Notes Towards an Anthropology of the Internet


Is an anthropology of the internet possible? If so, what would
it look like? I will attempt a provisional answer here, building on a recent
book about the consequences of the digital revolution for the forms of money
and exchange (Hart 2001). People, machines and money matter in this world, in
that order. Most intellectuals know very little about any of them, being preoccupied
with their own production of cultural ideas. Anthropologists have made some
progress towards understanding people, but they are often in denial when it
comes to the other two; and their methods for studying people have been trapped
for too long in the 20th-century paradigm of fieldwork-based ethnography. I
do not advocate a wholesale rejection of the ethnographic tradition, but rather
would extend its premises towards a more inclusive anthropological project,
better suited to studying world society, of which the internet is perhaps the
most striking expression. For sure, we need to find out what real people do
and think by joining them where they live. But we also need a global perspective
on humanity as a whole if we wish to understand our moment in history. This
will expose the limitations of the modern experiment in the social sciences
— their addiction to impersonal abstractions and pression of individual

Even more than before, an anthropology of the internet relies
on auto-ethnography, on fieldwork as personal experience. We each enter it through
a unique trajectory. The world constituted by this ‘network of networks’ does
not exist out there, independently of our own individual experience of it. Nor
is the internet ‘the world’, but rather an online world to which we all bring
the particulars of our place in society offline. In reaching for the human meaning
of the internet, we need to combine introspection and personal judgment with
comparative ethnography and world history. Each of us embarks on a journey outward
into the world and inward into the self. We are, as Durkheim (1912) said, at
once collective and individual. Society is mysterious to us because we have
lived in it and it now dwells inside us at a level that is not ordinarily visible
from the perspective of everyday life. Writing is one way we try to bring the
two into some mutual understanding that we can share with others. Ethnographic
fieldwork, requiring us to participate in local society as we observe it, adds
to our range of social experience, becomes an aspect of our socialization, brings
lived society into our sources of introspection. It is feasible for some individuals
to leave different social experiences in separate compartments; but one method
for understanding world society would be to make an ongoing practice of trying
to synthesize these varied experiences. If a person would have an identity,
would be one thing, oneself, this entails an attempt to integrate all the fragments
of social experience into a more coherent whole, a world in other words, as
singular as the self (Hart 2003).

So there are as many worlds as there are individuals and their
journeys; and, even if there were only one out there, each of us changes it
whenever we make a move. This model of Kantian subjectivity, at once personal
and cosmopolitan, should be our starting point; but it will not do for the study
of world society. Accordingly, I begin with an account of the internet seen
in world-historical perspective — its origins and political economy —
before turning to the dialectics of the virtual and the real that frame our
personal journey through cyberspace. Here I will draw on Heidegger’s metaphysics,
before turning in conclusion to Kant’s great example as a source for the possible
renewal of the intellectual discipline he named (Kant 1798).

The origins of the internet

Communication is a word cognate with common and community. It
appears to have its root in the ability of a group or network of people to exchange
things and ideas through interaction. This usually takes the form either of
the circulation of material objects by means of money or the exchange of signs
by means of language. The first of these is the main topic of Money in an
Unequal World
(Hart 2001), but the second is a submerged current of the
main argument there. The two circuits are converging in the digital revolution
of our day: money is becoming information and information money. In both cases,
the signs exchanged are now increasingly virtual, meaning that they take the
form of bits detached from persons and places passing through the ether at the
speed of light. This process of digitalization lies at the core of our moment
in history; but the precedents for it go back to the origin of writing and probably
further than that.

Information is an intentional signal from the perspective of the
sender, perhaps anything that reduces the uncertainty of a receiver. The transmission
of information through machines has traditionally come in the form of waves,
imperceptible gradations of light and sound. For communications engineers, analogue
and digital computation rest on measuring and counting, respectively:
on the one hand, continuous changes in physical variables like age, height,
warmth or speed; on the other, discontinuous leaps between discrete entities,
such as days of the week, dollars and cents, letters of the alphabet, named
individuals. Analogue processes, such as time and distance, can be represented
digitally; but it was something of a breakthrough for early modern science to
measure continuous physical change with precision. Before that the clarity of
phenomena was generally enhanced and comparison facilitated by constructing
bounded entities that could be counted, by digitalization.

Digital numeration is at its clearest when the only possible signals
are binary: on/off, yes/no, either/or, 0/1. And this reversion to an older system
of simple enumeration lies behind the latest revolution in communications. Digitalization
greatly increases the speed and reliability of information processing and transmission;
it also lies behind the rapid convergence of what were once discrete systems:
television, telephones, computers. The last have been digital from the beginning,
while the other two have almost completed the shift from sound waves to digital
transmission. As a result, any kind of information can be carried by all types
of equipment, which become essentially substitutable. Communications technology
in future will consist in various combinations of screen, computer and transmitter/receiver.
The manufacturing monopolists will fight over whether the resulting hybrids
resemble more a television set, a PC or a telephone. But the process common
to all is digitalization and the present moment of convergence lends our era
its specificity. We should not stress information at the expense of people.
For the relations we make with each other matter more than the content of the
messages that pass between us or the means of their transmission. In order to
place the internet within a broader context of social life, we should step back
to examine its historical antecedents.

