Ben Tarnoff Wants an Internet for the People

Ben Tarnoff and his book
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
Ben Tarnoff Wants an Internet for the People
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Ben Tarnoff has a radical idea: unprivatize the Internet. The writer, Logic Magazine co-founder, and tech worker activist joins us to talk about his new book outlining what a truly public Internet would look like, from the fiber optic cables to the social media platforms platforms.

Ben Tarnoff joins us to talk about his book Internet for the People out now on Verso.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey everybody. Welcome back to Reimagining the Internet. I am your host, Ethan Zuckerman. Although today, on a particularly hot July afternoon, I am mostly a sentient puddle sitting on my chair here in very steamy Western Massachusetts. I am having a trans-state dialogue with Ben Tarnoff, who is on the other side of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Ben is a tech worker and organizer who currently works with collective action in tech. He helped found Logic Magazine, a really beautiful and lovely print magazine about technology, which is going through a very exciting ownership transfer right now to become one of the first queer, Black, and Asian tech magazines. He is the author of an excellent new book, Internet for the People: The fight for Our Digital Future, which has just come out on Verso. Ben, welcome.

Ben Tarnoff:

Ethan, thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Oh my gosh. It’s wonderful to have you here. You’ve got this new book that’s out there that is really changing a lot of the key ideas I think most people have, about how the Internet works and how it might work. What was your main reason for taking on this topic and writing this book?

Ben Tarnoff:

Yeah, that’s a good question. I started writing and thinking more systematically about the Internet around 2016, and I think I wanted to do so because that was about the first glimmers of the so-called Techlash. Of course, we didn’t have the term yet, that term kind of develops later, but particularly in the aftermath of the November 2016 election, people were asking more critical questions, at least in the public eye. Of course, activists and scholars had been asking these questions for a while, but in the mainstream conversation, there was a more critical mood that was coalescing.

For me, thinking about where the Internet came from and how it works, and how it came to be the Internet that we have today, was my way into trying to kind of process the Techlash, trying to make sense of it, basically. In terms of my development, it actually begins earlier in the 1990s, where I was a teenager who was really interested in hacking cultures and reading a lot of 2,600 and frack and kind of part of that world, or at least aspiring to be part of that world. I think that gave me, if not a kind of sophisticated scholarly review of things, at least a kind of oppositional feeling, a sense of kind of anti-institutional of that world.

Ethan Zuckerman:

I think that’s one of the attitudes that disappeared in many ways as venture capital took over the Internet. Even in early Wired magazines, which obviously became sort of a celebration of investment and capitalism and the new and the shiny, there was a lot of enthusiasm and respect for this sort of underground hacker culture and sort of to quote William Gibson, the street finds its own uses for things. This sort of idea that technologies might come out and people might put them towards uses that the creators did not intend it, and then it feels like that somehow disappeared as suddenly the web went boom, started making money for everybody. How does the intrusion of business models into this space sort of shape the Internet as we know it today?

Ben Tarnoff:

Yeah, I mean, look. The 90s, when we think about it ideologically, is often characterized as the era of the Californian Ideology, right? The famous term popularized by the British media theorist, Barbara Cameron. It’s a very useful concept and, particularly, what I like about it is that it’s an ideology that is quite unstable. It’s paradoxical. It’s a mashup of different traditions, right? Let’s say we could gloss it as a kind of hippie Reaganism. What that means is that there are different threads one can follow in it. It does have some of the legacies of the counterculture. It has a kind of communitarian, anti-institutional legacy of the 60s and 70s that, of course, is then fused with a free market triumphalism kind of celebration of entrepreneurial initiative and so on that enters in the 80s and 90s. And the reason I mention that is because I think that accounts for some of the different conclusions one could draw as a reader, as you say, of the early Wired magazine or as a reader of 2,600, as a reader of Gibson and Stevenson and others.

You could move to more constructive and less constructive political conclusions, let’s say. I say that because I don’t want to rehabilitate that era exactly, but I think these days, now that we’re fully in the Techlash, there’s a tendency to see the 90s somewhat reductively, as an era of pure techno-libertarianism, as kind of a one-sided caricature of someone like Barlow. Whereas, it was a more, as you know, complicated picture that could lead to, in some cases, some interesting places.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Indeed. And Barlow, may he rest in peace, was a more complicated and multi-faceted individual than he tends to get credit for, even as much as a lot of us enjoy beating up on the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. We were lucky enough to have Fred Turner on the show a few episodes back and, of course, his magisterial from counterculture to cyberculture tells a lot of this story. Fred is now sort of trying to update this with trying to understand what’s happened to his beloved Silicon Valley in the current moment, and how the inequalities sort of unearthed by all of this have transformed the physical and the popular landscape.

