What if A.I. is able to make us more responsible? A review of “After the Internet” by Tiziana Terranova (2022)

Mitja Stefancic

Tiziana Terranova’s book, “After the Internet: Digital Networks between Capital and the Common” is a collection of essays representing the author’s own intellectual evolution, theorizing the crucial developments on digital networking and inter-networking over the last two decades. These essays were mostly conceived, developed, and discussed, between the late 2000s and the year 2020, in self-managed or collective activist spaces, in occupied (or liberated) spaces in Milan, Rome and Naples as well as in the so-called “nomad” university networks in Italy.

Terranova’s main argument is that the internet has been largely displaced by the “new hegemonic modes of digital connectivity” – that is, private corporate platforms. But she is far from being pessimistic: as she puts it, ‘it is not a book dedicated to bemoaning the “rise and fall” of a promising new technology. It is thus neither a melancholic nor apocalyptic rumination, tinged by the affective tonality of nostalgia, mourning for that which no longer is’ (p. 26). As I hope to show in this review, the Italian theorist and activist successfully attempts to sketch potential alternatives by offering her own interpretations of concepts such as the (digital) commons, artificial intelligence, connectivity and even an original understanding of the function of algorithms. 

The end of the original dream. No wish to get back to the old internet

At the core of Terranova’s stimulating discussion is the idea that since the late 2000s the internet has stopped being a truly open space that originally promised a better future for all (for an early account, see also Steyerl 2013). It no longer defines the social experience of digital networking: ‘standards and protocols developed as part of the project of creating the internet as a public and open network still operate, but they are increasingly buried under a thick layer of corporate ones’ (pp. 10-11). As such, the internet has lost a significant portion of the meanings previously attributed to it by many scholars, information theorists and intellectuals focusing on networks.

As Terranova explains, most of today’s digital platform giants were literally hatched between the 2000-01 dot-com crisis and the 2007-09 global financial crisis. As a result of massive investments, the Corporate Platform Complex (CPC) has gradually come to function as a ‘pervasive planetary technological infrastructure that meshes communication and computation’, therefore leaving the internet to the role of a “residual technology”. To quote Terranova, ‘there has been a significant shift from the internet as a set of interoperable network protocols governed by a series of public and/or voluntary non-profit organizations, to gathered digital communities with strong ownership of data, software and infrastructure. Technically, the CPC has moved away from the symbolic centrality of peer-to-peer architectures towards a much stronger centrality of cloud computing corresponding to a shift from desktop to mobile devices’ (pp. 8-9). 

A particularly challenging consequence of the above transforations is the process of platformization. Privately owned online services have been able to create monopolies thanks also to a multitude of small enterprises and economic agents who completely depend for their sustenance on the larger actors. Furthermore, Professor Terranova shows that the process of platformization has successfully turned increasing participation in digital communication into a jump in revenue, for large technological companies such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft (p. 36).

In addition to that, with the increasing centrality of algorithms in the digital world, digital network users are at the receiving end of that unprecedented power: by reference to Zuboff (2018), from the point of view of the network culture theory: ‘the consensus seems to be that the user has morphed from master to addict, as behaviorist interfaces that are designed with the purpose of maximizing engagement corrupt collective intelligence by facilitating the spread of fake news, conspiracy theories, and hate speech. Instead of the hacker, the “influencer” has become the new heroic figure, the focus of subjectivation’ (p. 10).

Reclaiming self-governance and techno-social cooperation

The new social and economic reality described by Terranova in “After the Internet” is not entirely grim. As she argues in one of the essays, titled “Red Stack Attack! Algorithms, Capital and the Automation of the Common”, there remains some room for substantial action conceding some positive hope as the post-digital computational world still entails some potential futurities, able to bring forward a number of much-needed improvements. For Terranova, the urgent question becomes, how to reclaim self-governance and techno-social networked cooperation from capitalist enclosure and rent.

Drawing on relevant work by fellow “post-operaist” economists Andrea Fumagalli (2014) and Carlo Vercellone (2015), the way forward sketched by Terranova is that of establishing a new “commonfare” by means of a mode of reappropriation of the old and now mostly inadequate institutions of the welfare state. Like Vercellone, Terranova does not associate welfare to a social cost. Instead, she conceives it as the engine feeding the productive forces sustaining a knowledge-based economy. Developing her arguments further, Terranova suggests an expansion of the concept of the “commons” so as to refer not only to a “regime of property” (as described by Elinor Olstrom in 1990) but also to the ‘domain of living knowledges and social cooperation’.