Human communication starts out as speech and the words exchanged
are usually between people who can see as well as hear each other. A lot of
non-verbal information accompanies the words – gestures, tone, emanations of
feeling – and this helps us to interpret what is said and how to respond. This
is surely why we say that social interaction is real. The words are abstract
enough; but the exchange is face-to-face, grounding what passes between us in
the exigency of place. Writing made it possible to detach meaning from the persons
and places where it was generated and to communicate at some distance in time
and space, not only in the here and now (Goody 1977, 1989). Even then, the signs
were often highly particular, too many for all but a select few to understand
and variable from one scribe to the next. The alphabet took the process of simplifying
the signs a step further, one sound for one unambiguous letter, thereby making
it possible for writing to be adopted more widely and reliably. It was, if you
will, a cheapening of the cost of transmitting information.

The Phoenician city states, maritime traders of the Lebanese coast,
were the main pioneers of alphabetic writing at the beginning of the first millennium
BC; and it came into Europe through the Greeks. I like to speculate how books
were received at first. For example on Homer: “All youngsters want to do today
is read at home. You can’t get them to go out or anything. They have no idea
what it was like hearing the old boy in a torch-lit barn on a Saturday night,
with his voice echoing in the rafters. It brought tears to your eyes. Well,
some of it was the smoke too.” Many more people have had access to the bard
over the last 3,000 years than could ever have been in the same room as him
during his lifetime, even if the experience of reading is less sensational than
a live performance. Virtual communication takes place more in the mind than
in actual fact. The only way people could escape from the restrictions of the
here and now was through exercising their imagination, usually under the stimulus
of story-telling. Alphabetic writing, ultimately the book, vastly increased
the scope of the collective imagination. It also made possible more practical
exchanges at distance.

At more or less the same time as the alphabet (around 700 BC),
coinage was invented in Lydia, now a part of Turkey (Keynes 1930). Alphabetic
writing and this new form of money were profoundly subversive of old ways. Until
then, wealth and power were concrete and visible, being attached to the people
who had them. They took the form of cattle, vineyards, buildings, armed men
and beautiful women. Now riches could be concealed as gold coins, allowing for
a double detachment from persons – impersonal exchange at distance and unaccountable
economic power (because hidden and private). From the beginning writing found
a ready application in palace bureaucracy. The king could send messages while
remaining himself invisible. It is one thing to be beaten up by royal thugs;
but imagine the terror of receiving a written message saying “please commit
suicide before tomorrow”. We feel something of this dread whenever we receive
a tax demand from the unseen hand of a remote authority.

Plato captures this in a story he tells in The Republic.
Gyges was one of the Lydian king’s servants. The king had a ring which made
him invisible. He took Gyges with him one night to spy on his wife getting ready
for bed. Gyges and the wife eventually ganged up to kill the king. Gyges got
the ring, the wife and the kingdom, making him a precursor of legendary rich
rulers like Midas. Marc Shell (1978) argues that this myth expresses the contradictions
widely felt at the time between visible, personal society and invisible, impersonal
society. The Greeks were very concerned about the security of contracts between
strangers. They insisted that each contract (for which they devised the word
symbolon) should be marked by an object like a ring split in the presence
of both parties and a witness. They didn’t quite believe in pieces of paper.

As long as books were handwritten, their circulation was restricted
to a small literate elite capable of copying and reading them. In my old university,
Cambridge, until the 16th century, teachers carried their own scrolls around
in the deep pockets of their gowns and read them out for payment to students
who thereby ended up with their own copies. Copying was not in itself a major
obstacle to the diffusion of texts. The ability to interpret the texts was scarce
and costly. Printing made it possible for many more people to get hold of written
material; and to an extent it eliminated some of the ambiguities of handwriting.
It took a line of business away from the hacks with gowns and shifted the emphasis
in learning to the act of interpretation and hence to understanding. When my
students complained of a “lack of structure” in my lectures, meaning that they
wanted to be told the half dozen points that, when memorized by rote, would
ensure a decent pass in the examinations, I used to ask them to consider the
success of Cambridge University Press over the last 450 years (McKitterick 1992).
This was built on putting books directly into the hands of students, so that
they could make up their own minds what they meant, with the help of learned
and hopefully inspiring teachers. Instead, today’s students wanted me to revert
to the role of a reader of scrolls before the print revolution, passing signs
from one person to the next without touching the minds of either.

My grandmother was born before the car, the radio, film, air travel
and all the other transport and communications technologies that came to dominate
20th century society. I used to marvel at the way she adapted to all of them.
Now I am beginning to understand what she had to put up with; for, having lived
through every year since the second world war, I realize how profoundly my world
has changed in these respects. I grew up without television in the home and
with very limited opportunities for travel; so I relied on books to get away
from it all. It feels as if my intensive training in the manipulation of words
and numbers (Latin, Greek and maths) now belongs to another age. I have managed
to gain a toehold on the digital revolution, largely through the tolerant assistance
of bright young people who have grown up with it. For them, the phase of national
television that I missed is already a bygone era. We all enter this extraordinary
time with a bundle of advantages and drawbacks. I take pride in a facility for
writing coherent e-mail messages at a pace somewhere between a letter and a
phone-call. Yet I also know that communicating through keyboards will soon be
replaced by audio-visual methods, thereby removing one more link between the
book and the screen. My academic colleagues are still fighting the war against
television, refusing to allow one into a living room designed to show off their
books. It’s all relative.

