Internet for the People with Ben Tarnoff

Money on the Left is joined by Ben Tarnoff—tech worker, writer, and cofounder of Logic Magazine—about his book Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future (Verso Books, 2022). In his book, Tarnoff provides a comprehensive history and a critical topology of this thing we have come to know, love, hate, swear off, get on, and grow bored of: the Internet. Throughout our conversation, Tarnoff displaces the haphazard history of the Internet that circulates often-unquestioned in our foggy collective memories, helping us to see more clearly how the Internet came to be “so broken.” Tarnoff refuses to accept privatization or the profit motive as given or inevitable. Instead, he evaluates the history of privatization and profiteering from the perspective of public provisioning. He does so, moreover, in order to advocate for heterogeneous public alternatives and cooperative futures. Ultimately, Tarnoff fashions a vision for the future of the Internet as a de-privatized, public space for collective flourishing, which is to say, an “Internet for the People.”

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Transcript

The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson: Ben Tarnoff, welcome to Money on the Left.

Ben Tarnoff: Scott, thanks so much for having me.

Scott Ferguson: We’ve asked you to join us today to discuss your recently published book, Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future (Verso, 2022). The bulk of the book tells a synoptic, critical history of the internet: How it came to be, and how it came to be–as you note–so broken. 

You tell this story in an unexpected way. You not only eschew the fallen redemption narratives of Web3 and blockchain libertarianism, you also proceed with a set of assumptions and values that very much complement the approach to public money politics at Money on the Left. Specifically, your project refuses to accept privatization or the profit motive as given or inevitable. Instead, you evaluate the history of privatization and profiteering from the perspective of public provisioning while advocating for heterogeneous public alternatives and cooperative futures. To start us off, how would you characterize most hegemonic histories of the internet today? What do they tend to overlook or get wrong? How does your approach substantially differ? And why does this matter for building what you call an internet for the people?

Ben Tarnoff: It’s an interesting question, Scott, because I’m not sure there is a hegemonic story about where the internet comes from, if I had to think about it. I think there are pieces of the story that the person on the street would know. I think folks are vaguely familiar with the idea that the internet came out of US military research. I think the more recent history of the internet, the rise of Google, Facebook, Uber and so on, may be familiar to them depending on how old they are. 

But I’m not sure there is a hegemonic story about how all those things fit together, that there is a continuous single narrative of the internet’s creation, its development, its commercialization. There is some good scholarly work on these subjects, which I draw on in the book. But I really have thought of my intervention as not so much telling people what they get wrong about the story of the internet but giving them that story for the first time (in many cases) or at least the story as a single story, knitting together some of the bits and pieces they may have floating around, half-remembered in their head, trying to bring it all together into a story with a beginning, middle and end.

Scott Ferguson: Perhaps to clarify what I was up to with that initial question: I think that floating, underarticulated narrative or bits of narrative that are around I tend to associate with some sense that the government and the military were involved at the beginning, but then this almost tabula rasa, where the web became a libertine, freely associating, extra-legal, extra-political utopia. And then Web 2.0 comes along, and these major corporations take over and ruin that utopia. And then that licenses a certain hegemonic project today, which is trying to imagine a Web3 that is returning to that wild west utopia, but now with private property laws and more order. That’s what I had in mind, which maybe isn’t the totally hegemonic, or the full story, or not everybody believes that. But I guess that’s what I was gesturing towards.

Ben Tarnoff: I think there’s a generational aspect here: Folks who remember the web of the 1990s in some form are likely to hold the types of views that you describe, Scott. I would characterize it as a form of internet nostalgia. I talk a bit about internet nostalgia in the book, and I think it’s important to note that nostalgia has been a component of how people have experienced the internet from the very beginning. People have felt nostalgic for the internet of the mid-1980s, the early 1990s. All of us feel nostalgic for some era of the internet and I happen to be of the age where I do feel nostalgic for the so-called “Open Web” of the 1990s, the world of GeoCities and so on.

In the book, I try to treat nostalgia fairly because there is something real there. There is an accurate perception of the fact that the internet has changed quite dramatically. And I think we could say, in some ways for the worse. But it also can give us a somewhat distorted view of how the different periods of the internet fit together. For instance, to take the era of the so-called “open web”: we still have the open web. In fact, the openness of the web is what has facilitated the rise of the so-called platforms. Google, to take an example, is able to sprinkle its advertising software throughout the web precisely because the web is open. So, the open parts of the open web are what make the closed parts closed, if that makes sense. The open and the closed exist, if you like, in a dialectical relationship with one another. This is a left podcast so I can say words like dialectical. I want to encourage us to take that view of internet nostalgia where again, I don’t want to be dismissive or condescending to people who have these views because I have my own private set of longings for a different internet, but they don’t always give us a complete picture of how these different things fit together.

I should also say that any project to build a better internet, which is partly what motivated the decision to write this book, my commitment to that project, can’t go in reverse. There is no way to reverse the privatization of the internet, for instance. What we need to do is to come up with a creative reimagining of the internet that takes it forward, we can’t simply put the gears in reverse as much as we might like to.

