous power, as irresistible as natural law. This is the background of the class struggle.4

3. Creation into destruction: Reactionary networks

Everything indicates that the Internet today has at last been converted from a creative into a destructive force. Over the last ten years, it has become increasingly clear that the social content generated by the Internet is really subsumed under capital.

The free, universalist internet of unbridled piracy, open fora, freeware communities, etc., was brutally depopulated and abandoned during this period. Its former participants were then sucked into the windmill en masse by privately-owned “social media” or “social networks,” which render collectively-produced content scarce by processing it with algorithms and restricting it to private, familial, and even neo-feudal virtual spaces (so-called “bubbles”).

All signs point toward ensnarement in a Pavlovian trap.5 In exchange for addictive stimuli responses, occupying all of its users’ free time, it exposes them to a constant stream of advertisement while at the same time imposing a fee (by which some of the content thus created becomes momentarily accessible to wider feudal domains). One hypothesis is that this ensnarement has become so total a critical mass has been reached, so that after a certain point anyone outside the Pavlovian trap is incommunicado, excluded from social life and even the labor market, thus forcing even the most recalcitrant to accept capture.

“Social networks” are at root networks of reactions. They are thus deeply reactionary in their essential structure. Indeed, this is so much the case that any content falling under their purview is immediately voided of its universalistic, rational aspect. Every aspect which might contribute humanity, compulsively dragged and converted into yet another of the endless personal disposable rubbishes that compete for an interminable “now” that an infantilized, or even animalized mass responds in Pavlovian fashion [pavlovianamente] with emotional reactions. Under these conditions, memory, reason, and history are unfeasible and no longer exist, and everything is reduced to the last emotional polarization on this or that “urgent” fashion issue. In social networks there is nothing left of the richness of human expressions; the only permissible expression is the uninterrupted advertisement of oneself, of products or enterprises.

In the period immediately preceding this catastrophe, the struggle for free and open content on the Internet even seemed incredibly victorious, with almost all the great innovations of the internet appearing to go against the companies.6 As we have seen, unlike conditions of private property, the internet was initially composed of circumstances in which the freedom of each individual was not based on competition. Therefore it did not deprive others of their freedom, but on the contrary potentiated the freedom and autonomy (i.e., capacities and needs) of all throughout the human species. For example, with each person contributing his or her knowledge, information, etc., to a certain subject, alongside the knowledge of everyone else in the world similarly interested, a much richer and deeper knowledge would be generated — one that was universally accessible, or at least accessible to anyone in the world with access to the internet. This was a basic feature of the internet since its inception in the 1990s.

Around 2006-2010, however, this began to be termed “the sharing economy” or “collaborative economy.” Strangely, from then on, these terms have seemingly appeared everywhere, applied to businesses, governments, advertisements for any product, and even self-help books. Most critics were wary, but many naïve individuals were seduced by the thought that the “anarcho-communist model” of the internet had proved itself so superior that businesses and governments were now adhering to it. This would then change the world in a more cooperative (even postcapitalist) direction, contrary to competition.

Suddenly, many noticed — albeit too late — that these fashionable “collaborative economies” being used en masse were in reality private enterprises: YouTube, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

What had happened was that numerous enterprises, emitting visionary or utopian auras (virtually all utilized freeware and open source technologies)7 that concealed their capitalist nature, were able to induce Internet users to generate content for their private ventures. Users did not realize they were no longer contributing to the free community of the internet, a community which had been emptied and replaced by companies whose fixed capital algorithmically determines the conditions through which users meet and access the rest of the web.

Henceforth, captured in this Pavlovian trap, voluntary contributions no longer potentiate one’s own autonomy or that of others, but on the contrary only serves to accumulate more capital. This in turn breeds more dependence, more scarcity, and more subjection to the propertied class.

And so capital finally found the formula to convert the Internet into destructive force, after decades of effort. Destructive because it denies the needs of the human species while dulling and impoverishing its faculties, which are vampirized by dead labor or capital.

From that point on, with the Internet at last domesticated, the rigid barrier that formerly held between offline and online has been more or less suspended. The “real” and the “virtual” become increasingly indistinguishable.