One consequence of this revolution is a tendency for academics
to consider books and computers to be opposed rather than complementary technologies.
Yet print media are expanding almost as fast as their new electronic counterparts.
Face-to-face exchanges, instead of being displaced by telecommunications, take
on an added value when one spends the working day in front of a computer screen.
Simple pursuits like reading and conversation, which used to be taken for granted
when they monopolized our means of communication, can be approached in a more
analytical and creative frame of mind now that there are so many other ways
of acquiring and transmitting ideas. I do most of my writing in a Paris apartment,
the long-distance writer’s traditional retreat into privacy; nothing new there.
But I also keep up dialogues by e-mail with friends living all over the world.
And no writer was able to do that before the 1990s. I now have a virtual office
to accommodate a life of movement; my laptop, but I was forced to recognize
the value of my own memory when it was stolen. Each of us experiences the digital
revolution in our own way; yet there are changes taking place that affect us

Computers have been with us for over 50 years, television for
a bit longer and telephones for twice that long. In the1990s these technologies
converged with the emergence of a worldwide network of communications, the internet.
The internet is the most inclusive term for all the electronic networks in the
world. It is the network of networks. These are decentralized to a large extent,
but they constitute a conceptual unity in much the same way as “the world market”
does. Indeed the latter’s transactions increasingly take place on the internet.
The World Wide Web is a disembodied machine, a type of software, that emerged
in 1994 for use on the internet. It allows people to display messages in a non-interactive
way through a multi-media format, employing words, pictures, sound, animation
and video. The big innovation at the time was the move from words and numbers
to visual images. All messages are transmitted between computers and television
screens (hardware) by means of telephone and radio signals. The infrastructure
for these transmissions in turn constitutes a rapidly evolving network of satellites,
cable grids and other means.

The internet was for several decades restricted in use to a strategic
complex of military, academic and business interests, based in the United States
and Europe. For some time, the most intensive use of the internet was between
physicists located near the two main nuclear accelerators in Illinois and Geneva.
These scientists lent to the medium its definitive style and content in the
early decades: highly technical, closed and clubby. By the time that the internet
went public in 1993, there were only three million users in the world. In the
next five years the number of users increased to 100 mn. This figure is now
estimated to be 600 mn or 1 in 10 people alive. No previous technology has diffused
so fast through the world’s population. The internet is an American invention;
certainly they behave as if they own it. The Europeans are now trying to get
a world regulatory authority for the internet set up in Geneva. But the Americans
still constitute well over half of users and most of the practical instruments
for intervening in the network are located there. Several hundred satellites
now make broadband communications available to users worldwide. This side of
the digital revolution favours large corporations, even as it distributes the
medium to an ever-widening network of decentralized users. At present, the fastest-growing
use of the internet is for electronic commerce, something almost unknown before
the 1990s. At the same time, companies and private individuals are forming intranets,
exclusive circuits of information exchange offering higher security than the
public medium.

If ever there was a challenge to empiricism, the habit of extrapolating
from previous experience, it is posed by trying to guess what the social impact
of all this is likely to be. Compare, for example, the adoption of iron in the
lands bordering the Eastern Mediterranean 3,000 years ago. Iron is the commonest
metal ore on earth and it is extremely robust and malleable. When the technique
of smelting it was first discovered, small quantities of iron were used principally
for prestigious ornaments worn by the ruling classes. Then it found a military
use as weapons which allowed some groups to gain a temporary advantage over
their neighbours. It took several hundred years in most cases for iron to find
its most significant application, as tools used in the production of food and
manufacture by the common people. If you had happened to be living in Assyria,
say, at the beginning of iron production, you would have guessed that its destiny
was to be a symbolic and practical means of maintaining the dominance of a military
caste. Much the same inference could have been drawn in relation to the internet
at any time during the Cold War.

So what is the digital revolution? It consists of rapid changes
in the size, cost and especially speed of machines capable of processing information
(US Department of Commerce 1998, Naughton 1999). This is now measured as millions
of instructions per second or MIPS. The world’s first computer, the Electronic
Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), was built soon after the second world
war; it cost millions of dollars, was 50 metres wide and 3 metres tall, and
processed 5,000 instructions per second. Twenty-five years later, an Intel micro-processor
chip, 12 mm square, cost $200 and processed 60,000 instructions per second (0.06
MIPS). Today Pentium 4 chips have a processing capacity of 10,000 MIPS and this
is expected to reach 100,000 MIPS by 2012. In 1980 copper phone wires transmitted
information at the rate of a page of print a second; today, hair-thin optical
fibres can transmit the equivalent of almost a million encyclopaedia volumes
per second. Until recently the modems (linking computers and telephones) most
commonly in use took an hour to download a five-minute video; broadband technology
currently available can perform the same operation in ten seconds.

The following table puts this contemporary cascade of technical
change in context. There are three main stages of the machine revolution, marked
by steam-power, electricity grids and information-processing, respectively.

