Blog Post

Wikipedia Blackout: What might we learn about our role in this system?

Today, Wikipedia, among other focal points on the web (Wordpress.com, etc.), decided to create an internet-based demonstration in protest of SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) by blacking out their sites, channeling everybody to focus on the issue at work in our society. When I thought about this demonstration in which I, too, decided to partake, I, instead, decided to re-activate my blog and use this day as a platform for discussion. What follows are some questions that run around the rules of this system.

1) Opensource movements

This event really separates the money-makers from the open-sourcers on the web; particularly, with how open-source platforms remain untethered by the political and economic systems, which have certainly informed the decision for larger web-based companies, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google/YouTube, who remained online today. While Google replaced their banner in support of this day and some users have used Facebook and Twitter to demonstrate by either changing their profile images and use #SOPA-related hastags, just imagine the added strength of their inclusion in this demonstration. Imagine a day when we just couldn't do any of those! Consider the message delivered in the loss of such large conduits of our daily interaction(s). Ultimately, these money-driven channels reveal their ultimate position by staying online: we have people to answer to.

Yet, is it as simple as money or no money? Afterall, Wordpess.com, an opensource platform, visually made the same argument on their home page in similar fashion to Google, and have a different group of people to answer to: people and businesse. Yet, in contrast to Google, Wordpress.com also invited other Wordpress users to join the movement by providing the means to blackout their own pages. (See a screen capture of my buddy's blog: patchbaydoor.com) But, really what this highlights are differences in the role of the platforms in this system: Wikipedia and Wordpress create content, Google enables (and disables) content to be (potentially) visible. What greater (positive/negative) difference could have been made if Google, too, would have just simply blacked-out?

I could get lost in the details of this question, but I think the take-away for me is how Google's non-active response omits their part in this demonstration, because by not removing their part in this system, people, who could be classified as users of the web, failed to see how Google is *not* the internet. It is simply one way to navigate and organize it, which brings me to my second point.

2) Knowledge of computer networks

So, there's a blackout, right? Well, actually, everything's still there and its simply being swept aside by some simple javascript. I actually used Wikipedia today by using my Firefox "Web Developer" extension that has the capability to disable all javascripts employed by a site. So, all I had to do was disable the js, then refresh, and the mock-SOPA veil over Wikipedia was lifted.

I'm no programmer by any of today's definition of one, but I know enough to navigate some of these programs and networks, because I have a basic understanding of the rules running the system. So, when I reflect on the effectiveness of Wikipedia's all-out, blackout protest, I see the potential for this demonstration to "fall on deaf ears". Overall, most users could simply over-generalize and equate SOPA as an all-or-nothing, situation of absolutes. Is SOPA really the one part of this equation that equals loss of freedom? That's the reality of the argument visually. Yet, these freedoms have already been effaced from the platforms that we inhabit daily, including Facebook (issues of privacy), Twitter (issues of invisible hashtags), and Google (issues of search algorithm bias). Essentially, I wonder how this event could have helped us to begin asking better questions connected to our relationship(s) with tech and the people on the other side of it, i.e., if we can't see the rules, we can't bend or break them. Instead, we simply follow the path provided for us to enter into the discussion, which leads me to the last point of discussion.

3) Manifest destiny: digital places and spaces

Imagine a culture with the available means for everyone to manage their very own plots of digital space in the new frontier. Imagine a place where your voice can be heard or hidden based on your freedom of choice. Sound familiar?

Hopefully, the sarcasm was noted, but I can't help but see how this demonstration highlights how spaces are being carved out in the same vein as the history of the United States: a case of rear-view mirrorism. We try to position these technologies as a means toward agency and freedom; yet, the innovation and use of any new technology, as Marshal McLuhan argues, creates more potential for pain, resistance, and war (<em>War and Peace in the Global Village</em>). And despite any rhetoric of the 21st Century new literacies or educational initiatives that desire to create access for the "everyone", technology usually finds itself on the top of the hegemonic power structure, winding its way down the line over an extended period of time. Furthermore, these technologies are becoming more and more blackboxed and proprietary, granting such access still to those who have the available means; yet, ironically, simply use tech for tech's sake. This is not to say this is the only way of perceiving technology, but when embedded within a certain type of system of rules and roles, it dwells within the simultaneous, cognitive dissonance between a machine of war and bringer of freedoms.

Ultimately, this demonstration provided me with the opportunity to interact with some of these rules of the system in which I play a part. In this system, I can see a little more clearly where I stand in relation to others, human and nonhuman, as well as how I can go about writing and (re)writing this system. I'm glad the Wikipedia chose to black out today, because I think it made their role a bit more clear to the masses. Yet, without the engagement of other larger channels, notably Google/Youtube, the prevailing idea of what the internet is to the public at large remains a black box, and SOPA and Protect-IP just don't quite make sense without knowing such roles. Overall, I just don't think we should focus on SOPA as <em>the problem</em>, because not much change will <em>happen</em> until we start interrogating our roles and the roles of others in this system.

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