Artillery Row

The Knobjective Worldview

The creators of the internet can’t stand the idea we have messy, human bodies

Casually adjusting her colourful hat and resting her guitar on her knee, grandmother and feminist campaigner Ali Bee explains “Men who identify as women are more-often-than-not bullies.  I like to send them up, and to poke fun at the ridiculousness of the transgender movement. I choose to do that through song.” Ali’s songs have provoked strong reactions, she explains “it was my lyric about men who identify as women that led to the questioning of Harry Miller by Humberside police. Harry Miller was told to ‘check his thinking’.” (Harry Miller took the police to court – and won.) But increasingly Ali has found that her work has been censored before it can be even shared and deemed offensive by the general public. Without warning or reason, Ali has had songs removed from social media platforms and podcasting sites. 

And Ali is not alone, from webhosting companies to social media, those whose opinions differ from the preferred line taken by technology companies are routinely shut down.  Issy Dickinson is a retired probation officer who wrote a blog based on her experience of working with sex offenders. A few days after publication and without warning her entire catalogue of work was removed from the blogging site Medium. Dickinson received an email explaining that her writing was ‘in violation of site policies’ – she had dared to suggest that in her professional opinion there was a link between identifying as transgender and patterns of offending. A feminist mum who blogs under the name ‘Lily Maynard’ and writes on transgenderism had her WordPress website taken offline without notice, she was told her work does ‘not align with’ WordPress User Guidelines. These are a mere handful of examples from the past few months, though the problem is widespread with implications that reach far beyond the feminist community.

This march toward online censorship by technology giants is at odds with the vision of the internet pioneers. Anti-authoritarianism and access to information are enshrined as principles in what Steve Levy identified as the ‘Hacker Ethic’; written in 1984 these are essentially the Old Testament commandments for nerds.  However lofty the intentions, the casual prejudices and biases of the early technology pioneers are baked into the code of online world on which the modern world now rests. 

The idea of creating oneself online, on having an existence independent of one’s body is part of the belief system of technologists

In 1978, the year before Thatcher ascended to power to transform the political landscape in the UK, Dr Richard Bartle, now Professor of Computer Games at the University of Essex, was developing a whole new world.  Dr Bartle is the co-creator of the first online world, ‘Multi User Dungeon’ or MUD. In an interview for the BBC Dr Bartle explained that computing pioneers of forty years ago felt themselves to be marginalised recalling ‘The real world sucked really badly for people like us… people studying other subjects looked down on us. We resented it, we didn’t like the fact that we were trapped based on other people’s views.’ This, he argues, is why the early frontiersmen of the online world tended to hold what Bartle considered ‘liberal and very open-minded’ views:

 “When you get people with the same world view, attracted to the same technology in the same places, well it isn’t a case of a culture develops around them, it’s a case of they all got there because they all have the same culture.  It was necessary in order to find computers fascinating that you had this particular worldview. So you get here and you find ‘oh wow, everyone else is thinking the same way as me, that’s wonderful.’”

One man’s concept of ‘shared culture’ is another woman’s groupthink, and the power to engineer conformity online has profound implications for democracy offline.  Early internet gaming communities typically policed behaviour through the ‘finger of death’ or ‘FOD’. This gave other users, who at the time were also developers, the power to obliterate the virtual existence of anyone who didn’t adhere to the group values. 

Today 59 percent of the global population are internet users, and as such the community guidelines of private companies have replaced communally policed netiquette. Those with FOD capabilities, (those enforcing ‘community guidelines’,) act to uphold the values of a technological elite, and whether they realise it or not, this elite has a very specific set of values.  All of this serves as a reminder that as writer Clay Shirky astutely noted, “The internet is not a public sphere, it is a private sphere that tolerates public speech.”  

