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October 7, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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At World’s End and World’s Beginning

Pirates of the Caribbean 3 was about the internet. Well, at least the parts with Jack Sparrow in them. I mean, the jury’s still out on that whole weird crab thing at the beginning, but that’s not important.

Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow spends the third film trying to relive and recapture the ‘golden age’ of Piracy. He fights the evil capitalist East India Company tooth and nail, trying to preserve the environment in which he thrives, while they slowly but surely assert their dominance over the entire region. It was a lawless world, the Caribbean, and for men like Jack Sparrow it was paradise. Of course, by the end of the film, we realise that there’s no stopping the relentless march of progress, and Jack’s battle is fought in vain.

Jerry Bruckheimer you saucy allegorical devil, you. Not long ago, before Facebook became the be-all and end-all, the internet was that balmy Caribbean. It was raw, untapped, a little bit scary and full of adventure. We lived in sparse communities called Forums, Message Boards or Chatrooms. There were the big settlements of course, like AOL, but they just didn’t have the intimacy to draw us savvy players in. We downloaded everything, literally everything. Piracy saw its second Golden Age. The Deep Web, too, has long been a wretched hive of scum and villainy, where some of the worst things in the world have been going on unchecked.

Today, in 2013, things are changing. They have been for a while—just like in the movie. Big enterprises like Facebook and Twitter have stepped in, as has the goliath entertainment industry. There have always been big powers around, like Microsoft and IBM, but for the most part they were off to the side. Even the authorities were just like the Navy, really. We weren’t afraid of them, or anyone, because we kind of assumed that someone incompetent, like Jack Sparrow’s foe Norrington, would be in charge, unable to understand or notice us wee anonymous beings. And we were right, for a while. The internet got away with a lot of bullshit because the world (and the law) couldn’t move quick enough.

But now they’re coming to get us. Facebook has monopolised the ‘profile’. Everyone who is anyone has a Facebook account. It’s not about want any more, it’s need. Events and organisation are almost entirely run through our big blue friend. It’s not a monolithic oppression, though. Plenty of services are at it. Twitter, sure, but also, think of our gaming consoles. The Xbox One (and to a lesser extent the PS4) locks us into playing on their terms. YouTube, Netflix and Spotify will let us watch and listen—so long as we’re in the right country and don’t mind the ads. The Deep Web has been infiltrated, and the FBI is shutting down the illegal (and otherwise) services one by one. We’re all free to do whatever we like, so long as we play by their rules—which is at odds with the whole ‘freedom’ thing that Tim Berners-Lee was all about.

So, we find ourselves at the turn of the tide. We netizens stand at a crossroads, and as a social movement it’s time to work out how we respond to this. Do we fight ‘them’ head on with protests and blackouts? Keep on running, go completely open-source and cut ourselves off from the mainstream? It’s a big question, but that’s where the film can help us. We can see that there’s no winning against the commercial might of the East India Companies of the world: they have the economic power to bring the big players and authorities in on their side; we may have stopped SOPA and PIPA, but we simply cannot win that war.

The shutdown of Silk Road has shown us that even the public sector is able to take down the big shady guys out there. And it’s pretty clear that we can’t just run away into an open-sourced dreamworld either—we don’t have the numbers, or the resources. Eventually, we will be ground out and beaten, in pursuit of profit. So we need a different tack. If we’re going to survive, and have the internet run even a little bit on our terms, we have to swallow our pride and play the corporate game. Somewhere along the line, the bean-counters took over our internet, and there’s nothing we can do to change that. The cyberweb is part of the big scary world now, and it’s time for us to form companies, build businesses, and come up with innovative ideas that mean the big guys don’t have to screw us over to make a buck. Wouldn’t it be great, for example, if uncredited sharing could be made a thing of the past by an even better, fairer service? That will only happen if the innovative small players can frighten the momentum-laden big guys into change—a process that’s hopefully going on in the Sky Sports offices right now.

Maybe we should look to Valve. They’re a big company, but they’ve just announced what seems like a fairly open, progressive project with SteamOS and the associated Steam Box hardware. It’s not on the traditional ‘eBusiness’ model, but it is talking the big guys’ language. With a bit of luck, and let’s not kid ourselves that it’s not necessary, we might see some real changes from the ‘gated community’ style of gaming we’ve seen up until now. And, translated into the bigger picture, some new ways of doing what we do, with less damn advertising.

Maybe it won’t be as much fun, but we’ll have much better gadgets. Focus on that.

——

Carlo is a long-time Salient contributor and chief bro-about-town, favouring topics like sport, gaming, culture and list-based humour. @louderthoughts

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  1. J. Derek Adams says:

    I like how you talked about the forums and chat rooms analogous to Pirates, like we were ever that cool. Excellent points, though, and I think that Valve’s support of the Black Mesa project is a perfect highlighting of your points about them. Progressive outreach to the internet masses is how this place stays interesting.

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