In one of cinema’s most famous match cuts, a primate flings a stiff, chalky bone towards the heavens. Its rise precedes a sequence of coasting spaceships: their soothing glide choreographed to a waltz, miles away from the violence we’ve witnessed just moments before. The transcendence of man (and men only) traced in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is unlocked by touching a towering obsidian monolith; an inevitable passage through modernity marked simply by a rupture in time and cinema. Turns out, you don’t need to look further than pop culture’s finest moments to see the West’s mythology of technology spelled out for you.
This monolithic origin story has spread across the world, manifesting itself in the internet we currently have. However, three internet shutdowns in 2019 beg us to rethink its universality. As connections are shut in one channel, new seeds of innovation emerge to take their place. These crises become the locations of desire, where participants get to lay themselves bare. It’s these moments that tell us how to look for an alternative network. But they only become visible once we sever technology from its current mythology.
Most notably, the 20,000-strong march on 30 June, the first since the sit-in and the shutdown, was organised almost completely offline. Text messages were sent, paper notes were passed by traffic lights, and graffiti across the city spread details about the march. A new network, very real, and yet unmappable, appeared out of the desire for freedom.
What’s going on?
We are in the middle of a situation rn man,
U on the scene?
I was, at home now.
In a series of messages, he follows up:
There’s no data on the ground ppl were sending telegrams
not rly man I think they’re going ahead with it
but tomorrow all teachers are on strike
I couldn’t upload my stories until now
To our knowledge, the Hong Kong state never officially shut down the internet despite a statement that implied its possibility. News reports invoked the economic impact that a shutdown would have on Hong Kong’s economy, trying to speak the government’s language. What probably happened was that mobile data slowed down due to congestion from the sheer amount of people connecting from the same place. Regardless, the protestors turned to a mesh networking app, Bridgefy, to contact each other through Bluetooth in anticipation of a shutdown that never came.
In a mesh network, a phone connected to a single other phone in the network will be able to connect to all the other nodes in the network, as long it’s within Bluetooth’s operating range of 100 meters. Rather than connecting through a cell tower, the devices talk directly to one another. The downside of using a peer-to-peer app like Bridgefy is that it’s easy to monitor and infiltrate, so listening in to conversations on the network wouldn’t be very difficult, but in that moment, the availability of many-to-many communication trumped privacy concerns.
Internet with a capital I
Although fewer than ten percent of Egyptian homes had access to Facebook and Twitter during the Arab Spring in 2011, it seems that states no longer want to appear naïve when it comes to internet rebellion.1 It’s in the moments of shutdown that new forms of connections emerge. Like the Sudan story above suggests, it might be worth investing in a couple of cans of spray paint instead of a router.
At what point did we collectively agree to the meaning of the internet? At what point did it swallow the practice of inter-networking entirely? Honor Levy’s Internet Girl (2020) paints an abrasively honest portrait of a young girl deep in mid-2000s internet culture—trapping that era in literary amber with a narration that’s more lucid than sentimental. ‘When I was 11 it was spelled with a Big I. That was how I was taught it. How autocorrect corrected it. Like god to God,’ she writes. ‘On June 1st, 2016 I graduated high school. On the same day, the Associated Press Stylebook changed internet to be spelled with a little i.’ The internet’s de-capitalisation signifies its acceptance into the world’s generic knowledge, like how we can all agree that a chair is a chair or that a door is a door, although perhaps ‘art’ is a little more finicky.
Much like how easily the older generation mistakes the Wi-Fi for the internet, we’ve come to equate the internet with connectivity. Organising involves moments of porous and temporary networks, often empirically untraceable. Just because these connections are yet to be mapped, it doesn’t mean that they’re unimportant; their ambiguity is key to their continued existence. As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun writes for Critical Inquiry, ‘Networks hollow clouds of uncertainty—that is, infrastructure and in/difference—in order to foreground clean connections across empty space.’