The technology industry is still markedly male dominated; women comprise 24 percent of employees and a mere 11 percent of developers. Numerous pink-themed initiatives have been launched to encourage more women into STEM but the problem is endemic. In her book ‘Invisible Women,’ Caroline Criado Perez offers a forensic dissection of the layers of sexism within tech, from stereotypes to recruitment practices, that conspire to keep women out. Google’s well-intentioned approach to this was to introduce mentoring.  This assumes that the high levels of attrition and low rates of promotion of women employees can be solved by encouraging women to ‘lean-in’ and be bit more like men. Naturally, successful men in technology tend to believe they got there by merit, and that they have neither contributed to nor benefitted from institutionalised sexism. They assume that their experiences and worldview are the default. This is a phenomenon I enjoy referring to as ‘knobjectivity.’  

Whilst technology companies will point the finger of death at anyone, there is a philosophical reason for the silencing of feminists. This goes right back to the existence of a ghost in the machine at the dawn of the internet. The idea of creating oneself online, on having an existence independent of one’s body is part of the belief system of technologists.

In 1996 John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation launched ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.’ In a poetic creed Barlow proclaimed boldly:

“Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.”

Cartesian Dualism, or the notion of a mind/body split is a belief that is central to transgenderism and indeed transhumanism. As such it is no surprise that the father-creators of the online world are so offended by feminists who dare to remind them of their messy, human bodies. 

But this denial of the realities of the flesh, and life experiences that bring us online is flawed.  Effectively Barlow assumes all internet users are moulded in the image of the creator; the default white male nerd. Thus, the knobjective worldview is coded into online reality.  

There is an alternative to the soft-play world of mainstream social media. Running parallel to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is an anarchic subset of internet users who communicate on servers networked on the basis of shared values and software.  This is where the anti-authoritarian ethos that characterised the early communities of hackers survives but it is almost entirely male and divided between the postmodern left and alt-right. Arguably, the more commercial imperative of mainstream sites has driven the descent into silencing and bland conformity; Zuckerberg and Dorsey have painted their houses magnolia to put them on the market.  

To offer an alternative to the ‘corporate control over our communication’ and to counter the ‘lack of balanced public discourse on “gender identity” in August 2019 feminist software engineer M K Fain and her partner developed the social media site Spinster. 

Fain was fired from her job at a tech company for writing about feminism. This experience along with ‘watching as feminist after feminist was banned from Twitter’ was the catalyst to create Spinster. Spinster is hosted on the ‘Fediverse’ which Fain explains is ‘a collection of servers running compatible social media software which all communicate with each other.’ 

The Fediverse is largely divided into ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ servers. Fain describes the hostility feminists face from across the political spectrum:

“The ‘leftist’ servers banned people who believe that biological sex matters. The right-wing servers were hostile to women, especially women of color… We created Spinster to be a refuge for women who were banned from or fleeing centralized social media.”

But almost immediately Spinster was subject to attack from what she refers to as the ‘tech bros’ who dominate the Fediverse. The target of mass reporting, Spinster was removed from Google Play for violations of Google’s ‘User Generated Content’ policy. Following this, Fain looked for an alternative solution and settled upon F-Droid, but she was told Spinster was not allowed to join. She recalls: “When the decision was made by their [F-droid’s] all-male team, admin Marcus Hoffman refused to allow any discussion about the decision in their public chatroom, stating, ‘We will not have feminism discussion here.’” 

It’s fair to say what happens online does not stay online. From the rise of alt-right to cancel culture; the reality of politics today is a mirror of the polarised, binary politics of the online world. When mainstream platforms routinely ban users for ‘misgendering’ is it any surprise that those who have come of age online are outraged when universities invite controversial speakers? The safe spaces of mainstream social media sites are the crucible in which cancel culture was forged.  Yet as future voters, which mainstream politician mindful of their career would stand-up against the generation socialised through social media and say something as truthful yet ‘triggering’ as ‘it is impossible to change sex’?

The spread of online disinformation from malign foreign powers is now readily and rightly acknowledged as a threat to democracy. But by focusing on the discord sewn by North Korean hack attacks and Russian bots we are in danger of missing this more insidious and subtle challenge to the democratic process. The geek truly has inherited the earth. The parameters to politics and morality have been set to his knobjective code, all that is left now is to watch programme run.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover