The Illusion of the Commons: A History of the Internet

The reigning paradox of the digital age goes something like this: we are more connected than ever, yet we feel more alone. Both clauses are technically true. The internet has connected us more than ever before, yet, by available calculations, our feelings of alienation have only swollen since its invention.

But this statement is no paradox. The internet connects us, yes, but the internet was not created to build meaningful relationships between people. The internet is not a democratic, common space for the public to virtually assemble; this vision is illusory and even dangerous. Yes, we are in danger like fish are in water, have even started using it to breathe. This is a gloss on the history of the internet that starts at the beginning. 

When the internet was created as a weapon. 


I. The Enclosure

The ‘60s were some freaky times, man, or so I have been told, so I have seen footage of Woodstock and Civil Rights protests and read Gay Talese’s tome on the Sexual Revolution. And yes, the ‘60s were, to some extent, about revolutionary return to natural harmony–but a lot of this talk went techno-futuristic rather than Walden Pond. Machines, particularly computers, were on the collective mind. Or, as ‘60s academics might phrase it, they were a collective mind. 

The big thing in ‘50s and ‘60s science was a field called cybernetics, a loose umbrella term for disciplines that study the transfer of information between biological and mechanical systems. Cybernetics sees everything in terms of regulatory systems, which opens some interesting comparisons between animals and machines, but also conflates the two ethically. 

(Cybernetics is also the reason why there are so many legends about the CIA experimenting on civilians with acid during this time–because they did–because acid was a new drug conceived as an alternative form of cybernetics, or, a way of opening up the system of human consciousness for potential reprogramming.)

The guy who invented cybernetics was an MIT professor who helped the US develop weapons for WWII. WWII is the important backdrop for ‘60s technofuturists, even a decade later everyone is reeling from the global brush with authoritarianism and desperate to found better societies. Or code them. 

The Soviet Union launches first ever satellite Sputnik in ‘57, scaring the good shit out of Eisenhower, who founds the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to prevent the country from getting caught off guard again. ARPA mostly works on space projects ‘til JFK hits play on NASA, at which point ARPA turns more attention to computers. 

Inventing the internet is a fun project because its outlines are so defined: the US Defense Department needs a scalable way of connecting local computer mainframes that can survive a missile attack. ARPA and its web of elite scientist friends are on the case; they develop, in the words of journalist Ben Tarnoff, “a kind of digital Esperanto: a common language that [enables] data to travel across any network.” Or, you can think of the internet as a universal standard for how computers transmit data, one that can scale across any device–even ones that haven’t been invented yet.

Two points to focus on here are 1) the internet was born as a military project. It was only created because the US gave these scientists a prompt unique to the military’s needs. By this same token, 2) the internet was only created because of public funding, and tons of it. 

When the internet goes commercial in the ’80s, public funding dries up and technofuturists turn to venture capitalists. This is a shame for a number of reasons, with VCs’ short return on investment schedule and exclusivity hovering near the top (even these days Black entrepreneurs receive only 1% of VC funding). It also sucks because businesses run on money, so priority numero uno is monetizing the internet via advertising.

This leads to the online attention economy, in which each user’s attention (their online behavior) is constantly monitored for greater monetization. Activist and author Tim Wu discusses this process in his book The Attention Merchants, which Ben Tarnoff reviews as, “less a history of advertising than how this enclosure happened,” or, how the internet went from public to private. (Despite the internet’s initial introduction to offices as a private good for expensive, company-owned computers, the widespread adoption of and dependence on the internet quickly turns it into a commons.)

“Enclosure” is an important word because it gets at the heart of the internet’s dominant genesis story. The world wide web is open source when it’s released in ’93 because it was inspired by the groovy ‘60s, a time of peace and love and public funding. This cybernetic commons gets tragically enclosed by capitalist interest. 

It’s a nice story about the internet, but it’s not the only one.


II. There Was Never a Commons

Yasha Levine uncovers a hidden strand of internet history in his book Surveillance Valley (excerpted in The Baffler).

“The Internet came out of [the U.S. military’s] effort: an attempt to build computer systems that could collect and share intelligence, watch the world in real time, and study and analyze people and political movements with the ultimate goal of predicting and preventing social upheaval. Some even dreamed of creating a sort of early warning radar for human societies: a networked computer system that watched for social and political threats and intercepted them in much the same way that traditional radar did for hostile aircraft. In other words, the Internet was hardwired to be a surveillance tool from the start.”

For Levine, the internet was never a commons; the internet was never enclosed. It is the enclosure.

Levine’s research shows that this was once popular opinion. Harvard and MIT students protested the invention of the internet as early as ‘69 for its potential use by government agencies or businesses for tracking citizens. “[Protesters] saw this computer network as the start of a hybrid private-public system of surveillance and control,” Levine writes. “‘Computerized people-manipulation’ they called it—and warned that it would be used to spy on Americans and wage war on progressive political movements.” Levine adds, “They understood this technology better than we do today.”

