The Internet as a Safety Net and a Productive Imaginary

by Tungamirai L Kan’ai, MSc, BA

  • Associate
    Policyinstitute.net

Introduction

The Internet, also known as the World Wide Web, has – over the years – evolved in ways that it continues to offer a platform for human interaction across the world. Through the emergence of the Internet, various platforms of connectivity have been established, chiefly Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, and TikTok – among many others. Going a step further, the Internet has provided a platform for the realization of human ideas to be transposed into society. This is made possible through human connectivity across the globe and technological advancements which inadvertently promote innovation. 

It is imperative to acknowledge that at the pinnacle of ‘authority,’ as far as the internet is concerned, society is highly reliant on the bigger internet platforms, offered by the likes of Google, which are one of the epicenters of the internet where almost every tiny detail has to go through the reputed search engine before making it into society. Research blossoms from investigating the need to articulate the role of the Internet in promoting human ideas and making them a reality in various circles of life – politics, social life, entertainment, and education, among other things – to the need to scrutinize if the Internet is a place for ‘relaxation, joy, laughter,’ providing an escape from the ills of society as a safety net.

Technological Progress and the Need for the Internet

Scholars suggest that the emergency of the internet is primarily based on the unique narratives which are the digital library metaphor, the military and defensive origins of the internet – the early ARPANET project – and the communitarian ideology and socio-cultural appropriation of computer networks through a bottom-up approach (Bory 2020; ten Oever 2021). Accordingly, Bory (2020) explains how the first narrative is credited to United States of America, Scientist Vannevar Bush in his article ‘As we may Think’ published in 1945, points out that the Internet would meet the needs of the scientific community in a bid to put together the vast amount of data brought forward by the advent of computer science.

The second narrative on the origins of the Internet as alluded to by Bory (2020, 13) concerns the myth of its early use, as mentioned above, which is still a widespread notion among the academic elite. Similarly, scholars like Richardson (2015) and Hu (2015; both cited in Bory, 2020) point out that the fascinating question is not whether this story is false or not but why it has survived historical refutation and scrutiny. From the above perspective, the two dominant narratives on the origins of the internet which are defense communication and the need for the internet as a way of compiling and synthesizing data across various groups, going so far as academic schools of thought, have since spilled over to the need for the Internet to support political, social, economic, technological and other branches of society.

The Internet and Social Connectivity: A Paradoxical Dilemma

Musso (2017, cited in Bory 2020, 119), notes that the network has gone beyond the technical to become a solution to chaos, disorder and to dissipative structures as it allows people not to think about the great problems of contemporary science. Scholars – from psychologists to political scientists specializing in conflict – are beginning to understand that the desire to belong among humans plays an outsized role in generating group violence of all kinds. This evolutionary desire to belong does not mean belonging to just any group of humans, but to, sometimes cohesive, social groups that protect from stress, and provides access to resources, sometimes even sexual partners.

For a social group to remain cohesive, there have to be norms and rules that solve five basic coordination problems inherent to groups. These five problems are: hierarchy (who makes the decisions), identity (who is in the group and who is not), trade (how do we trade or share resources), disease (how do we manage disease with so many individuals living in close proximity) and punishment (who are we allowed to punish as a group, and for what). If a group fails to solve these five aspects, violence ensues and the group splinters and cleaves into smaller groups (Martin 2019).

In their efforts to mobilize and recruit, terrorists or militias have grossly used social media in a calculated, manipulative manner that confounds many in the West (Musso and Maccaferri 2018). Weimann (2014) alludes that this is so because the Internet is fast overtaking conventional forms of media, such as books and magazines, to become the leading research and entertainment platform. With regards to the above, it is clear that the concept of the internet as a safety net still requires rigorous research and affirmation from existing schools of thought.

According to Hannula and Lonnqvist (2002, 85), the Internet has distinct characteristics which, when utilized, can promote productivity. To name some advantages, there are no time or space limitations for accessing the Internet, finding information can be easy. The Internet increases efficiency, and there is the possibility of transferring various kinds of data and information in electronic form. In light of these perspectives, it can in fact be maintained that the Internet can be effectively used as a platform for a Productive Imaginary. Questions however, are raised on one’s ability to access the Internet as well as use it for the good in their respective community.

To cement the above, it should be mentioned that Bory (2020, 121) cites the growth of the ‘Five Star Movement’ – Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) in Italy founded by Beppe Grillo, a famous comedian who rose to prominence from the television (TV) world and started his political journey using a blog, which laid the foundation for his political party to be considered as one of the main competitors of the so-called traditional parties. Within the Productive Imaginary which saw the rise of the M5S, as alluded to by Turner (2012), the party was founded on the idea that ‘The Net – la Rete’ and society have obtained an undeniable opportunity for direct democracy, with the Internet conceived as a tool for cultural change which will see the deposition of corruption within the Italian political system. The works of ten Oever (2021) correspond with the above viewpoint, asserting that during the 2018 General Election in Italy, the M5S not only received more than 30% of the national vote, but also became the party most voted for in Southern Italy since 1948.

This shows how effective and efficient use of the Internet, this way or another, can result in a Productive Imaginary. On the other hand, survey research by Martin (2019) attempts to prove that technology will mostly weaken the core aspects of democracy and democratic representation in the next decade (49% of respondents), with 33% of the respondents arguing that the use of technology will most likely strengthen democracy, while 18% say there will be no significant change in the next decade. This, however, remains to be seen.

