Coding the Public Screen: Connections at the Nexus of Code, Affect, and the Stop Online Piracy Act

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Daniel Faltesek, Oregon State University





This paper contends that protests against the Stop Online Piracy act in January 2012 were successful because of a unique connection of the legal structure of a policy controversy with the engineering of the code level of the Internet. To this end the paper proposes a critical aesthetic theory that distinguishes presentational and interactive elements of web programming as they contribute to the circulation of visual arguments on public screens.




On November 15 2012, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) convened a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to hear six speakers on a pending piece of popular, bi-partisan legislation entitled the Stop Online Piracy Act, or as it is more commonly known, SOPA. The bill contained several provisions, including those enabling the Attorney General to take action against websites infringing intellectual property rights, a notification based system for suppressing sites or services ostensibly infringing or possibly infringing, search engine delisting of infringing sites, enabling action against online pharmacies, expansion of criminal copyright, and protections against defrauding government agencies.1 Arguments in favor of the bill featured the potential reduction in procurement fraud, online pharmacy sales, and increased revenues for content creating companies. Arguments against the bill hinged not on matters of pharmacy or fraud (as these could be handled separately), but on the ways that the takedown process for copyrighted content circumvented due process and could chill innovation and expression.

The intensity of questioning for the advocates of the bill was low. Given the stature of the bill and likely passage, the hearing was for the most part pro-forma. Michael O’Leary, a film industry trade representative, argued in response to the concerns that the bill would gut cyber-security infrastructure that, “when new developments or circumstances require changes to these codes, the codes change.” Representative Thomas Mariano remarked, “And let me follow up with, why not hire some whiz kids out of college to come in and monitor this and work for the company to take these [infringing websites] off?” in response to the idea that the work of detecting and managing search results was a technically difficult matter.2 Engineering the web has never been quite so easy.

The House committee had a different approach in questioning Katherine Oyama, representing Google. Before Oyama even had the chance to present an argument, Smith presented arguments for Google’s wonton criminality. Testimony equated Google’s search engine operation with selling stolen merchandise, supporting the distribution of child pornography, and generally impugning the character of critics of the legislation. Advocates of the bill went as far as to say that Oyama’s appearance was “reprehensible” as the committee would have preferred to grill Google’s CEO, Eric Schmitt, as this was after all, “the Lion’s den.”3

After a series of pointed questions where Oyama described Google’s policies related to advertising and Digital Millennium Copyright Act notices, Smith concluded, “I hope you can practice what you preach today. That would be a major breakthrough.”4 Representative Smith was quite clear, this is bi-partisan legislation, and Google is an obstruction at best, and a more likely villain. Oyama’s description of Google’s business practices was taken as dubious. Representative Melvin Watt took the approach of pushing Oyama to defend child pornography as protected speech, “Does that mean that you consider it unconstitutional for law enforcement to seize a child pornography site if the site also contains one copy of the King James Bible?”5 Oyama was not permitted to complete a sentence in response until after Watt had restated the question with a slightly different wording. Watt continued down this path of argument for the remainder of his time questioning Oyama. The focus of the hearing was not so much to ask Oyama for information about Google operations, or technical expertise (the committee did not seem to believe her answers) but to frame future positive references to the bill.

The approach to the hearing was so one-sided and ham-handed that Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) cautioned the committee, "impugning the motives of the critics rather than engaging in the substance is a mistake."6 The committee concluded that this legislation, even if flawed, was the best that might come and that the nation “had enough brainpower” to solve any technical or security problems that could result from the legislation.7

Two months passed. Protests were organized. Tweets tweeted, and statuses posted. A number of organizations for existing interest groups began public relations efforts, such as Fight for the Future (an off-shoot of the Center for Rights) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, among efforts organized by websites including Reddit and Wikipedia.8 The actual dynamics of coordination between and among groups was unclear—people affiliated with different groups were surely reading their favorite websites, looking at their Twitter timelines, and Facebook newsfeeds. Organizing these groups was the ongoing struggle over the idea of intellectual property, and the particular strategies taken by the content industries, such as litigation against end users.

In January, the call volume overwhelmed the Congressional switchboard.9 Twitter was running at four times normal volume. Some physical protests and pickets were convening, but these were nothing compared to the online clamor. Members of Congress from areas with strong interests in technology joined the online protest. January 18, 2012, was a unique day in that it saw two seemingly bipartisan, popular bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House, and Protect Intellectual Property Act in the Senate stopped dead by an outpouring of public opinion. In a matter of two months they had gone from a sure thing, to dead in committee.

In the abstract, this should not have been possible. Powerful interests represented by an elite lobbyist in Chris Dodd advocated the bills. Just weeks before the day of protest, there were many happy-go lucky backers of measures. Lofgren was right: they should have had a balanced hearing, with stronger testimony, that might have helped them write a better bill or at least have some viable public relations strategy. What the committee had not taken into strategic consideration was that the normally fragmented or even opposed actors might organize around a single concrete policy position. These actors are not the heroes of a story, but a provisional collation. Such a collation would be prudent, as the impact of SOPA would make it far more difficult for these companies to do business. If there is no competitor with revenue to litigate, there is no industry. Instead of making their arguments through traditional channels, the group of companies would communicate directly with the public about their vision of the implications of the bill.10 In concrete terms, the advocates the bill seriously underestimated the ways in which the media system had changed, the Internet was no longer separate and distinct from the media of journalism: it was the media.

