Thwarted Futurism, Internet Parties and the Wake
On August 19 last year, I went to a packed public meeting at the Auckland Town Hall, hastily convened in opposition to the National government’s GCSB Amendment Bill. Marshalled to my seat, I sensed what I felt was a genuine anger in the crowd, an undercurrent of feeling ignored and excluded from a democratic process. It was rousing, but I never got the impression that we were the imminent victims of a bad law. Few if any of us will have ever said more than “what a prick” about the Prime Minister in our electronic communication. We didn’t have friends or family to email in Yemen, we weren’t intending to receive a shipment of firearms at the coastline, and we probably had the collective will and power to accomplish a mass terrorist strike on the scale of the 1982 Whanganui Police Computer attack.
Politicians, journalists, lawyers and entrepreneurs spoke in turn: mostly white, mostly male. Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury, the moderator, introduced Kim Dotcom as the second speaker of the night to rapturous applause. Dotcom described how the NZ police had raided his palatial Greenhithe mansion, his 31 days spent in a minimum-security prison, his access to a fortune of millions frozen. Bradbury got to his feet after Dotcom was done, his voice cracking gravely as he approached the microphone. ‘That man has been through hell…and back.’
He welcomed Jon Stephenson to the stage to less fanfare, an investigative journalist who documented a decade’s worth of extensive conflict and trauma in Afghanistan on a freelancer’s pittance only to be allegedly imputed a liar by the NZ Defence Force (the decision on his defamation case has been reserved).
The speeches went on. Mana Party leader Hone Harawira got up to take his turn towards the end. I apologise for quoting him at such length, but this is what came after his genial introduction (70 minutes in, he made everyone get up and stretch):
"Don’t be offended, folks, when I get into my korero. I notice it again tonight that our audience is mainly middle-class, mainly Pakeha – people with jobs, homes, life security and the time to ponder the issues of the day. I don’t say that to be offensive. I simply say it to highlight the difference and the disparity of the lives that we lead in this country. Because regardless of whether people are Maori, Pasifika, Pakeha or any other ethnic origin – poor people, hungry people, people without jobs people without security, beneficiaries – just don’t have the time or the inclination or the energy to worry about things like global spy networks and the gathering of metadata. And chances are that most of them don’t know about or care about Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden or Julian Assange or Wikileaks or even Waihopai. And it’s not because they don’t care about spying. Far from it. Beneficiaries care about spying all right. They experience it every day. They suffer from it. Their families are affected by it. Their families are destroyed by it. They are frustrated by it, and their spirits are broken by the grinding ruthlessness of it all.”
“Sure, it’s not the James Bond stuff that we all hear about. Nor is it the macho gunslinging fiasco like when the Keystone clowns broke into the Kim Dotcom mansion, but it is still spying. Beneficiaries in this country are already spied upon: their life details checked, cross-checked, amended, deleted, debated, destroyed…distributed and dehumanised, without their knowledge and without their consent, by a network of computers run by Work and Income, Housing New Zealand, the Accident Compensation Commission, Child Youth and Family, Inland Revenue, the Justice Department, the Department of Corrections, the Police, and no doubt a few other departments and agencies I’ve forgotten to list. And yet who marches for their rights? How many Queen’s Counsel, New Zealanders of the year, law professors, human rights advocates, political leaders, or even New Zealand residents of German extraction will stand up for the rights of the poor and the downtrodden here in Aotearoa?”
“Let me gently remind those of us comfortable enough to be upset by such moves that those moves began same time ago, and that many of you gathered here tonight may harrumph with righteous indignation but possibly even nodded in support when those laws were passed to allow our own government to intrude upon and to spy into the lives of our fellow citizens.”
In the Youtube video of the whole event, Kim Dotcom is visible behind Hone for the duration of his speech. He’s chuckling away when he’s referenced, but mainly keeps up a stern, earnest countenance. There’s no way to know whether he’s listening. This could just be the kind of internecine local mystery you wander into reading the newpaper as a tourist. Or he could have been doing the kind of rapid social arithmetic of someone who’s got used to reinventing himself from place to place, mentally documenting possible alliances. Whatever it was, the truth of Hone’s words – that this was a conversation among the concerned and not with the affected, and that the people he claimed to represent in parliament just wouldn’t care – hits particularly hard in the cold light this side of the election.
In Harawira's unseating, we’ve lost one of our most honest politicians – even his worst enemies fell flat and feeble trying to paint him as a liar or a hypocrite, forced to hate what he was rather than what he was dissembling. That alone should damn the Internet Party initiative, but even ignoring its policy or their public relations, there were existential problems about what it even stood for.
Because the internet doesn’t care if you’re poor, hungry or jobless, and the internet doesn’t care if an investigator goes onto your Facebook and decides from three holiday snaps that you’ve been living with someone while claiming the dole. How does a political party claim to advocate “for the Internet" to the point of putting it in the name? For good or ill, other party branding coalesces around something that’s existed for a long-ass time – the strength of nations, the dignity of someone’s labour, our link to the environment, our mana. The Internet Party was a head-end rush to some kind of unnamed technological teleology, munged futurism for people who enjoyed making cat memes instead of whirling sculptures, who dreamt of using old, dead methods to bottle a new genie.
