Conservatism 2.0

This last series of events/post set me to pondering the following question – just what significant contribution, if any, have conservatives made to the development of what might loosely be called ‘on-line culture’?

To hear ‘Call Me Dave’ Cameron and Gideon George Osborne talk you’d think – if you didn’t know any better – that the natural place of the conservative lay right at the bleeding edge of developments on the electronic frontier and ‘web 2.0’, even though, when you dig past the rhetoric it rapidly becomes obvious that there is no more truth to such claims than there was to Al Gore’s rhetorical claim to have ‘created the internet’ – although unlike our owe gruesome twosome Gore can legitimately claim to have been the first significant politician to have recognised the potential of the net and actively supported its development in Congress, a view of Gore’s contribution supported by genuine on-line pioneers Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn.

Yet for all the recent Tory hype, the truth is that political conservatives have long been regarded as a bit of sad joke in established on-line circles and, even today, are widely regarded as being little more than a bunch of Johnny-come-lately gatecrashers at a party organised, in the main, by a generation of free-thinkers who were, and still are, anything but conservative in their outlook.

Before moving on I should clarify one very important point here – in deriding (justifiably) specifically conservative claims to ‘pioneer’ status out here on the electronic frontier I am by no means trying to suggest the the internet is a uniquely ‘left-wing’ thing. The political right has played a very big part in the development and evolution of the internet and internet culture, just not the conservative right. In this, as in so many other things in recent years, its been the libertarian right leading the political right’s colonisation of cyberspace and the vast majority of significant and particularly innovative contributions to net culture from the right have come squarely from that direction and not from mainstream conservatism, up to and including the development of the Drudge/Guido school of political gossip blogging.

To explain fully why it is that conservatives arrived late at the party would require a lengthy dissertation, if not a full-blown book but the heart of the answer lies in the origins of the internet, itself, and the nature of the pioneering net-culture; the early confluence of the  ‘pros’ (scientists, academics and technicians) and the free-thinking ‘early adopters’ (hackers, anarchists, liberals and libertarians) which has shaped the electronic frontier and the free-wheeling, free-thinking culture that emerged out of ‘coming together’ of these two groups for whom the overriding appeal of the internet lay its capacity to foster and support intellectual and other freedoms.

It is those freedoms and the things that emerged from then that conservatives either didn’t get or didn’t like because they jarred badly with their core ‘sensibilities’.

They neither ‘got’ nor liked Open Source at the outset because they couldn’t see how anyone could make money out of it and, therefore, why anyone would support it, especially when it started to take off sufficiently to look like at threat to the ‘divine’ right of Corporate America to screw as much profit as humanly possible out of anything it turned its attention to.

Conservatives hated the fact that so much of the technical innovation that drove the development of the internet was, in turn, driven by activities that they instinctively disapproved of. The development of streaming video was, for the most part, driven by the porn industry who were the first to develop a successful business model which exploited the potential of on-line video and so, too, was much of the technical development which underpins on-line payments and subscription services. Pornographers were amongst the first to make any serious money out of on-line content delivery and it was their success that proved that there really was serious money to made in cyberspace, prompting other much less contentious content providers to get in one the act.

The peer to peer file sharing systems, which broke the music industry’s monopoly on distribution and paved the way for iTunes and, indirectly, the iPod has been driven throughout by the ‘unlawful’ sharing of copyrighted material  – first software, then music and now film and video. The development of this technology has gone hand-in-hand with legislative and technological efforts to curb its widespread use. Napster begat Kazaa, which was designed specifically to circumvent the legal arguments used to take down Napster, and when the industries high-priced lawyer found a way to get to Kazaa, along came BitTorrent to shift the goalposts once again.

What about on-line gaming? Its a multi-billion dollar industry today, but its an industry that build its reputation on the back of violent ‘first-person shooter’ games like Doom, Quake and Unreal Tournament and although there were earlier examples of online gaming that were much less contentious, the original, text-based MUDs (multi-user dungeon role playing games) and all the classics (chess, Scrabble, Diplomacy, Risk, etc.) the heart of the modern industry lies firmly in the creation of the multi-player ‘death-match’, raising the hackles of conservatives who, regardless of the evidence, cling to the unsupported belief that virtual violence spawns actual violence in much the same way that they believe that pornography causes sexual violence.

(In reality, on-line gaming has been shown release stress and lessen violent impulses while, after years of work, the only thing that porn has been proven to cause is masturbation)

And then there was the intellectual life of the internet, which was – and still is – raw, raucous, uncompromising in its commitment to free expression and the free exchange of idea and, in its early years, stuffed to the gills with intellectuals, liberals, libertarians (left-wing and right-wing), scientists, atheists and just about everything else that made for the conservatives’ and -particularly in the US – the Christian conservatives’ perfect ten-minute hate.

Conservatives (small ‘c’) and particularly conservative politicians and political parties made little or no contribution to the development of the internet and internet culture for many years simply because, at best, it scared the bejeebus out of them and, at worst, that culture stood for – and still stands for in many cases – just about everything they hate.

Conservatives arrived late to the party and by the time they did turn up, most of the core technological and cultural innovations which shaped the internet were if not already in place or in their early stages of development then at least on the way to being realised in terms of the development of their precursors and antecedents. So they showed up, took what was already there and turned it to their own purposes and that starting running around claiming that the owned the place. They were (and some still are) the worst kind of kind of gatecrashers, the kind that turn up without a bottle and then get pissed on everybody else’s booze, treat your invited guests like shit, puke in your bed and then start bitching when everyone else leaves the party early to move on somewhere else. Cameron and Osborne are now taking that mentality to the next level – conservative no longer just ‘own’ the internet – in their own imagination – they thought of it first as well.

So is there actually anything that could genuinely be said to be a uniquely conservative innovation or addition to internet culture?

Well, there is one thing I can think of and, indeed, we saw – only yesterday – a very fine example of it in the form of Rohan Silva’s e-mail ‘circular’. It was certainly conservatives, specifically the Republican Party, who kicked off the game of covertly feeding smear stories and political propaganda to a few carefully chosen bloggers and on-line commentators in order to get damaging – and often false – claims about political opponents into the public domain while giving the equally false appearance that their own hands were clean. If conservatives can truly lay claim to anything as being entirely of their own devising its the set of shady practices that would eventually come to be know as ‘swiftboating‘…

…which makes it all the more deliciously ironic to see our own Tories attempting to claim eminent domain over ‘open source politics’ by means of the only genuinely conservative ‘addition’ to on-line culture.