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Against the Internet-Centric Totalizing Anti-Hierarchy and Anti-Centralization Ideology

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
9th February 2013


Challenging power requires a strategy that in many circumstances might favor centralization. To reject the latter on philosophical grounds rather than strategic grounds—because it is anti-Internet or anti-Wikipedia—borders on the suicidal. This antipathy to hierarchies and leaders is part of a broader Internet-centrist backlash against institutions; they are believed to be incompatible with the logic of the Internet.

The quote above and the discussion below are taken from long and very critical review of Steven Johnson’s book, Future, Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, which we featured two days ago.

Though I feel that Evgeny Morozov often overstates his polemical critiques against so-called “internet-centric” advocates, as he in fact may have done here, since the author Steven Johnson disputes Evgeny’s interpretation of his work, I do agree “in general” with the core critique expressed here, i.e. to the main thesis that one should not fetishize the internet, nor “pure” p2p dynamics. However, most of the people targeted by Evgeny, i.e. people like Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, and others, would agree with it. But there are indeed p2p purists out there.

Excerpted from Evgeny Morozov:

“Challenging power requires a strategy that in many circumstances might favor centralization. To reject the latter on philosophical grounds rather than strategic grounds—because it is anti-Internet or anti-Wikipedia—borders on the suicidal.

This antipathy to hierarchies and leaders is part of a broader Internet-centrist backlash against institutions; they are believed to be incompatible with the logic of the Internet. This anti-institutional bias is most visible in Johnson’s discussion of American politics. He sincerely believes that one way to improve it is to get rid of the hassle that comes with political parties, leaders, and other mediating institutions, and then allow citizens to cast votes directly on issues they care about or to delegate those votes to more knowledgeable friends—a delegation mechanism that Johnson calls “liquid democracy.” In 2005, in an essay that previewed many of the themes that he tackles in Future Perfect, Johnson turned to one of his favorite subjects—sociobiology—to argue that, if only we had the right tools, leaders would not be needed altogether:

– Just as the ants find their way to new food sources and switch tasks with impressive flexibiliy, our community tools should help us locate and improve troubled schools, up-and-coming playground, areas lacking crucial services, areas with an abundance of services, blocks that feel safe at night and blocks that don’t— all the subtle patterns of community life now made public in a new form. That kind of politics— the kind built from the ground up, without leaders—is truly within our grasp right now, if we can just build the right tools. In Future Perfect, Johnson pushes this rhetoric even further, writing that “the parties are institutions stuck in older ways of organizing the world”; they have forced the electorate “to distort the square peg of its true political worldview to fit the round holes of the two parties.” This is an odd explanation of the longevity of the party system. Many democracies outside the United States have more than two mainstream parties; the binary “round holes” that Johnson complains about are not a feature of some existential divide between the old and new forms of organizing and certainly not the consequences of inadequate communications infrastructure.

Johnson believes that the old party system is bad simply because it is Internet-incompatible. He never pauses to examine what positive role parties—and partisanship more broadly—have played in American politics. Nancy Rosenblum and Sean Wilentz have recently advanced sophisticated historical arguments in defense of partisanship, but Johnson does not much care about the fine print; he just finds political parties suffocating compared, well, with Wikipedia.

Where exactly would Johnson’s “liquid democracy” lead us? In a footnote, he notes that “the German Pirate Party has implemented ‘liquid democracy’ techniques with some success in recent years.” “Some success” is a gross overstatement, as their unlikely success in Germany appears to have been rather short-lived. Yet in many ways, the Pirates have self-consciously adopted all the imagery and rhetoric of the Internet; they are the living embodiment of Internet-centrism. Obsessed with process—decentralized and horizontal, of course—they offer little by way of goals and policy positions. Worse, they think that such vacuousness is actually an asset; as the party’s spokesperson declared in 2011, “What we’re offering is not a program, but an operating system.”

A party with no strong stance on issues beyond copyright, censorship, and privacy, the Pirates remain a mystery to most German voters, who have lost their early enthusiasm for the cool young kids. Once polling in the double digits, the Pirates today are unsure of even passing the 5 percent threshold needed to get into the Bundestag in the upcoming elections. The lack of leadership and basic discipline within the party—some of its members show up at legislative sessions in shorts—has turned them into a national joke.

The Pirate Party of Western Germany finds itself losing political power. (Getty/Patrik Stollarz) The Pirates’ rhetorical embrace of “liquid democracy,” where everyone can participate and delegate votes to each other, has not worked in practice; even almighty software cannot excite ordinary citizens about the humdrum and arcane issues of which most politics is made. By October 2012, in North Rhine-Westphalia—a region with eighteen million inhabitants—the Pirates used their trademark Liquid Feedback software to gather opinions on only two issues. A poll on one such issue—the controversial ban on circumcision—attracted only twenty votes. As Der Spiegel dryly put it, “It’s a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate.”