This characterization of the internet does away with black and white notions of public and private sectors. The internet is not born as a groovy public good and then captured by evil corporations, for Levine. It is always a private weapon sold falsely as a “public” utility–air quotes in bold, as the internet is still a consumer good despite its absolute necessity for participation in the American public. There’s no appreciable difference between the state and the corporations driving the private market; the internet has conflated the two entirely by privatizing “public” space. This is the goal of the internet, really, to permanently rest the public in between air quotes, to turn any reality of public commons into digital, disembodied gesture.

While this conflation sounds like conspiracy in the mouths of ‘60s protestors, today we are intimately familiar with “a hybrid private-public system” surveilling and controlling us. It is not shocking for me to read Levine’s revelations about Amazon and Google’s military contracts, that Google is tied up in the NSA, that the whole technocracy is in bed with the American government even as the American government shyly pretends to investigate their various monopolies. It is a running joke on the internet that each of us has an FBI agent watching through our laptop camera; the joke riffs on this sentiment: I don’t mind being surveilled because I like the attention, and attention here is in air quotes too, implying a reciprocal human relationship where there is only viewership. 

It’s a bleak but well-researched take. And perhaps Levine is a crank. But his crankiness is remarkably similar in substance to a number of other thinkers. One of them even killed for the cause. 


III. The Tragedy of the Revolution

Ted Kaczynski went to Harvard and murdered three people; he’s described on the FBI website as a “twisted genius.” He went down as the Unabomber years after his attacks on university professors and airline executives (aka “un” + “a” + “bomber”), caught for his most vulnerable act: blackmailing The New York Times into publishing his manifesto. 

The thesis of The Unabomber Manifesto: Industrial Society and Its Futures is that the Industrial Revolution was a total dud. Developing technology further will inevitably lead to curbed individual freedom and heightened surveillance (and with this surveillance, mind control). Nature is the only perfect system. Needless to say, Kaczynski returned to nature, moving in ‘71 to a cabin so small the FBI fit it neatly on a truck bed when they hauled the whole thing in for evidence.

Kaczynski is the subject of Lutz Dammbeck’s 2003 film The Net, which I enjoyed so thoroughly I am about to spoil it for you in its entirety. 

The Net takes Kaczynski’s ideas seriously, which was a radical thing to do in 2003, so soon after the Unambomber had been culturally metabolized as a lunatic. But in his investigation of the internet’s history, Dammbeck finds that a lot of these ideas hold water.

The setting was post-WWII. America was the new world superpower, traumatized and desperate to inoculate the world from authoritarianism. The world’s greatest scientists across disciplines gathered at the Macy conferences between 1944 and 1953 to figure out how to accomplish this. One serious consideration was mind control. Remember, cybernetics is all the rage at this moment, so humans are looking particularly reprogrammable. What would humans be reprogrammed to do? How would they be transformed into properly diverse, post-national members of society? 

This is exactly what Henry A. Murray, co-founder of Dep for Social Relations at Harvard attempted to discover in 1958, when he tested 20 Harvard men to measure their behavior under different kinds of extreme psychological stress. Murray believed that, “The United States is the abstraction of ONE WORLD which we are on the verge of creating.” He would record the students’ reactions in hopes of replicating these responses in less-Harvardian stock; the purpose of the experiment was to build a psychological profile of the perfect global citizen. Each participant received a nickname for research purposes. Ted Kaczysnki’s was “LAWFUL.” 

Murray filmed all of his experiments. All of these films have disappeared.

Still, even Kaczynski’s legal defense writes him off as a schizophrenic rambling about mind control and machines. Multiple interviewees get upset with Dammbeck when he poses the Unabomber’s theories in earnest–including David Gelernter, who lost his right hand and sustained nerve damage from one of the Unabomber’s attacks in ‘93. 

Gelernter is a computer science professor at Yale. He discusses his most recent book, Mirror Worlds, with Dammbeck. The premise is: soon everything will have its mirror in software. These mirrors will function as our public face, because they will be easier to understand and access, but we risk replicating our flaws in these software “mirrors.” 

This wouldn’t take long to manifest, but it would not quite manifest as Gelernter predicted. Rather than replicate our numerous worlds into mirrors, the internet would replicate our worlds into one mirror world; the first step to becoming a global citizen was becoming a citizen of the internet.


IV. Second Nature

In the new VC-funded technocracy, social media reigns. From the beginning, social media capitalizes on the founding narrative of the internet as commons. (Facebook is connecting the world! Twitter played a formative role in the Arab Spring! Instagram, well.)

Earlier forms of social media are more anonymous, as computers aren’t universal, so you aren’t expected to interact on the internet the way you’d comport yourself in public IRL. As it turns out, the internet is a new kind of commons: an anonymous public where people can share their most intimate thoughts with others and retain their local IRL reputation. The internet isn’t just a mirror world of reality, it is, in some ways, more real, or at least, more revealing of our personal interiority. 