Table 1 Three Stages of the Machine Revolution

c.1800 c.1900 c.2000
Revolution Industrial Bureaucratic Digital
Technology Steam-power Electricity grids Information


Institution Factory Office Internet
Capitalism Market State Virtual
Economy Urban National World

The steam-engine was invented in 1712; but it was another sixty
years before James Watt’s improvements made it feasible to power factories by
this means; and the industrial revolution proper did not take off until after
the Napoleonic Wars (roughly a century after Newcomen’s engine). Electricity
was first identified and harnessed in 1831; over fifty years later, Thomas Edison
began generating it for public use. Again, only in the first decades of the
20th century was the efficiency of factories transformed by the wholesale adoption
of electric motors; and widespread domestic use of electrical appliances had
to wait until the middle decades of the twentieth century. It took a hundred
years from Faraday’s discovery until 80% of Americans were plied with electricity
at home.

If ENIAC (its inventor being suitably anonymous for a bureaucratic
age) is analogous to the inventions of Newcomen and Faraday, our time bears
comparison with those moments, half a century later, when the discovery first
began to have widespread social application. It seems to us that the rate of
change today is much faster and more general than those earlier revolutions;
and this may be a justifiable impression. Certainly, the significance of this
third phase is much more far-reaching than before, if only for the internet’s
role in the formation of world society as a single interactive network. But
vast populations have still barely joined the steam-power or electricity grid
revolutions. In parts of Africa, iron ox-ploughs in place of hand hoes are bringing
agricultural production to a level of technology that has been normal in the
Eurasian land mass for thousands of years. In the industrial West, human labour
was replaced for most of the 19th century not by machines, but by horses; and
full mechanization of food production had to wait until the second half of the
20th century.

It looks then as if it will be another 50 years at least before
we can tell how society is being affected in the regions already open to adoption
of the internet. Differences in the rate and manner of such adoption between
the world’s regions, classes and sectors of production will likewise only emerge
in the course of the present century. Steam-power allowed factories to be located
away from their principal source of energy (once water and wood, then coal)
and to deploy machines replacing manual labour. These factories were operated
by a new class of industrial entrepreneurs, individuals like Richard Arkwright
who were later parodied in Dickens’ novels (Crabtree 1923, Dickens 1854). Electricity
helped turn factory production into a streamlined system of managerial control,
powered the office complexes of the bureaucratic revolution and eventually made
domestic life more convenient. It required a physical network for its distribution
and this encouraged governments to own or licence monopoly operators of grids
as the most tangible symbols of the national economy.

The internet harnesses light for almost instantaneous communication
between machines using microscopic circuits to process and store information.
There are profound implications for the system of money, for the market economy
and its dark twin, capitalism. Now that the internet is no longer primarily
a research tool, its use is increasingly as a sphere of economic activity, as
a link between and within businesses and between businesses and their customers.
It is becoming an electronic marketplace. The point about electricity is that
it travels at the speed of light and the passage of information itself is essentially
costless. This then is a market with unusual time and space dimensions, where
the personal and impersonal aspects of economic life meet on new terms. It would
not be surprising if it took us a while to adjust our expectations to this situation.
In the world opening up now borderless trade is transacted at the speed of light.
Very little of social significance will be left untouched before long.

The political economy of the internet

Money markets for instruments taking countless notional forms
have injected a new instability into global capitalism. The East Asian stocks
bubble burst in 1998, followed not long afterwards by the dot com crash. Billions
of paper assets were wiped out overnight. Mismanagement by the banks and pension
funds has reached colossal proportions. This apotheosis of capital, its effective
detachment from what real people do, has made many huge fortunes, often for
individuals controlling billions of dollars, 220 of whom own assets equal to
the annual income of just under half the world’s people (UNDP 1998). The situation
is comparable to that between the first and second world wars. A stock market
boom ended with the Wall Street crash of 1929. The resulting depression lasted
more than a decade and provided the stimulus for building national welfare states.
What political forces can regulate the present money madness in the interest
of people in general? The world organization of money has now reached a social
scale and technical form which make it impossible for states to control it.
This may be good news for democrats and anarchists in the long run; but in the
meantime state capitalism, the attempt to manage markets and accumulation through
national bureaucracy, has been subverted, with rampant inequality and appalling
human distress the inevitable result (Hart 2001).

If we are to grasp the political potential of the current
crisis, we should step back and revisit classical political economy, the discipline
that was formed to make sense of the first machine revolution’s economic consequences.
Modern knowledge, as organized by the universities, falls into three broad classes:
the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. The academic division
of labour in our day is concerned with nature, society and humanity, of which
the first two are thought to be governed by objective laws, but knowledge of
the last requires the exercise of subjectivity or critical judgment. Nature
and humanity are represented conventionally through science and art respectively,
but the best way of approaching society is moot, since social science is a recent
and questionable attempt to bring the methods of the natural sciences to bear
on a task that previously had fallen to religion. If science is the commitment
to know the world objectively and art the means of expressing oneself subjectively,
religion was and is a bridge between subject and object, a way of making meaningful
connection between something inside oneself and the world outside. Now that
science has driven religion from the government of modern societies, we must
find new forms of religion capable of reconciling scientific law with personal

