Much of what we hear about the internet involves, say, teenagers trading sectarian abuse, paedophiles on the prowl and gamblers seeking new holes into which to pour their money. However, and despite the poor rollout of broadband in Ireland, if you're a politically active Villager, you're probably regularly online.
Indeed, perhaps the wide availability of ideas and information there makes you less likely to buy Village every week, damn you.
Whatever your politics, the contacts and/or data you use to sustain them may rely on your (or your employer's) PC connection to the wider world. The further from the mainstream, to the left or right, the more sustenance you probably take from a virtual “community”.
The experts on these things reckon the net doesn't have a core politics of its own, except that the medium does seem to encourage and attract a certain libertarianism (not to say libertinism). Extreme views also flourish, relatively, in the net's abstract and often anonymous world.
These peculiar streaks aside, the “average” politics on the net is not much different, it seems, from the average in the flesh 'n' blood realm. And the direct significance of net journalism/activism is hard to gauge: all the excitement about blogging already seems soooo 2004.
However, if the content of the internet is, at best, an aid to political education rather than a herald of revolution, its form may be a different story. Or, to put it another way: action speaks louder than words. There is a layer of net activity that you might regard as geeky, but the issues being played out there go deeper than most political debate.
Idiocy and the internet
“New media” are arguably denting capitalist ideology, and it's not primarily because some left-wing website can preach to a choir that stretches from California to Calcutta.
Some of the effect is a consequence of how the tech sector has behaved. In the late 1990s, just as we were being told that our global economies were now at last governed by an intrinsically rational free market, the dot-com bubble demonstrated the idiocy of capitalism. It turned out to be frighteningly easy to mismatch wishful business models with the very different reality of consumer behaviour.
What followed has been less well documented in the business pages: to an enormous extent, the “consumers” turned out not to be passive customers at all, but active producers, prepared to pool brain power and craft their own channels of communication. Many people busily programming away as part of the “open source” or “free software” movement would blanch at the idea that they are political or economic revolutionaries, but together they have, rather incredibly, defied dire predictions that the internet would become a corporate dominion ruled by commercial concerns. Much of the most sophisticated software running most of the net is not-for-profit and “community”-generated.
This fact is perfectly obvious to the people doing it, though not necessarily to the people using it. The rest of us should pause and reflect: this online freedom doesn't need the profit motive to thrive, but it may eventually need popular support to survive a future corporate squeeze. PC hardware may need companies, with their factories and distribution networks, but software needs nothing of the sort – sorry, Mr Gates.
It would not be (entirely) fair to conflate the creative open-source community, who deliberately renounce any intellectual-property rights in the interest of free collaboration, with “illegal” sharers of copyrighted material, though there is certainly overlap. And they raise some of the same, genuinely fundamental questions. Despite the Irish Times headline-writers who called US immigration protesters “illegals”, it is ludicrous to think that a human being can be “illegal” because of where s/he lives, and surely it's equally mad (or ideological) to think that a file of data (music, video, game, software) can be “illegal” because of where it's been copied to.
The political and cultural left is catching on. The great rock critic Dave Marsh runs a newsletter, Rock & Rap Confidential, dedicated to the notion that the future of music depends on its new capacity to bypass the record industry. (Filesharers' ingenuity and defiance ensures that, despite the mainstream media's fealty to iTunes and the pirate-hunters, it can still do so.)
Meanwhile ZNet, one of the web's biggest collections of progressive articles and blogs, is now following indymedia's example and embracing legal free software. The possibilities, frankly, transcend nerd-dom, and even transcend politics, all the way into realms of fun.