Distributed network architectures and distributed political decisionmaking are not the same thing. The Department of Defense may be glad we communicate over a distributed network architecture, but Americans love their centrally-planned communications, thank you very much.
We all know that the Internet was designed to resist nuclear attack by being distributed. The idea was that if you have multiple nodes, and connections between each node and other nearby nodes, and the nodes all relay messages to all of their local nodes, then you end up with lots and lots of pathways from any one node to any other.
And so you would have to do a lot of nuking to eliminate all of the routes from any one node to any other, thereby making it rather difficult to cut off communications.
This is in an important sense a physical system.
It does not imply anything at all about governance of the nodes. A centralized one-party state, indeed, a dictatorship run by one man, can run an internet and enjoy all of its benefits.
So long as the nukes don’t knock the dictator himself out, he can be confident that from whatever node he happens to occupy on the network he will be able to bark orders to his minions on any other part of the network, because, again, will be very difficult for the nukes to wipe out all possible routes through the network from the dictator’s node to any other node.
The notion that the Internet is a politically free place is at best a misunderstanding of the implications of a physically-distributed architecture for how human communities who use that architecture make decisions. Just because you have a lot of nodes that communicate with each other rather than only with a central authority does not in the least imply that the humans who use the nodes need to be free creatures unaccountable to any central authority. Or that they must be free creatures who work together only by consensus.
The early web did in some cases happen to have this free and ungoverned political character. People proposed standards of communication of various kinds—for example, standards for how email should be sent and received—and people voluntarily followed them. And it kind of worked, although some message features were only supported by some message readers, and so on.
But by the 2000s it became clear that much more, and more interesting, kinds of communication could be run over the network if you had a central political authority that dictated the terms of communication. Now, the central political authorities that arose to provide these communications were not the government. They were private corporations (e.g., Facebook). And they didn’t dictate in the sense that everyone on the Internet had to communicate their way as a matter of law. Instead, they dictated market-style, which is to say that they set up systems on the Internet that did it their way and let you join if you wanted to join.
And so many people did want to join that before you knew it, these corporate systems were the only way to communicate (more or less). And so by private means they had achieved centralized political control over the Internet (more or less).
The people in effect voted to give these companies centralized political control when they decided that their products were better, and so used them.
And they were better.
Instead of downloading a software client—like an email reader—you went to a website and you logged in and henceforth, during your stay on that website, you were locked into the rules of communication enforced by the private enterprise that ran that website. Before, you had used Eudora to write email, and hoped that the voluntarily protocols of email were followed by the email reader used by your recipient, and that your recipient wasn’t so awash in spam that he would accidentally delete your email along with the rest, or that his server would crash. Now you logged into Facebook and sent a message there, or made a post, or sent a chat, and it just worked because Facebook controlled everyone’s inboxes and all the code governing communication between them.
Now, it would be a mistake to suppose that because Facebook is, you know, one website, that it cannot benefit from the distributed character of the Internet.
There is no reason why, in a nuclear war, you should be forced to do without Facebook anymore than you might escape Internet communications from a political dictator during nuclear war. The distributed nature of the Internet as a physical matter means that it will be very hard to sever all of the connections between any two points, including all of the connections between you and Facebook. (Nuking Facebook won’t work either, because Facebook isn’t a bunch of computers at a particular geographic location; it is itself a network of data centers all over the world, one that can hop onto the Internet whenever it likes through any surviving Internet node.)
And when you do pull up Facebook in the midst of the nuclear storm, you will nevertheless be subject to Facebook’s central planning, to its central political authority.
The placement of the like button on your screen will still have been decided by Facebook. The chat interface will be Facebook’s. What you can say on the system without getting blocked will still be decided by Facebook.
Is this a good thing? This is really the question whether we want our communications technologies to be decided by consensus based on the promulgation of voluntary protocols, or whether we prefer our communications technologies to be determined by individuals—or individual corporations—and then supplied to us on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
It seems obvious to me that we prefer the latter. That is what the netizens voted for in the 2000s when they gave up their email readers and went in for Gmail.
That is what they voted for when they gave up their IRC chat clients and RSS readers and went in for Facebook.
By logging in before communicating, they submitted to these centralized political authorities because they felt that they got a better product out of it.
Communication was more reliable and it was richer; more could be shared and more easily, than had been possible with the tools of the old way.
The web voted for central planning; because sometimes planning is better.