The onset of the age of machines coincided with various attempts
to develop a science of society, of which British political economy (Ricardo
1817), French sociology (Comte 1832-40) and German philosophy (Hegel 1821) all
achieved a high level of definition in the years following the end of the Napoleonic
wars. Political economy was concerned with how the distribution of the value
generated by an expanding market economy might best be deployed in the interest
of economic growth. Smith, Ricardo and their followers identified three types
of resources, each thought to be endowed with the power of increase: the environment
(land), money (capital) and human creativity (labour). These in turn were represented
by their respective owners: landlords, capitalists and workers. Their concern
was with the distribution of specific source of income — rent, profit
and wages — which between them contained the key to the laws of political
economy:. The conflict was then between landlords and capitalists; and the policy
was to ensure that the value of market sales was not diverted from the capital
fund to high rents. Only later did the main issue lie between capitalists and

Political economy held that competitive markets lowered the
margins available to distributive agents and forced capitalists to reduce their
production costs through innovations aimed at improving efficiency. This was
achieved through economies of scale, division of labour and ultimately the introduction
of machines to factories (Marx 1867). The productivity of labour was thereby
raised, allowing the resulting profits to be ploughed back into an expanded
level of activity. Society’s manpower was thereby freed up for more elaborate
forms of commercial production. The only threat to this upward spiral was if
landowners raised their rents to take advantage of these newly profitable industries,
diverting value into wasteful consumption. Worse, whereas the capital fund was
inherently limitless, land was definitely in limited ply. Economic expansion
meant population growth, thereby driving up food prices and squeezing the capital
fund on the other side through wages. The solution was to expose Britain’s landowners
to competition with cheap overseas pliers; and this made free trade the great
political issue of the mid-19th century.

The basic division between classes possessing the environment,
money and human creativity persists today. Indeed, writers as diverse as Locke
(1690) and Marx (1867) had visions of history in which a state of nature or
society based on the land gives way to an age of money (our own) whose contradictions
should lead to a just society based on fair reward for human creativity. So
how are these broad classes of interest manifested in the struggle for the value
generated by electronic commerce? If the owners of money and labour were first
allied against the landlords (industrial capitalism) and then landlords and
capitalists united to control the workers (state capitalism), how are the classes
aligned in the present phase of virtual capitalism?

The landlord class has by no means rolled over and died; but the
internet offers a means of escape from land shortage, indeed from spatial constraints
of all kinds. The territorial controls once exercised by the landed aristocracy
has largely now passed to national governments. Territorial states are able
to extract taxes and rents from all money transactions taking place inside or
across the boundaries of their jurisdiction. This has been greatly facilitated
by the advances in bureaucracy made over the last 150 years; but it becomes
more difficult when the source of value shifts from car factories and downtown
shopping centres to commodity exchange conducted at the speed of light across
borders. The system of involuntary transfers (taxation and rents on physical
assets) could once be justified in terms of economic security for all. But that
principle has been under attack by the neo-liberal consensus for over two decades

The capitalists have come a long way too. Having formed an alliance
with the traditional rulers from the 1860s onwards, they absorbed and ultimately
defeated the challenge posed by the workers. The recent revival of free market
liberalism provides triumphal evidence of that victory. But the relationship
of capital to the state has become increasingly moot. Money has always had an
international dimension and the corporations that dominate world capitalism
today are less obviously tied to their nations of origin than before. There
are now some three dozen firms with an annual turnover of $30-50 bn, larger
than the GDP of all but eight countries. Moreover, half of the world’s 500 largest
firms are American and a third European So the world economy is controlled today
by a few firms of western origin but with dubious national loyalties. Capital
and the nation-state have always had a relationship of conflict and co-operation.
The wave of anti-trust legislation that accompanied the rise of monopolists
like John D. Rockefeller in the early 20th century is matched today by the feebler
efforts of governments to contain the economic power of Microsoft and a few
companies like it. The idea of profit as a form of rent (income from property)
has been confirmed, even if the burden has shifted from workers to consumers.
The state competes for a share of the value of commodities in the form of taxes.
But both rent and tax depend on a system of legal coercion, on a realistic threat
of punishment, to make people pay up. This remains a shared concern of governments
and corporations alike.

So where does that leave the rest of us? If Marx and Engels (1848)
could identify the general interest with a growing body of factory workers tied
to machines owned by capitalists, the majority of us now enter the economic
process primarily as consumers. Economic agency is largely a matter of spending
money. Despite the collapse of traditional industries in recent decades, there
are still those who argue that workers associations, unions, remain the best
hope for organized resistance to big business. State capitalism once made people
believe in society as a place with one fixed point. But now the internet points
to a more plural version of society composed of mobile networks. The mass of
its ordinary users have a common interest, as individuals and pressure groups,
in avoiding unreasonable regulation and retaining the economic benefits of their
equal exchanges. So we may provisionally accord to the ‘wired’ a class identity
in opposition to governments and corporations.