Mana-Internet’s lineage wasn't long, or strong. The first Internet Party was formed in Ukraine in 2007 under the slogan “electronic government against bureaucracy”. It wanted a flat income tax, free computer courses for all citizens, and more attractive investment conditions. Then there was an Internet Party formed in Spain in 2009, and another in Canada a year later. They each proclaimed themselves ‘ideology-free’, seeking some system of electronic direct democracy where elected members would enact the bidding of citizens who had reached a decision on an online platform. Across Europe, “Pirate Parties” have been the other natural corollary – a reaction to draconian copyright enforcement laws, a clarion call for network neutrality, open content platforms for all. If all these important issues seem a bit nebulous in the context of jobs, well-being, and the everyday, that’s certainly reflected in the election results. Outside of Iceland, none of them have gained seats in a national parliament.
It’s not a good track record. So why an Internet Party, and why tethered to Mana and its firm basis in redistributive social justice and indigenous rights? Despite the latter, Mana was less of a race-based party than the Maori Party or the first 20 positions on the National Party list have ever been. In 2011, their top four candidates were two Maori (Harawira and Annette Sykes) and two Pakeha (Sue Bradford and John Minto). Sympathetic white participants were welcome - but the Internet Party, all enterprise, ambition, civil liberty, and taking a very important call in the background, felt like a fullblown aesthetic repeat of the division Harawira had pointed at, a gap between constituencies that campaigning never closed, despite the presence of good, solid activists like Laila Harre and Miriam Pierard. You sit in town halls and live-tweet your consternation about the NSA; if our neighbours see us with an iPad we might get summoned to a meeting at the local Community Link next week.
Our Internet Party was more than just some sort of utopian vessel for Athenian democracy, so that’s something. But the internet and the trends it accelerates in globalisation, outsourcing and technological spread (including automation) are bigger than the reach or control of governments and legislation. It’s a totalising, world-shifting force with massive repercussions for the permanence and value of unskilled and skilled labour. No one ever started a Climate Change Party to seize and welcome the exciting changes and opportunities it promised, and sometimes people jonesing for “The Internet” as some utopian horizon we’re all racing towards feel like they’re doing something similar.
What might that future look like, assuming either a broadly centre-left or centre-right government alternates and manages the tiller from here and nothing drastic happens? Let’s think about the kids that the Party’s better half fought to get a Food in Schools bill through parliament for. Internet wanted better IT systems and computer access for their schools and in their homes, which is golden.
Now let’s consider what happens when they grow up, accounting for the fact that even with the fastest broadband in the world, not everyone becomes a billionaire entrepreneur. Let’s say they want to start on the factory floor – it’ll be tough, because our manufacturing sector will just keep dwindling, assuming nothing significant (and probably, external) changes.
If they study, they might try and look for a job in journalism, as newspapers finally go under and barely a fraction of their resources transition online without subsidy or charity. They might have a fantastic graphic design portfolio that they’re unable to earn enough to live off because a full project can be crowdsourced for less than $100 in the developing world.
But many may have made it through everything to qualify in a more respectable profession. Like accounting, as it’s automated and outsourced to a shadow of the former floors of payroll and finance staff it once required. Like research, as knowledge work automaton tools and systems take on tasks that it previously took 110 to 140 million full-time workers to achieve. Like medicine and aged care, as robotical surgical systems and prosthetics provide quality health care that took more human hands to do before.
This isn’t to suggest we can or should wind the clock back, but there are fundamental changes that will not be able to ignored. Business will keep seizing on new, disruptive ways of doing things, and government’s role is going to be increasingly one of smoothing that disruption, reducing the pain and harm. What is clear is that a shiny new digital economy is not going to be swapped out easily overnight (or within a decade) for our labouring, haphazard one.
To proselytise otherwise, to imagine a New Zealand where middle-aged women who were checkout operators become fucking app developers on the back of a redundancy, is levels of glib on the level of Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat (“They’re eating Pizza Hut and wearing Google Glass in Bangalore as I play golf and ring them for IT help!”) or Peter Mannion’s grotesque “I call app Britain!” speech in The Thick Of It. The justifiable apprehension about the GCSB, about Five Eyes, and the government’s surveillance of metadata never bedded into a discussion of the expectations and consequences of putting our lives online, or the pressing reality that while the Internet has indeed been a net job creator, that that’s not the same thing as meaningful work for every community, and it’s probably creating quite the opposite. I don't think considering these issues is beyond several of the Internet Party's participants - but for a lot of the campaign, they made it all seem like it was an awful lot of fun.
At any rate, I don’t think we can point to any political parties who are considering the challenge of the internet and the conditions of globalisation it exacerbates carefully and proactively. But they’re at least grounded in some tradition, theory or concern that will eventually mean they need to consider their response to technology outpacing society so quickly. Ultimately, for all their other policies, I think I was turned off from the beginning by the very notion of the Internet Party. The myopic zest for a future that’s deeply uncertain, a digital revolution that benefited its founder hugely at the expense of others but that would have seemed like snake oil to too many of those it chose to latch on to.
The Auckland Town Hall filled up again a year later. When Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange assembled on September 15th for Dotcom’s ‘Moment of Truth’, Harawira’s voice of perspective was silent. I found their evidence shocking in the abstract, but there was nothing to make me personally afraid. It was just that guilty fizz of intrigue when an exciting thing happens. I suspect the real life of being watched isn’t quite that exciting. You wait, and you try to make ends meet, and you try to keep yourself and your family out of trouble. And once in a while, a bunch of people appear on your screen or device to insist the future is here, and it’s already passing you by.