Anyone familiar with critiques of direct democracy would not find this surprising. The attempt to reform politics needs to start with some basic account of the very limitations of politics itself, and not just salivate over the infinite opportunities of digital technologies. The Pirates took the idea of the Internet seriously—only to discover that the rhythms and rituals of old-school politics do not stem merely from inferior technologies, but rather reflect assumptions about human nature, power, and justice. Relations among humans have many more layers of complexity than those among ants; there are inequalities, asymmetries, and grievances to be found at all layers—and what might seem like inefficiencies or gaps in participation or transparency might, on second look, prove to be the very democracy-enabling protective tissues that allow liberal societies to function.

This lack of curiosity about how the world works is the most pernicious feature of Internet-centrism. Armed with the Internet, its proponents do not much care about the larger objective of their reform. They prefer to notice only those elements amenable to Internet interventions and discard all others. Johnson never actually states what bothers him about the NEA, and why it needs to become more like Kickstarter; for him, making it Internet-compatible is always right. He never asks what it is that the NEA actually does, how it sets its agenda, and what it hopes to achieve.

Is the kind of expertise that the NEA relies on additive? Does the cumulative knowledge of ten mediocre wanna-be art critics on Kickstarter equal that of one art wonk who works at the NEA? Will increasing participation in NEA funding open it to manipulation by Koch-funded Tea Party activists, steering funding to socially conservative projects? Do the film-makers who receive the most Facebook likes make the most provocative films? Is provocation something that our art policy should cultivate? These are the questions that anyone concerned with reforming the NEA cannot avoid asking. But Johnson is not interested in reforming the NEA—he is interested only in imposing his Internet-centric solutions on everything.

Johnson’s book would not be remarkable if its Internet-centrism—and the severe intellectual limits it has imposed on his narrative—were not so stark. What Future Perfect reveals quite clearly is that we have reached a point where scholars and intellectuals grappling with the Internet face a choice between two mutually exclusive methods of inquiry.”

Against Internet Totalizing

One—an outgrowth of Internet-centrism—is driven by the impulse to totalize and generalize; the other by the impulse to disaggregate and particularize. One has space for the Internet and little else; the other eschews any talk of “the Internet”—it deliberately puts it in scare quotes throughout—and engages with platforms and technologies on their own terms, as if they share no common logic.11 Instead of assuming that these technologies emerge from “the Internet,” this second approach assumes that it is “the Internet”—as an idea, if not as a technical network—that emerges out of those technologies.

The totalizing approach tries to collect disparate and often incommensurate insights and fit them into some grand narrative about the unfolding of the Internet’s spirit. The particularizing approach refuses any kind of spiritual talk; instead, it aims to document the multiplicity of logics and paradoxes of which “the Internet” is actually composed. This latter approach knows that networks are not inherently liberating; depending on how nodes are connected to each other, networks can be far more tyrannical, opaque, and anti-democratic than hierarchies.

The totalizing approach assumes that a site such as Kickstarter is just a straightforward mediator through which the voice of the people can be expressed; the particularizing seeks to peer inside Kickstarter’s algorithms and understand how they are manipulated. The former approach assumes that, on the Internet, “things go viral”; the latter investigates how such “virality” is produced, how popularity is created on each and every platform, and whose interests—those of advertisers, platform owners, or users—are boosted in the process.

The advantage of the particularizing approach over the totalizing one is that it can explain how an idea like “the Internet” emerges in public discourse, how it mutates with time, and what ideological purposes it might be serving at any particular moment. (Whenever you hear phrases like “This won’t work on the Internet” or “This will break the Internet,” it’s a good sign that someone is deploying “the Internet” to promote their political agenda.)12

The totalizers would happily follow Johnson in seeking answers to questions such as “So what does the Internet want?”—as if the Internet were a living thing with its own agenda and its own rights. Cue a recent Al Jazeera column: “The internet is not territory to be conquered, but life to be preserved and allowed to evolve freely. … From understanding the internet as a life form that is in part human, it follows that the internet itself has rights.”13 That is the kind of crazy talk to be avoided. The particularizers would not invoke “the Internet” to embark on a quixotic attempt to re-make democratic politics; but the totalizers, in their quasi-religious belief, would do so gladly.”

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One Response to “Against the Internet-Centric Totalizing Anti-Hierarchy and Anti-Centralization Ideology”

  1. Paul Hughes Says:

    Even with radical decentralization (everyone has equal access to resources, information, abundance) you’ll still get various forms of centralization, and even hierarchy, except this time those “spontaneous orders” will be participatory, autopoetic, revocable, forkable, and *not* coercive. Voluntary modes of organization in which hyper-accountable leadership emerges naturally. At the moment, the centralization Morozov speaks of is residual, because despite the emergence of p2p empowerment, it’s just getting started. Between now and then ,what I call the “meso-period”, you’ll see all sorts of quasi-centralization/decentralization, or smaller more numerous centralized players vying for dominance, but any hold/glue those players have will continue to dissipate, as decentralization continues to accelerate.

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