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Surfin’ USA

Why the internet remains a tool of American hegemony

How do residents of this planet describe “Americans”? That is, what words does that 95 percent of the world population which does not reside in the United States use to point out the ways in which we are unique? I find that when speaking quickly and candidly, people say things like: “loud” and “optimistic” or even “naive” and “individualistic.” When being less kind: “annoying” or “arrogant” or “selfish.” Asked to describe U.S. society, they respond: “hyper-competitive” or “crassly commercial” or “militaristic.” It doesn’t take long to hear “imperialist” or “violent” or “reckless.”

I checked, of course, by asking around this year. And naturally, I conducted this very unscientific survey over fiber-optic cables literally running through the United States, on software developed in California—Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp—and owned by U.S. companies. How else could I, based in Brazil, speak with people in Indonesia, Nigeria, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, and India? Even if you travelled to every country on Earth to conduct face-to-face research, you would use those programs to line up the interviews. You’re going to use the internet. You use it for everything.

The internet was built by the U.S. military at the height of the Cold War and privatized into corporate America at the peak of anglophone neoliberal hegemony.

The online world is now where a huge amount of human communication takes place, if not the majority of it. It is where we get news about the broader world, and about our closest friends. We use it to buy things, and it uses us to sell things. Often, our online personalities—and appearances—can feel more important than the versions that exist when no device is recording our thoughts or our images. In just thirty years or so, the “internet” has gone from a weird little place where a few wealthy people could hang out for a few hours, to the backdrop against which almost all our thoughts and actions unfold. That this has changed humanity in profound ways is not really in doubt. But I think that in this dizzying transformation, we have lost sight of something else with long-term consequences. The internet is very much an American thing, both in its concrete origins as well as the rules that govern it.

The internet was built by the U.S. military at the height of the Cold War and privatized into corporate America at the peak of anglophone neoliberal hegemony. Both of those things matter. It grew out of a U.S. military program which collected and compiled information, around the world and at home, for the purposes of counterinsurgency. And when it came time to allow regular people online—this happened gradually, during the Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Clinton administrations—the prevailing ideology in Washington dictated it would be run by for-profit firms. And today, a vast majority of online “content” is created or curated by U.S. companies. Even if Americans now make up less than nine percent of internet users, just five U.S. companies—Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix and Microsoft— recently accounted for two thirds of all “primetime” internet traffic, worldwide.

One imagines that the “internet” would have been very different if France, India, or Mexico had created it. The online world would probably be very different if the USSR had simply continued to exist. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, actually existing socialists had indeed worked on a kind of “communism with a cybernetic face,” as well as the “Cybertonia” online world. And before the CIA successfully crushed Salvador Allende in 1973, his government was working on managing the economy with something called Cybersyn. In the end, the CIA supplied the network infrastructure for Operation Condor, the mass murder program which eliminated leftists across South America.

In Odd Arne Westad’s magisterial volume The Global Cold War, the Yale historian reaches one conclusion that has received insufficient attention. Westad (who is Norwegian) asserts that “globalization” is the wrong word for the rapid expansion of a specific type of capitalist order in the late twentieth century. A better word, he says, is “Americanization.” In the early twentieth century, an aggressive and militaristic Western European settler colony was ascendant, and it became the world’s predominant power in 1945. With the accidental suicide of Soviet communism, the system that the United States had been imposing on its lessers in this or that territory became globalized—even if you might operate according to different rules domestically. From 1990 on—and now this is my contention, not Westad’s—Americanization was so profound that it became hard to even notice it. Invisible, that is, until it begins to fall apart, or is contested.

Everybody understands that the military, as well as economic pressure and covert operations, are central pillars of American hegemony. It’s also fairly well understood that Hollywood is an important vehicle for projecting American “soft power.” But in the last ten to fifteen years, the internet has done far more to make the world think like Americans than Marvel movies.

At one level, this is because of the way the online experience is structured: the built environment of the internet, if you will. It used to be there were millions of different internet pages. But the logic of capital accumulation, within the U.S. regulatory and cultural contexts, has whittled them down to two basic models. Type one relies on you to supply content, then manipulates your subconscious desires, keeping you scrolling through other user-generated content, for as long as possible—all in the service of selling your attention to advertisers. It is by now quite obvious how the monstrously wealthy companies behind this trick have warped and reshaped how the world is represented, and the way we see each other.

When you are on the internet, you are basically in the United States.

The other major type of website requires you pay a subscription to watch some kind of television show. With a curated streaming service like Netflix (responsible for over 10 percent of global internet traffic during the pandemic), subsidiaries in India or Nigeria have local teams in place. But they were still hired by an American company, to maximize its profit. In order for streaming services to be profoundly American, you don’t need Americans running day-to-day operations on the ground throughout the world, just like the British Empire didn’t rely on persons with white English identities to do the same. Dynamics of dominance and cultural diffusion also happened through the selection of local vassals.