4. Packaged within the commodity-form

One of the most basic features of computing is the exact copy of information at almost zero cost.8 Even before the Internet, ever since the emergence of digital computers (especially PCs), there was already an extensive network of users around the world who transmitted free or pirated programs, files, books, images, codes, etc., on magnetic tapes or diskettes. The world wide web is nothing other than this data-copying network become automatic and instantaneous via telecommunication repeater stations, which span the entire globe with fiber optics, cables, and radio frequencies.

The copying and dissemination of information thus becomes a universal community where data can be made available by anyone for everyone and vice versa. Moreover, this occurs almost in real time. It can include everything from live reporting on events to reserves of knowledge, both practical ( how to fix things or even construct them) and theoretical. A multiplicity of reports equally accessible to all who sought them, combined with a variety of views on any given topic, allowed individuals to form fairly objective ideas about events and topics that affected their life.

Digital transmissions of information fundamentally ignore scarcity, which forms the basis of private property, because such transmissions are themselves already copies. Not by chance, this word “copy” originated from the Latin copia — as in copiousness, meaning “abundance, ample supply, profusion, plenty” (from co- “together, with, in common” + ops [genitive opis] “power, wealth, ability, resources”).

Yet this is absolutely intolerable in a society founded upon constant buying and selling, which requires everyone to strive tirelessly for the continued imposition of scarcity — i.e., privation — as the absolute condition for survival within generalized competition.

Capital desperately needed to create an artificial layer or interface to interrupt the universal physical network of free copies and make information scarce or otherwise difficult to access. It was necessary to inject into the Internet a deafening and constant noise, an entropic wall against which information stands out as something separate, rare, private, and thus valuable/salable. After all, only that which can be monopolized can have a price, becoming private property, a commodity, with the power to impose payment (and consequently labor) as a condition for its access, under the protection and legal guarantee of the police, the courts, the state.

Generalized scarcity of information was achieved, in the final analysis, due to the depopulation and emptying of the Internet led by the “social networks” described above. The deserted internet is a no man’s land, a desert occupied by billions of fake websites endlessly pumped out by algorithms and robots on an almost industrial scale. Such websites only exist to display advertisements, fraudulent and incomplete information, misleading links, scams, traps to extort money from Internet users, steal information to be sold, use their processors for hidden purposes, install malware, viruses.

From then on, every Internet user, immersed in the algorithmically-forged bubbles of social networks, is perpetually subjected to comprehensive scarcity, thrown into a vast quagmire of frenzied entropy, a numbing avalanche of low-quality, useless, manipulative, or false information. In these bubbles, each user himself becomes a robotic noise injector, repeater, and diffuser of information for all the others, regardless of his will. Under such circumstances, it finally becomes possible to demand payment for information (practical and theoretical knowledge, art, programs, etc.) which promises to stand out from the diarrheal flood of artificial noise surrounding each Internet user.

Henceforth, the real subsumption of society to capital reaches depths previously thought unreachable. Social networks have managed to further subsume human subjectivity to the capital-form. Production for the sake of production (abstract labor), in other words, or production as an blind end in itself, has become a subjective imperative (in the “dialectic of recognition,” to use the Hegelian parlance). Social networks are designed down to the last detail by companies so that participants only “exist” for each other (and consequently, for themselves) if they produce content for sake of producing, frantically, in a ever-accelerating perpetual present. They become addicted to gazing at the screen nonstop, waiting for new opportunities to react and generate more content, more noise. It is a form of production fitted to private property in advance, since it reduces participants (who in a prior internet age as a rule used pseudonyms) to “real,” identifiable persons certified by private property (that is, by the State and the police) and classified according to bio-socio-psychometric [bio-sócio-psicométricos] profiles subjected to the commodity form for sale and profit.

5. Personalization, oversight, and mass trolliferation

As we said, in an earlier incarnation of the internet, use of pseudonyms was the rule. One effect of this rule was that things were never sought, debated, created, developed, or even enjoyed primarily under the personal, familial, feudal aspect that predominates today. Pseudonymous users communicated with each other because of their shared human interests, curiosities, and passions, not on account of some empty “identity” to be ceaselessly affirmed in the perpetual presence of an overwhelming avalanche of information.