Part of what I really love about this book, Ben, is that it’s got a very straightforward diagnosis for what you think has gone wrong, and I’m going to quote from the excerpt that you published as an op-ed in the New York Times recently. “The Internet has broken because the Internet is a business. While the issues are various and complex, they are inextricable from the fact that the Internet is owned by private firms and is run for profit. Regulating markets or making them more competitive won’t touch the deeper problem, which is the market itself.” That’s big. Unpack that for us. What is wrong about bringing together the Internet, which has always had this commercial component to it, at least from the 1990s, and lightly regulated or unregulated markets? What is it about the market that brings us to some of the crises that we’re facing with the Techlash and after?

Ben Tarnoff:

Well, this is, in part, my response to some of the contemporary reform currents that have gathered steam around the Internet. We now have a fairly robust anti-monopoly movement in this country. There’s a couple of Senate bills that have been voted out of committee. President Biden has appointed a number of anti-monopoly folks to keep positions within his administration. There’s also, of course, just a broader regulatory conversation, which is inspired in part by the Europeans, but about things like data protection, privacy, even the rights of app-based workers, like Uber drivers. In the book, and in the New York Times excerpt, I try to position myself as having some sympathy, and even critical support, for these different currents. I think we need more regulation and anti-monopoly has a role to play, but where I part ways with the Internet reformers, as I call them, is in our diagnosis of the problem. And you summarized it with that excerpt, which is, to my mind, the problem is not that markets are excessively consolidated or under-regulated. The problem is the market itself.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So if I’m reading you right on this, first of all, you’re sort of saying that some of the solutions that are being proposed at the moment, which can seem a little facile, right, “Let’s just break up Meta into Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram,” probably aren’t the solutions that we need. Having slightly less powerful Internet hegemons doesn’t get us away from the fact that the dominant model for most of these services is based around a very particular vision of advertising surveillance, marketized attention. But in some ways, you really want to get bigger than this. You want to go back to some ideas that were kicking around in the early 1990s. So for instance, an idea from Senator Daniel Inouye in 1994 of a public lane on the information super highway, why is that now almost 30-year-old idea so important for us to know about and sort of reconsider 28 years later?

Ben Tarnoff:

Well, it’s important to know that there was nothing natural or inevitable about the course of the Internet’s development, that it was essentially a set of political choices. In other words, there is nothing in the technical composition of the Internet that prescribes its present form, its political economy in particular. And part of the purpose of telling the history of the Internet is to show the contingency involved, and to show that there were different paths that the Internet could have taken. And indeed, different proposals, like the one put forward by Senator Daniel Inouye for a so-called public lane on the information super highway, that could have transformed what the Internet became.

Now, the reason that these proposals didn’t go anywhere wasn’t because the ideas weren’t good. The ideas were often quite creative and quite compelling. It was because there was no social movement that was capable of overcoming the power of the private sector, in this case, in Inouye’s case, the telecom lobby. And that has been the constant throughout the history of the Internet. We’ve had good ideas for what some alternative paths might look like, but we haven’t had the social movement capable of making those ideas active.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And we’ve had really interesting support sometimes from progressive foundations, nonprofit actors. I watched my friend, Jenny Toomey, at the Ford Foundation work very, very hard to try to build common ground between racial equity and racial justice forces, and net neutrality forces, on a set of issues that I think a lot of people, at first, had difficulty seeing the links between, where the links became much, much clearer over long periods of time. But I think you’re certainly right, that even at the moment of Techlash, it’s hard to see a movement sort of coming out. You seem to have a possible rallying cry for that movement with deprivatization. What is deprivatization and what would it take for us to embrace that as an emergent movement?