William Saas: I want to sit with that for just a second. I think the argument that there is no reversal of the privatization of the internet–that’s a very profound observation that may be troubling for some listeners. I want to ask you to expand on that. One might imagine a world where the internet goes down, and there’s some kind of catastrophe. Is there not a clean slate? There’s no reversing the privatization? Maybe you can unpack that for us a little bit more? 

Ben Tarnoff: What I mean by that is that privatization created the modern internet and that process was a creative process. It wasn’t simply a matter of enclosure. Enclosure is a metaphor that is very popular among Marxists, among those on the left, and has been increasingly applied to digital spaces, and there may be contexts in which it’s appropriate. But it would not be accurate to say, precisely, that the private sector enclosed the internet, which had formerly been a commons, which would suggest that all we need to do is to break down the fences erected by those bad landowners, as in rural England, and reclaim the commons for ourselves. 

 That’s not what happens. Of course, the internet, as I’m sure we’ll discuss, was created by the public sector, specifically by the US military, and its development would not have been possible without billions of dollars of public money. And indeed, the private sector did take over the internet without paying the public sector any compensation. However, it didn’t simply inherit it and keep it as it is, because what it was taking over was essentially an academic research network. It was relatively small by today’s standards. It was relatively unusable by today’s standards.

It had to be quite significantly developed and crucially, it had to be renovated for the purpose of profit maximization. Privatization is not simply this passive process whereby public assets pass into private hands and that’s that. In the case of the internet, privatization is a creative process. It involves remaking the internet into what we have today. So that’s what I mean when I say we can’t simply reverse that process because the internet as it exists today is a product of that process. Something, I think, more imaginative, is required.

Scott Ferguson: Before we dive into the details of the history of the internet you tell, would you mind first sketching out the structure or topology of the contemporary internet, as you do in your book, I think it’d be really helpful, especially for our less tech-savvy listeners to sketch this out and define some of the key terms you unpack in the book such as “stack,” pipes” and “platforms.”

Ben Tarnoff: The “stack” is a metaphor that would be familiar to folks who are in the world of computer science or software engineering, it’s a very common metaphor in the worlds of computing and networking. And in particular, it’s applied frequently to the internet. Now, my take on the “stack” is a bit reductive, it’s a simplified schema of the “stack.” I split the “stack” into two layers. A “stack” is really just a set of layers piled on top of one another, like a house, you can think of the floors in a house. 

In my simplified schema, I’m talking about two layers: what I call the “pipes,” which is basically the physical infrastructure of the internet, the fiber optic cables, the routers that are required to get a packet of data from one place to another. And here the companies involved are firms like Verizon and AT&T–internet service providers–as well as companies that operate the deeper networks of the internet. And then when we move up the “stack,” we get to a different layer, which is inhabited by what people often call the “platforms.” I take issue with that term, which is a bit of pedantry we can get into later if you like, but this is essentially the application layer of the internet. This is where the apps and the sites are. This is where we experience the internet. 

Splitting the internet into two helps organize my book, it’s literally the two sections of my book. But there’s also a chronological story implied here, because my book is mostly about not just how the internet was created but how it was privatized. And privatization begins at the bottom of the “stack” with the “pipes” and then it moves up the “stack” to the application layer. There’s a spatial metaphor, which helps us understand how the internet fits together. But there’s also a historical aspect because privatization ascends from the bottom to the top of the “stack.”

William Saas: So where did it all begin? How did this thing we call the internet get started? Where was the first pipe laid? And what does it look like at the outset? And if we could think also about the original vision, values and ideals behind the internet at its origins.

Ben Tarnoff: To talk about where the internet comes from, we probably have to say very briefly what the internet is. We discussed the “stack,” which gives us an architectural overview of the internet, but it doesn’t give us the ontology, so to speak, it doesn’t really give us what is the internet. The internet is fundamentally a language. It’s a language that lets different computer networks talk to one another, and thus interconnect to form a network of networks. What this means specifically is that the internet is a protocol, a set of protocols. And a protocol is basically a bunch of rules for how computers should communicate. 

The very first internet protocol was created by US military researchers in the mid-1970s. And through a series of experiments, they figure out that this internet protocol is capable of stitching together different networks from around the world into a single network of networks. And why this matters, why they’re doing it–the military pretext for these experiments–is to project computing power from the United States into the battlefield. 

Now, what does that mean more specifically? What it means is that there are large mainframes, million-dollar machines, very heavy, very expensive computers, located in places like northern Virginia, that are capable of running computationally intensive programs of the kind that might be useful to soldiers who are deployed in places like Vietnam. The vision is that those soldiers who are deployed in places like Vietnam could have a small, less powerful computer in their Jeep, for instance, and communicate wirelessly with that mainframe in northern Virginia through the internet protocol and maybe get some output from an application that helps them gain an upper hand on the battlefield. 

That’s the vision for the internet. That’s why it gets funded by the Pentagon’s R&D arm, DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. Now that’s not actually what the internet is used for. Once they have this protocol, the Pentagon realizes that it could be useful for interconnecting various computer networks they have within the Department of Defense. They have various computer networks, and it would be useful for various reasons for these networks to be able to communicate with one another, and they use this new internet protocol to do so. Over the course of the 1980s, the internet goes from being a protocol to a place. It actually begins to describe a distinct set of networks that have been interconnected with the internet protocol, which in turn becomes the internet protocols. 