Table 3    The three classes of political economy







Religion / Science











Classes 1








Classes 2





Tax / Rent

Profit /Rent


The main players in the political economy of the internet are
thus governments, corporations and the rest of us, the people (the small minority
who are wired). The landed interest, following a class alliance between landlords
and capitalists forged in the mid-19th century, now takes the principal form
of territorial power, the coercive capacity of states to extract taxes and rents
on threat of punishment or by right of eminent domain. Capitalist profit is
now concentrated in a handful of huge transnational corporations whose interest
is to keep up the price of commodities and to guarantee income from property
(rent) in the face of resistance to payment. On an analogy with the workers
who tended the factory machines (themselves initially a very small minority),
we could start by looking at the wired, the ordinary people who exchange services
as equals on the internet, as representatives of the general human interest.
Governments and corporations need each other, for sure, but their interests
are far from coincident. Both may be vulnerable to self-conscious use of internet
resources by democratic movements. The main threat to us all is the jealous
concentration of state and corporate power to block our collective potential
to build a just society with shared responsibility for life on this planet.
We could do worse then than return to Ricardo’s focus on how wealth is distributed
in human society and, in particular, on the contradiction between coercive demands
for tax and rent and the formation of a world market where people freely exchange
services as equals, using money instruments of their own devising (Greco 2001).

This rather abstract formulation can be seen at work concretely
in current conflicts over intellectual property rights. The fight is on to save
the commons of human culture, society and environment from the encroachments
of corporate private property. This is no longer mainly a question of conserving
the earth’s natural resources, although it is definitely that too, nor of the
deterioration of public services left to the mercies of privatized agencies.
The internet has raised the significance of intangible commodities. Increasingly
we buy and sell ideas; and their reproduction is made infinitely easier by digital
technologies. Accordingly, the large corporations have launched a campaign to
assert their exclusive ownership of what until recently might reasonably have
been considered shared culture to which all had free and equal access. Across
the board, separate battles are being fought, without any real sense of the
common cause that they embody. The ‘napsterization’ of popular music, harbinger
of peer-to-peer exchange between individual computers, is one such battle pitting
the feudal barons of the music business against our common right to transmit
songs as we wish. The world of the moving image, of film, television and video,
is likewise a site of struggle sharpened by fast-breaking technologies affecting
their distribution and use. In numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways, our ability
to draw freely on a common heritage of language, literature and law is being
undermined by the aggressive assertion of copyright. People who never knew they
shared a common infrastructure of culture are now being forced to acknowledge
it by aggressive policies of corporate privatization. And these policies are
being promoted at the international level by the same American government whose
armed forces now seem free to run amok in the world.

In the case of the internet, what began as a free communications
network for a scientific minority is now the contested domain of giant corporations
and governments. The open source software movement, setting Linux and an army
of hackers against Microsoft’s monopoly, has opened up fissures within corporate
capitalism itself. The shift to manufacturing food varieties has introduced
a similar struggle to agriculture, amplified by a revival of ‘organic’ farming
in the context of growing public concern about genetic modification. The pharmaceutical
companies try to ward off the threat posed to their lucrative monopolies by
cheap generics aimed at the Third World populations who need them most. The
buzzword is ‘intellectual property rights’, slogan of a corporate capitalism
determined to impose antiquated ‘command and control’ methods on world markets
whose constitutive governments have been cowed into passivity. The largest demonstrations
against the neo-liberal world order, from Seattle to Genoa, have been mobilized
to a significant degree by the need to oppose this particular version of global
private property. The events of September 11th have temporarily diminished this
movement, especially in North America, just as they have added to the powers
of coercion at the disposal of governments everywhere. In this sense, the global
movement for greater democracy and less inequality has suffered a reverse.

It is a widely shared and justified belief that the age of money,
whose culmination we are witnessing today, is not in the interest of most human
beings, that the American government and giant corporations are indifferent
to that common interest of humanity. The rest of the world needs Americans to
join them in the struggle for decent human standards in social life. They bring
tremendous resources of technology, education and economic power to that struggle,
but above all they bring their country’s liberal political traditions. It would
be a pity if the effect of September 11th were to obscure that possibility of
global democratic solidarity, leaving the world stage to Texas oilmen and Muslim
fanatics, with their mutual conspiracy to divide and rule.

The real and the virtual

The digital revolution is driven by a desire to replicate at distance
or by means of computers experiences that we normally associate with face-to-face
human encounters. All communication, whether the exchange of words or money,
has a virtual aspect in that symbols and their media of circulation stand for
what people really do for each other. It usually involves the exercise of imagination,
an ability to construct meanings across the gap between symbol and reality.
The power of the book depended for so long on sustaining that leap of faith
in the possibility of human communication. In that sense, capitalism was always
virtual. Indeed Marx’s intellectual effort was devoted to revealing how the
power of money was mystified through its appearance as things (coins, products,
machinery) rather than as relations between living men (Marx 1970:71-83) Both
Marx and Weber (1981) were at pains to show how capitalists sought to detach
their money-making activities, as far as possible, from real conditions obstructing
their purposes. Money-lending, the practice of charging interest on loans without
any intervening act of production or exchange, is one of the oldest forms of
capitalism. So the idea of the money circuit becoming separated from reality
is hardly new. Yet there are changes taking place which deserve a distinctive
label and, for the time being, ‘virtual capitalism’ will have to do.

