Neoliberalism, Info-determinism, Expressive Absolutism

One of the central and most symptomatic of computational slogans is “information wants to be free.”

Like most computational ideologies, it’s willfully techno-determinist, almost vitalist, with regard to “what information does,” even if many who recite the slogan may find ways to construe it otherwise. Like many pieces of “wisdom” that circulate in the digital commons, it also willfully misreads what the person who uttered the phrase, Stewart Brand, actually said (in 1984 at the first Hackers Conference), which makes much more sense in context:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Information doesn’t want to be free. Information doesn’t want anything. our very economy is built on the notion that information can be entirely contained within organizations of tens of thousands of people, with only minimal leakage occurring. every major corporation is allowed to proliferate terabytes of data to which only it has access, and which under many conditions can be destroyed. in so far as this information serves the interests of those who created it, more plausibly it “wants” to generate capital for its owners, not “get free.”

All of this hangs in my mind as we hear what may indeed be the first public volleys of the next world war–the information war that Virilio and others have so long predicted, but that to many of us has already been happening for a long time. legions of “hackers” (hackers? what makes a hacker different from a spy if they are working toward collective goals of the state? both sides spy on each other, and spying has been raised to such an art that not merely spies and defense targets, but literally everything is now available for spying.)

“Information wants to be free” must be re-thought with the explicit neoliberalism of globalization. the fact is, the US and its global partners want citizen discourse to be conducted almost entirely in public, without constraint. that is a much more accurate way to cash out the phrase: we want your commons to be open to everyone, and we want every kind of information (with certain exceptions) to pass freely. In its structural parallel to the current construal of the first amendment, what is offered is a kind of expressive absolutism: a principle according to which everything must be made available and everything must be permitted (except within the legally sheltered delimitations of capital and state-finance info-governance).

The point of this openness, though, is not the democratization that any cursory view of the discussion might suggest. that’s made clear in Hilary Clinton’s Jan 21 “Speech on Internet Freedom“:

We feel strongly that principles like information freedom aren’t just good policy, not just somehow connected to our national values, but they are universal and they are also good for business. To use market terminology, a publicly listed company in Tunisia or Vietnam that operates in an environment of censorship will always trade at a discount relative to an identical firm in a free society. If corporate decision makers don’t have access to global sources of news and information, investors will have less confidence in their decisions over the long term. Countries that censor news and information must recognize that, from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech.

The point being that we shouldn’t censor political speech because we shouldn’t censor commercial speech, not the other way around; never mind the absurdity of Clinton’s argument about the public trading value of companies operating in “environments of censorship”–their public trading value (stock price) is of little moment to anyone, and their value is much more related to processes of globalization and labor extraction than it is to censorship. Indeed, the main target of Clinton’s argument–china–features soaring stock prices while conducting many forms of “censorship.”

Clinton’s argument is the essential one for neoliberalism on the freedom of information (indeed, her own administration’s ultimate refusal to submit to its own principle of absolute openness is an object lesson), and it demonstrates how far from the question of the salience of political speech are her comments.

Think of it this way. China’s overt statements about its censorship policies indicate an interest in certain aspects of western market culture it finds abhorrent–pornography, in particular. we say immediately that this is a “front” for blocking information about Tibet and human rights, as if the average Chinese person is sitting at home desperately trying to google about these subjects every night. The fact is that the average Chinese person, from a statistical perspective, knows that huge amounts of western culture are being blocked; they also know they are being bombarded with huge amounts of it nonetheless.

Thus the signal moment in China-US information relations this week may have been a fact few related to the more serious matter of google; namely that the worldwide blockbuster film Avatar has become so popular that the government is restricting it from being shown in 2d so that its cinemas can remain devoted to usual local and Hollywood fare. (typically our press focuses on whatever ‘stir’ can be found, but it seems unlikely this move will change overall opinion much more than have many others.)

This is censorship; it is thought control; but is it social engineering any less explicit than the us demand of absolute openness?

In other words, is it inherently less democratic for a society to agree that it wants to manage its information flows this way? wouldn’t that seem to be the first right of the civilized control of information–to provide ourselves access to what we want in the forms we want it? Isn’t that exactly what teabaggers and fox TV viewers are trying to do–focus and limit their information at a group level? because there is no doubt that a majority of Chinese citizens know this is being done and want it to be done. And they can’t have it done openly and democratically in our sense, because that would involve getting information they don’t want to get.

We aren’t having a discussion about that, because we are told that “information wants to be free.” informational absolutism is an interesting and probably good social policy, much as free speech absolutism probably is; but we can’t impose either on another country. but if what we really mean is “you must open up all your information channels to everything with which we want to bombard you, all the time”–is that freedom in anybody’s sense?

My goal is not to argue that Clinton is wrong or that google is wrong, and there is much to say about the “cyber-warfare” itself which underlies this controversy that deserves separate treatment (in short: if we use the word spying and corporate espionage in place of “hacking,” I think it’s clear that every side and many large corporations are doing this much more than anyone not involved would suspect or, probably, condone. can we really demand china stop spying? are we prepared to stop spying? should we be?)

My goal is to show that the slogan “information wants to be free” covers a neoliberal political agenda rather than the democratizing one it is thought to perpetrate. if statistically 50 or 70% of the Chinese population know that they are sacrificing a little bit of information to try to keep their society stable–exactly who are we to order them to do otherwise?

Salient neoliberal rhetoric bonus exhibit #1:

Authority, Meet Technology: Will China’s Great Firewall Hold?

A Slate/New America Foundation Event
Western media companies have long been faced with ethical challenges in order to access the vast Chinese market. But after accepting Beijing’s censorship and a series of attacks on its network, Google announced last week that it has had enough, and it is threatening to pull out of China.

China aspires to be considered a trustworthy global economic leader, but plenty of companies doing business in that country share Google’s frustration at having to abide by different rules in the Middle Kingdom.

How will the China Internet skirmish shake out? What lessons or cautionary tales does China’s experience offer repressive governments and their tech-savvy opponents in places like Iran and Cuba? What, if anything, should the Obama administration do to keep the Web free, worldwide? On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to outline the administration’s plans in a major address on Internet freedom.


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