By the early 1990s, the federal government continues to control the internet. But it’s passed from military to civilian hands. By the early 1990s, the National Science Foundation, which is a federal agency tasked with supporting basic research, controls the internet. In particular, it controls the main backbone, which is really the main artery of the internet at that time, something called NSFNET. In the early to mid-1990s, the National Science Foundation takes steps to rapidly and comprehensively privatize these “pipes” of the internet. 

It’s important to note that privatization was the plan all along, the federal government never had any intention of running the internet indefinitely. But the timetable gets moved up because there’s so much demand–unexpected demand–by people who want to get online. At the time, the internet is mostly for academic researchers. But things like the rise of the World Wide Web, the rise of graphical web browsing, is making the internet more popular. So, demand is soaring, capacity is limited, and the National Science Foundation feels that privatization has to happen sooner rather than later in order to stimulate the type of private investment that would be needed to create capacity to meet that expanded demand.

The crucial date is April 1995, at which point the National Science Foundation terminates its backbone, the NSFNET, and the private sector takes over. Crucially, this takeover happens with no compensation, with no conditions, with no enduring public or non-commercial foothold in the new internet. In other words, privatization of the “pipes” in the 1990s takes a particularly extreme and comprehensive form. And this is really due to extensive industry influence over the process. Telecoms have a lot of money to make from the new internet, from selling access to it, and they don’t want any interference in their profit-making prerogative. 

There were alternative proposals floating around at the time, I talk about them in the book. There were always ideas of how the internet could be organized differently that would not have ceded the “pipes” so completely to the private sector. But crucially, no social movement existed to make those ideas active and to overcome industry opposition. This story is really what I tell in the first part of my book, because privatization was not an event, it was a process. And this is actually just the first part of the process. This is the privatization that begins at the bottom of the “stack” in the basement of the internet, if you like, with the “pipes.” The next piece of that story will be privatization moving up the “stack.”

Scott Ferguson: How would you situate this within the political and ideological climate of the United States in the 1980s and 1990s? I think of familiar stories about the rise of Reaganism and then Clintonism being a neoliberal re-articulation of the Democratic Party and its platform. What are those broader changes doing to shape privatization as a process of the internet?

Ben Tarnoff: The ideological backdrop here does matter. You have Clinton on the one hand, whose politics I think will be pretty well known to your listeners. And then Newt Gingrich’s Republicans in Congress. Gingrich, as some of your listeners may not know, actually had a turn as a poster boy of techno libertarianism. He was interviewed quite favorably in Wired magazine, presents himself as a forward-thinking cyber netizen… so many silly words from that era.

Scott Ferguson: We have no silly words. 

Ben Tarnoff: Nothing that will embarrass us in 20 years.

Scott Ferguson: We’re good. 

Ben Tarnoff: Ideologically, there’s a lot of alignment around the idea that the market is the best mechanism for organizing outcomes, that the private sector should lead not just in the realm of the internet, but in all realms of social life. And that certainly helps create the conditions for industry lobbying to be particularly effective, and to close down political space for alternatives to emerge. I think there is a confluence of factors that conspire to ensure that privatization takes a particularly extreme form.

William Saas: On your telling, it seems like this was almost inevitable, given the historical factors operative at the time. You’ve got Gingrich hanging out with Alvin Toffler and the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. We’re not going to claim this for the public–that’s communist and communism is over. It’s just in the air.

Ben Tarnoff: Absolutely. And I would add that one of the things that makes the fall of the Soviet Union so significant, is that it ends the justification, or an important justification for industrial policy through the Pentagon of the kind that had really laid the foundation for the internet. I mean, the internet is created by DARPA. DARPA, as the Pentagon’s R&D arm, is created in the aftermath of Sputnik, when the US policy-making class has a collective freakout and figures, they’re losing not just the space race but science and technology is falling behind the Soviets. So that demands significant federal investments in science. That rationale disappears after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, for a number of reasons, privatization emerges in a particularly comprehensive form.

William Saas: I recently read with some students an essay by David Graeber called “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.” His argument is basically we’ve stalled out technologically, we don’t have flying cars now because all the ambition, innovation, and he calls them “poetic technologies” are channeled into this bureaucratic state, you know, R&D for military reasons, and that seems to track here. But I wonder if in those early days, and as part of that early history of the internet that you are so familiar with, were there any internal debates, discussions, alternate imaginations about the kinds of applications for the internet in a non-martial direction? Maybe some more techno-utopian ideas? Or was it all like, “let’s outfit our boys on the frontlines with the information they need?”

Ben Tarnoff: Well I’d say utopian sentiments were part of the internet from the very start. The thing about the military justification for the internet is: that’s how they got the money. But a lot of the people who are actually developing the protocols and working on different aspects of the network were not motivated by the military pretext, they may in fact have had anti-war sentiments of their own.

