Certain discomforts are expected while travelling. Here in Ethiopia we have depended on pre-filtered water, slathered on huge amounts of hand-sanitizer, and discovered the unique fragility of Ethiopian plumbing (not to mention our own)—all normal obstacles for delicate, ignorant Westerners like ourselves. We have had our fair share of wrangling with the internet as well: poor connectivity, slow speeds, or no service at all. And then the government turned the internet off completely.
At first we thought this was just another routine outage. But, as we asked around we learned that at this time each year there is a national exam, and that last year the answers were stolen and shared online with students. So this year, to preempt any such dishonesty, the government shut the internet off. Over the next five days (Saturday morning to Wednesday evening) we lived in the dark, as it were, checking in with the outside world whenever the internet would randomly return. How arbitrary, we thought, how authoritarian. But as I considered the issue more deeply, I realized that this was not all that strange. Such impositions are part of life in the modern state.
In any state, democratic or otherwise, authority comes from the people. Democratic nations consider the will of the many to be law; authoritarian nations consider the will of the strongest to be so—regardless, people rule. Whether congress or king, it does not matter. There is a contract (implicit or explicit) that exists between ruler and ruled, an acceptance of and acquiescence to the law, in whatever form it takes. This law could be a constitution, or an army, or the bonds of family, but in each case there is an order to which individuals are subject.
For French theorist Louis Althusser it is precisely this characterization of the individual—as subject—that perturbs him, and he writes at length on the method of the individual’s subjection in his “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.”1 Of particular importance to Althusser is the state apparatus, an assemblage of material and immaterial forces that dictates the rule of law. In Althusser’s system, the state apparatus can be broadly divided into the repressive and the ideological state apparatuses (the RSA and ISA), which interact with each other as infrastructure and superstructure, respectively. Power is exerted in the material realm by the RSA, embodied by the justice system in all of its many pieces. But authority—the force that gives power its heft—is the domain of the ISA, that body of ideologies and institutions which intersect with our minds.
We find ourselves constantly embedded in an ideological system that, in Althusser’s terms, interpellates us with the authority of the state. We are “hailed” by the law, called out, identified, and in this speaking of authority we are made into subjects. We accept the power a police officer embodies because… Why? Because we know her and respect her moral virtue? Perhaps. But it is much more likely that we accept the police officer’s authority because that is what you do. This is Althusser’s interpellation. This is the state apparatus at work.
Now, two things must be recognized here: firstly, just as ideology is a morally neutral force, the state apparatus is, too, a morally neutral structure—it is not “good” or “evil” in itself; secondly, we are always already interpellated by the state—as soon as we are born we are thrown into a particular nomos, the shared corpus of texts and laws and mores of our community. We are socialized from birth to participate in this system (or rather, to participate in a network of interacting and intersecting systems), to accept the nomos of our birth as normal. We are always already interpellated; we are always already immersed in ideology.
For most, the workings of the state apparatus are invisible. When a society is running smoothly (which is to say, as smoothly as any organized group of people can ever run), the state apparatus goes about its business with little intervention into daily life. We stop at stop lights, we pay for our coffees with federally authorized currency, we let our government tax our incomes, though with requisite grumbling—in each of these and more, the state shapes our lives because we let it. But when society slips and the machine falters the gap between state and subject becomes more apparent. Legitimate protestors are jailed for speaking out against corporate greed, police officers kill unarmed civilians, innocent families are wiped out in drone strikes: in these, the state apparatus becomes readily, brutally apparent.
Now again, it must be recognized that the state neither distributes nor exerts its power equally. Authority is always uneven. I recognize that I have grown up with the privilege of guaranteed inclusion in the system on the basis of my skin colour and my sex. I recognize that the normative world I inhabit has been tailored for me for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Truly, I am the “ideal” subject of my nomos. When I speak of the state’s exertion of power and authority, I speak more from observation than from experience. However, this does not exempt me from speaking; rather, I am obligated to speak, to use my privilege to draw attention to the absurdities and injustices of the system that benefits me so greatly.
Let us return, then, to the matter of the internet shutdown for an object of discussion. Michael Thomsen at Real Life writes,2 “[t]he units on the screen come to represent an ideal of how things should operate while masking the indifferent and sometimes catastrophically unreliable processes that are only partly represented in the euphonic chimes that accompany one’s inputs.” The internet, as a cultural and textual medium, constantly participates in the ideology of the state. When our daily lives are so driven by production and consumption, the internet necessarily becomes a vessel for the transmission of these ideals. Efficiency, productivity, access, connectivity—these are forms of capital for the digital age. And yet, as Thomsen writes, the internet’s representation on the screen—and it’s synechdochal reference to the whole body of information technologies—simply obscures the fundamental irrationality of the humans that use it. For Thomsen, then, “[e]very various act turns into a discrete, barely perceptible submission to a larger structure outside one’s self, a kind power we imagine must be higher than ourselves to avoid the thought that it isn’t even conscious of our cooperative submissions. It’s aware of us as much as coral is of its crab colonies.” As subjects of the state, we are all reduced to data points, the complexity and particularity of our individual selves elided by our status as “citizens.” And as users of the internet, we become simply that: users. Not humans, not selves, but cogs in the machine. We are faithful subjects, willingly subservient to the apparatus that shapes the conditions of our existence.
So, when the government of Ethiopia exerted its power and turned off the internet the absurdity and irrationality of the system at large—the information economy, globalized industry, the state apparatus itself—became visible. Power manifested. My privilege was revoked for reasons entirely separate from me, by a state to which I was only a visitor. And yet, my life was disrupted, my participation in the global flow of information suspended, my network capital impeded. I became one of Thomsen’s crabs, brought to the sudden realization that I am insignificant, a blip on the screen.