Ben Tarnoff:

Well, deprivatization aims for an Internet where people and not profit rule. Where instead of the goal being making markets work better, the goal would be to make markets matter less, to shrink the space of the market, to diminish the power of the profit motive, and to create spaces that can genuinely encode democratic practices. Now that sounds a bit abstract, but to give you a concrete example, there are more than 900 community networks all around the United States, and these are either publicly-owned, broadband networks, such as those that are owned by municipality, or cooperatively-owned networks that are owned by the users themselves. These networks tend to offer better service at lower cost than corporate counterparts, like Verizon. They’re able to prioritize social ends, like universal connectivity, over profit maximization and enriching investors. And they are also able to bring community members into spaces where they have an opportunity to participate in decisions about how infrastructure is going to be deployed. So to my mind, at the level of the pipes, at least, at the level of the physical infrastructure of the Internet, community networks are a possible model for deprivatization.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Susan Crawford has written brilliantly about community broadband. She’s documented all these different ways that communities, particularly in cases led by local governments, have ended up building networks that are vastly superior to the forms of broadband made available from the commercial sector. I think many of us still live in places where there is a local broadband monopoly or duopoly at best, and we don’t have access to these things. Why are American communities, American cities so afraid of getting in there and sort of building these broadband collectives, and can communities take action by themselves to make these infrastructures possible?

Ben Tarnoff:

Well, one important reason are obstacles that have been erected at the state level. I mean, there are more than a dozen states across the country where telecom lobbyists have secured legislation that restricts or forbids municipal ownership of broadband networks. There have been some successes in getting some of these laws repealed, Washington state is a recent example. But the telecom lobby is quite powerful, and it’s interesting. I think this is an interesting point to dwell on, which is why are the likes of Verizon Comcast, AT&T, Charter, these massive, massive companies, so worried about these little community networks? What they’re worried about is the power of a good example. They’re worried about the demonstration effect. They’re worried that when people see that a municipally-owned or a cooperatively-owned broadband network can provide much better service at lower cost and enable democratic input into how the system runs, they’re terrified that people’s political imagination could expand. Their sense of what’s possible could expand.

The poster boy for a municipal broadband in the United States is certainly the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and this is a story that’s been told in many places, but I think we need to continue to celebrate it. This was a broadband network that became available because the city built a so-called smart grid, which is it embedded sensors throughout its electricity network, in order to better detect outages and improve efficiency. They realized that in the course of weighing the fiber-optic cable that is required to wire up all these sensors, they also created the possibility of providing broadband to people.

EPB, which is a city-owned company, which actually dates from the new deal era as part of that new deal initiative for rural electrification. Chattanooga, at the time, being one of the poorest parts of the country. EPB, in 2010, started to offer, what was then, the fastest residential speeds in the country to Chattanooga residents. And in the years since, the Gig, as it’s called, has become one of the most popular ISPs in the country actually, and a real shining example of what’s possible with municipal broadband. So that’s the one that is often invoked, but I think with good reason. I think we should point to the Gig as probably the most visible success of the community network model so far.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So one of the arguments that you’re making is that if we understand these successes better, we can see that the current state of the Internet, both the infrastructure and the platforms on top of it, is contingent, that it’s based on a set of decisions that in a broad sense, we, as a public, have made, but in many cases, lobbyists, commercial interests, others have made on our behalf to give us an Internet that works in a particular way. Part of what I see you trying to do with this book is to sort of shatter the sense of inevitability and get people to imagine other futures. That excerpt that you put in the Times sort of goes on to invite people to imagine a very different social media future. Tell us about that future that we should be imagining.

Ben Tarnoff:

It’s funny because that was the adapted portion of the excerpt, which is to say that doesn’t actually appear in the book, but the editors said, “Look, we really want you to help the reader imagine what you want. What are you asking for? What does this future look like?” And I had some trepidation there because I don’t want to be too prescriptive, and I’m not a science fiction writer, although I read science fiction. I’m not sure how much I trust myself to draw a compelling vision of the future. But nonetheless, even as a provisional sketch, I think it’s useful because people do need something to hold onto. And in the piece, I think I invite the reader to imagine a world in which they have a local community network, which is enabling them to get online. They are, through that network, able to access a social media community that is run by their local public library. And in this community, librarians act as, say, caretakers of the informational ecosystem.

Of course, librarians, as we know, are the first information workers. They’re experts at classifying curating contextualizing information, and these are the functions that are so sorely needed in our social media spaces, in which corporate social media degrades so greatly. I mean, if you think about the level of decontextualization that occurs within the big social media spaces. So in other words, you’re sitting at your computer, you’ve logged into your social media community managed by your local library. You’re getting into some type of conversation about an upcoming municipal election. One of the aspects of this social media community is that much of the content that circulates within it comes from public media sources. So these are high-quality, reliable, locally sourced forms of information that are circulating within the network.