Attempting to explain the backlash, RIAA spokesperson Jeremy Lamay said, “It's a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users and arm them with misinformation.”11 Rupert Murdoch alleged that the public had been incited to rise up by their “Silicon Valley Paymasters.”12 It was not merely that advocates of the bill had been out argued on the public screen, but that the platforms themselves had betrayed their vision of democracy. Historically, the content industries had control of the flow of news. In their conception of the public sphere they still did.13 Recoding websites would be the stuff of mere spectacle: real news is produced by journalists who are in the employ of legacy institutions that stand separate from the story. Their position in short: the Internet cheated.14

Since the time World Trade Organization protests in Seattle the efficacy of in-person protest has decayed for uptake into public culture.15 Protests against the Iraq war drew unprecedented numbers, and received little attention from the press. Tea Party groups harangued town hall meetings with minimal effect, the Affordable Health Care Act passed. Unlike the Tea Party, the creation of years of difficult planning, the movement against SOPA formed quickly and with a diverse cadre of key players.16 This sudden movement existed almost entirely within the world of what DeLuca and Peeples termed the public screen.17 Public screen theory supposes that the circulation functions of the publics and counter publics can be handled by mass media in as much as arguers might make reference to a set of agreed upon images. Where in Seattle there had been a physical story for coverage, in resistance to SOPA there was only a referent on the level of the code of the Internet itself. The struggle against SOPA may have had physical protests in some locations, but participation was by in large, electronic. It is this simultaneous plasticity and intractability of the body of the Internet, the topic of debate and the mechanism of debate, itself that caused such consternation.

The dimension of the platform as something that can take positions is a form of digital embodiment, and that the dimension of difference in anti-SOPA protests is not so much a logoscentric appeal, but the re-creation of a historical set of political conditions that have presented the body in public argument.18 This article offers an aesthetic reading of the interposed layers of code on the Internet. First, this article theorizes affect, interface design, and the body in public argument. The argument will then move toward a conception of embodiment in new media and the structure of the digital public screen, which will be used to read an archive of specific online protest tactics. This section provides the reading strategy that will be taken for analyzing specific protest tactics in the second portion of the article. The conclusion will discuss the ways that these aesthetic shifts informed politics.

The Intimacy of the Home Row

Web pages are a combination of content as coded in HTML and style as coded in CSS. These pieces are then augmented through interactive elements coded in a framework that creates a path back toward a database or secondary function. These include Flash, Java, and PHP among others. This distinction is important. HTML and CSS provide the basic appearance of the Internet, they are the ways in which basic information is displayed, with very limited interactivity, HTML/CSS are presentational.19 On the other hand, interactive elements are more than presentational as they allow access to a variety of pieces of information stored in a topologically layered series of databases. It is the access to those databases that is really meaningful. Conversations that happen through social media are not like telephone calls (an analog electromechanical transformation of vibration), but a series of entries into a database, which is then rendered through an HTML/CSS/PHP/AJAX and other languages for the individual browser.

Facebook is not so much a website but a process for producing a new site with every load. This object is the creation of a call upon hundreds of databases with thousands of read/write commands. Loading Facebook is not like making a copy of a running software program called Facebook, but like making an impression of the relationships currently articulated between the databases. The act of producing the interface leaves a trace. Any particular Facebook page is a creation of that moment and the ways that the algorithmic logic of Facebook reads the relationship between the databases of friends, families, strangers, pictures, and news events to know what should be in that version of the Feed. The leap of logic in the sense of the body of the Internet performing is not that the relational object of the code is unique, but that publics are once again embroiled in John Durham Peters formulation of communication—“a dance in which we sometimes touch.”20

We might touch through social media via database functions. Popular press stories often refer to features that recall old searches on Facebook as the ‘most terrifying thing in social media.’21 Creeping, accessing profiles without a prompt from a newsfeed technology, involves intentional work as one must search and access a social network profile. If not delivered by a friendly algorithm the purity of the network is in question. Creeper is a label for a voyeur who looks at public information. Reflexively defining the creeper is important. If the profile were to be delivered through the technical means inherent in the system, it would not be creeping, it would be browsing or surfing. The masculine gaze in social media is itself tied to running a query of the database pointing to your pictures, relations, lovers, and friends, not to the HTML layer where that data is merely organized into a table. Asking the database for something it has not provided obviates the neutrality of the feed generating algorithm. A creeper quite literally touches your profile through the keys. Searches engage the mechanism that parses the databases and compiles the results, running a query on a database system is a very different experience than browsing a surface. Contact is made through the search box: entering information into that box through the keyboard is a very different kind of sense experience than looking at it upon the screen.

