The Singularity

What is ‘free’ about the web?

May 23, 2009

Perversely, Web 2.0 has become synonymous with an American mythology of freedom. But information technology works best in small well-organised political units with high levels of social protection. So there is every reason to believe that the net works best with another notion of freedom – the security of knowing that failure will not have catastrophic consequences. The risk-taking and entrepreneurial culture of the wild web frontier is more likely to occur where there is a social safety net to catch you if you fall. By Daniel Taghioff

Watch Jeff Jarvis talking to a room full of Guardian Journalists. You will see a curious thing (in part 2). Here is a guy standing in supposedly the UK’s, if not the world’s, leading left-of-centre newspaper, talking about ‘flexibilising journalism in the new link economy.’ In plain English, he is advocating that journalists – including Guardian hacks – will have to work with absolutely no safety net, no pension, no social security, nothing in this newest world order. They all sit and nod sagely. This may be because it all seems so inevitable, a future which flows naturally from the nature of the technology. Does it have to be that way?

Four out of five countries with the most personal computers per-capita are small, with strong social safety nets. The fifth is the US, the most technologically advanced nation on earth, and the clear exception that proves the rule. Whilst America is built around what Isiah Berlin might call “negative liberty” that is freedom from constraint and interference (though not from health insurance companies it seems) most other civilised countries also put an emphasis on the sorts of positive freedoms that arise from the collective, or in other words the ways in which a supportive state makes it possible for its citizens to realise their potential. And this is not all about the bend-over-and-hold-your-cheeks politics of flexibility.

Turning to entrepreneurialism – would you rather risk all to start a new business in a place like the US where if you lose everything you may end up, literally, with nothing, no health-care, no decent schooling for your kids and so on? Or would you choose a society where, if all else fails, the state (or strong social networks) will take care of you? This is precisely the kind of free-thinking and risk-taking that the internet is supposed to foster, but do we want innovation to derive from desperation, as in the India of Adiga’s White Tiger, or be nurtured by a confidence in the system? The list of countries with the most new businesses per capita is full of small to medium sized countries with strong social safety nets, or small Asian countries with very high levels of social cohesion.

So should we expect technology, on its own, to make the world a better place – a web-2-opia? It is clear that the foundations of freedom are not manufactured by businesses, but created by well-run, uncorrupt states. Neither the UK nor the US, whose anglo-saxon definitions of freedom are singularly defined in economic terms, are notable examples. So the future of the web, like the future of religion, the future of finance and the future of the environment, is increasingly unlikely to conform to the American dream.