he New Year is upon us: the search-engine giants of Silicon Valley have released their sparkling, end-of-year “what we searched for” videos. Watching these stirs up a spirit of solidarity and humanity — they suggest that our dominant use of the internet was to participate in politics, stand up for the oppressed, admire our athletes, mourn the loss of our celebrities, and laugh. It takes a little digging to find that, after a few functional searches for Facebook and our favorite search engines — we use the internet to masturbate.
The giants of Silicon Valley have been downplaying the popularity of internet pornography for years. Business Insider claimed that “porn” (after a few typos and functional searches for things like “facebook” and “youtube”) was the fifth most popular Google search of 2014. They cited Google Trends as evidence. Following their citation, one finds “porn” absent from Google Trends’ list. It’s not that the information isn’t there. The information isn’t publicized. A direct Google Trends search shows that “porn” and “sex” are far more popular search terms than “gmail” and “target,” but only “gmail” and “target” made the announcement of Google Trends’ Top 25 Most Popular Queries of 2014.
Google Trends limits itself to announcements of “trending” topics — terms that grow in popularity in comparison compared to the last year — never mentioning that the constant winner, in terms of raw numbers, is “porn.” As a result, the fact that “porn” remains the internet’s top content search has grown increasingly obscure. Since 2014, even Business Insider has become content to re-report Google’s own press release, announcing that “Trump” and “Powerball” were the “most popular searches of 2016.” (They were not, “porn” was far more popular.) As Google goes, so goes the rest: Yahoo and Bing and released their “top searches of 2016” videos without a single footnote to explain the miraculous absence of smut, and the 2017 roundup looks the same.
Perhaps this censorship is a part of Google’s commitment to remove “search terms that may be explicitly sexual.” It would make sense to remove these terms from autocomplete algorithms as an effort to protect children from running into pornography. But censoring the fact that the search for “porn” is the core content search of the internet seems less like the preservation of innocence and more like the act of deleting the browser history — a shame-filled shuffle of porn to some darker corner of the internet.
I don’t claim to know the personal intentions of our capitalist class, but there is a logical reason for this retrospective claim of internet purity. The tycoons of Silicon Valley are striving to attain an era of universal connectivity, in which the internet is available to all of humanity. Google’s CEO, Larry Page, wants to cover the world with internet-providing balloons. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is addressing the U.N. with grave prophecies, calling internet-access “a fundamental challenge of our time.” He is ready to fill the sky with internet-providing drones to meet it. His dream of universal connectivity has a creed: “The more we connect, the better it gets.”
This is hardly a self-evident claim. The internet-age connects a debtor with alarming efficiency to his creditors — our debtor would be unlikely to nod along with Zuckerberg’s optimism. The internet-age connects hackers with bank accounts; corporations with shopping habits; the FBI with the location of the American citizen; neo-Nazis with their compatriots; pimps with prostitutes and pedophiles with children. Zuckerberg asks us to imagine what the hitherto unconnected “could contribute when the world can hear their voices.” To value “hearing other voices” lacks the wherewithal to ask whether those voices are worth hearing. I do not mean to call connection an unequivocal evil, but it is naivete to pretend that it is an unequivocal good. To value connection for the sake of connection is a superstition — an article of faith, and not a very reasonable faith at that. What remains unanswered (and as far as I can tell, unasked) is the question: what kind of connection would a universal internet establish?
Zuckerberg leaves us some clues. In Wired’s article, Inside Facebook’s Ambitious Plan to Connect the Whole World, he argues that, through the philanthropy of Silicon Valley, “a kid in India…could potentially go online and learn all of math.” Facebook’s online manifesto for a universal internet, Internet.org, begs us to consider “the difference an accurate weather report could make for a farmer planting crops, or the power of an encyclopedia for a child without textbooks.”
