Network Oppression

Today, at 12:26 (Damascus time), every single one of the 84 IP address blocks in Syria became unresponsive, effectively cutting off the entire nation from the Internet.  Almost every single person in the country is without access to the easiest and most modern method of spreading information and connecting with the rest of the world.  A few people, including foreign field reporters, have access to satellite phones, but the ability to communicate with people inside the entire country has been effectively disabled.

Unfortunately, this is a somewhat common occurrence within recent years.  Last year, when Egypt and Tunisia did the same thing within their countries, the UN released an official report condemning blocking internet access as a human rights violation, saying “Indeed, the Internet has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, as guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

The Internet is a powerful place.  Utilizing it, an entire nation of Minds can feel connected and protected by the rest of the world.  They can organize themselves and change the world.  When cut off from it, the nation becomes vulnerable to oppressors and internal conflict.


What’s in a Name?

I recently built my own computer from scratch. I went to the store and bought all the different parts, by which I mean I spent fifteen minutes carefully looking at the labels and pretending I knew what all the numbers and fancy words meant, and ultimately doing with what the nearest employee told recommended. I took the parts home, somehow got it together and working, and downloaded Steam, a popular gaming community application. I was excited to start playing all the fancy games my new computer could handle, but first I had to make my most difficult decision this far; I had to choose my Steam Name.
This would be my online identity. The name which all of my new online friends would know me by, which would determine the likability of my online identity, and which will be the name I would be known by If I somehow became famous in the gaming community.
I could never use my real name. Nobody does that. The closest I could get to that is a pun or a clever change of my name, but my name doesn’t have much of a nicknaming rhyme to it. I eventually decided on a clever image, of a person trapped in the computer trying to communicate with the outside world. Therefore Imtrappedinabox was created.
The use of pseudonyms online is a trend that I find increasingly interesting. It isn’t really to create an anonymity on the Internet, because people tend to use the same pseudonym in different places, and can even become well known for it. Online legends such as Notch and Jeb of minecraft (as well as most of their staff) are known primarily by their nicknames. Could it be a remnant of the childhood fear that parents instilled when they said, “Never use your real name on the internet, you don’t know who you could be talking to”? Or does it have a deeper meaning, by creating a way to distance their online identity, their “Mind” from their IRL self?
Personally, I believe the former reason progressed from the latter. Even though there is not as much fear among adults as children of their IRL identity being discovered, privacy is still a major concern. The pseudonyms created by the users of the internet are not only a veil of privacy, however, but also a way to express yourself and create a first impression. Many usernames are references to popular shows or pop culture items. Ironically, you can often tell more about a person by looking at his username than you can by his real name.

Subcultures of the Internet — Gamers

I sat down to write the blog post on Gamers yesterday, my mind full of ideas and messages I wanted to convey about the gaming subculture of the internet, put my hands on the keyboard, and sat. For about twenty minutes, I couldn’t figure out how to start. Honestly, I was bewildered. The ideas were definitely there, rolling around in my head like a ball of yarn, but I couldn’t find an end to start from. Every time I would pull at an idea, picking out a promising thread, I would find that it was actually a loop in the middle of the roll, on both ends fraying into a thousand different threads. I had no point to start from.

I wanted to explain in a single eloquent, concise post how gamers are actually the most creative and in many ways the most intelligent of the subcultures of the internet, and are practiced in seeing an issue or puzzle from multiple different perspectives, a skill which has become increasingly useful and necessary in the real world today. I would show that immersing one’s self into a fantasy world which they must save, rather than being a negative action which is useless to the real world, can actually result in a very positive thing. I wanted to describe how Gamers have a close bond with one another, a bond which in many cases surpasses national and cultural boundaries, creating a unified group identity. Because of this identity, I would show, using many references that I had collected during my research (I call it research, but I admit I am an aspiring gamer myself, and I merely bookmark things I find which could be relevant to this project), Gamers have become a culture based on mutual cooperation and charity.

Realistically, the amount of writing needed to convey everything I want to say about Gamers to the extent I would prefer would fill a novel. I could say the same about each of these subcultures. When I started this project, I had no idea how difficult it would actually be.

Eventually, I am sure I could churn out a fairly passable description of how Gamers are admirable in their novel approach to relationships. However, the best description of a Gamer cannot be found in a block of paragraphs, written by a professional. It is found in the monumental creations made by players on Minecraft servers, by the heroic tales of teamwork and accomplishment by elves, deathknights, and dwarves in World of Warcraft, in the dedication and focus of those who achieved high scores in games such as Pac-man, and in every other video game ever made. Gamers are the artists of the Internet, and without them, the internet would be a shadow of what it is today.

The Internet Nation

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”.