The aural aspect of social media ended with the old MySpace. Hearing a particular sound track was more than annoying. The experience of the user and their screen is one to one—sound was much akin to a 1950s figuration of madness, where thoughts leaked out for others to hear.22 Over time landing music on web pages has come to be viewed in a harsh negative light. The haptic moment is distinct—it is how you go from mere browsing to being in physical contact with the mechanism of the web that makes data entry into the search system possible. Losing touch with these systems would be akin to a romantic partner pulling back from a first kiss. Exchanging data through the search box is the key to understanding the experience of new media. The fingers are the levers of the soul.

Linked and layered databases are the connective tissue of the body of the Internet. The affective potential of these contact points with the body of the social web are articulated to the larger idea of how we situate bodies in public discourse.

Do you have the body?

There are numerous ways that the body is discussed in the public sphere. Habeas corpus refers to the legal idea that one might literally have the body of the accused and that the right and proper processes have been followed in the holding of that body. The imperative to properly hold the body is so important that it is directly coded in the text of the United States Constitution, only to be withheld under the gravest of circumstances.23 In a similar sense, before the rise of the threat only filibuster, the process of holding the dais in the United States Senate required the physical body of a Senator to be in continuous speech. In this sense a physical body performing would become a living injunction to a symbolic process. Only in recent years have the ideas of Habeas Corpus and the performance of the filibuster faded. Now the seemingly never ending War on Terror has suspended the need to perform even basic embodied rituals and Senators can merely indicate that they would filibuster if necessary. No performance needed.24 The body is a stand-in that serves both to express a commitment to sensorial experience and to situatedness, as John Protevi put it, “Finally, on the largest scale of political physiology, we see the formation of a body politic in the classical sense, what we will call the civic body politic: the patterns and triggers of institutional action.”25 The body is a complex assemblage that includes many processes and connections. The ways that this body exists in discourse are experienced in feeling. In the larger context of the affective project of this article, Protevi’s distinction between the physiology and feeling of the body politic is informative, “Political physiology is accessible only in a third-person, objective standpoint, while political feeling is accessible in a first-person, subjective standpoint.”26 The interaction of the body politic and the connective tissues that make collective life possible are as complex relations between visions of the state, evidence, and the interfaces of computer systems. The ways in which filibusters, protests, petitions, and trials happen exist both in the feeling of their operation and their pattern of operation. Both are forms of embodiment. What is at stake in this article is the relationship between the feeling of politics, the Internet, and the mechanism of politics. Feelings and sensations about politics inform our ideas about the body politic, as well as our ideas about the body informing our feelings and sensations.

The structure of the post-modern public sphere seemingly enables the creation of a public without the need for performance either due to the capacity to render larger publics comprehensible or through the seeming incommensurability of discourses. New communication technologies enable both different configurations of politics as well as different sorts of political affect. Social newsfeeds literally render the desires and expressions of a public in a way that was not possible before the advent of social media. Danielle Allen argues that this disembodied public sphere is problematic—decreased proximity between bodies decreases the potential for democratic life.27 This only drives the need for contact and education in identification with others to another level. If chance encounters with other bodies are replaced by chance contacts with/through the body of the Internet the texture of the lifeworld changes. 

Finding an affective nexus that facilitates the formation of publics is exceedingly difficult. Closeness created through an affective attachment to a space or to an experience of contact with a code system is important. This is not to say that the Internet provides some other place or space that substitutes or replaces the discursive circulation of the public sphere. The idea of the Internet possessing a body provides conceptual resources, as it is a key part of a complex discourse network. The Internet is a part of social life, and the intimate relationships that it participates in very real, and the story of those relationships has become the story of the formation of the public.

After the collapse of the metanarrative of the Cold War, the idea of the public being all affected by nuclear war was at an end, replaced by third way neo-liberalism where individual access to capital markets was the sine qua non of political life as opposed to peace. Instead of being locked in a battle that has some means of resolution (total destruction) or peace, conflict became ontological.28 Everyone is fighting everyone else for cash. The market has become the domain of a war of all against all. Public sphere theory in this intellectual environment unfortunately languished, dismissed as the mere advocacy of the ideal speech situation.29 The neo-liberal conception of the free market as the human condition comes with a manifest of different affiliated ideological positions, of which the Californian Ideology is a particularly pressing example.30 For cyber-utopians in the 1990s the public sphere was not the product of embodied performances with strong rules, but an emergent property that seemingly comes from nowhere, or worse, a temporary solution to a technical problem.31 Embodiment would be unimportant because the self-organization of the network would precede the bodies in that network. This view is decidedly problematic as it ignores the very real ways that networks, technologies, and discourses are situated in everyday life.

