the earthly shadow of the cloud
It has been thirty years since I saw my first artifact of internet: some BBS porn printed out dot matrix by my friend Steve. Before that was the first Atari Christmas playing Space Invaders in my pajamas, Oregon Trail, MS DOS, learning primitive programming thinking I would need it, just as later I learned and thought I would need HTML. Born in the United States in 1973, what my life maps onto is not just post-Fordism and an adulthood aligned with neoliberalism: I became an adult in the season of Clinton, had my child in the season of Bush. What my life also maps onto is the enclosure of consciousness -- the private holding of what once was not even property and always commonly held. Perhaps like every innocent who believed without doubt that land and water and animals would always belong only to the gods, now I look back and think I should have known all along that entities would try to own our feelings and relationships, but I didn’t. Now it is clear to me. Non-property can be made property. Whatever can be abstracted can be owned.
I spent at least twenty years agnostic about the internet, marveling at the marvels of connecting with people far away or reading pdfs, worrying about the worries, like the way interfaces seemed to manipulate people into disinhibition and cruelty. I hated being stalked, trolled, and sexually harassed, but I loved a lot of what happened online, like piracy and flirting. I remember when the internet was about linking, not liking, when it had a sublime lateral spread rather than scrolling into a hole. As a poet I loved deletion, in particular, which you couldn't do in a book, and would create whole projects in order to erase them, wanting to create empty places of longing, which is what I had in me then, too. Memory was still half-human then, and electronic information -- as lost files, deleted things, closed accounts -- was fragile rather than durable. Forgetting, accident, obsolescence, mystery: all of these seemed the quality of the internet -- the beautiful, crystalline, fragile, vulgar, funny, dubious, pasted-together internet. I even enjoyed the encounters with internet pedants when they encountered my work then: what I made was unintelligible to all the right people. I loved the ease of mixing up of things then, too -- cut and paste and the collaging of sounds and images and texts, the hazey carnival of every pirate, of anti-attribution, anti-property. We were supposed to destroy copyright and this was supposed to be good. Then I remember the day Blogger offered it: MONETIZE YOUR FEED.
Like every innocent who ever didn't remember non-property could become property, I thought, of course, that there would be an organized resistance to that internet, the craven one, that no one would choose to love their own surveillance or live as a personal brand. I didn't think people would willingly hashtag themselves and their feelings into profitable metadata. How funny that we thought the internet was the reverse of what it became: we thought it was turning property into nonproperty, of liberating the common. Perhaps this was because the early internet had at the beginning felt subcultural, was still dominated by Gen X and our ironic self-protections. Didn't everyone know to distrust the Doritos as we ate the Doritos? To be human was to hate while we loved our cool ranch.
I remember when others warned that we were beginning to fall into a system of self-surveillance, that people would begin to watch each other, to keep records, to aggress and suspect. I didn't want to believe it. Part of the appeal of the internet in the early days was that it was a semi-criminal conspiracy of people downloading pirated Weezer albums and Zizek books while cyber-cheating on their spouses and keeping anonymous blogs about their terrifying secrets. Who among these criminals would associate themselves with authority? Who would use the internet to turn others into the police or bosses or corporate moderators? No one I knew, even the most wretched trolls. We were better off practicing anti-facial recognition face paint, I thought, still of the old mind that everyone knew what we had to worry most about was the state and the corporations, not each other. I thought individuals and communities would always know the most simple truth, the one heard in every song on the radio: authority = bad.
I was wrong. Most of the awful things everyone predicted came true, and a lot of the bad no one predicted came true, also. I watched the corporations take on the characteristics of self-aware moral bodies and individuals taking on the moral character of the corporations who mined them for profit. The state became, more than ever, the patient servant of the owners, providing the multinationals with borders and prisons and advantageous legislation and not much else. I watched millions work for the billionaires without pay.
As a poet I feel like it is my task to protect consciousness from the tech lords and the moon from Elon Musk, but I am not so delusional as to think I could lead an organized resistance to this process of enclosure. Nor do I think I can, alone, defend those poet things: the moon and love. But I also can't forget that there are people who want to own, as data, the bacteria in our intestines and the salt in our tears. I have watched people being conditioned into screen addiction and once-unimaginable interpersonal viciousness. I have lost loved ones to paranoid screen holes and conspiracies and seen even self-identified leftists align themselves fully to corporate entities. Even as I stepped away, almost entirely, from most everything online — even, for a time, giving up email — I have felt such survivor guilt about those left behind, the ones still compulsively refreshing their twitter or facebook feeds. I also know it didn't have to be like this: that the technologies developed in my life could and sometimes were used for what was beautiful and good.
We don't yet have a name for this era, that intensified enclosure of relationship and feeling and the radical upward redistribution of wealth, that owning of the means of circulation as dominating those who once owned the means of production, this new hierarchy of power and wealth. The "Amazon data center offensive" continues as does the screenification of all that exists — one corporation is in a quest to for total ownership of the earthly shadow of the cloud, another for space, a third for all of information. I don’t know what we call this time, except the one that is not yet ours.