John Merrick is the editor of Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future, on sale June 14 and a selection in our Book Club. See our spring/summer book club selections.
It seems difficult today to imagine that once the internet in all its strange, often bland, ubiquity was hailed as offering the potential for a new form of freedom, one that could, perhaps, take us beyond the confines of the capitalist order. Those days are long gone, and that's a good thing. Yet the question of what we, as socialist, do with this thing we collectively spend so much time on remains a difficult one. Many are still beholden to those days of utopian dreaming, where data apparently wanted to be free. Others seem destined to repeat the liberal anti-trust mantra, only radicalised. As if by breaking the monopolies alone could give us the answers we need.
I'd been thinking about these issues for a while and never getting very far with them. Maybe that was because this giant network is so ubiquitous, so everyday and commonplace, that seeing through and beyond it is near impossible. The more time you spend with something, the harder it is to see its contours; and there's few things we spend longer doing than mindlessly browsing the internet.
If there is one thing that Ben Tarnoff's brilliant new book does, though, it's to make the internet strange again. I remember when I received an early draft of the opening sections of the book, Ben warned me that some of it was a bit out there. He wasn't wrong. What other book on the internet could possibly begin with a section called "Among the Eels" that describes a trans-oceanic network of glass cables carrying beams of light at incredible speeds around the globe, racing passed monstrous fish with glowing antennae and giant bulbous eyes? And what other can describe so eloquently and perceptively what we can and must do in order to build an internet that works for people and not profit, and that reminds us that the basis of this great incorporeal space filled with endless data is as much, if not more, a physical body as well?
I first approached Ben after reading a series of essays he wrote in late 2019 that began the process of sketching out a socialist plan for the internet. A couple of those were in publications like Jacobin, others in Logic, the magazine that he co-founded and brilliantly edits with Moira Weigel. While the former offered a series of potential socialist blueprints for the internet, the latter, as Ben wrote at the time, offered "a better story about the internet", a story that was more attuned to what the internet would actually become than either its technophilic boosters and technophobic detractors could offer, one that took into account all that we as Marxists can so often take for granted, like markets, capital and finance. The two, taken together, seemed to offer the first really serious attempt at a properly socialist study of the internet. It is this that Ben has now done so brilliantly with Internet for the People. If you want to know how the internet became a series of giant corporate fiefdoms endlessly competing for your money and your attention, and how we can rebuild it for public good and not financial profit, then read it now.
London, May 2022