Manual DeLanda contends that public sphere systems are limited, as they exist only by materially fixing intersubjectivie qualities to a physical form.32 This motivates DeLanda to describe the ways in which signification is connected to different gradients of legitimation—symbolic and material. To be legitimate a regime must both provide for the physical needs of people—seeing that their bellies are full, and to the ways that symbolic authority exists through objects and rituals. A society could suffer a legitimation crisis if it has too many or too few symbols, or too much or too little material. This offers a vocabulary of thinking about Habermas’ idea of the legitimation crisis in a screened society—the actually existing physical supply of symbols is managed on the level of the screen, and in a society with relative material abundance, legitimacy hinges on the symbolic.33

The presence of the body matters to public debate not because of the literal physical body, but at the dialectical joining of the symbolic and the material. The cultural crisis of late neo-liberalism is tied both to a lack of meaningful common symbols and to an over-abundance of symbols and material. Showing up in-person means something in as much as it is a symbolic and a material act, and in the contemporary political landscape it is further qualified by the presentation of symbolically coordinated bodies that are intelligible to the public screen. This is the horizon of public sphere theory today—finding the ways in which embodiment can become intelligible in the available public screen, particularly when that body is a network of fiber optics, switches, routers, databases, algorithms, designs, queries, and codes.

The Body of the Public Sphere

After the hearing with Representative Smith’s committee, a substantial industry response began. The reason why the RIAA felt so ambushed by the appearance of a movement is that their position had never been subject to a particularly serious round of dialectical testing and debate. If anything the content industries had been hoping to slip SOPA and PIPA through a public screen environment with little noise. And it should have worked. At least, it would have worked fifteen years ago. For the content industries, the public screen is decidedly that of the 1990s, with a very limited number of points of entry and limited deliberation. The screen is separate from the public. In the 1990s media environment, without an outbreak of extreme violence or some other wide scale media event, there would be no risk of uptake by other media or organized response from the public. An Internet protest would definitely not qualify, aside from inclusion as a joke, a ‘news of the weird’ entry at best.

This is a puzzle in light of the rationale for authoring the bill in the first place. If it were true that the Internet had so fundamentally changed marketplace so as to require dramatic new processes for business protection, why would that new marketplace not effectively respond to Congressional action? Why wouldn’t it defend itself? The body of the public sphere had changed: the relationship that persons have with their interfaces is in itself a meaningful kind of public screen, one that enables forms of public organization that can be translated into meaningful political action without the requirement of the macro-apparatus of the content industries.

Jodi Dean offered a vision of the public sphere in Publicity’s Secret, where she supposed that the best possible way for web politics to emerge would be in the form of issue networks, these networks not requiring a fantasy of totality.34 This distinction would see the body of the web as a site where a network would provisionally organize for the purposes of taking action on a particular issue, much akin to the function of a counter public with a systemic orientation. The public screen in this sense is provisional—existing only as much as the literal screen is deployed between users. The issue network in this case found organization not through the creative art of the users of the Internet, but through the point de caption of Congressional action. The threat of legislation became the point around which a diverse number of interests had the capability of organizing themselves. If anything the actions of Representative Smith amplified this potential by embracing the image of anti-democracy. Smith in pre-emptively taking a victory lap in front of Oyama had provided evidence of bad faith to the public writ large. His disposition confirmed that a provisional public screen was necessary.35

The theory of the public sphere provided by the RIAA seems to involve dialectical testing. Misinformation implies a crude theory of ideology, if only the public had the right information they would judge the situation correctly.36 The RIAA would conclude that it was not that SOPA was poorly conceived. What is striking is that years later, there has been no attempt to engage or educate the anti-SOPA movement, or at least, it does not register with any public screen indexed by a search engine. If this were a mere matter of providing additional information that would prove dispositive, the effort would be in full swing. The quality of argument at the hearing should have served as a warning—the stock issues case for SOPA had not been argued. In the content industries theory of the public sphere making a basic logos driven case for a policy action is not necessary, just as performing a filibuster is not necessary. The criteria for intelligibility to gain access to an older version of the public screen would have side stepped the need to make the original case, in this new screen environment, access criteria are established ad hoc, on the level of the screen itself.37 Instead of developing viable legislation, the sponsors of the bill had depended on the publicity of traditional gatekeepers and media rhythms.

Since DeLuca and Peeples development of the public screen, the ways in which screens are deployed has changed. Instead of relying on television and a handful of news reporters the public has access to a much larger variety of both literal and figural screens. This distinction is important—the diffusion of literal screens has increased access to information and instantiated a form of co-temporality that exists on services like Twitter. Although some accounts of access to publishing technology are too deterministic, there is some real power in providing people screens. The diffusion of figural screens has created new sites for intelligibility—there are shared pools of meaning that simply did not exist. Reddit (a central organizational figure in protest against SOPA) has become origin site for an entire online vernacular that animates much of what we know to be the viral web. Jokes, memes, and arguments come from somewhere. A public becoming aware of a pool of sustained attention is just as much a screen as a delivery mechanism. Just as the public screen held a strange liminial position between the public and the private during the time of broadcast television dominance, the interface as public screen has a similar position. It is at once public, held between many, and radically singular. What distinguishes this issue network are the ways in which the body of the argumentative actor, the Internet itself was aestheticized.