Zuckerberg’s optimism is infectious, but it is haunted by that spectre of the “noble savage,” the belief that, though the developed world has grown lonely, distracted, and addicted through our internet connection, the developing world, with their honest needs and crops, will thrive — they will be ennobled, while we, the wealthy, will largely search for “boobs.” In actual fact, it seems that the people of India, Kenya and the rest of the internet-needing world will use the internet in about the same way as the internet-having world. Search trends come and go, but the popularity of “porn” and “sex,” with very few exceptions, tends to match the relative growth of internet access in any given developing country. To visualize this, consider a comparison of the popularity of “porn” (blue) to “math” (red) in India, where internet access has steadily increased from 2004 to the present day:
True, Zuckerberg was not making a statistical claim with his hope that better internet access would bring “all of math” to an Indian boy. He only speaks of the “potential” use of the web. In the end, it is a human choice to use the internet for porn rather than education. But given the mighty attraction of the pornographic, it is an unrealistic optimism not to speak of pornography as a key part of the universalization of the internet.
The development of internet-technology has always been fueled by porn. Ross Benes, author of The Sex Effect, argues that “while the military created the internet, it would not have found a solid consumer base without porn.” E-commerce, digital cameras, video-streaming, webcam, and increased-bandwidth were all solutions to the problem of how to consume the stuff. The trend continues: “virtual reality” devices, our new digital frontier, are being developed in response to the demand for “virtual porn.” Despite the historical evidence that internet use and development was and still is driven by pornography, the movers and shakers of the internet-for-all movement prefer to pretend that, this time, it will be driven by the neutral desire for textbooks.
An astute criticism could be made here: “so what?” So providing internet for all means providing pornography for all — doesn’t the whole of humanity have the right to watch pornography, if they so choose?
Carrying possible-porn in one’s pocket may or may not be a good thing, but this much cannot be denied — it is a new thing. It represents a new way of living and being in the world. The sexual life of modern man develops in relation to the “sex-ed” of the internet-age. It changes families and communities. As evidence, one could consider the rise of cosmetic genital surgery, the growing alarm over pornography addiction, the studies that show the common occurrence of being forced to “act out pornography” in cases of sexual abuse, or the link between pornography and the thriving institution of sex-slavery. Additionally, one could consider the obvious: the average age of exposure to hardcore pornography is 11. The average age of virginity loss is 17. This means that sex is increasingly defined in and through porn before it is understood in itself. Studies can only confirm the experience of my millennial generation — internet pornography changed the nature of our playground discussions, pubescent fantasies, and our understanding of desire, anatomy, pleasure and love. Only the most naive could pretend that giving every husband, wife and child a pocket full of possible pornstars will not change the global experience of human sexuality as it has changed the developed world’s.
This runs against the doctrines of our philanthropists, who describe the internet (and, more specifically, their products) as pure, neutral access to information. It is “essential to growing the knowledge we have and sharing it with each other,” as Zuckerberg’s booster for the internet-for-all movement, Internet.org, puts it. Technology is “just a tool,” says Bill Gates. The moral neutrality of the net justifies what might be otherwise seen as an aggressive campaign to replace owned, communal goods and skills with devices and apps continuously rented from wealthy tech giants. The overwhelming presence of pornography is the pebble in the proverbial shoe, one that reveals the lie of the internet-for-all movement. Pretending that the internet is not fueled by the life-changing and culture-altering presence of pornography is a necessary fiction that helps us to believe a supreme one — that the internet itself is not a life-changing and culture-altering presence.
But it is. The use of internet-technology is almost always the use of a tool that is owned, maintained, provided and continuously updated by wealthy men from developed nations who preach the basic values of liberal capitalism. The loss of diverse languages exemplifies this fact. Despite claims to “connection,” only 5% of the world’s languages are in use on the internet, with the vast majority of the web written in English and Chinese. The internet reflects the capital that creates and maintains it. Even Internet.org cannot quite pretend to promote a culturally neutral device. In their list of the four key barriers to universal internet access includes the barrier of readiness, “the capacity to access, including skills, awareness and cultural acceptance.” This represents an awareness that cultures will need to change if they are going to accept the internet.
