“The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery
When I was in college, pursuing an English major, I took a course entitled the American Hero. The course was designed to define an archetype—the eponymous American Hero, the gun-slinging cowboy that rides off into the sunset. Early on in the course, though, I got sidetracked with a thought that wouldn’t leave me alone. The American Hero rose during a time in which the West was an uncharted frontier, a time in which the nation was still trying to find its ass with both hands. That sounded a lot like the Internet of today, to me: nobody knows what they’re doing, everyone likes to pretend they do, there’s a lot of money to be made if you’re quick with a knife, and most importantly, we have shared values.
So what does the Internet Hero look like?
A couple of days ago, I was sitting on my couch playing with my Apple TV. I think my boyfriend and I had just watched an episode of the Newsroom on HBO GO. It occurred to me that my access to HBO GO could be cut off with no recourse and no reasoning. I could lose access to all the movies I had purchased from Apple—or at least, I thought of them as purchased, when really they were leased indefinitely, the company’s snotty way of saying “these are yours but we can take them back”—and I thought that I could lose those movies, and all the money I spent on them, with no recourse and no reasoning. Just because Apple felt like it.
What shook me is that I no longer felt like my technology was my own. It was a really uncomfortable feeling. I remember growing up, putting my first computer together from the constituent parts, watching the operating system install, and knowing—knowing—that this was my machine. If I broke it, I was on the line to repair it. But it was mine to do what I want with. If I wanted to try different operating systems—I did—I could just install them on it. I didn’t need anyone’s permission, I didn’t need to circumvent some weird DRM scheme or boot lock. I installed the damn operating system.
As I looked around my apartment, at all the wonderful toys and trinkets that advanced technology had bought us, I wondered what that held true about. I started cataloguing the things I was beholden to the whims or survival of a company for. My phone and tablets are doing ok; I can swap in FirefoxOS for Android if I so choose, but I’m relient on AT&T for that cellular connection for my phone. Time Warner Cable has the ultimate power over my internet connection, meaning I can’t even run a home server. My MacBook Pro fares slightly better, as I can easily put Fedora on it and use it even without a network connection. But then I’m dependent on the graces of my electricity provider.
My email, my IM, my social networking, the blog you’re reading this on, literally every connection I have to the web I’ve made my home… they all are dependent on the survival and whims of some random company. Google can seize my email and IM at any point, for any of a long list of reasons. Twitter, Facebook, App.net, Google+… they all own my accounts, not me.
What do I actually own in this place I call home? What is mine? When the corporate grab for control and power is all said and done, what remains to me?
I thought about this a lot in the last few days. I could set up and manage my own servers. For email, for IM, for this blog. But that would require me leasing EC2 instances, to be terminated at the whim of Amazon. Or I could get a shared host, again leasing a server from someone else. I’d still not own them, I’d still serve content and connections at the pleasure of my technological landlords. So I could rent space in a hosting facility, except then I own the server, but not the space it resides in, which isn’t a whole lot better. Cloud computing was supposed to bring servers to the masses, but it’s still an expensive and difficult process to get a server running somewhere, anywhere, and have reliable access to it from the Internet at large. Instead, you get leased things. I feel like I’m in a RENT song.
So what does the Internet Hero look like? The Internet Hero is the hacker that owns their own technology, the hacker that can code off into the sunset, architecting and orchestrating their domain of mechanical services, the master of their own home.
The Internet Hero is someone who never clicks the “I have read and agree to the TOS” checkbox.
The Internet Hero is extinct.