Angular, Black, Shallow

Among websites protesting SOPA the most common way of demonstrating opposition was the deployment of an angular, black box. The dominant web aesthetic today uses white backgrounds and rounded edges: angular, dark sites are things best left behind in the 1990s. Shifting from a black on white image to a white on black image inverted the normal visual world and with it the relationship between figure and ground on popular websites. Instead of seeing the world as it is through the everyday Internet, users were taken to some other place, another Internet. The Internet Archive, Boing Boing, and Wikipedia implemented this strategy along with a takedown of their normal interface patterns. The idea of closure requires some additional thought here as the services provided by the site had not been shut down, but blocked. The techniques that one might use to close their website could be circumvented either through the use of software or by very quickly stopping the load of the website as it arrived, before it could be blocked. Even though the content was still available, the haptic pattern that one engage take to access it had changed. Activists made users move their fingers differently. Instead of accessing a library or reading the news you were presented with an absence or a slab. Small white writing on a black background strains your eyes. An unexpected difference in the presentation of information forces you to engage. By changing and challenging access to the content of the web pages these authors implemented an even more dramatic performative move in restricting access to the query dimension.

The argument that I have made to this point is that the surface aesthetic dimension of the Internet is made in the basic content, HTML, and in the style, CSS. Contact and conversation are in the capacity that a user would have to make a request of a database system—making a call on a database is how you experience the depth of connection. Even more than changing the surface of the experience, changing and challenging access to the database effected users reducing access to the parallel catalogue of human thoughts that have come to be central to web culture. In the cases of Wikipedia and the Internet Archive this changed access to the library of knowledge. Restricting a library is in itself a powerful symbolic move. As Ted Striphas so explained, the content industries have opposed the idea of cheap access to the archive of information for a century, going as far as to craft a public relations campaign in the 1930s that coined the term ‘book sneaks’ to derisively refer to persons reading for free.38 The idea of a library is a profound reminder of the commons of ideas. Obstructing access to a transformational library is a dramatic expression in its own right. Lateral thinking as marked through stable hyperlinks, and later through search and database queries is a way of knowing, creating, and interpreting web culture. Lateral thinking depends on having material to think between.

The blackout took a different form on Wired and WordPress. Wired is a magazine devoted to the digital world, and WordPress a popular blog publishing platform. Both services cut off access to their main pages. Instead of inverting the white-black relationship of the site, they replaced the content with repeated black geometric forms.


This image from WordPress was used in place of all content on the website. Blogs could be directly accessed, but browsing from the main page was encumbered. Instead of a variety of snippets for browsing, users were presented with a field of blocked images bearing the silver box and word censored. As a form of Brutalist aesthetic the repeated geometric form had the raw, heavy quality of concrete.39 The blocked blogs black boxes hanged heavy in the air. Brutalism as an architectural movement, revealed the conditions by which buildings exist, with repeated form and materials. The Brualist approach to criticism in this case reveals the structure of the site and the presence of human agency in between the concrete pillars of HTML boundary lines. As a critical project it reveals the conditions of possibility for a website. Blocks, lines, and database calls are all best forgotten in a world with smooth lines and well-designed interfaces.

Why Censoring Works

Wired employed a selective geometric strategy to disrupt the normal sense of flow in their webpage. The remaining content on the page was covered in much the same way that WordPress was. Like WordPress access to content remained, on Wired users needed to click an uncensor button to gain access to the material. The news on Wired that day was in itself material relevant to the political struggle of the moment, against SOPA.

Other sites such as icanhascheezburger, a key source for cat jokes, used their own normal image vernaculars to present challenges to SOPA. Offering information on the user’s way to access the page through a pop-up. Clicking the link for more information took users to a page entitled “Life After SOPA,” where the central image of a standard cheezburger page was replaced with a stop sign and an official notice that the image presented was infringing. The page performed the aesthetic of being stopped, invoked the semiotic code of authority, and provided information about the bill.

Google opted to begin with a logos based policy argument. Upon landing at Google users were presented with an infographic with information about the reach of the Internet as a communication medium, and a second landing page with three detailed policy arguments against the bill. The first claim was that the bills were a form of censorship, with support coming from the authority of forty-one human rights organizations and one-hundred and ten law professors. The second claim was that the bill would cause companies to lose money and introduce a new era of uncertainty to a successful segment of the economy. The third claim was that the bill would fail to prevent piracy. Google’s approach was decidedly policy centered, the text of the arguments themselves were couched in the popular political vernacular including the term “job-killers.”40 While this is not the most technical approach to making the policy argument the depth created through hyper-linking would lead to increasingly sophisticated information. In terms of formal argumentation theory, Google’s approach created a deep pool of backing behind an authority warrant. They gestured toward the depth of the backing in the landing graphic with the layers of information, which allowed users to secure additional grounds, as they needed them.41

In context, maintaining their aesthetic was an excellent decision. Upon launch in the 1990s, Google changed the aesthetic logic of the search engine. Search engines that came before were posited as connectors across a relatively limited network, which was encapsulated by the homepage. Search products were present, but secondary to the hub-spoke logic of a dense page. Google took the search engine and using the quality of their product resituated search from being a limited function on an established network to the operational experience of using the Internet. Google made the threshold of the Internet beautiful. This is what Siva Vaidanythan refers to as the Googalization of everything.42 By making the argumentative strategy aesthetically compatible with their normal product aesthetic, Google leveraged the maximum level of possible argumentative legitimation.

