History teaches us that social movements happen when people from different groups cease to see each other as fundamentally different and instead begin to include each other in their sense of shared experience and culture. As the Internet matures, it is developing its own shared culture, open to anyone, distinct from the analog world, and increasingly important enough to people that they are willing to defend it when it’s threatened.
The last few years have shown the emergence of a new class of global power. This is the power of spontaneous, citizen-led, self-organized movements. From the campaigns that come together to influence shifts in business policy on Change.org to the digital support networks that find ways to aid on-the-ground Middle Eastern revolutionaries to the dystopian post-modern hacktivism of Anonymous, the global citizenry of the web is flexing its collective muscle to show that groups of people, unconstrained by the boundaries of physical location, can rapidly become self-organized armies.
In some cases, the Internet is just a tactical tool – simply enabling a better, more efficient, more targeted aggregation of sentiment that would still exist otherwise. But increasingly, the activism on the internet – most notably the protests against the SOPA and PIPA legislation – reflect not just the tactical opportunities, but also the distinct values of internet culture.
What’s interesting about this type of activism is that, for all its seriousness and profound ambition, it is in many ways related to a picture of a cat that wonders if it might have some cheeseburger.
One of the most important and persistent questions in philosophy is whether people share a common “human nature.” Is there something which connects us not on a cultural level but a human level? The question has resonated so strongly because of how much the answer impacts the way we consider and treat people different than us.
The great philosophers of ancient Greece such as Aristotle believed that there was a core human nature, while the modern era has been somewhat less kind to the idea that of external phenomena that have deterministic impact on our actions. Famous French existentialist Jean Paul-Sarte denied human nature out of hand, insisting that we are defined entirely by our actions.
Importantly, however, Sartre believed in the notion of a fundamental human condition. This condition was simply that, to quote Dickens, we are all “fellow travelers to the grave.” In a world in which the only inescapable fact is the fact of our impermanence, Sartre thought – if not for the sake of human nature but for the sake of this shared condition – being good to each other was probably a good way of being.
The experience of otherness versus shared culture and condition have a long history outside of philosophical discourse, as well.
Long before the invention of the notion of “human rights,” empires bound the political, economic, and military destinies of different peoples together under common banners. The history of empire – from the Romans to the Umayyads to the Mongols to the Ottomans and up into the modern era – suggests that these collectives are successful only when they allow for rich cultural, linguistic, and economic blending – they crumble and fall when they try to impose a dominant cultural by force.
Still, if successful empires required a tolerance of difference, it was not until the Enlightenment era that societies in the west began to appreciate the idea that diversity was not something to be tolerated, but embraced.
In the late 1800s – an era in which historian Seymour Drescher wrote that “freedom and not slavery was the peculiar institution” – a movement was born that arguably represented the first time in history that people organized on mass for a group of people different than themselves.
Between 1787-1807, Britain went from the greatest slave trading nation in the world to the first colonial power to ban the trade, and soon thereafter, the first global policeman against the trade. This radical shift was accomplished through the efforts of a rag tag band of revolutionaries – from Quakers who believed that, if God viewed all men as equal, it was unfathomable for men to hold each other as unequal, to the freed slaves who used the tools of the written word usually denied them to tell their story without interlocution, to the work-age men who saw in slavery the fear they felt of being press-ganged into naval service without choice. The common thread across these groups of abolitionists was their denial of the fundamental otherness of slaves, and their inclusion of them as humans experiencing a shared condition.
The next century saw a massive growth in consciousness not simply of the notion of human rights, but in the lived experience of cultural otherness. The mid-19th century saw a boon in the popularity of in travel narratives, and few were so popular as Mark Twain’s “The Innocents Abroad,” (his best-selling book during his lifetime). In it, he wrote “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
In the mid-20th century, after two wars in which the world had been devastated beyond measure, an entirely new system of global institutions was designed to increase the surface area of contact between different cultures, intending to prevent the world from ever again falling into global conflict. Many of these institutions – such as the Peace Corps – were designed explicitly to put people into contact with living experiences completely different than their own.
As the Cold War ended, these sorts of experiences became significantly more available. For more than 20 years, college study abroad has been on the rise – an acceleration that has increased since September 11th. More and more, students are not just going abroad to drink in Australia, but are exploring fundamentally different cultural experiences. For Millennials, this offline exploration mirrors the rise of a digital mesh that is connecting the generation across national, cultural, and linguistic barriers.
The Internet is the closest thing to a global architecture of shared human experience that the world has ever seen. Through it, information travels across borders and boundaries of nation, race, language, culture, and religion in nanoseconds creating the greatest permutation of cultural blending in history in the process.
As the Internet has grown, its culture has evolved outside of the particular constraints of any one its multifarious constituencies. This culture involves values like openness, creativity and meritocracy. It involves celebrity such as Youtube sensations and musical performers that would otherwise never have been discovered. It involves an economy that shifts rapidly but is anchored in innovation. And it involves a whole range of quirks.
Memes are one of the most enduring and important artifacts of Internet culture. From “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” that exploded in the late 1990s to the I Can Has Cheezburger cat that launched millions of imitators, to a recent series of hilarious photos on the importance of grammar (see: the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma!” and “Let’s eat Grandma!”). These memes not only entertain, but actually propagate a culture that belongs to a community outside those we define in the analog world.
Recently, this community has found itself threatened. The lobbies of old media actors and telecommunication providers have risen to try to reassert control over the way content is delivered and consumed, and for the first time, the distinct culture of the Internet has felt mortally threatened. The SOPA/PIPA protests of the past weeks were remarkable not just because of their spread and reach, but because it was the first time the internet rose up to defend itself and its unique way of life.
Indeed, in some ways, these protests represent the modern inverse of the British abolitionist movement. If the task of the abolitionists was to make people recognize slaves as participating in the same human condition as themselves, the task of those advocating to preserve the culture and values of the unregulated internet is to convince people that they are, themselves, an inextricable part of this culture.
This matters, deeply. Because for all of its challenges and contradictions – from predators to identity theives to its capacity to isolate opinions by allowing people to surround themselves solely with those they agree with – the shared condition of Internet culture is one in which people are free to collaborate and argue, express and remix ideas, and ultimately reinvent the world with every initiative and every startup. The constraints of their ability to participate are not race or gender or nation but simply connective access. In short, the internet represents the greatest opportunity to liberate people’s talent and capacity, regardless of their birth or background, that the world has ever known.
The new generation of Internet activism, where people are fighting for the Internet culture itself, is a recognition that that opportunity is worth fighting for.