Of course, there are also “online marketplaces” where you can purchase goods. But you don’t spend any time there; you just lose money. And since I am a journalist, I should probably acknowledge that there are still media web pages, where you can read a newspaper or magazine. But in truth, for a majority of people, those are just sites where you click away four to five pop-ups before giving up and returning to scrolling through the news on social media. Mainstream media sites these days get all their money from guilty liberals.

Then there is the content. Both major types of websites started out overwhelmingly populated by American users, and this shaped their cultures. American voices remain primary on most social media platforms, speaking through the biggest YouTube and Instagram accounts. In Indonesia, social media influencers make sure to use English, even if their audience is entirely local. As importantly, whether in Chile or the Philippines, conversations tend to be governed by American concepts and discursive practices. Even if the conversation is about Brazilian politics, a huge amount of internet-cultural capital is associated with fluency in American terminology and meme language. The South American far right has obviously been influenced by right-wing U.S. YouTube culture. There are  German Q Anon accounts.

People from countries without our history of overt racial hierarchy get into labyrinthine conversations based on U.S. designations. Are Palestinians white? Are Filipinos the “Mexicans of Asia”? But the United States is not normal. We have a very particular history—beginning with the genocide of Native Americans, followed by a reliance on slave labor for development, and then de facto apartheid at least until the 1960s—which shapes our concepts for things like race and politics. There are many reasons you would not want the whole planet to normalize our cultural superstructure.

This summer’s worldwide Black Lives Matter protests illuminated the degree to which American culture is now universal. In an essay that I don’t agree with in its entirety, Alex Hochuli pointed out something remarkable about BLM marches in places like Finland and Serbia. Some people, it seems, weren’t marching in solidarity with the people of the richest nation on earth. They were marching as if they were themselves Americans. But this makes a lot of sense, because (with some major exceptions), when you are on the internet, you are basically in the United States.

The United States remains the most powerful country on Earth by far. Our military dominance is unquestioned. And our per capita GDP is six times larger than China’s, though their population is far larger. Yet it is also clear that the United States is in relative decline. Compared to the peak of American hegemony at the turn of the twenty-first century, we are far less important than we used to be, and the trend appears to be secular. There are shifts in the digital world, too, though they are often literally below the surface. The United States still dominates the code and content of the internet, but the actual cables are increasingly put down by countries in the Global South.

We became able to see the horrible outlines of U.S.-led globalization as it cracked.

The biggest challenge to America’s control of the internet has come from the People’s Republic, which has managed to wall off much of its online experience from the internet architecture created and governed in the United States. Part of this is censorship—the “Great Firewall of China”—but it is also about creating profitable, indigenous software firms, and an online experience that the United States can’t shut down. Companies like WeChat, TikTok, and Ali Baba have already changed the experience of the internet and had serious geopolitical consequences. It is a testament to the importance of ownership and national political culture on cyberspace that Chinese companies have caused such a reaction in Washington, despite the fact that they are incredibly similar, in form and origin, to Californian companies. TikTok feels a lot like a copy of Vine, created by a prototypical tech bro, funded with venture capital; it is relatively unimportant to the Communist Party. Imagine if the challengers were qualitatively different. Are we even capable of doing so?

The Trump administration, now in its death throes, was a perfect signal of both American-ness and American decline. In a strange way, Americanization became visible, even inescapably so, at the exact moment it was most complete. We became able to see the horrible outlines of U.S.-led globalization as it cracked, and at the same moment that the internet made everyone on the planet inhabit American culture. Because of its apparent decadence, we can all start to feel what has happened to us.

Have you been to a bar or restaurant in North America lately? I mean, before we allowed this pandemic to kill hundreds of thousands of us. Very often, those spaces feel like this: there are ten to fifteen televisions on the wall. About half of them are silent, but the rest have the sound on, meaning that they roar above each other. Several football games are on at once. In one match, there is five to fifteen seconds of violent action, and then it stops for commentary. The two men, bursting out of their suits, are not speaking but actually yelling their comments: at each other, and at you. At halftime, literal warplanes soar above the field. Then another brief explosion of violence down below, and cut to a commercial. Some cloying brand is presenting some obviously inadequate solution to the country’s foundational racial problems. None of that has worked for sixty years, and this obviously isn’t going to work, either. Another brand screams at you to buy something, while insulting your intelligence, and pretending to be self-aware. Then the men crash into each other again. That is what the internet is like, wherever you are. It is loud; childish; desperately commercial; militaristic; incredibly rich but shockingly dysfunctional; and most of all, it is deeply annoying.