Thousands of websites participated each with an aesthetic strategy that would be persuasive to its audience. These were some of the major pages on the Internet and their aesthetic strategies resonated with diverse audiences. Enacting these strategies speaks to the ways in which the Internet, even at the presentational level of HTML is tied to human agency, performing the work of relationships, and making meaning.

The Credibility of the Body

In this context the content industry objection that the purveyors of the Internet had duped the masses becomes truly facile, it was not merely an argument going out through a broadcast distribution medium that had duped the public, but that the body of the Internet itself had undone itself as living proof of the argument. Internet activists presented a radical form of habeus corpus, enacting the failed procedures of the Congress upon their sites and themselves. Much like in the conclusion of Kafka’s “Penal Colony” when the warden subjects himself to his own means of execution (a device that etches the crime of the condemned upon their body), the performance of SOPA resistance enacted the will of the content industries upon their own pages.43 Google was not selling counterfeit bags, or drugs, or ripping DVDs. The thing that would be inscribed: unauthorized. The Internet had made the prospect of control via technical means unstable. Power is in this sense what Lawrence Lessig described as an “architecture of control.”44 Architectures of control ostensibly provide private actors the capacity to make laws for systems without the intervention of the state, which may succeed if the values and goals of those potentially building together are compatible.45 Literalizing the act of suppression removes it from the realm of easy, neat solutions. The domain of this debate is politics, a decidedly aesthetic domain of human life. Instead of appearing as a reasonable, or even easy solution to a public policy problem, the blunt nature of the instrument was revealed. The claim made by the content industries was that they should be in the position of providing authorization and thus taking control of the public screen itself.

Anna Munster has argued that there are distinct aesthetic qualities that come through engagement with embodied online systems—this quality of embodiment drives the analysis of the digital.46 The position hinges on the idea that materiality in new media depends on the production of linkages between people and their phenomenological experiences of the interface medium as something that is perceived as being different from other modes of mediation. Alexander Galloway is right to caution us on the other hand that no new digital politics can truly be founded on the conception of a radical break, on the newness of new media rather than its engagement with the world as such.47 His idea is that modernity functions as an ongoing production of the new, thus new media cannot exist outside modernity. Newness is not an aspect of the media, but of the world. In this sense there needs to be clarity about the feeling of the interface—the feeling that Munster isolates as the basis of formulating community through embodied media could just as easily be that of human communality in language itself. Synthetically, the idea would be that a critique of new media must involve a critique of modernity. This idea of pairing the experience of the interface with critique is important as it challenges both the conceptions of potentiality that banal cyber-utopianism and the despair of materialist critique.48

Just as the content industries could not grasp that the public screen had been fundamentally changed they could not grasp that the role Internet of the as a performance medium, with aesthetic depth and potency. In this sense, the reaction against SOPA will be difficult to replicate. SOPA threatened the basic existence of the Internet as such, and in that threat it reactivated the all-affected principle of the public sphere. The all-affected principle is the idea that numerous publics with different interests could all unites around a single idea or concept, such as preventing a nuclear war or abating global warming.49 In this sense it was persuasive to the public because the proof was presented at that moment, they quite literally had the body. Instead of succumbing to the post-modern excess of the post-truth public sphere of major newspapers or television the public screen of the Internet could provide the grounds, warrant, and an almost unlimited reserve of backing for the argument.50 The seed relationship was that of bill to the body of the Internet. It structured the conflict; it set the parameters, and allowed diverse web audiences to come into a provisional network. At that point the aesthetic dimensions of the argument were truly realized, and a new public screen had affected politics.

Connecting the Future

The particular alignment of argumentative aesthetics and political economy that drove the protest against SOPA is difficult to reproduce, and should not be taken as a formula. This is also its great strength. By acting on the code level of the Internet SOPA protestors created a form of argument that did more than any form of lobbying. It is telling that this gesture was described by the press at the conception of the strategy as a “nuclear option” as it would seem that motivating public participation in the legislative process would be a destructive burst of energy.51 This vision of public participation in democracy is almost unknown in the digital public sphere where technological capacity has been claimed to supplant the political. Evengey Morozov argues that this norm of non-participation is a form of “solutionism,” which sees the creation of political institutions as a substitute for inadequate technologies, rather than the mediation of the realities of divergent conceptions of the good.52 The saving grace of the online public sphere is that the public screen is far more adaptable than the frameworks by which it is understood, and the mechanism for implementing governance upon the people is stable. Juridical power provides a rally point where actions can be organized and networked public screens give those arguments depth.53

The public screen functioned in this case because of the legacy of the idea of the public sphere, and the idea that Congress would respect the body public in particular. Given structural factors including district geography and demographic shifts, it is entirely possible that SOPA and PIPA could have passed regardless of the public will. In this sense, the body of the government no longer is in proximity to the bodies of the public. The fact that a movement was successful in stopping legislation without the prospect of directly evicting members of Congress from their seats is telling in that it speaks to the cogency of the screen and the aesthetic aspect of public life. It is not the result of mobilized voters that stopped the passage of SOPA, but the expectation that the public will matters if presenting a compelling argument.

