The fall of the Cyberspace myth - Towards the "Rethinking Digital Myths" conference


Institutional Communication Service

2 December 2019

A dream of independence
One of the most representative documents of the cyberspace myth was written in Switzerland. More than two decades ago, John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, released his famous “Declaration of independence of Cyberspace”. This manifesto, published when Barlow was attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, is probably the most famous testimony of the myth of the internet as the elective environment for the emergence of a new social and democratic sphere.

As Barlow wrote in 1996:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. […] Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”

Notably, the interconnected, independent and democratic society is the unfulfilled dream entailed in neologisms and concepts such as the network society and the collective intelligence that emerged in the 1990s. In the last decades the cyberspace myth has rapidly fallen down with the centralization of the internet architecture and the dominance of a few actors, the so called GAFAM, on the digital market. A world where “anyone, anywhere” may express her or his beliefs has become a world where, notwithstanding a considerable potential for individual and social expression, the public sphere is constantly threatened by disinformation and misinformation, by the risk of isolation, and by the potential violation of privacy and personal data.

The heterogeneous and multicultural dimension of the Cyberspace, a space where different social and cultural actors would interact and dialogue without constraints, is also threatened by the new boundaries and walls raised by governments and commercial actors. As the critical turn in media and communication studies has aptly shown, the net has become a place in which the so called “bubbles” can confine personal opinions within narrow and familiar networks made of analogous profiles, while the public dimension of social media is constantly inhabited by forms of hate speech, by bots or fake profiles.

From the net dream to the net delusion
The Snowden case, in particular, has contributed extensively in bringing evidence about these developments. In particular, the Snowden case ringed the bell about the perils of governmental mass surveillance, the constant exploitation of citizens’ privacy, and illustrated the current profound militarization of the Internet. In particular, the Snowden’s revelations underlined the impossibility of looking at the Internet without considering the deep ramifications of the political economies of the physical world’s superpowers, and the US in particular. Moreover, the Snowden case contradicted those deterministic or “sublime” assumptions considering web technologies as eminently democratic or inherently leaning towards emancipatory politics. These attitudes were clearly hegemonic in occasion of the Arab Spring protests, where commercial platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, were sometimes considered as the igniting fire, if not the raison d'être, of those social movements. Snowden brought evidence of that neglected “net delusion” that Evgeny Morozov had described in his first book: the “Cyberspace”, despite the sincerely visionary and positively utopian premises of its own “Declaration of Independence”, can actually be a place of quasi-total surveillance, weaponization and pervasive data-driven commercialization and exploitation of users’ privacy.

The Cambridge Analytica case, instead, contributed to the exposure of the bugs of today’s data economy. Although the issue was frequently exaggerated in its own journalistic coverage, it also brought evidence of how widespread data misuse can be in the context of what Shoshana Zuboff has described as “surveillance capitalism”. Moreover, Cambridge Analytica shown how interconnected are the commercial and political spheres of the major digital platforms and their business model. On top of these reflections, cases such as Snowden or Cambridge Analytica confirmed the urgency for a more critical overview and assessment of the benefits and perils of the “datafied society”.