Tag Archives: cyberlibertarianism

Julian Assange: Cyber-Libertarian or Cyber-Anarchist?


Julian Assange, the notorious founder and director of WikiLeaks, is many things to many people: hero, terrorist, figurehead, megalomaniac. What is it about Assange that makes him both so resonant and so divisive in our culture? What, exactly, does Assange stand for? In this post, I explore two possible frameworks for understanding Assange and, more broadly, the WikiLeaks agenda. These frameworks are: cyber-libertarianism and cyber-anarchism.

First, of course, we have to define these two terms. Cyber-libertarianism is a well-established political ideology that has its roots equally in the Internet’s early hacker culture and in American libertarianism. From hacker culture, it inherited a general antagonism to any form of regulation, censorship, or other barrier that might stand in the way of “free” (i.e., unhindered) access of the World Wide Web. From American libertarianism it inherited a general belief that voluntary associations are more effective in promoting freedom than government (the US Libertarian Party‘s motto is “maximum freedom, minimum government”). American libertarianism is distinct from other incarnations of libertarianism in that tends to celebrate the market and private business over co-opts or other modes of collective organization. In this sense, American libertarianism is deeply pro-capitalist. Thus, when we hear the slogan “information wants to be” that is widely associated with cyber-libertarianism, we should not read it as meaning  gratis (i.e., zero price); rather, we should read it as meaning libre (without obstacles or restrictions). This is important because the latter interpretation is compatible with free market economics, unlike the former.

Cyber-anarchism is a far less widely used term. In practice, commentators often fail to distinguish between cyber-anarchism and cyber-libertarianism. However, there are subtle distinctions between the two. Anarchism aims at the abolition of hierarchy. Like libertarians, anarchists have a strong skepticism of government, particularly government’s exclusive claim to use force against other actors. Yet, while libertarians tend to focus on the market as a mechanism for rewarding individual achievement, anarchists tend to see it as means for perpetuating inequality. Thus, cyber-anarchists tend to be as much against private consolidation of Internet infrastructure as they are against government interference. While cyber-libertarians have, historically, viewed the Internet as an unregulated space where good ideas and the most clever entrepreneurs are free to rise to the top, cyber-anarchists see the Internet as a means of working around and, ultimately, tearing down old hierarchies. Thus, what differentiates cyber-anarchist from cyber-libertarians, then, is that cyber-libertarians embrace fluid, meritocratic hierarchies (which are believed to be best served by markets), while anarchists are distrustful of all hierarchies. This would explain while libertarians tend to organize into conventional political parties, while the notion of an anarchist party seems almost oxymoronic. Another way to understand this difference is in how each group defines freedom: Freedom for libertarians is freedom to individually prosper, while freedom for anarchists is freedom from systemic inequalities. (more…)

Theorizing Tron: Legacy

Yes, even a CGI-filled big-budget glowing Disney spectacle can provide opportunity for theorization. Of the recent Internet-themed blockbusters – namely, Avatar (2009); The Social Network (2010) – Tron: Legacy (2010) best captures the essence of this blog: that the digital and the physical are enmeshed together into an augmented reality.

This seems surprising given that the film is premised on the existence of a separate digital world. Indeed, the first Tron (1982) is all about a strict physical-digital dualism and the sequel plays on the same theme: physical person gets trapped in a digital world and attempts to escape. However, Tron: Legacy explores the overlapping of the physical and digital. The story goes that Flynn, the hero from the 1982 film, develops a digital world that does not have the imperfections of its physical counterpart. His grand vision was to gloriously move humanity online. Simultaneously, the beings in the digital world want to export their perfection out of the digital world and to colonize the offline world, removing all of its imperfections (i.e., us). Flynn comes to realize that enforced perfection (read: Nazism) is unwanted. Instead of a highly controlled and orderly universe, what has to be appreciated is what emerges out of chaos. And it is here that the film makes at least two theoretical statements that are well ahead of most movies and popular conceptions of the digital.

First is the tension between (more…)

WikiLeaks and our Liquid Modernity

Zygmunt Bauman has famously conceptualized modern society as increasingly “liquid.” Information, objects, people and even places can more easily flow around time and space. Old “solid” structures are melting away in favor of faster and more nimble fluids. I’ve previously described how capitalism in the West has become more liquid by moving out of “solid” brick-and-mortar factories making “heavy” manufacturing goods and into a lighter, perhaps even “weightless,” form of capitalism surrounding informational products. The point of this post is that as information becomes increasingly liquid, it leaks.

WikiLeaks is a prime example of this. Note that the logo is literally a liquid world. While the leaking of classified documents is not new (think: the Pentagon Papers), the magnitude of what is being released is unprecedented. The leaked war-logs from Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be shocking. The most current leaks surround US diplomacy. We learned that the Saudi’s favored bombing Iran, China seems to be turning on North Korea, the Pentagon targeted refugee camps for bombing and so on. And none of this would have happened without the great liquefiers: digitality and Internet. (more…)

Should Information Always be Free?

The way in which information is shared in the digital age is headlining the news around many different issues. WikiLeaks is distributing thousands of classified State Department documents; the FFC Chairman is attempting to preserve net neutrality (i.e., the dictum that Internet service providers cannot limit the rate that users access different kinds of legal content); Facebook users are sharing more and more private details of their lives online.  Arguably, the same cultural debate is playing out in all of these cases: Is society best served when all information is free, or are we better off if some information remains private?

Silicon Valley has become a magnet for evangelists of the “information wants to be free” movement, what has come to be known as “cyberlibertarianism.”  Supporters often argue that the free flow of information is fundamental to democracy.  This is, in fact, the justification behind WikiLeaks’ distribution of confidential, proprietary, or otherwise secret information.

However, it is important to note that many of the most high-profile supporters of a transparent society, where information is free, are Internet companies, like Facebook and Google, that seek profit by collecting and sharing information about their users. Alternatively, companies who would benefit from restricting the flow of information (ISPs like, Comcast and Verizon) tend to oppose the principle that information should be free.

Cyberlibertarianism has range of other critics.  Clearly, the government has argued that state interests are threatened by the leaking of information. On a more micro level, many sociologists (including the authors of this post) are concerned that the pressure to constantly share more, and more personal information can be detrimental to individual users of Google, Facebook, and other social-networking sites. (more…)