The point of virtualism (Carrier and Miller 1998) is abstraction
and this in turn is a function of the shift to ever more inclusive levels of
exchange, to the world market as principal point of reference for economic activity,
rather than the nation-state. But reliance on more abstract forms of communication
carries with it the potential for real persons to be involved with each other
at a distance in very concrete ways. The idea of ‘virtual reality’ expresses
this double movement: on the one hand machines whose complexity their users
cannot possibly understand, on the other live experiences ‘as good as’ real.
It is the same with money. Capitalism has become virtual in two main senses:
the shift from material production (agriculture and manufacturing) to information
services; and the corresponding detachment of the circulation of money from
production and trade. This in turn is an aspect of the latest stage of the machine
revolution at the millennium (Hart 2001). What would constitute an anthropology
of all this?

Daniel Miller and Don Slater (2001) have good news for traditional
ethnographers: the internet does not make any difference. In The Internet:
an ethnographic approach
, their fieldwork-based monograph on Trinidad, they
rightly argue that cyberspace should not be treated as a separate sphere of
social activity; but, instead of exploring the dialectic of virtual and real
experience, they reduce the former to the latter, claiming that what matters
is the location of internet users in everyday life, where they can be studied
by ethnographers, of course. This leads them to ignore business-to-business
exchange (b2b) altogether and to approach e-commerce solely through business-customer
interaction on websites. In order to generalize from a small sample of households,
they assert the unity of ‘Trinidadians’ as a national group in defiance of fifty
years debate about the racial and class composition of creole society. So the
old Malinowskian recipe appears to be alive and well in the insular Caribbean.
But there has to be more to it than that.

If we would make a better world, rather than just contemplate
it, one prerequisite is to learn to think creatively in terms that both reflect
reality and reach out for imagined possibilities. This in turn depends on capturing
what is essential about the world we live in, its movement and direction, not
just its stable forms. The idea of virtual reality goes to the heart
of the matter. It expresses the form of movement that interests me — extension
from the actual to the possible.
‘Virtual’ means existing in the mind, but
not in fact. When combined with ‘reality’, it means a product of the imagination
that is almost but not quite real. In technical terms, ‘virtual reality’ is
a computer simulation that enables the effects of operations to be shown in
real time. The word ‘real’ connotes something genuine, authentic, serious. In
philosophy it means existing objectively in the world; in economics it is actual
purchasing power; in law it is fixed, landed property; in optics it is an image
formed by the convergence of light rays in space; and in mathematics, real numbers
are, of course, not imaginary ones. ‘Reality’ is present, in terms of both time
and space (‘seeing is believing’); and its opposite is imagined connection at
distance, something as old as story-telling and books, but now given a new impetus
by the internet. Already the experience of near synchrony at distance, the compression
of time and space, is altering our conceptions of social relationships, of place
and movement.

What interests me is less the digital divide between people with
and without access to the internet, the ‘wired’ elite versus the ‘unwired’ masses,
but how what we do offline influences what we do on it and vice versa..
In this, I have taken some inspiration from Martin Heidegger’s The Fundamental
Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude
(1978). He says there
that ‘world’ is an abstract metaphysical category for each of us (all that relates
to or affects the life of a person) and its dialectical counterpart is ‘solitude’,
the idea of the isolated individual. Every human subject makes a world of his
or her own whose centre is the self.. The world opens up only to the extent
that we recognize ourselves as finite, as individual, and this should lead us
to ‘finitude’, the concrete specifics of time and place in which we necessarily
live. So ‘world’ is relative both to an abstract version of subjectivity and,
more important, to our particularity in the world (seen as position and movement
in time and space).

The internet is often represented as a self-sufficient universe
with its own distinctive characteristics, as when Castells (1996) writes of
the rise of a new ideal type, ‘network society’. The idea that each of us lives
alone (solitude) in a world largely of our own making seems to be more real
when we go online. But both terms are imagined as well as being reciprocal;
they are equally abstract and untenable as an object of inquiry.. We approach
them from a relative location in society where we actually live, as Miller and
Slater say. Therefore it cannot be satisfactory to study the social forms of
the internet independently of what people bring to it from elsewhere in their
lives. This social life of people off-line is an invisible presence when they
are on it. It would be wrong, however, to deny any autonomy at all to ‘virtual
reality’. Would we dream of reducing literature to the circumstances of readers?
And this too is Heidegger’s point. ‘World’ and ‘solitude’ may be artificial
abstractions, but they do affect how we behave in ‘finitude’. The dialectical
triad forms an interactive set:

Diagram 1    Heidegger’s dialectical metaphysics

solitude        —      —     world

(individual)            (humanity)




(position and movement in timespace)

A Kantian anthropology for the internet age

What then might be an anthropology for the internet age? I would
start with Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace: a Philosophical Sketch (1795).
He held that Cosmopolitan Right, the basic right of all world citizens, should
rest on conditions of universal hospitality, that is, the right of a stranger
not to be treated with hostility when he arrives on someone else’s territory.
In other words, we should be free to go wherever we like in the world, since
it belongs to all of us equally. The contrast with our routine experience of
international travel today could not be more marked. He says, “The peoples of
the earth have entered in varying degree into a universal community, and it
has developed to the point where a violation of rights in one part of
the world is felt everywhere. The idea of a cosmopolitan right is not
fantastic and overstrained; it is a necessary complement to the unwritten code
of political and international right, transforming it into a universal right
of humanity.” This confident sense of an emergent world order, written over
200 years ago by the man who defined ‘anthropology’ for modern purposes (Kant
1798), can now be seen to be a product of the high point of the liberal revolution,
before it was overwhelmed by its twin offspring, industrial capitalism and the
nation state (Hart 2003). We now live in a less confident world, but it can
still generate moments that touch our universal humanity, like the first man
to orbit the earth in space or a Chinese man confronting a tank on global television.