Many of them, when you talk to them, they’re just scientists. They thought it would be a really cool thing to do, it’d be really impressive to get these different computer networks from all over the world to start talking to one another. There’s a gee-whiz aspect that’s very motivating, which is very familiar if you know scientists. Often, it’s just the kind of sense of wonder that is motivating.

Certainly, once the internet exists as a place, as a network of networks, it’s primarily used for email. It’s primarily used for mailing lists for people to argue with one another. It’s a kind of proto social media. People are getting flamed, I don’t know if “flaming” is still a current term, or if that just become everyday internet, it’s become too normalized to even merit its own term. Certainly, when we think of the creation of online worlds, of virtual communities where people socialize with one another, that happens initially through email. Email predates the internet. Email is actually invented on ARPANET, which is an important computer network created by the Pentagon as a predecessor to the internet and one of the networks that gets linked into this network of networks. 

It’s important to note that, while the initial justification was military because they were getting money from the Pentagon, what it’s used for is basically social. The internet emerges as a social medium from the start. And in fact, the social aspect of the internet is what has endured most today. I mean, the internet of 2022 looks nothing like the internet of 1985, in terms of how you would use it, in terms of the applications, in terms of who is using it. But that social quality, that it’s being used by people to connect with one another, has endured.

Scott Ferguson: So maybe we can circle back to the story of the 90s: privatization and the turn toward the profit motive. I don’t know if you want to talk a little bit more about the privatization of the “pipes” and then the rise of the “platforms” in more detail, maybe getting into some of these flagship companies like eBay, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and more.

Ben Tarnoff: April 1995 was the date that I had mentioned earlier. And this is, again, the date at which the National Science Foundation terminates its backbone and the private sector essentially takes over the “pipes” of the internet. 1995 is important for other reasons as well, because it’s the year that the dot-com boom launches. So ’95 is the year that Netscape has its explosive IPO. Netscape, for folks who might be a bit younger–imagine not knowing what Netscape is! But in fact, there are people who don’t know Netscape. So, Netscape was the creator of the first popular graphical web browser, Netscape Navigator, and it has this very exciting IPO, in the summer of 1995. 1995 is also the year that amazon.com opens for business. And in subsequent years, tens of thousands of startups are founded, billions of dollars flow into internet companies. 

All these folks are trying to figure out, how do you make money not just from selling people access to the internet because that’s what the companies down the stack are doing. That’s what the internet service providers are doing. But how do you make money from what people do once they get online? In other words, how do you monetize not access but activity? And this turns out to be pretty challenging. 

The dot-com boom is mostly a story of companies struggling to find profitability. One company that does manage to be very profitable from the beginning is eBay, initially called auction web. I spend some time looking at eBay in the book, because to my mind, it is a really interesting example of all of the elements that would go into what we later think of as the “platform” being expressed in a primitive form in eBay in the mid-1990s. 

What are those elements? Well, eBay is a middleman. It facilitates interactions, in particular between buyers and sellers. It is a sovereign in the sense that it writes the rules for those interactions, it doesn’t just sit back and say, “you guys connect and figure it out,” it has to be intimately involved in how people connect. So, there’s a governance element that’s really important. The third piece is that it’s a maker and beneficiary of network effects. The more people interact on eBay, the more valuable eBay becomes to everyone. These are the three elements that, to my mind, distinguish eBay and help eBay leverage this social quality of the internet that we’ve been discussing, which has been a very important part of the internet from the beginning. It helps leverage the socialness of the internet and turn it towards commercial ends. 

I talk about eBay as the first community market. People are brought together in a type of community, and, particularly at the beginning, eBay uses that rhetoric very explicitly, but under the sign of capital, for the purpose of commerce. And this innovation–the creation of the community market through those three elements I described earlier–is very profitable. At a time when dot-coms are taking on a lot of venture funding, but in fact, losing a lot of money, eBay is printing money. 

As we all know, the dot-com boom collapses in 2000, 2001. Out of the ruins of that era, the so-called platforms–the big firms that still dominate the internet–begin to build these complex computational systems. Post-2001, that’s when we really see the rise of Google, the founding of Facebook, the founding of Uber, the rise of Amazon, and so on. This is when these various empires of the modern internet consolidate, and they do so, in my view, by applying the same patterns that eBay had developed as early as the mid-1990s. In most cases, that influence is not direct or conscious. But nonetheless, the building blocks of the modern platform were really discovered by eBay in the mid-1990s. 

The one piece that platforms add to the recipe, if you like, is that they are also manufacturers and monetizers of data. Data is actually the most crucial piece of the puzzle for them. If we think about those elements of the community market that I discussed before, what’s most important is that this is a space for interactions. What the so-called platforms do, what I call the online malls, ensure that all of these interactions that are happening, that are transpiring within the walls of their enclosure, if you like, are occasions for manufacturing data, and then this data can in turn be monetized in a variety of ways. 

I think the broad outlines of that story are quite familiar to people in the context of online advertising. Everything you do on Facebook creates data, which in turn can be used for the purpose of selling ads. But it’s important to note the data can be monetized in a variety of different ways. So that’s ultimately, in my view, how privatization gets pushed up the stack, they try and they fail with the dot-com period, but then they finally succeed in the aftermath of the dot-com bust with the platforms.