In the Internet past, the universal and singular (but not personal) condition for each Internet user carried with it a perception of time and space that was simultaneously world-historical. Whenever some pseudonymous user published something on the internet, there was a perception it would be accessible to all humanity and forever available to future generations. The passions by which they related to one another thereby expressed themselves as a passion for humanity and the future of the species, contributing elaborate masterpieces never to be eroded by time or hemmed in by boundaries in space. Thousands of admirable websites existed which are now either abandoned or for the most part missing.

Exactly the opposite prevails today, at a time when everyone they already knows what they contribute only holds true for the here and now, for family, “friends,” and “friends of friends” to react to. Or else it will “go viral” among the amorphous mass, disappearing from public view and rejected as immediately obsolete. This implies that every user has the weary perception, before he even publishes something, that it is useless or not worth it to try to elaborate on anything beyond that “now”-time or feudal space of “friends and family” in the stultifying pursuit to “go viral.”

Moreover, most free Internet activities (above all piracy) were regulated by the state in “offline” life. Hence the use of pseudonyms was a vital necessity, since the methods used by companies and the State to identify users were still primitive when they were used at all. Of course there were also “trolls” — people who channeled their offline frustrations into destructive online behavior, causing confusion in the forums, etc. — but they were no real threat because people were not crazy enough to expose themselves on the internet with their own name, photo, and address.

Today it is just the contrary. Now almost everyone has agreed to be exposed to the trolls, psychopaths, mafias, police, bosses, and enterprises. Indeed, people are forced to expose themselves if they do not want to be rejected from social life. At the very least, they live in a state of constant fear of seeing their image destroyed (and in the society of the spectacle, that’s all there is). Here this occurs in a highly personalistic and accelerated fashion, without time to reflect, which only allows for emotional reactions and obliges everyone thus frustrated to become a troll as well.9


1 A brief history on how the Internet was created, and how, by accident, its fundamental communication protocols were developed by hackers who voluntarily contributed to the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) with a universalist bias, where every resource should be freely and equally accessible to anyone on the network, can be found in the article “Immaterial Aristocracy.”
2 On some obvious potentialities of the internet for the proletariat to abolish private property and the state, creating generalized communism, see “Against the Metaphysics of Scarcity, for Practical Copiousness.”
3 In the 2000s there was even a technocratic tendency that preached that the development of 3D printers will make the “communism of the internet” overflow to the offline world, causing a technical revolution that will wipe out capitalism (these ideas were advocated, for example, by Adrian Bowyer, Jeremy Rifkin, Paul Mason, and Alex Williams). Briefly, the idea was as follows: the diffusion of 3D printers will allow anyone to produce anything that he want, using digital designs and models created freely by their users and made available for free on the internet. The 3D printers themselves will be reproduced exponentially in the same way, by other other 3D printers, so that anyone who want will own one for free. This will bring to an end the need to exchange commodities, therefore, to the end of money, to the end of the private property of the means of life, and, consequently, to the end of capital. The perfect ideal would be to develop a molecular 3D printer, which would form any raw material and build everything from hydrogen atoms, which are the most abundant thing in the universe.
The misconception of all this view, as of all technocracy, is that it attributes to technology an imaginary power, which presupposes in fact the commodity fetishism, in which the technics, things, and means of production are seen as having an autonomous, independent virtue, separated from social relations and determining it. In reality, the very concept of “technology” — i.e., an autonomous logic that governs technics regardless of social relations, human needs and capacities, and the class struggle — is nothing less than a synonym for capital, dead labor’s self-movement.
4 See Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Deleuze & Guattari, as well as the concept of class composition, developed by autonomia operaia between 1960 and 1970, and the book Signs, Machines, and Subjectivities, by Maurizio Lazzarato. Marx’s Grundrisse, as well as Marx’s Draft of an Article on Friedrich List’s book:

Industry can be regarded as a great workshop in which man first takes possession of his own forces and the forces of nature, objectifies himself and creates for himself the conditions for a human existence. When industry is regarded in this way, one abstracts from the circumstances in which it operates today, and in which it exists as industry; one’s standpoint is not from within the industrial epoch, but above it; industry is regarded not by what it is for man today, but by what present-day man is for human history, what he is historically; it is not its present-day existence (not industry as such) that is recognized, but rather the power which industry has without knowing or willing it and which destroys it and creates the basis for a human existence…

