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(Credit: David Byrne Facebook)

When David Byrne hatched a plan to destroy the internet

There was, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, a brief moment in which the future represented by the internet seemed like a glittering utopia. Tech experts and cultural figures alike sang its praises, proclaiming it the tool that was going to democratise learning, revolutionise the industry, and generally make the world a better place to live…well, some of that turned out to be correct. The internet has certainly revolutionised the music industry, completely reshaping how we listen to, consume, and think about music. 

As in the post-internet electronica of Flying Lotus and Sophie, it has even influenced the type of music we make. But many regard the numerous tectonic shifts catalysed by the advent of the internet as immensely destructive. For Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, for example, the internet has the power to suck the creative energy out of the world in one fell swoop.

Just as the printing press had done in 1475, the advent of streaming services such as Spotify and Deezer was treated with distrust, fear and anger. In those early days, when CD purchases were going the way of the tape and the mini disc, the debate surrounding the morality of tech giants like Spotify burnt a hole in almost every broadsheet newspaper on offer. In 2013, David Byrne wrote a column about the power streaming sites held over music artists. As Byrne noted, the streaming age represented new opportunities for up and coming artists. However, the manner in which Spotify was pocketing a huge percentage of streaming royalties made the very idea of earning money from selling records completely unfeasible. In the words of The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney: “For unknown bands and smaller bands, it’s a really good thing to get yourself out there. But for a band that makes a living selling music,” he said, adding: “Streaming royalties are not at a point yet to be feasible for us”.

But, for Byrne, Spotify was just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the superficial problems heralded by the internet lay something far more sinister. The same year Byrne wrote his column, he published a post on his personal blog in which he broke down, with critical precision, the threat posed by the tech corporations who, by that time, had the internet in a stranglehold of surveillance and data harvesting. “To a lot of folks it appears that the corporations, the thieves and the government are all doing exactly the same thing: the ‘legal’ behaviour and the illegal theft are cousins,” he wrote. “Online spying and cyber theft are not freak phenomena; increasingly, they appear to be unavoidable consequences of online access as it now exists.”

In Byrne’s eyes, tech giants like Google had come to embody a new class of tech-aristocrats who controlled (and still control) all of the capital created by the internet. However, Bryne offered a solution. In his post, he asked readers to commit to a quick thought experiment: “Imagine this,” he began, “In a new internet, we’d still be able to send emails. Academic and nonprofit institutions would still share resources online. Wikipedia and web-based journalism would still exist. But if we can’t be tracked as we are now, a lot would change. Google would lose its primary sources of revenue—ads—and return to being a very good search engine, with a lot fewer employees. The NSA and the other data thieves and collectors would be helpless. No one would have data on countless innocent citizens that could be repurposed to God knows what ends,” he concluded.

As Bryne identified, one of the main things stopping people from rising up against the autocracy of the internet was the fact that many couldn’t even imagine it as a physical entity. Surely the internet has always been a web of invisible binary code, right? Wrong. In his article, Byrne posted a picture of one of the internet data centres that reside beneath San Francisco. Captioning the photograph, Bryen wrote: “As we all know by now, the NSA tapped into a vast amount of international and domestic internet communications by installing devices in small rooms in data centres in San Francisco and a few other places. It didn’t require an all-out assault to subvert one of these fortresses—just a small intervention with impunity and intent.”

“The internet, it seems, is not ‘nowhere,'” Byrne continued, “There are nodes in the internet, where great amounts of data come and go, and they do have real physical locations. Intercept a few of these nodes—there are some here in downtown New York, linked to some in Lisbon, where the fibre optic cables surface—and you can infiltrate the whole world, as the NSA knows.”

Byrne then goes on to make the point he’s been building up to: “So…imagine that a hypothetical group of disillusioned citizens obtains access to the same nodes—let’s say it’s an inside job by some building employees—but instead of tapping the nodes, as the NSA did, they break them. And to avoid any possibility of repair, they detonate a small timed radioactive paintball after they leave. No one gets hurt, but the radioactive splatter creates a no-go zone. As a result, no one can fix the fibre optics or even get near them for, let’s say, 100 years. The city outside, and even the rest of the building, might remain safe, but don’t go near that room on the 20th floor!” Whether Byrne’s plan to destroy the internet has ever been attempted remains to be seen.

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