William Saas: If the metaphor of enclosure doesn’t work to capture the process we’re describing, are there any other metaphors that you could supply us with to help us understand? I think it does sound like a bit of enclosure but I get what you’re saying also–it’s not like there was a commons that was enclosed, it’s more complicated than that. Do we have any abstraction to encapsulate that metaphorically?

Ben Tarnoff: First a note on clarifying the term enclosure. I had just used the word enclosure in my last response, which you may have noticed, and by that I simply mean a structure with four walls. I think then there’s also the Marxist use of enclosure, which is from the Enclosure Acts in Marx’s study of primitive accumulation of a commons that is enclosed. And I think that suggests that there is something within the fence that we can reclaim, if we could only tear the fence down. That’s what I would object to, in the case of the internet. 

Marx also has this distinction between the formal and the real subsumption of labor by capital, which is the distinction between the process whereby capital inherits a labor process without reorganizing it. For instance, let’s say a subsistence farmer becomes a wage laborer, but still works on a farm. Now, he’s been absorbed into the wage relation, he no longer produces for his own consumption, he earns a wage and uses that wage to buy the necessities of life. But the way in which he works has not changed. This is what Marx would call “formal subsumption.” Now, let’s imagine a little further along: The farm is expanded, it’s mechanized, it’s industrialized, and the way in which our wage laborer works is completely transformed. He’s no longer using the same practices that he did as a subsistence farmer, he’s now a cog in a much bigger, industrialized agriculture machine. This is what Marx would call the real subsumption of labor by capital. 

I use that distinction to talk about the internet in the sense that in 1995, when the private sector takes over the “pipes,” the private sector inherits a network, a network of networks, that has not been organized around the principle of profit maximization. Something that was created by the US government, that was developed mostly by research scientists for their own use. At that point, you have formal subsumption. But what has to occur in the subsequent years and decades is the very difficult process of real subsumption: this network of networks, this research network built by scientists has to be remodeled, reorganized for the purpose of profit maximization. And this is ultimately what I think the platforms achieve. This is their legacy: managing to unlock the profit potential of the internet by reorganizing it.

Scott Ferguson: I also think your metaphor of the mall, which I think you borrow from somebody else in the book, but this trope of imagining, the “platforms” as online malls. It’s absurd to imagine a mall as an enclosure in the historical sense of English law. There wasn’t, there’s no “pre-mall”, that then a private corporation takes over. I think that’s one thing to hold on to here.

William Saas: I wonder if there was any internal struggle at the NSF that you were able to uncover or discover about just saying, “okay, here, take this thing that we’ve built and go crazy.” I know that we talked about the spirit of the times being distinctly and acutely neoliberal. But were there any opposing viewpoints from the NSF that you could discover to what actually happened?

Ben Tarnoff: Within the NSF, there was an alternative proposal that I discussed in the book that was embodied in a Senate Bill put forward by Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, which would have created what advocacy groups at the time called a “public lane” on the information superhighway (“information superhighway” being the preferred metaphor at the time for the internet). And this bill would have done a number of things such as forcing telecoms to reserve up to 20% of their network capacity for non-commercial uses, which would have been granted specifically to nonprofit organizations like libraries. 

Broadly, Inouye’s bill, and the organization around it that was pushing for it, looked to the legacy of public media for inspiration. If radio and television could have spectrum set aside for public non-commercial uses, why can’t we do the same with the internet. Of course, public media has always been very weak in the United States, compared to other advanced capitalist countries. But nonetheless, that was an important piece of inspiration.

This bill–I don’t have to tell you–doesn’t get passed, and this idea doesn’t go anywhere. But nonetheless, there were alternative proposals at the time and that’s something I try to emphasize in the book: It wasn’t inevitable the way it went. But it was a question of the balance of forces. And there simply was not a social movement, at the time, that would have politicized this issue and made it legible to masses of people. The internet is still fairly obscure at the time and it would have been hard to have built a movement around the internet. But nonetheless, this is how privatization takes such an extreme form: Not the absence of alternative ideas, but the absence of enough social power to make those ideas active in the face of the opposition of the capitalist class.

Scott Ferguson: Now that we have a stronger sense of how the internet was publicly provisioned, and then multiply privatized in a processual way, it seems like we’re pretty well posed to discuss some of the more exciting democratic and public alternatives you promote in your book.

But before we get into some of those details, I want to make our listeners aware of the fact that you importantly couch what you are calling “an internet for the people” within broader political struggles, as part of the political struggle for the provisioning of food and housing and health care and public financing. Can you talk a little bit about that larger framing? You don’t just offer a narrow politics of the internet, you have a much more nested sense of where we are and how this fits into the broader political order today.

Ben Tarnoff: I tried not to do too much of that in the book because I wanted to try to keep the lens as narrowly focused on the internet as possible. But inevitably, the problem with writing about the internet is that the internet is entangled with everything. So other things start to creep in. 