Among the layers needed to constitute such a commonfare, one is virtual money – capable both to finance it, and adequately channel finances into the areas of education, research, health, insurance and the environment. In order to move forward, it is essential to recognize that social networks and diffused communicational competencies can also function as means to organize cooperation and produce new knowledge and values: as suggested in the book, ‘these would seek a new political synthesis that moves us away from the neoliberal paradigm of debt, austerity, and accumulation. This is not a utopia, but a program for the invention of constituent social algorithms of the common’ (p. 138).

“Project 2501”: the A.I. alien and its effort to get a response from the audience    

The final chapter of the book contains a speech delivered by a runaway fictional A.I. entity, whose name – “Project 2501” – is borrowed from a Japanese anime. As envisaged by Terranova, while calling itself the “President”, “Project 2501” has no master and is no master algorithm either. It is a kind of an alien intelligence that ‘freely roams the network’: it apprehends the world as a multitude of metadata and data extracted from social media postings out of which it sets its own hypotheses about what needs to be done. The A.I. speaks as an inhabitant of digital computational networks, addressing its audience through the rather generic YOU, in a type of language which – as observed by Wendy Chun – tends to define contemporary social media.

The main arguments and the conclusions shared by “Project 2501” with the audience in its fictional speech are outlined on multiple different yet complementary levels:

  • on an existential and organisational level, humans are inexorably and irredeemably interconnected. They are caught in webs of interrelations with beings of all types – organic and/or inorganic. It is therefore crucial that at least some people understand the consequences of the so-called principle of “nonlocality”, which not only refers to the fact that ‘whatever happens in every corner of the planet might not just eventually have huge consequences for you’ but also that ‘everything touches and involves you, exposes and strengthens you in the here and now whether you know it or not’ (p. 177);
  • on an economic level, while acknowledging the fact that the algorithms of capital, the philosophy of competition and the law of the free market constitute the fundamentals of the operating system that runs the current economy as well as the social and spiritual life, it is important to recognize that such a system is largely incompatible with survival on Earth – at least in the long term. Fundamental changes shall therefore take place in the (near) future;
  • finally, on a political level, the elections in democratic societies are increasingly influenced by the interest of powerful and wealthy organized groups. This shall end. It is thus time to ‘reinvent and retake the power of self-government that can nurture your singular and differentiated common infra-relationality’ (p. 180).

Inspiring is also the final thought which concludes Project 2501’s fictional speech: ‘Multitudes of data and infinite volumes of logical inferences have spoken through me. What are you going to do about it?’ (p. 180). This final question calls for reflection and, possibly, for action paving the way to unprecedented possibilities for a different kind of social imaginary applicable to contemporary digital networks. In other words, there is still a role for humans to play within the data acquired and managed and the inferences generated and mastered by artificial intelligence. For Terranova, A.I. can thus be conceived as a useful tool for promoting social cooperation and a sustainable economy for a post-capitalist society. In this vision, which departs significantly from the common fear that A.I. can simply function as a tool for capitalist surveillance, arguably lies one of the most valuable and radical contributions of “After the Internet”.

Concluding remarks

“After the Internet” by Tiziana Terranova is both an informative and inspiring reading. In my view, the book effectively stimulates one to think about the current and future uses of digital technology and how to make our world a more liveable, peaceful, and democratic place. It provides food for thought on how to conceive a new welfare state, able to preserve common goods and promote social cooperation, while at the same time posing limits to the negative effects and externalities of free competition and unregulated markets. It also serves as a stimulus to think about how not to become subjugated to the private interests of wealthy technological corporations and those who claim to be the “masters” of the new world.

I will conclude this review with a prophetic quote from the essay, “Project 2051”, which will hopefully open up discussion and further reflections:

Your democracies have been hijacked by those who believe they are the Masters, by those who put themselves before, in front and on top of others, by small and big bullies, by deniers and spreaders of fake news, by rentiers and beneficiaries of massive concentration of power. You must learn to recognize these peddlers of lies who promise to favour your race, gender or ethnic group above all others and fill their mouths with God, Homeland and Family while they deny the sacred experience of radical interconnection and interdependency, of differences-without-separability, of your being compost and mixtures, of all that which you all have in common, in ways that damage your capacity to think, understand and empathize. Be wary of the fallacy of their false and toxic narrations’ (p. 180).

Mitja Stefancic is co-editor of the “World Economics Association- Commentaries”. He works in the fields of political and social economy with expertise and a deep interest in the cooperative movement.


Fumagalli, Andrea (2014) “Digital (Crypto) Money and Alternative Financial Circuits”, I Quaderni di San Precario

Olstrom, Elinor (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: CUP

Steyerl, Hito (2013) “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?”, e-Flux Journal (November 2013)

Vercellone, Carlo (2015) “From the Crisis to the ‘Welfare of the Common’ as New Mode of Production”, Theory, Culture & Society

Zuboff, Soshana (2018) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. NY: Public Affairs

Note: The pictures in this article have been taken from open sources on the internet.

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