As computers and smartphones become more affordable, the internet emerges as one mirror world. The anonymity recedes to specific sites and apps, to “finsta” accounts. Everyone is expected to have a firstname lastname profile with a decent photo of their face. Employers google around for potential employees’ social media accounts, if applicants haven’t supplied them already.  

The collapse of public and private sectors produces a collapse in public and private spheres, so selfies taken naked and alone are the public-facing cornerstone of many an influencer’s brand, so journalists must publish a free stream of their thoughts to Twitter to get a shot at professional clips, so even the normiest corporate interviewer is less interested in prior job performance than how one is monetizing their hobbies in their “free time,” and what is free time anymore? I cannot watch more than one episode of television without springing to my feet to do something, and this is a product of the internet too, that all my private pleasures must be public-facing, that my public-facing work must adequately reveal my private interiority to be meaningful

The internet’s seamlessness is sold as second nature: the second perfect system that houses and feeds its users in self-sustaining harmony, such an intuitive and instant form of making ourselves known to the digital commons, it’s almost like using our body to speak. 

While the technology of the internet, translational tool that makes data packets readable between mainframes, feels like human language or even something purer, like direct relation of our private thoughts, its disembodied usage collapses the very context that makes human communication meaningful. Humans are bodied; this is our common context as a species, what forces us to experience the world spatially and temporally, and what ultimately allows us to recognize shared selfhood. 

This is why it is impossible to throw hands at your racist uncle in a Facebook comment section. Social media cannot facilitate the kind of generous conversation that changes minds and builds mutual understanding. We actually need context, particularly the context of our bodies, to learn and grow in durable, significant ways. Social media lets us assert ourselves ‘til the cows come home, but taking turns publishing your thoughts is not the same thing as a conversation, even though it can feel like one. 

The internet is a Western, imperial project not only historically but philosophically. It is Descartes’ wet dream, the mind/body divide obliterated by our shared, disembodied commons. But it is not really disembodied–this is a masterful illusion produced by the technology. Every click, every longing hover of a cursor, is embodied as data in microscopic electrical cells. Forget futuristic visions of uploading our consciousness to a server; we have already offshored ourselves to data centers in the Pacific. The public-private monster, the Google-NSA-Amazon hydra, already owns our “disembodied” internet selves. 

When Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA in 2013 and no one batted an eye, the student protesters’ crooked prophecy was realized in full. We’d already signed the social contract necessary for participation in the mirror world, even if we hadn’t understood what it entailed. Who cared if the government was stalking our private lives? We were already sharing them of our own volition


V. Commoners

The dominant story of the internet pilfers the Tragedy of the Commons, an essay on English land enclosure published by biologist Garret Hardin in 1968 whose title has since been repurposed to describe the general phenomenon of privatizing public space. 

But Hardin did not invent the phrase. His essay references a pamphlet by a British economist from 1833–right around the completion of the Industrial Revolution. The essay is about the commons, the name for public land anyone could use to sustain their livelihood. Because this dude is an economist, aka operating in a discipline with a keystone buy-in that individuals act selfishly, he explains how natural self-interest eventually ruins the commons. Everyone wants to fatten their cow, so they leave no grass for their neighbors. The commons is a dub; the only worthy system for distributing resources is the private market.

The gag is: the private market actually doesn’t distribute resources better than the public commons, which sustains communities and publics in ways businesses fundamentally cannot. Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in 2009 for documenting this exact phenomenon, a truth British peasants and countless other communities knew for centuries. 

As it turns out, there’s something special about public space. Not only does its grass fatten our cows, it allows people to represent themselves within and as part of an embodied public. Back in ole England, commoners (aka, users of the commons) had to be a part of this public to produce their food; being part of the public and living were one in the same, and it engendered a collective vision of selfhood that has since been lost to individualistic self-interest. 

In the end, the internet realized the exact authoritarian future it was invented to prevent. It gave us all the individual freedom we could want at the expense of an embodied public; the only way to fight its current line of development is re-membering this public. “Making space” in lived space and time, and not in Instagram caption.

Trump’s presidency re-illuminated the threat of authoritarianism as a threat against our individual freedoms. Trump wanted to make America one homogenous, White supremacist “great,” and we weren’t gonna take it! We resisted!

But power structures learn and adapt with time. Authoritarianism no longer looks like Hitler, or Donald Trump, or Joe Biden. It doesn’t look like a bad decision: like choosing to publish this essay to WordPress or choosing to skirt government surveillance by handwriting these words onto dozens of pamphlets and scattering them about the city. Authoritarianism is not the absence of this choice, but my mind made up already, how I will call this decision my own, this data myself, how I have all the individual free will in the world and I have used it to make myself in the image of a machine, my binary logged on a server in Fresno, finally I have become the perfect global citizen. 


Sophie Dillon

Sophie Dillon

she/hers

is still figuring it out.

Back to top