I think I also want to give a sense of what’s at stake. Discussions about the internet are often quite dry and quite technical. I wanted to try to make the point that what’s at stake is the possibility of democracy without putting it too grandly. We live in a profoundly undemocratic society. And what I mean by a democracy, and this is a definition that I go into in the book, is the ability for people to rule themselves. For people to rule themselves, they need to have certain things available to them. In other words, as I say in the book, freedom isn’t free. If we want to lead self-determined lives, we need access to resources that enable us to do so. You can’t rule yourself, you can’t lead a self-determined life if you’re hungry. If you don’t have a roof over your head. If you’re bankrupt from medical bills.

Similarly, the internet has become an indispensable precondition of participation in social, economic, cultural and civic life. We saw this in the early days of the COVID pandemic, people needed to get online to apply for unemployment insurance, and we had to work from home, their kids needed to attend school from home. And that helps bring into view the stakes of the social crisis around connectivity in the United States. The United States has absolutely abysmal broadband. We pay on average higher monthly costs in the United States for broadband than our equivalents in Asia or Europe. We rank fourteenth in connection speeds–below Hungary and Thailand. And most astonishingly, in 2018, Microsoft researchers determined that 162 million Americans do not access the internet broadband speeds, which is about half the country. We could talk about these statistics in the dry language of the digital divide, and so on. 

But I think we need to elevate our rhetoric and talk about democracy. If people don’t have access to the resources, they need to lead a self-determined life, they can’t exercise self-rule. The ability to exercise self-rule at a personal level is intimately bound up with the ability to exercise self-rule collectively. In other words, the reason that people don’t have access to the resources they need to lead self-determined lives is because certain political choices have been made about how those resources are distributed. And those are choices that those people don’t have an opportunity to participate in.

To my mind, this is the other essential ingredient of a democratic society: Giving people not just the resources they need to lead self-determined lives, but the opportunity to participate in the decisions that most affect them. And those are the guiding principles for my project of how to create a more democratic internet. And it has implications, different implications, we should say, at different parts of the “stack.” It means something different at the “pipes” than at the “platforms.” But nonetheless, these are the principles that I think can guide us, not just in building a more democratic internet, but in building a more democratic society.

William Saas: Let’s talk about some of the proposals that you engage with in the book for doing just that: For creating and recovering the internet as a channel technology with a series of “pipes” and “platforms” we can use to advance democracy. 

These proposals include, but aren’t limited to, creating public and cooperatively owned networks on the model of ongoing experiments in Chattanooga (Tennessee), and rural South Dakota, supporting decentralized open source models of social networking, such as the Mastodon Project, and using public libraries and post offices–I like this one–as local administrative hubs for social networking and journalism across the United States. Can you take us on a brief tour through these alternate horizons for the internet, and perhaps tell our listeners how we might or how they might get involved with such efforts?

Ben Tarnoff: My term for the political project to build a better internet is deprivatization. And deprivatization aims at creating an internet where people and not profit rule, that’s the North Star. What does that mean in practice? It means developing models of public and cooperative ownership that can shrink the space of the market, diminish the power of the profit motive and encode practices and principles of democratic control. In the book, I look at a number of experiments that are, in my view, putting those ideas into practice that represent–even if it’s on a small scale–deprivatization in action. 

One example, which you indicated, is the Community Network. Community Network is a publicly or cooperatively owned broadband network that could be owned, for instance, by a municipality or by the members themselves. More than 900 communities in the United States are currently served by community networks. These networks tend to provide better service at lower cost than their corporate counterparts because they don’t exist to enrich shareholders with stock buybacks and dividends like the big firms such as Verizon, they’re able to prioritize social goals like universal connectivity. 

Crucially–this is the piece that I find most promising–they are able to give users an opportunity to participate in decisions around how infrastructure is developed and deployed. I see community networks as the main protagonist in deprivatizing the pipes of the internet–not the only one because we can’t simply have a series of local networks. That’s not what the internet is, the internet is composed of networks at various scales. But nonetheless, community networks, I think, are the most promising form deprivatization can take at that layer of the internet. 

When we move up the stack to the realm of the so-called platforms, the situation becomes more complex, the path to deprivatization here is less linear because we’re immediately encountering creatures of a greater complexity and greater diversity. Facebook, Uber and Amazon: These are creatures of much greater technical sophistication than ISPs down the “stack.” And they’re more different from one another than ISPs are from one another. So inevitably, how we deprivatize these different sectors will depend a lot on what we’re actually talking about. As a result, the experiments are somewhat less mature.

As you mentioned, I allude to experiments that are ongoing among a number of different communities, such as the decentralized web community, and projects like Mastodon, which aim to create decentralized social media networks, which in turn could enable something like a cooperatively owned and cooperatively moderated social media site, which interconnects freely with other sites. There’s also the platform cooperativism community. This is a group of people who are interested in trying to create worker-owned and -operated app-based services. What would a cooperative alternative to Uber look like, for instance? These experiments are quite limited, we have to say, I think we have to acknowledge their limitations and also acknowledge that they are, in most cases, modeled on corporate counterparts. If you use something like Mastodon, it looks a lot like Twitter. Inevitably, these are the first draft of what a deprivatized application layer might look like. 

