The Political Potential of the Web

The Political Potential of the Web

As a loyal, if discontented, Dissent reader, I was only mildly surprised that you would print a pair of articles that are sullen and cautionary about a recent technological and cultural phenomenon called the Internet (“The Information Society, the New Economy, and the Hype,” by James B. Rule, Fall 2000 and “Highway to Nowhere,” by Gina Neff, Winter 2001). I suppose Dissent would find reasons why manna from heaven would promote the current power structure, but joking aside, these articles’ dyspeptic attitude toward the World Wide Web and all it contains and all it promises should be particularly disturbing to all of us. It means that talented people on the left haven’t even dipped their toes in the currents of cyberspace to consider how to use this unprecedented opportunity to heal the crazy, unjust world we live in. And if something like the Internet—which has conjured up a host of billion-dollar-valued companies in less than a decade, threatens to reconceive entire industries (such as recorded music, publishing, news gathering, and retail sales), and offers a heretofore unimagined model of community building—can’t generate enthusiasm among a group of social critics, it’s hard to imagine what will.

There are reasons why the Internet has been pushed aside by people on the left—so much of the discussion about the World Wide Web is linked to commerce and stock price, venture capitalists and day-traders. But these characteristics, which surely are less relevant after the crash of Internet stocks last year, should not excuse the blithe ignorance of most Dissent editors and the outright hostility of its writers.

IN FACT, the Internet embodies much of the internationalist thinking that once used to characterize the left, all that “workers of the world, unite” stuff I read about in college. Yes, in the short term, the Internet has made it easier for companies to hire cheap labor around the world. But it has also made it easier for oppression to come to the world’s attention. Eventually, the Internet should make it easier for unions to organize internationally, as Marx and others imagined. (In fact, progressive-minded unions, such as the Communications Workers of America, to which I used to belong, already have extensive ties to European counterparts.) And we on the left should celebrate the world’s coming together. Sure, I, like nearly all Dissent readers, opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement because of the lower salaries and degraded working conditions it meant for American workers—the ones to whom I obviously owe the greatest allegiance—but I also recognize that some day we will have worldwide standards for workers and that I really should care about the Mexican workers whose base salaries and working conditions are invariably lifted by free-trade agreements like NAFTA. Instead of decrying the capitalistic tilt of the Internet and globalism in general, shouldn’t...


Lima