Friday, May 9, 2008

Freedom In The Internet Era

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Since the beginning, the Internet has been intimately linked to the notion of freedom--freedom from authority, freedom to move, and freedom to create. As the Internet has become an increasingly larger player in the economic realm, freedom in the context of the Internet has changed. Today, Internet freedom means interactive and collective activity free of cost. Tiziana Terranova gestures towards the economic aspects of the Net’s freedom in her essay Free Labor- Producing Culture For The Digital Economy. Entwined with these economic implications is the aspect of Internet freedom Julian Dibbel examines in his book My Tiny Life, its communal spirit. However, Dibbel’s argument, which is made possible by the phenomenon Terranova writes about,  also brings up another important point to consider. While these free communal activities can be positive, they can also be perilous, making users extremely vulnerable to the ill intentions of other users who exploit this two-fold system of freedom.

When Dibbel’s and Terranova’s texts are combined, the definition of “free” doubles. Put the two together, and freedom means both without cost (Terranova) and without boundaries (Dibbel). The combination of these two definitions has profound implications for the kinds of activities that will occur on the Internet in the future. At the end of her essay, Terranova claims that the Internet “is dispersed to the point where practically anything is tolerated” (Terranova 53).  Terranova continues, stating that the Internet produces a “digital economy that cares only tangentially about morality” (Terranova 53). The cyber rape Dibbel chronicles in My Tiny Life corroborates Terranova’s claim. It also happens to be a result of this new and hybridized notion of freedom.

The two types of freedom, gratis and without strictures, are very connected. Terranova’s definition of digital labor, which is necessarily free and collective, is a key place to start.

Simultaneously voluntarily given and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited, free labor on the Net includes the activity of building Web sites, modifying software packages, reading and participating in mailing lists, and building virtual spaces on MUDs and MOOs (Terranova 33)  

The important part of this explanation is when Terranova mentions that MUDs and MOOs are products of free digital labor. This labor is enjoyable because in exchange for the work, the worker gets the pleasure from communication with others in the new system. LambaMOO says as much about itself on its site: “LambdaMOO is a new kind of society, where thousands of people voluntarily come together from all over the world” (qtd. in Dibbel 11).

Julian Dibbel goes on to describe LambdaMOO as, “a very large and very busy rustic mansion built entirely of words” (Dibbel 11). However, this world of words is dangerous. As Dibbel observes, “what transpires between word-costumed characters within the boundaries of a make-believe world is, if not mere play, then at most some kind of emotional laboratory experiment” (Dibbel 23) whose results can have graver consequences than anticipated.

In accordance to Terranova’s definition of digital labor, LambaMOO is a place created by users and for users. This setup makes LambdaMOO a free speech utopia. Users are liberated (free) to say whatever they please. However, Dibbel also sees the negative connotations of this free for all. In this word-costuming is “the power of anonymity and textual suggestiveness to unshackle deep-seated fantasies” (Dibbel 16). This seductive combination compels some users to take actions they would never dream of performing in RL, or Real Life. In fact, it was precisely these conditions that facilitated the cyber rape Dibbel wrote about.

The Bungle Affair, as Dibbel calls it, comes full circle to Terranova’s observations that the digital economy is only minimally concerned with morality (Terranova 53). Almost anything is tolerated in the dispersed expanse of cyberspace (Terranova 53). The problem arises when something happens that users collectively agree is wrong. In this new society free from rules and regulations, what happens when somebody crosses the line? And, for that matter, in this doubly free society, where is the line, anyway? These tricky questions were the dilemmas the members of LambdaMOO had to navigate in the wake of the Bungle Affair.

Together, these texts by Terranova and Dibbel paint a picture of the future. As free digital labor becomes more widespread, this confusion over where freedom ends and boundaries begin will arise over and over again. As Internet users share more and more of themselves with each other in this newly open and free environment, the more vulnerable they will become. For generations, parents have warned children eager for independence that with freedom comes great responsibility. As Internet users gain even more freedom through labor and expression, the stakes just keep getting higher, and responsibility for this new swelling of freedom is not to be taken lightly.

Works Cited 

Dibbel, Julian. My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World. New York: Henry             Holt & Co, 1998.

Terranova, Tiziana. “Free Labor: Producing Culture For the Digital Economy.” Social             Text 18.2 (2000) 33-58.

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