A broken promise
Before defending the existence of the internet as we know it, think about what its promises were. Think about how the internet was sold as the democratising force that lets you travel across the world in seconds and be whoever you want to be. Close your eyes and picture what it looks like, or perhaps Google it. What do you see?
Now think about how 34% of Tweets about reopening America during the pandemic were created by bots, or how a transnational WhatsApp spyware targets activists and dissidents, or how cyberbullying claimed the life of Hana Kimura, a 22 year-old wrestling prodigy, in May 2020. As opposed to keeping the internet online as the avenue to protect our rights and safety, an image circulating in the early days of the Minneapolis protests titled Protesting Safely shows that practices are still changing. The image reminds protestors to turn off Face & Touch ID, switch to Airplane mode and disable mobile data before heading to the protests. The act of shutdown appropriated for the individual, creating a shroud of privacy. When we’re shocked by internet shutdowns, which transgression are we angry at?
Perhaps the reason shutdowns seem so shocking is that they infringe on a techno-libertarian artefact that represents itself as the only reality: an artefact where human death is acceptable as long as the expression is free, where connection is more important than care, whose primary fuel for evolution is crisis. 2 Philosopher Yuk Hui, via André Leroi-Gourhan, highlights the difference between technological tendency and technological fact. Hui writes: ‘while a technical tendency is necessary, technical facts are accidental; . . . while the invention of the wheel is a technical tendency, whether or not wheels have spokes is a matter of technical fact.’3 In this case, nationwide or planetary scale networking is a technical tendency, but having only one of them is a technical fact.
The division between the two has blurred because technology never exists in a cultural or political vacuum. As cultures have grappled with the forces of colonisation—forcibly ushered into models of modernity that are not our own—this technological condition often becomes our own destiny.
We see one such story from China at the end of the 19th century. In response to the devastation faced during the Opium wars, China was forced to surrender Hong Kong to the British and open up their ports to European commerce. The initiation of China’s modernisation in the decades leading up to the fall of the Qing Dynasty was a period that turned China into what Hui calls a ‘quasi-colony of Western forces.’4 The Yangwu (Western Affairs) movement saw an adoption of a breadth of Western technologies from school systems and arsenals to industrial enterprises and railroads as a way to resist further pressure from outside forces.5
In a similar period, nearby Korean officials were urged to adopt a similar policy under the doctrine of tongdo sŏgi (Eastern Ways and Western Machines), right after Korea was dictated to open itself to outside world in 1876. In both cases, the attempt to maintain a strict division as they ‘tried selectively to accept and master Western technology while preserving their country’s cultural values’ failed when this division inevitably crumbled.6
Therefore, it’s important to understand whose mythology of technology it is we’re adopting. The West’s mythology is tangled up in a story of domination, from lightsabers in Star Wars to 5G networks as a technological arms race. In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (1986), Ursula K. Le Guin notes that we’ve let ourselves be part of a ‘killer story’ when talking about technology because the ‘life story’ does not come as easily to our tongues. The action-packed killer story that hunters speak of—heroic tales of triumph of a wild beast chase aided by their mighty spear—is the story that has persisted in science fiction. This entanglement is pervasive, and can be seen in the way ideologies transform computing—from the gendering of electrical jacks and ports, the transition of GUIs in the 70s from black screens to white, to the nonchalant use of master/slave as a control interface.
It’s clear that it matters what stories we use to tell other stories with. When shamans, themselves technicians of the otherworldly, tap into the cosmic order to talk to the dead, are they not doing so to seek stories from a past life? Le Guin tells us that there is another technology that gives us life—the carrier bag that frees your hands; the invention that lets you carry more grains of oats home than just one stomach could contain. Her own carrier bag is the novel, a book that carries culture through time.
Maybe, the story of a new internet doesn’t just need new protocols, databases and hardware, but also new stories to tell these stories with. Perhaps the potential of technology does not lie on the distributed node, but in the heart, the source of our desire for life? If Le Guin’s carrier bag was the novel, what form does the carrier bag of life come in today?