Twitter and Facebook as Case Studies

Since the emergence of the Internet in the 1990’s from  labs, Internet resources have found their way to millions of users and it is widely perceived as an engine for innovation (Flichy 2017), an information highway, and a tool for democratization (Castells 2009, as cited in ten Oever 2021, 345). One can note that the above schools of thought are in agreement with Bory (2020), who further reiterates that the Internet is, indeed, a Productive Imaginary. However, ten Oever (2021, 351-352) argues that the Productive Imaginary aspect of the internet is at risk because of the end-to-end principle and the openness of the Internet.

From the above, one can highlight the various privacy issues faced by big technological companies like Facebook and Twitter as well as acknowledge the benefits provided to society through LinkedIn, Indeed, and other platforms, some of them tailored for jobseekers across the globe, presenting employment opportunities in the world over. This calls into question the broad juxtaposition of the internet as a safety net or a Productive Imaginary.

The use of the internet via Twitter, however, has resulted in some positives during the Presidency of Donald Trump in the United States of America. Shear et al (2019) note that during the Presidency of Donald Trump, Twitter was used as a political tool par excellence that helped get him elected and a digital howitzer that he relished firing. The platform continues to be used by journalists in various countries as a tool to expose government corruption. An example can be that of renowned journalist Hopewell Chin’ono whose re-arrest was flagged as an attack on media freedom in Zimbabwe (Chikowore 2020). The discussion about the internet as a safety net therefore still requires a lot of research. However, for an effective research there is need for a decentralized approach in research considering the use of the Internet globally, regionally, nationally, as well as organizational.

In a letter addressed to Facebook’s Investors by Founder and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg in 2017, the social media CEO highlighted that people sharing more, even if just with their close friends and families, creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others and that giving people control over what they share is a fundamental principle (Bory 2020, 120-121).

Statistics revealed by Gillespie (2020) show that Facebook users were responsible for almost 65 million child sex abuse images as seven countries, including the United Kingdom. Gillespie has published a statement giving a warning of the impact of end-to-end encryption on public safety online. From this backdrop, it becomes imperative to reiterate that the Internet, through Facebook, is not a fully-fledged safety net to the young in society.

Conclusion

The Internet remains an essential part of our everyday lives, as it allows connectivity beyond narrow lines, across different cultures, political environments and various ethnicities. However, there is a need to investigate the Internet as a Safety Net among different age groups, races, nationalities and so on. Hence, big tech companies, individuals and governments could enact measures and strategies to curb the negativities associated with the free flow of information in the ‘unregulated’ world of the internet.  This is necessitated by the diversity of our society and differences offered by this diversity. More scholarly research is needed to ascertain the possibilities to access the Internet, as well as the affordability of Internet services across continents, countries, cities and towns. 

Bory (2020, 125) asserts that networks are not endless; they are always imagined and limited by people in different ways, by different socio-cultural and political contexts, and by spatial and time constraints. This assertion by Bory (2020) alludes to the idea that the Internet is an ‘open world’ with no limitations, only waiting for human imagination for its full capacity to be realized. Richardson (2015), publicized that in the January 2011, the world ran out of Internet addresses. A decade later however, Internet addresses are still being registered on a daily basis. This revelation serves to prove that the Internet is a Productive Imaginary and a means of keeping the digital world functional, continuing, the world over, over time, to shape society.

References

Bory, Paolo. 2020. The Internet Myth: From the Internet Imaginary to Network Ideologies. London: University of Westminster Press.

Bush, Vannevar. 1945. As We May Think. New York: The Atlantic.

Chikowore, Frank. 2021. Hopewell Chin’ono is ordered to quarantine in prison; his lawyer also arrested. January 9. Accessed September 27, 2021. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-01-09-hopewell-chinono-is-ordered-to-quarantine-in-prison-his-lawyer-also-arrested/.

Flichy, Patrice. 2017. Les Nouvelles frontières du travail à l’ère numérique. Paris, September 4.

Gillespie, Tarleton. 2020. “Content moderation, AI, and the question of scale.” Big Data and Society 1-8.

Hannula, Mika, and Antti Lonnqvist. 2002. “How The Internet Affects Productivity.” International Business & Economics Research Journal (IBER) 83-91.

Hu, Peng. 2015. A System Architecture for Software-Defined Industrial Internet of Things. Montreal: Intsitute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Martin, Mike. 2019. Time Magazine. September 11. Accessed September 20, 2021. https://time.com/5673224/violence-history/.

Martin, Mikel. 2019. “Liability for Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things.” Münster Colloquia on EU Law and the Digital Economy 201-208.

Musso, Marta, and Marzia Maccaferri. 2018. “At the origins of the political discourse of the 5-Star Movement (M5S): Internet, direct democracy and the “future of the past”.” Digital Technology, Culture and Society 98-120.

Richardson, Joseph J. 2015. “Technology-driven layer-by-layer assembly of nanofilms.” Sage 11-21.

ten Oever, Niels. 2021. ““This is not how we imagined it”: Technological affordances, economic drivers, and the Internet architecture imaginary.” New Media and Society 344-362.

Turner, Eric. 2012. “The Grillini in Italy: New Horizons for Internet-based Mobilization and Participation.” Social Movement Studies 214-220.

Weimann, Gabriel. 2014. New Terrorism and New Media. New York: Wilson Centre.

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