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Terra Nullius: Blindness and the Network

In 1795, the philosopher Immanuel Kant published an essay called “Perpetual Peace.” Kant sketches the outlines of what it might require for humans to live together on earth in peace. It’s well worth reading, but there was a particular section that caught my attention. This has to do with the unruled, the uninhabitable, the inhospitable and what Kant calls ‘lands without owners’ (terra nullius). How should we interact in the lands at the edge our world? Lands that appear to the eyes looking from the outside in, and the inside out, to be terra nova.

Here’s Kant:

Uninhabitable parts of the earth–the sea and the deserts–divide this community of all men, but the ship and the camel (the desert ship) enable them to approach each other across these unruled regions and to establish communication by using the common right to the face of the earth, which belongs to human beings generally. The inhospitality of the inhabitants of coasts (for instance, of the Barbary Coast) in robbing ships in neighboring seas or enslaving stranded travelers, or the inhospitality of the inhabitants of the deserts (for instance, the Bedouin Arabs) who view contact with nomadic tribes as conferring the right to plunder them, is thus opposed to natural law, even though it extends the right of hospitality, i.e., the privilege of foreign arrivals, no further than to conditions of the possibility of seeking to communicate with the prior inhabitants. In this way distant parts of the world can come into peaceable relations with each other, and these are finally publicly established by law. Thus the human race can gradually be brought closer and closer to a constitution establishing world citizenship.

But to this perfection compare the inhospitable actions of the civilized and especially of the commercial states of our part of the world. The injustice which they show to lands and peoples they visit (which is equivalent to conquering them) is carried by them to terrifying lengths. America, the lands inhabited by the Negro, the Spice Islands, the Cape, etc., were at the time of their discovery considered by these civilized intruders as lands without owners, for they counted the inhabitants as nothing. In East India (Hindustan), under the pretense of establishing economic undertakings, they brought in foreign soldiers and used them to oppress the natives, excited widespread wars among the various states, spread famine, rebellion, perfidy, and the whole litany of evils which afflict mankind.

In particular what’s interesting is this idea of a blank slate, a new world, a chance to start over again from scratch. America is, of course, the embodiment of this idea. To see a blank slate or a new world requires certain kind of blindness. It’s a kind of negative seeing that projects a space that might allow freedom, an escape, from the world in which one is always already enmeshed. It’s a kind of seeing that moves from the inside out.

When we were able to say that “on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog”, we were projecting a kind of blank slate. The Network appears to us as terra nullius, a land without owners. It’s a place where we can get a fresh start, a level playing field, a place where the incumbents don’t dominate.

When we see by projection, it’s as though we’ve entered a bright room out of the darkness. It takes a while for our eyes to adjust. But once they do, we start to see that our new world is someone else’s old world. What we perceived as a blank slate is really a palimpsest.

As our eyes begin to adjust to the lighting of the Network, what writing is becoming visible? What’s the old world of this new world we believe we’ve created?

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