Colonialism and the Web

To think about ‘Decolonizing the Web’ starts with thinking about the web as a colonial space. One has two immediate, diametrically opposed reactions as soon as one introduces that frame.

On the one hand, how could the web be colonized? It’s not like anyone is Indigenous to the internet, much less the web. Given that the entirety of the internet has developed within my lifetime, there is no ‘time immemorial’ involved here – leaving aside the painfully foreshortened historical horizons that are so commonplace, certainly amongst white North Americans. The web is a space that is continually in the process of building itself: the space and what occupies it have come into being simultaneously. How could the terra be other than nullius when it appears ex nihilo?

On the other hand, it is doubtful that there is any part of the web that isn’t colonial space. As much as the internet and the web as physical products are historical novelties, the content we find online is – and can only be – an extension of the cultural production that has taken (and continues to take) other material forms over the entire history of our species and, indeed, of our genus. The web is just another ‘location’ for the products of the human mind. So, building a globe-spanning infrastructure for the purpose of disseminating and facilitating the dominance of U.S. English, U.S. media, U.S. academia, U.S. capital, U.S. military … what else could it be but colonizing? It is not, of course, the only way in which the U.S. has sought to colonize every corner of the human mind. But it may well be the single most successful. Silicon Valley has put Hollywood in its shade.

It’s worth thinking about both sides of this, as, in the best tradition of Hegemony, the web even offers itself as its own solution. Just as U.S. economic predominance ended when the rest of the world finished rebuilding – and rebuilding ‘back better’ – after World War II, so too is the obvious answer to U.S. digital predominance simply to build more web and, crucially, more web not in English. There’s a tendency to think of ‘marginality’ in terms of the social politics of the U.S. – often even in terms of the social politics of U.S. academia. But if we truly are interested in what will ‘overturn the existing landscape of the web’, then we need to think about QZone and Weibo, VKontake and Odnoklassniki, about the current battle over Huawei’s role in building out 5G, the emergence of ‘splinternets’, and the U.S./Five Eyes espionage establishment’s terror that China may obtain the surveillance capabilities that the U.S. already has. It is not that these are such distinctive cultural products. Rather, it is that they are cultural products that are comprehensively not in U.S. English, not on U.S. hardware or software, not dependent on U.S. consumers, not built to sustain or extend U.S. hegemony.

Now, as with all geopolitics, that is a game played by the ruling class. Samizdat is needed in China and Russia at least as much as in France or Brazil, Nigeria or Indonesia, Egypt or the U.S. And, here too, the web offers itself as its own solution. The web provides marvelous opportunities for samizdat, if only because it makes it so easy to share. Indeed, the thing that makes the web so scary for the ruling class is that so much of it depends on samizdat. Contemporary Capital depends on the flourishing of online technologies. But the flourishing of online technologies depends on ‘misinformation’, ‘radicalization’, ‘polarization’, ‘incivility’, ‘anonymity’, ‘piracy’, ‘incitement’, ‘espionage’. Yet, that too is two-sided, as recent events have dramatized. Colonizers can get radicalized and incited in the same way as decolonizers. So, just as decolonization depends in part on the building of planetary-scale alternative internets as part of inter-imperialist competition, so too must samizdat fight samizdat, in every language and on every internet, to ensure that true global solidarity defeats the false solidarities of ethno-religious exclusivisms.

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