The necessary maneuver to counter this dialectical play between fluid screens and stable institutions would involve either fixing the public screen through institutional means (copyright law) or by directly bypassing the institutional form of government by distributing political functions to decentralized actors. SOPA as conceived at that time was both a mode of fixing the public screen and distributing juridical authority to private actors. What anti-SOPA protests did so effectively was to play the depth of the query relationship as the embodiment of the web. This goes beyond merely inconveniencing people, but to enacting an argument as the body of the Internet. In this sense anti-SOPA protests are at the center of the struggle for the future of liberal democracy, and the argumentative resources that exist at the nexus of HTML/CSS and PHP/Flash/SQL are some of the most important available as they provide new resources for understanding the aesthetic prospects of legitimation for future arguments on the public screen. 



  • 1. The Thomas summary of the bill is informative, but does not frame the debate. The core issue at stake was not related to fraud or contracting, but to the ways that the new take down provisions were overbroad. For analysis of the policy, Chris Heald, “Why SOPA is Dangerous,” Mashable, January 17, 2012. Stop Online Piracy Act, HR 3261, (2011).
  • 2. Ibid, 257.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Stop Online Piracy Act, Hearing Before the House Committee on the Judiciary, Serial 112-154, 112th Congress, (2011).
  • 5. Ibid, 140.
  • 6. Nate Anderson, “At Web censorship hearing, Congress guns for pro-pirate Google,” Ars Technica, November 16, 2011.
  • 7. Stop Online Piracy Act, 258.
  • 8. Grant Gross, “Who Really Was Behind The SOPA Protests?” PC World, February 3, 2012.
  • 9. Jenna Worthham, “With Twitter, Blackouts and Demonstrations, Web Flexes Its Muscle,” New York Times, January 18, 2012.
  • 10. Chris Bowers, “Internet Giants Seriously Considering “Nuclear Option” to Stop SOPA,” Daily Kos, December 29, 2011.
  • 11. Carl Franzen, “SOPA/PIPA Supporters Blast ‘Blackout Day’,” Talking Points Memo, January 17, 2012.
  • 12. Gross, ibid.
  • 13. I use the term content industries to refer to a collection of interests in the legacy media that were involved primarily in the production of media content by traditional means, rather than distribution. This includes the recording, television, film, and newspaper organizations.
  • 14. It is for this reason that I do not engage in a policy analysis of SOPA proper as the protestors provided a number of strong arguments, which went unanswered by the content industries. Because of the lack of analysis in response to one side, it is difficult to treat this as an ongoing policy debate, and not a reactive public relations move against a superior policy case against SOPA. It is especially galling that the empirical bases of most pro-SOPA arguments revert to a single factoid in a sidebar in Forbes magazine. For a detailed analysis, see: Julian Sanchez, “How Copyright Industries Con Congress,” CATO at Liberty, January 3, 2012.
  • 15. Physical protest requires a meaningful framework for interpretation on the public screen, this has seemingly evaporated—this is why ‘don’t taze me bro’ is a joke. Instead of making an argument in person, he should have used the media. Bourgeois communication norms increasingly favor a particular sort of distance.
  • 16. Amanda Fallin, Rachel Grana, and Stanton Glantz, “To Quarterback Behind the Scenes, Third-Party Efforts; The Tobacco Industry and the Tea Party.” Tobacco Control, 2013.
  • 17. Kevin Deluca and Jennifer Peeples, “From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the “Violence” of Seattle,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19(2), 2002.
  • 18. I focus on SOPA, rather than PIPA or some other piece of legislation, because SOPA served as the site for contestation in the public discourse.
  • 19. HTML5 increasingly allows interactive elements to be built in the HTML layer.
  • 20. John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1999, p. 268.
  • 21. Katie Notopolous, “The Most Terrifying Button on Facebook,” Buzzfeed, February 23, 2013.
  • 22. The image of thought transmission is culturally specific, and a major indicator of madness in western society that was explanatory in the late 1960s in particular. John Durham Peters, “Broadcasting and schizophrenia,” Media, Culture & Society, 10:1, (2010), p. 132.
  • 23. Article 1, Section 9.
  • 24. Jason Hafetz, “Habeas Corpus and the “War on Terror,” ACSBlog, April 14, 2011. Mark Roth, “Senate Filibuster no Longer Requires Long Floor Speech,” Pittsburgh-Post Gazette, April 8, 2012.
  • 25. John Protevi, Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009): 7.
  • 26. Protevi, 45.
  • 27. Danielle S. Allen, Talking to Strangers, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 161.
  • 28. Peter Coviello, “Apocalypse from Now On,” in Queer Frontiers, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000).
  • 29. This was especially apparent in some forms participatory culture research where ideas of self-organizing publics were especially popular. The consideration of structure, circulation, history, and flow are prior to the prospect of order appearing spontaneously. Even if one accepts common culture as the driver of the formation of publics, other considerations of infrastructure and power are critical.
  • 30. This is a must read for understanding the relationship between convergence and the public sphere. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology,” Mute, 1995.
  • 31. Evgeny Morozov, “Future Shock,” Bookforum, February 2013.
  • 32. Manuel DeLanda, Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason, (New York: Continuum), 2011.
  • 33. Habermas identifies that the ongoing contradictions of capital make legitimation difficult, as the very effectiveness of society for demanding structural change from the system tends to diffuse the conditions by which that public is organized—these are the game of the welfare state. Jurgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, trans. Thomas McCarthy, Beacon Press, 1975.
