Bringing it all together

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via weheartit

Over the past few weeks I’ve covered a myriad of topics on neoliberalism and the internet, to the extent to which some posts have contradicted others! In this post, I plan to (finally) bring everything all together and come up with what I think is a reasonable view on the topic at hand. Which is:

The internet is a technology that engenders neoliberal values. Discuss

In order to do this, I’m going to divide my data into a number of concepts which have come up continuously since I started writing the blog:

What happens on the internet is reflective of wider circumstances.

My exploration of Second Life, I feel, really epitomises how, when people go online, they can pretty much work to recreate the offline world. Neopets is similar, and so is facebook insofar as the information available on facebook is similarly limited as the information available to you in terms of markets. Even wikipedia, a website based on the idea of many contributors making unbiased ‘knowledge’ available to everyone reflects some neoliberal ideologies.  I’m sure this doesn’t always hold, and indeed, people may use the internet to get away from the discrimination and what have you that happens online by doing things like creating blogs and posting discussions, or even by hiding the fact that they are a member of oppressed group when they go online. Nonetheless, what happens online is a function of the status quo. Whether your challenging it or agreeing with it, you still have to deal with it. The internet does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it is another aspect of our ‘real life’.

We know this because different people use the internet in different ways. In different cultures, it serves different functions. Genevive Bell’s talk on this over on this post provides some particularly salient examples of how this might be. Additionally, as I explore here, internet censorship can work to enforce different political ideologies. I have found it difficult to find very much scholarly information on how in different settings the internet is used differently. I suppose that it’s a very new area to study and maybe not much thought is given to it because realistically, the same websites exist for most internet users. But I think  this is something anthropologists should pay attention to and study. It opens us up to thinking that maybe globalisation doesn’t mean global homogenisation, or even the spread of neoliberalism around the world. Instead, it highlights important particularities of different cultures and something to do with the imagination of people using the interent in ways it may not have initially been designed to be used, but in a way that makes sense to everyone using it.

Alongside cross cultural considerations on this matter, there are also within-culture demographical differences. According to one source which I talk about here, elderly people tend to use the internet quite differently to young people, and additionally people can use it to build new relationships and/or strengthen existing ones. It depends on what one really wants out of life and how they can use the internet to that end. So, in this sense, when everybody is using the internet for different purposes, whatever neoliberal values it may engender is extremely limited by the subjects making use of the internet.

Technology can be quite individualising and democratising, but what this might mean is still complicated.

I have established that one can use the internet for very anti-neoliberal messages and the Zapatista effect describes this very idea. The thing is though, isn’t the free exchange of these ideas really neoliberal unto itself? What’s more, the fact that anti-neoliberal messages compete with messages that may be neoliberal for the attention of readers suggest that information on the internet is kind of market-based, by virtue of the fact that there is a limited amount of time to explore the internet, and a seemingly neverending generation of content online.

Even though anyone with access to the internet can create content, the content is still subject to being part of a hierarchy. I’ve explored this a number of times, here, here, and here. And of course, linking to my previous sub-heading, ideas and people that face discrimination offline also tend to face it on the internet. Some articles are simply more read than others. So, really, it both is and isn’t demoractising. When it isn’t, it usually reinforces neoliberalism because market forces are at work determining what pages you’re going to visit. When it is, it also reinforces neoliberalism because of the same reason, adding also that it also promotes a democracy!

Democratisation of the internet is also limited by the concept of privilege that I’ve spoken about throughout my whole project (my first mention of it was in my third post) – the truth is, not everyone can access the internet and not everyone can use it powerfully.

The concept of individualisation is touched on in my post about Facebook and I also explored it here. The internet was invented with the point of having people connect to each other in networks. Having a unique network individualises you because it shows that you are separate to, not only the links in your networks, but to anyone who has different networks (this is not the case in some societies. For instance, in some cases one’s social networks might be identical to the social networks of the rest of their family). Individualism is really very essential to the concept of neoliberalism and can easily be a bi-product of the internet.

The effect of the fact that the internet is globalised is unclear, as I talk about in this post. Do people talk to others in the same contexts as them or different ones through the internet? Does the internet just reinforce people’s opinions on the world and on politics, or can it fundamentally change them? These are questions that I believe future research could cover, because the internet may have so much potential to do this.

In this sense, while, as I stated earlier in this post, that there are limitations to how much the internet can engender neoliberalism, this section shows something different. Namely, that there is a limit to how much the internet is completely apolitical as a technology.

The Internet can assist in the workings of neoliberalism

I’ve spoken before about how the internet provides a very useful way to achieve the ideal of a neoliberal perfect market (and since in neoliberal economies there is relatively little government intervention, a perfect market is very important to achieve) it also helps political debates and makes it so more people can be a part of them. Lastly, it clearly and obviously supports the interests of business, as I talk about here, here , here and here.

This is an important topic to cover, but rather than saying that as a result of this, neoliberalism is engendered in the internet, I would say that the internet is merely a tool for the workings of neoliberalism. It works as part of the wider context I was talking about earlier, but there is nothing inherent within the technology in which these neoliberal support mechanisms can be deemed a necessary facet of the technology.

Summary

As with any good investigation, the answer is ‘yes and no’. There are tensions and complications which will get in our way of saying something absolute and concrete. It seems to me that the internet is an entity that works to support neoliberalism in the ways I have earlier mentioned. However, this power is limited. After all, you can be quite critical of neoliberalism online, and you don’t have to subscribe to particular beliefs or cultural practises in order to take part in it and additionally, you don’t even have to use it in neoliberal ways.

I would also say that it’s possible that the internet has a neoliberal bias – it doesn’t mean that one can only behave in neoliberal ways online, it does mean though that certain people are going to necessarily be more widely read online than others and it does mean that there is an uneven level of even basic access to the interent. It was also made with the purpose of letting people being able to connect with their own networks, assuming that users are individuals and inherently individualising them. You can still decide not to use the internet like this, but realistically, that’s what it was set up to do. The internet is not apolitical unto itself.

Lastly, as I explore here, it is not completely unproblematic to talk about neoliberalism as a theoretical framework in the way I have. But I think doing so has been really useful in that it served as a lens for me to explore the internet in a critical way. As a result, the conclusions I’ve come to on this project I think are really interesting and they contribute something new to the discussions about the internet.

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