And critically, this is a locally-based social media community, which means that the content moderation policies are made democratically through a collective, decision-making process that is place-based, that occurs through in-person, democratic deliberation. However, that doesn’t mean the community is isolated. It’s able to interconnect, on open standards, the interoperability principle that the Internet itself runs on, or popular applications like email run on, with other social media communities all around the country and all around the world. So its reach is global, but it’s governance is local.

Ethan Zuckerman:

That sounds pretty great. It also sounds, probably, familiar to some regular listeners on the show because it has a lot of interaction with many of the ideas that we’ve sort of showcased here and that we showcase over at Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure. It also sounds like a really big change, and big changes are often very hard to pull off. I’m sort of channeling my inner Jessamyn West, the brilliant Internet librarian, who is often fond of reminding me that because libraries are one of the last, true public spaces in American society, they are often the most contentious spaces in American society, and librarians are probably the most drained and overtaxed people in American society. Of course, part of these underfunded institutions, being that sort of last vest of public space, is that they also become the locus for protest, right?

That’s why the Proud Boys are going after Drag Queen Story Hour. It’s not Drag Queen Story Hour per se. It’s this notion of this is a space in which a public battle, a public protest, a public incident, is possible, and so it takes some of our most vulnerable and most stressed institutions and puts them into the front lines of possible battles and visions for the future. I want to ask you to get really into the big critique of all of this. And, for me, where that sort of big critique, that sense of how you would change society as a whole … You had a marvelous piece in your magazine, in Logic Magazine, where you talk about the new Manchester in an essay where you talk about moving from a conceptual Manchester to a conceptual Barcelona. From a factory in which we are all working to support Facebook or Twitter or everyone else, to a space where we are occupying those sites of construction and production. Walk us through that argument and the ways in which it underlays some of your thinking on this current book.

Ben Tarnoff:

Well, the starting point for that piece is the observation, which is drawn from the work of Marx and Engels, primarily, that one of the things that capitalism does is it makes production more social, and one of the ways to visualize that is the factory, the factory model originating in its classic form in Manchester. And if you think about a factory, of course, it brings hundreds or thousands, tens of thousands of workers together under the same roof, coordinates them in a particular division of labor, arranges them around machines, and rather than working as individual craftsmen or in small circles of craft producers, they are working as a kind of single, social machine within this new industrial setting.

What we call tech is an intensification of this dynamic of capitalism, which is to say it makes production even more social. In the piece, I talk about this example of how facial recognition software using, of course, machine learning has been developed from data sets that have been available on the Internet through sites like Flickr or through the footage of webcams that have been planted in cafes back when people thought that was cool. And so if you, for instance, wandered into a particular cafe in San Francisco in the year 2002, there’s a good chance that your face has been used to train a machine learning model that is used to develop facial recognition software that the Chinese government is using to repress Uighurs in Xinjiang. That is a chain of causal links that is only possible in our present form of capitalism, but is an intensification of a dynamic that is fundamental to the capitalist reorganization of production.

Ethan Zuckerman:

You have this lovely example in the essay of the workers in the Manchester factory might be able to look at the yarn or the cloth coming out of the factory and say, “I made that,” except, it would never actually be you making that. It would actually be you and the thousand other coworkers and the system that made the power looms possible, and so on and so forth. We collectively made that. The one person who actually does say, “I made that,” is the factory owner. It’s the capitalist who sort of set up the system. Fast forwarding to Facebook, fast forwarding to Facebook’s remarkable facial recognition and tagging system, which is built on the fact that many of the two billion of us who use that platform have tagged our friends in the system. We’ve built that, but in a same sense, the only person who can reasonably say they’ve built that is Mark Zuckerberg. Only in this case, rather than being a few thousand, it’s now at the level of billions. How does the Barcelona model get us out of the new Manchester?

Ben Tarnoff:

The question for Marxists, for a long time, has always been, how does one resolve the contradiction between the socialization of production with private ownership? Obviously, the solution is simply to socialize ownership, but what does that actually mean? There have been different answers to this question. Obviously on the classic Soviet model, what this means is public ownership of the entire economy. I point to another model, which is the tradition of the Spanish anarchists during the Spanish Civil War and the social world that they created in Barcelona, which was rooted in the principle of self-managed enterprises of worker ownership of autonomy. I’m not precisely an anarchist, but I think, broadly, this is a tradition that really appeals to me. It also poses this question of social ownership in a more open-ended and more experimental, more heterogeneous way, which appeals to me. I don’t, I think, go very far in answering this question, but pose it as what would be the Barcelona for what we call tech? How do we resolve the contradiction?