  • 34. Jodi Dean, Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy, (Ithica: Cornell University Press), 2002.
  • 35. This would also be a contribution to our understanding of online counter publics—it is not merely that they find connection by mere attention, but that attention itself forms a screen. As a contrast with existing counter public theories which depend on a reference to a performed or a literary public, that online publics exist and have different affective dimensions based on the designs.
  • 36. There have been a number of strong critiques of this approach to ideology, Dean’s approach depends on Zizek’s appropriation of Sloterdijk. This is meaningful as her work supposed that cynical distance is in itself an ideological position, which enables a reading of the creation of institutions that can believe in institutions on behalf of people or publics. Although it is not developed here, this is an important reading strategy for understanding the how legitimation works in a post-modern cultural context. If post-modernism has been understood as fragmenting the public sphere, the technology of belief on behalf is a moderating institution—it creates moments of stability—like the public screen itself. As an innovation for critical/cultural theory this is important. A more detailed investigation of this approach would involve: G. Thomas Goodnight and Thomas Farrell, “Get a Lifeworld: Some Notes On Dead Ends and Live Possibilities,” Proceedings of the Alta Conference, 1995, 79-85, and G. Thomas Goodnight, “The Firm, The Park, and The University: Fear and Trembling on the Post-Modern Trail,” Quarterly Journal of Speech (81) 1995, 267-290. The key citations for the theory of ideology: Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, (Routldege: New York), 1989. Especially the pages in the 30s. And finally—Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 1988.
  • 37. This should be taken as a future site for understanding pragma-dialectical theory. Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thevenot, On Justification, trans. Catherine Porter, (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 2006.
  • 38. Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print, (New York: Columbia University Press), 2008, p. 34-38.
  • 39. Architectural aesthetics offer new vocabularies for aesthetic web criticism. For an overview see: Stephen Fox, “New Brutalism—The Houston Interpretation,” Cite, Winter 1997.
  • 40. Job killers is a shibboleth of the modern Republican party, it is a catch-all term. Steven Pearlstein, “'Job-killing' regulation? 'Job-killing' spending? Let's kill this GOP canard.” Washington Post, January 6, 2011,
  • 41. This is a unique argumentative strategy to the Internet. As there is no limit on the amount of linking and information that can be meaningfully presented, this design would allow one to start with a surface level warrant and then have additional layers of claims that one could drill down through. The organization of online claim systems could mount important changes in how we understand the classical rhetorical processes of delivery and memory.
  • 42. Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Googleization of Everything, (Berkley: University of California Press), 2011.
  • 43. Franz Kafka, “The Penal Colony,” in Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, ed. Glatzer. (New York: Shocken Books), 1995.
  • 44. This is the name of a chapter. I have avoided an extensive discussion of either translational design theory or intellectual property in this article so as to emphasize the interaction of affect, interface, and the public sphere. Lawrence Lessig, Code 2.0, (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
  • 45. Ibid, 77.
  • 46. Anna Munster, Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics, (Hannover, NH: Dartmouth College Press), 2006.
  • 47. Alexander Galloway, The Interface Effect, (Malden, MA: Polity Press), 2012. p. 138
  • 48. The idea position for critique is one where the distinct resources offered by the embodied interface can operate within modernist critique which is the approach taken by this essay.
  • 49. This is often taken as a statement for finding grounds on which to make arguments toward the system, but also appears in the conclusion of Structural Transformation as the way in which groups will unit. This is an important regulatory concept as it assumes that a publicity process based on bounded rationality is not deterministic. This stands in contrast to cyber-utopian ideas where rationality does have a telos. See also: Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. (Cambridge: MIT Press), 1989.
  • 50. This is not to say that prior instances of the public sphere were necessarily predicated on the objective flow of information or even that objectivity is possible, but that public screen of mid-century ostensibly objective journalism has declined with the era of post-network television.
  • 51. See: Bowers, Daily Kos, note 3.
  • 52. See footnote19.
  • 53. Closure is endemic, and if we have learned anything from the co-productive relationship between physical and intersubjective layers of the visual argumentative process. This matters because there is no way of getting past the moment of decision that is a necessary aspect of power (and thus political) relations. Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, (Routledge: New York), 2002.

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Daniel Faltesek is an assistant professor of Social Media at Oregon State University. His ongoing project connects the design of interfaces with the economic, legal, and technical factors of interface production. This project extends multiple methods and literatures from data scraping and visualization to study interfaces, through critical legal studies and the rhetoric of economics to theorize the media industries. His research has appeared in, Communication Culture and Critique, Triple C: Communication, Culture, and Capitalism, Visual Communication Quarterly, and a number of other outlets and edited volumes.


© 2015 Daniel Faltesek, used by permission

Technoculture Volume 5 (2015)