The Internet as Corrective of Individualist Culture

Dave Healy’s “Cyberspace and Place: The Internet as Middle Landscape on the Electronic Frontier” in the book Internet Culture (Edited by David Porter, 1997) begins by attempting to mark the Internet as part of the American pioneer myth and thus, although not stated, subject to its manifest destiny.

Despite this rather malignant formulation, I found Healy’s discussion on how the Internet may both encourage individualism and at the same time serve as its correction interesting. The latter view has increasingly become widespread these days and has led to the direct equation of the Internet with democratization and community-formation.

[T]he Internet represents, for community-minded citizens, an almost limitless potential for associational life. No longer limited by geographical happenstance to the interactions that might develop in a town or neighborhood or workplace, individuals can free themselves from the accidents of physical location to create their own virtual places. The right to assembly, which has always been a legal guarantee, becomes more consequential as the constraints of localization give way to unfettered opportunities for virtual association. (60)

This potential for the formation of a collectivity via a networked computer system is, however, hindered by the very limits of the medium. Rather than serve as a privileged medium for emancipation, the Internet is a double-edged sword that can serve both the dominant and the dominated.
There is, for example, the lack of access to the Internet. Here in the Philippines, Internet penetration is a mere 10% and is mostly limited to the urban areas. The digital divide is still a reality for most Filipinos, especially those living in the countryside.

The Internet, by consequence of its “voluntary nature,” also tends to be less diverse as recently proven by the spread of Jejemon subculture in the Philippine virtual sphere and the subsequent rise of so-called Jejebusters. Quoting Robert N. Bellah, et al, the essay points out how the Internet

brings together those who are socially, economically, or culturally similar, and one of its chief aims is the enjoyment of being with those who ‘share one’s lifestyle.’ …Whereas a community attempts to be an inclusive whole, celebrating the interdependence of public and private life and of the different callings of all, lifestyle is fundamentally segmental and celebrates the narcissism of similarity. (61)

It need not be said that this sameness is necessary result of the endless reproduction of global monopoly capital in its present permutation of “flexible accumulation.” These “lifestyles” are what contemporary bourgeois management disciplines target in niche marketing. And the creation of these different lifestyles hides an even greater similarity. For even as capital propels the creation of difference and diverse subjectivities, what these all share in the bottom line is the identity of the consumer.

Most importantly, the Internet does not perform association’s role of correcting individualism by mobilizing the individuals in collective action. “Interactions on the Internet,” for Healy, “rarely lead to action. Their primary purpose is informational or social, not political… for the most part Net culture does not produce collective real-world behaviors.” (63) ■

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