To go further, I think we’re going to need a lot more experiments. And in particular, we’re going to need public investment to create spaces of imagination where ordinary people can come in, get connected to the resources and the expertise they need to build the online services that are capable of meeting their needs. This latter part about imagination is where I place most of my faith in the book. I know it can sound a bit wishy-washy and a bit open ended. But I think if we think of imagination not as something a solitary genius does alone in their room, but rather a collective embodied process of experimentation that necessarily requires resources and investment, I think we can get a bit closer to creating the type of process that will eventually result in a deprivatized internet.

Scott Ferguson: To circle back to something you said before, this definition of “platforms.” We’ve been using it in this conversation, just heuristically, normatively, but you also noted that you had a critique of “platform” as a concept, as a term, and the way that it frames our understanding of the world. I want to give you an opportunity to flesh that out.

Ben Tarnoff: You’ll notice I’ve been doing annoying things like saying “so-called platforms,” trying to always put quote marks around “platforms.” I should say in general, the terms and metaphors we use to talk about technology we’ve mostly inherited from the tech firms themselves. And that’s a problem, because we’re operating on enemy territory, if you like. “Platform,” I think, is a good example of a metaphor that does a lot of strategic work for the firms themselves. It suggests neutrality, it suggests openness, and a certain kind of levelness. They have an interest in presenting themselves this way in presenting themselves as not, in fact, intimately involved in organizing and governing our online life, but rather being a neutral receptacle for it. 

Rather than “platform” I use the term “online mall” because to my mind, the best way to understand the systems that these firms create is: They operate like the online equivalents of shopping malls. They are spaces of commerce that incorporate an aspect of a public square. They’re spaces where all sorts of different interactions can transpire. Interactions between buyers and sellers, social interactions. If you’re an American teenager in the suburbs, you probably spend a lot of your social life in a shopping mall. Similarly, online malls can be quite a social space. 

Whatever these interactions are, they are all organized around the manufacture and monetization of data, which we discussed earlier. But data is the essential ingredient and motivating purpose of the online mall. Moving away from the spatial metaphor of a train platform, let’s say, the horizontal line, into a cube, into something that you’re trapped inside of and you can’t get out of. I think that’s much closer to the experience we have of these computational systems.

William Saas: There’s not even a Cinnabon, what a crummy deal. Going along these lines, I think there were some other phrases and words and concepts we use that I would like to maybe plumb just a bit more. We at Money on the Left have been committed to everything you’re talking about doing and specifically around, well, imagination. Advocacy for expanding our horizons–not just on the individual level, in a long office, talking about these things in an academic way. But collective imagination and building in common with each other. 

We don’t have what it seems like the platforms, the corporations, the eBays, the Googles, the Netflixes have, which is the profit motive. I think that this is something that we come up against, in terms of left politics, left organization, there’s a dearth of money, in terms of just piles of money just laying around to fund the movement. Whereas on the right, there are lots of more piles of money for reasons of the profit motive, and the people who have that money are engaged in the business and market activity that leads to profit.

I was thinking, the cooperative motive, the social motive, the poetic motive, I don’t know, if we can devise or think about or just riff and imagine, collectively, we three right now, what that motive could be and how could it be sufficient to, to motivate us, our listeners, people? To say, okay, I have all these bills I have to pay. But what’s more important is building a collective new, imaginative, cooperative internet. I’m going to eschew this profit motive, I’m going to go for the new internet motive. Let’s dream.

Ben Tarnoff: I think you have to politicize people’s relationship to technology. I think you have to help clarify that there are political stakes to these different technical artifacts that surround their lives. And I actually think that conversation has gotten a lot easier in the last few years, because broadly, that awareness is actually there. It gets politicized in different directions, more successfully often by the right than the left. But the idea that Facebook is not some neutral arbiter, some kind of neutral communications platform that you just throw ideas on to but is actively involved in shaping and organizing our online lives with consequences that can be socially disruptive–that’s an idea with very broad currency, it’s nearly common sense. 

That creates an opening. I think from there, you have to make people feel as if their well-being, and even their sense of themselves, is wrapped up with this project. I think that’s how you get people to participate in any project of social transformation, whether it’s joining the union, whether it’s joining a political organization, whatever kind of political work you’re asking them to do. I think they need to feel as if their sense of self and their material interests are bound up in that project. 

I don’t mean to suggest that we should define interests in a simplified way, because I think people often will also have an interest in living in a fairer, more solidaristic world. Interest does not simply have to mean the kind of rational actor definition of interest. In fact, people have a lot of complex and contradictory interests. And it’s the work of organizers to try to give certain interests greater prominence. Interests are, let’s say, another terrain of class struggle. But I think we can make a distinction between a moral as opposed to a material view of how change happens. Which is not to say that morality isn’t useful or justified. There’s certainly some polemic in my book that draws on morality–morality can be useful in organizing projects. Of course, a sense of outrage can be very useful. 

But morality doesn’t change the world. I think this is an observation that I would draw from the work of Marx. Marx uses a lot of moral language, he can be a great moralist, but he recognizes that moral exhortation is not a force for social transformation. It can be a useful agitating tactic. But at the end of the day, in order to bring masses of people into some kind of transformative project, you need to make them feel–you need to make them see–as if their material interests are served by that project, however you are defining those interests.