This assessment of industry is then at the same time the recognition that the hour has come for it to be done away with, or for the abolition of the material and social conditions in which mankind has had to develop its abilities as a slave. For as soon as industry is no longer regarded as a huckstering interest, but as the development of man, man, instead of huckstering interest, is made the principle and’ what in industry could develop only in contradiction with industry itself is given the basis which is in harmony with that which is to be developed…

The Saint-Simon school has given us an instructive example of what it leads to if the productive force that industry creates unconsciously and against its will is put to the credit of present-day industry and the two are confused: industry and the forces which industry brings into being unconsciously and without its will, but which will only become human forces, man’s power, when industry is abolished. […] The forces of nature and the social forces which industry brings into being (conjures up), stand in the same relation to it as the proletariat. Today they are still the slaves of the bourgeois, and in them he sees nothing but the instruments (the bearers) of his dirty (selfish) lust for profit; tomorrow they will break their chains and reveal themselves as the bearers of human development which will blow him sky-high together with his industry, which assumes the dirty outer shell — which he regards as its essence — only until the human kernel has gained sufficient strength to burst this shell and appear in its own shape. Tomorrow they will burst the chains by which the bourgeois separates them from man and so distorts (transforms) them from a real social bond into fetters of society. (Marx, “Draft of an Article on Friedrich List’s Book Das Nationale System der Politischen Ökonomie,” March 1845)

5 This behavioral manipulation owes much to an academic field of study, part of the so called cognitive psychology, that exists since the 1980s called “attention management” or “attention economy,” whose objective is to manipulate the perception and the cognition of the population, at the service of capital accumulation. “Social networks” have been designed by companies using this “science,” so that users are addicted to directing their attention to them, leaving everything else out of focus.
6 E.g., Linux, Apache, PHP, MySQL, Python, wiki, etc.
7 This text, written at that time, describes what was happening. See also: “Fetishism of Digital Commodities and Hidden exploitation: The Cases of Amazon and Apple.”
The freeware and open source community, which was made voluntarily by hackers against private ownership of software, and against corporate and state domination, was largely emptied and the function previously filled by them was overwhelmingly replaced by “startup” enterprises. In them an immense mass of young people (“nerds”) is financed directly by the world capital to create “innovations,” developing more and more ways to profit and “monetize” everything that until then had not been able to be submitted to private property.
8 Signals transmitted in the old analog telecommunications networks degraded with every retransmission and copy, adding to the signal received the accumulated noise along the whole route from initial point to the end. On the contrary, the signal transmitted in digital networks is regenerated in its exact original form at each copy and retransmission, since what is transmitted is no longer a continuously variable signal (i.e., analog), but a binary signal (i.e., digital: “zeroes and ones”). Thus, it is necessary to detect in the received signal only those two discrete levels to regenerate it and to copy it. This allows to discard the noise between the two levels (or measure it, correct it by calculations or, if the signal-to-noise ratio is too low, discard the signal and request a retransmission, all automatically), while in the analog era, it was necessary to detect the entire waveform of the levels in continuous variation, which made it impossible to distinguish the original signal from the noise added by the transmission medium (hence, in the analog era, the original noise-free signal was necessarily the private property of the transmitter in front of the receivers, whereas in the digital age this physical basis for private ownership of information was intrinsically overcome, since everyone may have the exact copy of the original). In addition, unlike the old analog transmission, once a digital transmission network has been established, the energy consumption needed to regenerate (retrieve the original binary signal, correct errors, etc.) and retransmit the digital signal on all physical links (submarines cables, optical fibers, satellites, electric cables, microwave radios) is always the same, whether or not network users are transmitting information to each other. Because links always have their band occupied by “zeroes and ones” symbols due to the layer 1 and layer 2 (physical and link layer) control protocols of the OSI model (an exception is some microwave radio systems, which use a dynamic bandwidth width scheme, but also not due to the transmission of more or less information by the users, but in function of the signal-to-noise ratio in the propagation medium of the signal, the Earth’s atmosphere, which varies continuously). The variation of power consumption occurs only in information processing, which is concentrated predominantly in the user’s own computer (layers 4, 5, and 6 of the OSI model) and in the routers (layer 3 of the OSI model), but even this variation is insignificant.
9 The book A Theory of the Drone by Grégoire Chamayou, explores the implications of systems of total vigilance, its relation with the repression and the war.