Nowhere is the masquerade as a neutral service so apparent as Zuckerberg’s plan to provide the world with universal internet access. Facebook is “gifting” the internet-lacking world with Free Basics — free access to a limited number of “basic” websites and apps. What constitutes a “basic” is ultimately determined by Facebook — within the scope of its particular ideology. And Facebook does have an ideology. When Facebook gives us the option of identifying ourselves as one of many genders, it implicitly validates the recent, Western claim that gender is an ontological category determined by psychological self-reflection. One might agree with the stance or not — nevertheless, few in the developing world would argue that it is a universal principle, transcendentally available to all peoples and cultures. Facebook and Twitter monitor hate-speech — that is, they set themselves up as an accurate arbiter of what constitutes hate and what does not. One might agree or disagree with their decisions, but again, this much is certain — they are not operating in a universal manner, but from particular, culturally-embedded notions of “hate,” “free speech” and, ultimately, right and wrong.
Internet.org praises Maya.com as a partner on their Free Basics platform, a site that provides health information to women. Unsurprisingly, the website recommends and promotes the use of contraception. This is “basic” to the West. It is not so “basic” to the Catholic communities of Kenya, who oppose contraception on moral grounds. Another “basic” app, SmartSex, which provides regular sex tips for “pleasuring that special someone,” bemoans that “traditional Islam has a dim view of masturbation”…
We need to remember that many of these beliefs emerged in highly conservative tribal societies where science and public health considerations were non-existent. So folks, remember, we’ve come a long way baby! We can still be strong moral forces in our world without being hung up on ancient interpretations of sexual morality.
“Basic” means “basic for Westerners.” It’s explicitly opposed to “basic” Islam, Catholicism, and “highly conservative tribal societies”.
It would be foolish to pretend that the internet-needing world is some pure, untouched museum of “traditional values” — it would be equally foolish to pretend that Zuckerberg’s Free Basics are value-free. One might agree with Facebook’s ideology or not — Facebook’s pretense that it is not ideological is still disagreeable. The lie that the internet is a neutral tool masks the fact that the internet is owned, and thus makes communities dependent on global corporations for the skills and systems it replaces. The lie that Free Basics is pure information-access masks the fact that it works to replace those beliefs and values that do not conform to the basic doctrines of Western liberalism. In both cases the internet is presented in the same manner as Google’s Top Search lists — as a neutral place for communication and useful function, devoid of specific, troubling content and incapable of producing a new kind of man.
Opposition to pornography used to be considered a “conservative” position, fit only for moralists unable to see how natural and harmless the habit really is. Now that our capitalists are downplaying the significance of internet pornography in order to preach the “necessary” universalization of their products, opposition takes on a radical edge. To show that pornography is a rampant, destructive, and addictive driver of internet technology puts the internet-for-all project into question. By refusing to divorce the campaign for a universalized internet from the effect of a universalized pornographic sex education, we begin to see the truth behind philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s odd claim that “cyberspace IS hardcore pornography.” Both pornography and internet-technology introduce a new way of acting in the world. Both manufacture new needs — the internet by gradually replacing the dumb-technologies it purports to augment (like maps, marketplaces and slow methods of communication) and pornography by, notoriously, replacing the human as the object of sexual desire with pixelated representation through the manipulation of the orgasm. Both are defended in and through the basic values of Western liberalism as “progress,” “development” and “free choice.” Both succeed as products only insofar as they convince people to exchange their owned goods — their sexuality or their means of communication, navigation, entertainment, etc. — for devices, connections and websites that must be continuously rented from the wealthy through monthly payments of attention-span, personal information and cash. Both serve each other — porn makes people want/need constant online connectivity, and constant connectivity inevitably introduces its consumers to the dubious trade of hardcore pornography. Both, in the final estimation, tend towards the creation of a new kind of serf, one who is dependent on his lords to continuously provide the basic stuff of his existence — from groceries to his erections.
Opposition to pornography should be linked with the growing demand to break up the internet monopolies, which have rapidly culled a quarter of the world’s wealth into the hands of 4 or 5 people. It is a strong moral motivator, one that does not allow us to see the internet-for-all movement as a charitable gift to the developing world, but as the further expansion of culture-altering, Western-owned devices that gradually erode communities into the same relationships of dependence that the denizens of the developed world currently enjoy with their corporations.