Everything Might Be Separate

The Economist has a briefing titled “Everything is connected” that wanders about the dynamics of Internet politics and policy, with references to work by Boyle, Lessig, Benkler, Frischmann, and Werbach, among US-based scholars, and a host of others.  The environment/environmentalism metaphor gets a workout, the economics of infrastructure are highlighted, and there’s even a favorable reference to commons — the Ostrom-style commons that Brett and I and Kathy Strandburg have written about, not “free for all” commons.  It’s a useful introduction to a lively and contentious field.

The piece also invokes Barry Commoner’s wisdom about ecology and the natural environment:  “[E]verything is connected to everything else.”  

Yet that’s not quite true, and even the Economist gets it right when it distinguishes the cluster of issues that surround net neutrality debates (where connectedness and seamlessness are part of the value package that drive activism) from the related issues that drive privacy and property concerns (where connectedness and seamlessness can be costly).  Julie Cohen’s phrase, “semantic discontinuity,” gets at some of the values that dis-connectedness brings, and that some Internet activists are after:  the power to be separate and distinct(ive) as an individual; the power to use and shape knowledge, information, and data in ways that are dis-connected from the network.  I’ve argued, similarly, that “discontinuous” legal and cultural architectures are deeply embedded as normative baselines in the laws of copyright and free expression. Sometimes, everything is separate; the politics of the Internet play out as the to-and-fro between connection as virtue, and connection as vice.