Ethan Zuckerman:

It’s hard to know how we would go about occupying Facebook, even if we were to physically occupy it, there would be a lot of dismantling that would have to be done to try to build it in a different way. One idea you experiment with in your book is, in many ways, sort of an abolitionist stance, this sort of idea of abolishing some of the platforms and some of the models that we become very familiar with. What are the first steps in an abolitionist movement, and is that the right way to characterize what you’re [inaudible].

Ben Tarnoff:

Well, I certainly draw inspiration from the police and prison abolition movement, from the work of figures like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. And in particular, I like their point that failures of imagination are also political failures. When a thinker like Davis looks at the history of prison reform, it’s precisely the inability of people to think beyond the boundaries of the prison form that dooms them to keep repeating its logic in new ways. So when we think about what’s often called e-carceration, the proliferation of electronic monitoring, on the one hand, of course, you’re getting people out of prison, which is great. On the other hand, the prison is now everywhere.

So failures of imagination, in other words, have a very high cost. They can doom us to enter this loop where we just keep repeating the same logic over and over, and I use that as a point of departure because I think it’s an important thing to keep in mind as we approach the monolithic-walled gardens like Facebook. To my mind, the point is not simply to replace Facebook with a better Facebook, a nationalized Facebook, a cooperativized Facebook, a socialized Facebook, to reach back to our Barcelona discussion. These are simply not enough if we’re going to get to the root of the problem. So we need more imagination, but what do we mean by that concretely? I don’t mean that we all need to sit in our room alone and have some big thoughts, although, that’s always a good idea. But rather, we need to direct public investment to creating spaces of collective, embodied imagination.

I point in the book to the example of the Labour Party-led government in London in the 1980s, in which they created a handful of these so-called technology networks, and these were spaces, a bit like hacker spaces or maker spaces today, where ordinary people from the local community could come in, get connected with machine tools, with technical expertise, and create technologies that made their lives better. Interestingly, a lot of energy efficiency technologies came out of these technology networks. I point to that for inspiration because I think it’s a very interesting model for how to make this type of imagination, this type of imaginate work that we need to do to remake the Internet, into actually something concrete, into something embodied, collective, that requires material resources behind it. But to my mind, that’s the goal, ultimately. That if we want to create an Internet for the people, an Internet in which people have the opportunity to participate in the decisions that affect them, we need to blur the line between users and creators. We need to give people the resources, the opportunity, to build the Internet they want.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It sounds like Logic Magazine, which you helped build, is going through its own process of reimagination and reinvention right now. Tell us a little bit about what’s going on there and what you’re hoping for.

Ben Tarnoff:

Yeah, so we launched Logic, our first issue, in early 2017. It’s been a huge part of my life over the past five years, and I think we’ve created something I’m really proud of, something far in excess of what we ever expected to do. With little magazines in particular, they have to keep evolving in order to remain relevant. Magazines of that kind are products of a particular moment, a particular milieu, and the conversation around technology and our kind of place in it has changed a lot. We’ve been talking about the Techlash. The Techlash was kind of just barely coming together when we launched, and now we’re at the Baroque phase of the Techlash. We’re kind of at the saturation point, really.

We have tried over the years to kind of continue to subtly reposition ourselves so that we would still have something to say, but I think we reached a point where we felt that, creatively, we needed a new paradigm. We needed to do something more radical in order to ensure that the project could continue, and could continue in a way that we all felt happy with, we all felt proud of.

Ethan Zuckerman:

What’s that vision look like? It’s moving into the leadership of some of the other co-creators of the magazine.

Ben Tarnoff:

Yes, so the incoming directors of the magazine will be Khadijah Abdurahman, who edited our Beacons issue, which was a wonderfully creative issue that draws on the Black radical tradition, that draws on abolitionism to think through technology, as well as Xiaowei Wang, who has been our creative director. So Khadijah and Xiaowei are going to put together a new magazine, which has some continuities with some of the commitments of Logic in its first five years, but will also, I think, chart a new and really interesting path forward.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Well, congratulations on this exciting new future for Logic Magazine. Congratulations on the new book, it’s called Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future. It’s out now on Verso. Ben Tarnoff, this has just been a pleasure. Thank you so much for coming and talking with us.

Ben Tarnoff:

Thanks so much, Ethan. I really enjoyed it.