William Saas: Maybe by sharing our experiences of how we came to see those things as important to our material interests as well.

Ben Tarnoff: Right. And the process of social transformation, I think, involves and entails self-transformation. Part of making the case to somebody about why they should join the union is appealing to one set of interests over another: They have an interest in not getting fired, there’s a risk involved. They may have an interest in maintaining certain hierarchies in the workplace that benefit them. But then they have other interests as well in the context of a union campaign and interests–maybe in job security, in more clarity around job progression. And also, certain solidaristic interests–in being a good co-worker, in taking care of one another. So inevitably, this conversation about which interests should be given prominence and which interests should be downplayed, or de-emphasized, involves a process of personal transformation as well.

Scott Ferguson: To close us out, I was wondering if you could put this book in the context of a lot of the other work that you do. You’re an accomplished author, you’ve published essays, you’ve published many, many books. And you’re also co-founder and writer at Logic magazine. Can you give us a breezy tour through your broader horizon of work and where this fits in?

Ben Tarnoff: I’m trying to think of how to make it breezy.

Scott Ferguson: Or belabored!

Ben Tarnoff: I could certainly make it belabored, that won’t be hard at all! I’m someone who works in the tech industry, I’m someone who thinks about the relationship between technology and society. And I think most of my writing and editing and intellectual projects flow from that concern. But I’m also someone who’s getting bored of the internet. Technology is such a useful way for thinking about power but then it’s easy to get stuck in different threads of it. I find that I have to keep re-centering myself and try to figure out: What am I really interested in? 

Because I don’t want to become just an expert on the internet. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I think my interest in the internet is an expression of my interest in how power is organized in society. I remember doing an event with the great Astra Taylor once. She said something to the effect of “I’m not interested in technology, I’m interested in power. But the reality is that if you care about power today, you have to care about technology.” And I don’t think that’s entirely accurate for me, because I do really love technical details and technical complexity. But at the end of the day, as a writer and editor, what is most important to me is the stakes, the consequences: Who’s going to be affected, whose lives will be changed through the use of these technologies? And I think that’s what guides me rather than a more specific interest in this or that technology.

Scott Ferguson: Thanks so much for coming, Ben Tarnoff, everybody should go out and get your book. Highly recommended!

Ben Tarnoff: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me.

William Saas: When you said you were bored of the internet, you reminded me of the Le Tigre song “Get Off the Internet.” As a kind of left politics, at the turn of the century, the idea of getting off the internet …

Ben Tarnoff: We lost. 

William Saas: We have, I mean, we’re bored, where do you go? You were bored of it. I thought that could go a couple of ways. I think a lot of us are bored with it, angry at it, or frustrated or befuddled by it but feel like we have no choice but to participate and stay on the internet. A little bonus question here if you have anything to say about “get off the internet” politics?

Ben Tarnoff: It’s something I struggle with, I wrote a book about the internet because I love the internet. I vividly remember the first time I used the internet in 1994. I was in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, which is in Portland, Oregon, right on the river. It’s a lovely museum. And I would have been maybe nine years old. I was wandering around this museum with my mom and I was looking for astronaut stuff–rockets, space shuttles, astronaut ice cream. And we stumbled across a room full of computers: the computer lab. And these are enormous (by our standards) computers–big towers, huge CRT monitors.

And I sit down at one of them. We’re informed that these are connected to something called the internet, which I had not heard of. I must have brought up Yahoo! or whatever was available at the time for finding websites on the internet–this being, of course, before the rise of the modern search engine. I start looking up information about Star Trek and start learning about precisely how many millimeters the width of the starship Enterprise’s wings are. Information about halls and phasers and how many torpedoes are loaded–all sorts of nerdy stuff that I felt I needed to know. I was just exhilarated. There was so much information about Star Trek on the web in 1994, as you can imagine. 

William Saas: I think that’s all there was actually! 

Ben Tarnoff: That could have been! It was probably mostly Star Trek information. I fell in love with the internet and spent much of my childhood online, in online communities. If I didn’t love the internet, I couldn’t write a book about it. But it’s something I struggle with because increasingly the rest of the world has caught up to where I was, as a kid and I don’t think it’s been a constructive development. It was seen as somewhat antisocial, even pathological, although my parents permitted it for me to just spend all my time on the internet all day. 

Now this is what we all do anyway because we have it with us in our pocket and because it mediates so much of our lives. Lives that formerly had many offline components have been absorbed into the internet. It is something I wonder about and struggle with. I try to avoid taking a moralizing tone because I remember how life-giving the internet was to me as an isolated kid–that was actually the world where I felt most comfortable, and I think there’s still a lot of kids who feel that way. I wouldn’t want to take that away from them. But there’s something lost when the offline world has become so emaciated, so emptied out that, we can’t even get offline I don’t know. But now I also listen to myself and I sound like I’m pushing 40. Maybe I don’t have the right perspective on this anymore.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mercedes Ohlen (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)

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