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Book of the Week: David Bollier’s Digital Republic (2)

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
14th February 2009


The viral spiral, after years of building its infrastructure and social networks, may be approaching a Cambrian explosion, an evolutionary leap.

Two days ago, we introduced David Bollier’s treatment of the emergence of the Commons movement, which he says resulted in a new fourth type of citizenship, i.e. “history-marking citizenship“.

In the context of our book of the week:

Book: David Bollier. Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own. New Press, 2009.

In this excerpt, following the suggestion of the title of the book, which claims that the new citizens have already built a ‘digital republic’ of their own, David examines the political consequences of such emergence.

What kind of political changes can we expect?

David Bollier:

History suggests that any new style of politics and polity will arrive through models developed from within the edifice of existing law, markets and culture. A revolutionary coup or showdown with existing institutions will not be necessary. Superior working models – running code and a healthy commons – will trump polemics and exhortation.

Ideological activists and political professionals are likely to scoff at this scenario. After all, they are suspicious of distributed political power, if not hostile to it. They prefer the levers of consolidated power (laws, court rulings, police powers) that are within their sphere of influence to the dispersed, sovereign powers of an online multitude. The latter is highly resistant to capture and control, and in that sense, profoundly threatening to the traditional configurations of political power. We have already seen how the mandarins of journalism, politics and business are quick to lash out at the non-credentialed masses who dare to put forward this own interpretations of the world.

However necessary it is to engage in the official governance of a nation, however corrupted, the commoners have shown that their functioning commons can be powerful levers of change in their own ways. A commons of technical standards for the Web – how mundane! – can achieve more than most antitrust lawsuits. A common pool of information can prevent a company from reaping easy monopoly rents from the control of a public good. Instead, the company must “move upstream” to provide more specialized forms of value (e.g., sophisticated graphing of the information or data analysis). A commons may also be affirmatively helpful to businesses, as Eric von Hippel has shown, by aggregating a body of aficionados into a social community that aggregates customer needs and preferences in highly efficient ways: the commons as a cheap form of R&D and marketing.

In either case, the rise of a commons can be disruptive not just because it changes how market power is exercised, but because it may disperse power to a broader community of participants. Recall Johnson’s observation that a commons is a “self-causing legal order” that competes with other legal orders. Individuals who affiliate with an online community may acquire the ability to manage their own social relationships and group identity.

This is not just a form of marketplace power. It is a form of political power. In effect, a group may be able to neutralize the power of corporations to use brands to organize their identities. By developing its own discourse and identity, an online community can reject their treatment as a demographic cohort of consumers. They can assert their broader, non-market concerns. As a group of commoners, they are less susceptible to propaganda, ideology and commercial journalism as tools for organizing their political allegiances. They have greater civic sovereignty.

“Free cooperation aims at distributing power,” argues Geert Lovink, a Dutch media theorist:

I am not saying that power as such disappears, but there is certainly a shift, away from the formal into the informal, from accountable structures towards a voluntary and temporal connection. We have to reconcile with the fact that these structures undermine the establishment, but not through recognizable forms of resistance. The ‘anti’ element often misses. This is what makes traditional, unreconstructed lefties so suspicious, as these networks just do their thing and do not fit into this or that ideology, be it neoliberal or autonomous Marxist. Their vagueness escapes any attempt to deconstruct their intention either as proto-capitalist or subversive.

This can be disorienting. Energies are not focused on resisting an oppressor, but rather on building innovative, positive alternatives. In Buckminster Fuller’s terms, free culture is mostly about building new models that make the existing models obsolete. Instead of forging an identity in relation to an adversary, the movement has built an identity around an affirmative vision and the challenge of becoming. People feel fairly comfortable with a certain level of ambiguity because the whole environment is so protean, diverse, evolving and dynamic.

The beauty of this “ideological straddle” is that it enables a diverse array of players into the same tent without inciting sectarian acrimony. (There is some, of course, but mostly at the margins.) Ecumenical tolerance is the norm because orthodoxies cannot take root at the periphery where innovation is constantly being incubated. In any case, there is a widespread realization in the networked world that shared goals are likely to require variable implementations, depending on specific needs and contexts.

It may appear that the free software hacker, blogger, tech entrepreneur, celebrity-musician, college professor and biological researcher have nothing in common. In truth, each is participating in social practices that are incrementally and collectively bringing into being a new sort of democratic polity. French sociologist Bruno Latour calls it the “pixellation of politics,” which conjures up a pointillist painting slowly materializing. The new polity is more open, participatory, dynamically responsive and morally respected by “the governed” than the nominal democracies of nation-states. The bureaucratic state tends to be too large and remote to be responsive to local circumstances and complex issues; it is ridiculed and endured. But who dares to aspire to transcend it?

Sooner or later, history-making citizenship is likely to take up such a challenge. It already has. What is the digital republic, after all, but a federation of self-organized communities, each seeking to fulfill their members’ dreams by developing their own indigenous set of tools, rules and ethics? The power of the commons stems from its role as an organizing template, and not an ideology. Because it is able to host a diverse and robust ecosystem of talent without squeezing it into an ideological strait-jacket, the commons is flexible and resilient. It is based on people’s sincerest passions, not on remote institutional imperatives, and so it has a foundational support and energy that can out-perform “mainstream” institutions.

This, truly, is the animating force of the viral spiral: the capacity to build one’s own world and participate on a public stage. (Cicero: “Freedom is participation in power.”) When such energies are let loose in an open, networked environment, all sorts of new and interesting innovations emerge. Since an online commons does not have the burden of turning a profit or supporting huge overhead, it can wait for serendipity, passion and idiosyncratic brilliance to surface, and then rely on the Internet to virally propagate the fruits.

at the level of social practice, the commoners are gradually building a very different moral economy that converges, from different paths, on a new type of civic order. In Code, Lessig called it “freedom without anarchy, control without government, consensus without power.”

It is not entirely clear how the special capacities of bottom-up networks – a “non-totalizing system of structure that nonetheless acts as a whole,” in Mark Taylor’s words – can be integrated with conventional government and institutions of power. It is easy to imagine a future confrontation in the political culture, however, as the citizens of the digital republic confront the stodgy bureaucratic state (corporate and governmental). The latter will have the advantages of constitutional authority and state and economic power, but the former are likely to have the advantages of social legitimacy, superior on-the-ground information and creative energy. How the digital republic will confront the old regime, or supplant it gradually as archaic institutions collapse over time, is the stuff of future history.”

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