Kant believed that human co-operation in society required us to
rely on personal judgement moderated by common sense, in the double meaning
of shared intelligence and taste. This common sense, also the title of his contemporary
Tom Paine’s (1776) revolutionary pamphlet that launched the American war of
independence, was generated in everyday life, in shared social experience (good
food, good talk, good company). Earlier he wrote an essay, “Idea for a universal
history with a cosmopolitan purpose” (1784), which included these propositions:

In man (as the only rational creature on earth) those natural
faculties which aim at the use of reason shall be fully developed in the species,
not in the individual.

The means that nature employs to accomplish the development of
all faculties is the antagonism of men in society, since this antagonism becomes,
in the end, the cause of a lawful order of this society.

The latest problem for mankind, the solution of which nature forces
us to seek, is the achievement of a civil society which is capable of administering
law universally.

This problem is both the most difficult and the last to be solved
by mankind.

A philosophical attempt to write a universal world history according
to a plan of nature which aims at perfect civic association of mankind must
be considered to be possible and even as capable of furthering nature’s purpose.

The world is much more socially integrated today than two centuries
ago and its economy is palpably unjust. We have barely survived three world
wars (two hot, one cold) and brutality provokes fear everywhere. Moreover, the
natural (we would say ‘ecological’) consequences of human actions are likely
to be severely disruptive, if left unchecked. Histories of the universe we inhabit
do seem to be indispensable to the construction of institutions capable of administering
justice worldwide. When Roy Rappaport wrote recently that “Humanity…is that
part of the world through which the world as a whole can think about itself”(1999:461),
he was repeating the central idea of Kant’s prescient essay. The task of building
a global civil society for the 21st century is urgent and anthropological visions
must play their part in that.

Copernicus solved the problem of the movement of the heavenly
bodies by having the spectator revolve while they were at rest, instead of them
revolve around the spectator. Kant extended this achievement for physics into
metaphysics (Cassirer 1981:148-149). In his preface to The Critique of Pure
, he writes, “Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge
must conform to objects… (but what) if we pose that objects must conform to
our knowledge?”. In order to understand the world, we must begin not with the
empirical existence of objects, but with the reasoning embedded in our experience
itself and in all the judgments we have made. Which is to say that the world
is inside each of us as much as it is out there. This is why one definition
of ‘world’ is ‘ all that relates to or affects the life of a person’. Our task
is to bring the two poles together as subjective individuals who share the object
world in common with the rest of humanity.

The 19th and 20th centuries, in identifying society with the state,
constitute a counter-revolution against Kant’s Copernican revolution. This was
launched by Hegel, whose Philosophy of Right (1821) contains the programmes
of all three founding fathers of modern social theory (Marx, Weber, Durkheim)
rolled into one. This counter-revolution was only truly consummated after the
first world war. The result was a separation of the personal from the impersonal,
the subject from the object, humanism from science. It was enshrined in the
academic division of labour and it is why most people have never heard of Kant’s
seminal contribution to anthropology. This is the split that the decline of
state capitalism in the face of the digital revolution might allow us to reverse.
In my book (Hart 2001), I argued that the cheapening of the cost of information
transfers as a result of the digital revolution makes it possible for much more
information about individuals to enter into commercial transactions at distance
that were until recently largely impersonal. This repersonalization of the economy
has its counterpart in many aspects of contemporary social life, not just in
the forms of money and exchange. It involves a new idea of the person, one that
is based on digital abstractions as much as on the emergence of more concrete
forms of individuality. The customized interactions that most academics now
have with and similar pliers of books reflect this trend, at the
same time personal and remote.

I do not imagine that I am alone when I respond in this way to
our moment of history. Clearly one consequence of the use of new technologies
in teaching is that learning can now be much more individualized and ecumenical
at the same time; and this juxtaposition of self and the world in itself poses
a threat to the traditions of the academic guild. Here then is one source of
a renewed emphasis on subjectivity. It all adds up to a radical revision of
conventional attitudes to subject-object relations, grounds indeed for us to
reconsider the positivist dogmas on which so many modern university disciplines
are based, including social anthropology’s paradigm of scientific ethnography
(Grimshaw and Hart 1993, 1995). It has long been obvious to me that learning
anthropology would be impossible if we were not, each of us, human beings in
the first place. Anthropologists who once could rely on public ignorance as
port for their exotic tales must now cope with mass mobility and communications.
We have to consider seriously what our expertise can offer that is not delivered
more effectively through novels and films, journalism or tourism. We live in
a time when both the rhetoric and the reality of markets encourage individuals
to choose the means of their own Enlightenment. It would be surprising if trends
in the teaching of anthropology did not reflect all this; perhaps we are on
the verge of a new paradigm for the discipline, one that will reflect the social
and technological changes of which the internet is the most tangible symbol.


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Comments |1|

  • Dear Keith,
    This is an amazing article – do you have any kind of date or other information for citation in papers?
    Graduate Student 1,223,1923.192