The figure of the crowd
We need to build new metaphors for the technical concepts we develop in order to tell these new stories. Metaphors help us understand the actions of machines, so speaking in figurative language is always necessary. Think about what the experience of writing a letter on Word means to you versus how it’s executed by your device. Like Barthes’ figures of love, the figure represents a work-in-progress, something familiar yet still in flux, leaving room for its meaning to grow.7 Le Guin did this by subverting the killer story with the life story. Which figures could we use to replace the techno-libertarian internet today?
I suggest we look at the figure of the crowd: the location of desire in a moment of an internet shutdown. That is, the carrier bag exists in the form of an amorphous crowd, bound together by technical limitations, as a fleeting figure that deserves a deeper look rather than the binary status of internet connection. After all, we are never simply online or offline and, as we’ve known for a while, being connected online isn’t a straightforward matter. Rather than a place where you lose your agency, where you’re absorbed into a larger mass with a mind of its own, whose existence is driven mostly by affect rather than rationality, perhaps it’s where you finally get to lay your desires bare.
When landline hackers broadcast a Wi-Fi signal, the figure of the crowd emerges, snaking around hotel walls and banks. When the mesh network is deployed, the figure of the crowd emerges.
The network swells and shrinks, and if you want in, you better be closer than 100 meters. Am I at the core or just a passing spectator? The carrier bag is knit loosely. The dominant theory, the theory of domination, can’t explain the desire that leads us into the crowd. But haven’t our best moments on the internet been the ones where we find community?
It’s not that every crowd is good, or that every desire is revolutionary, or even that every story is true: desire can be misguided and weaponised, subverted and infiltrated. But by identifying the crowd as the location of desire, and changing where it is we look, perhaps we can start to unpack shutdowns in a different way. When the internet is taken away, where do people gather? Who do they want to first reach out to? What do they do first when they get online again? Yes, connectivity is important, and why be off-grid while the rest of the world’s exchanging ideas in the global village? But, as digital scholar Ramesh Srinivasan’s asks: whose global village? The only way we can change how we connect is to dig deep for our own mythologies of technology.
Epilogue: Astral Plane
Recently, I had a chat with a childhood friend, a former architect and fellow Indonesian. Our conversation, weaving from the pandemic to old school friends to fish raising, inevitably led to the Indonesian pastime of sharing ghost stories. He tells me: ‘other countries seem to be advancing their technologies, but we seem to be world experts on the astral plane.’ I couldn’t agree more. Online documentation of the vast variety of Indonesian culture and customs are still relatively bare, much less of shamanic practices. But anyone who’s lived here knows how interwoven the supernatural is to daily life, like how former CIA agent William E Palmer’s pool at Puncak kept leaking empty until a selametan ceremony was held by a local haji, after which it has never leaked again. I’m not suggesting that we connect on the astral plane instead of the internet. But then again, I’m not completely against it.
- As Ramesh Srinivasan writes in Whose Global Village?, ‘We see activists and protesters outside the West as incapable of enacting change without the use of “our” transformative tools. Indeed, such a myth is so pernicious that it had even reimplanted itself on the streets of Cairo.’
Ramesh Srinivasan, Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World, (New York: New York University Press, 2017), p. 18
- For more on this, read chapter 2 (Crisis, Crisis, Crisis, or The Temporality of Networks) in Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016)
- Yuk Hui, The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics, (Falmouth: Urbanomic Media Ltd, 2016), p. 9
- ibid., p. 32
- The term Yangwu (Western affairs) came after the Treaty of Tianjin (1858), which declares that matters to do with the British shall no longer be referred to by its former term, Yiwu (Barbarian affairs). For more info, refer to Jiang Chen, ‘Recent Chinese Historiography on the Western Affairs Movement: Yangwu Yundong, ca. 1860-1895’, Late Imperial China, 7.1, (1986), pp. 112–27
- Jinwung Kim, A History of Korea: From “Land of the Morning Calm” to States in Conflict, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), p. 289
- Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010)