If I gave you a piece of paper and asked you to draw a picture of the Internet, what would you do? Many older people would draw a computer. But a computer is the tool used to access the Internet, not the Internet itself. Many of you would draw a network of lines crisscrossing the world. Closer, I would say, but how does that differ from a depiction of phone lines?
A very few of you, the most clever, would say that I might as well be asking you to draw what it means to be American. The Internet consists of people, but not their physical presence. More accurately, it is people’s Minds which inhabit the Internet. These Minds are what wander websites, leave tracks in the form of comments and page views, and ultimately create the world they inhabit. It is possible to give examples of the Internet’s effects, to draw symbols, but impossible to draw the thing itself.
The Internet means much more than a tool which is used to transfer information. Sociologists and psychologists have often commented on how people act differently on the Internet than off. This is because the Internet is truly a culture, separate from the physical divisions of the world. And because it consists of people all over the world, it has a power that promises to change the fundamental makeup of our lives.
The vast majority of the Minds on the Internet are peaceful. The real power comes as a result of an understanding of the structures of the world, and a knowledge of how to manipulate them. The difference between the Internet and the IRL (“in real life”) world is this: the Internet was created (and is being created still) by man.
As a result, man can more easily understand and control its structure. And as technology improves, and people and devices become more and more dependent on the networks which make up the Internet, power over the world falls into the hands of those who can control these structures. In a way, war has broken out between the “denizens of the Internet” and the power structures of the physical world, whether they be the US government or Mexican drug cartels.
It is possible, right now, for an online Mind to hack into a government official’s email and find records of investigations taking place. The fact that so many people work to prevent it from happening is proof of such a fact. Alternatively, a Mind could hack into the New York stock exchange and shut it down, causing an economic collapse if done correctly. It has been done before, quite recently in fact. And remember, these do not have to be the acts of teams of Minds. One Mind, with enough preparation and with the right tools, could pull off both of these feats in the course of a single day. So the government has a right to be afraid and strike back. But war against these Minds is not the right answer. Don’t forget, each of these Minds has a body as well, and if provoked, the Minds could organize an international coup.
Online societies such as Anonymous have made it their mission to become the official “police of the Internet”, and have even proved their ability to be so by taking down extreme illegal sites containing child pornography or violence. They recognize the potential for the Internet, and what they pursue is a free Internet for all people. That is not to say they are perfect, however. Although they wish to be separate from the physical world, online denizens have hacked into multiple government sites and accounts and interfered with the IRL world.
In some cases, such as when protesting the now-shelved SOPA and PIPA, and more recently with ACTA, they are being forced into action to defend their world, and they have proven their power to do so. However, in cases such as the Arab spring or the Occupy movement, they are motivated by a desire to change the outside world. In no way am I trying to say what they are doing is wrong, but government officials have begun to notice and fear the power that lies in the hands of the minds controlling the Internet.
I am attempting to track what I see as important anthropological events in the new war between what I consider two separate, but hopelessly intertwined cultures. Some of the things I will write about will appear at first glance to be unrelated to this conflict, but I have found that many of the trends and symbols which have boiled into the public arena can be linked back to origins in online culture. The Internet is changing the world just as surely as the discovery of the Americas changed the world in the era of Christopher Columbus. The internet is truly our next “final frontier”.