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Desktop Regulatory State, Chapter Three: Individual Superempowerment

photo of Kevin Carson

Kevin Carson
21st August 2012


[This is the fifth installment in my serialization of the first three chapters of my book-in-progress, tentatively titled Desktop Regulatory State]

II.  Individual Superempowerment

According to Tom Coates, as quoted in the previous chapter, the desktop revolution has had an enormous effect in blurring the distinction in quality between work done within large organizations and that done by individuals at home. The individual has access to a wide array of infrastructures formerly available only through large organizations. As Felix Stalder writes:

There is a vast amount of infrastructure—transportation, communication, financing, production—openly available that, until recently, was only accessible to very large organisations. It now takes relatively little—a few dedicated, knowledgeable people—to connect these pieces into a powerful platform from which to act.

The result is what John Robb calls “individual superempowerment”: “the ability of one individual to do what it took a large company or government agency to do a couple of decades ago…” Open-source warfare “enables individuals and groups to take on much larger foes,” as the power of individuals and small groups is amplified via access to open networks (that grow in value according to Metcalfe’s law = Internet growth + social networks running in parallel) and off the shelf technology (that grows rapidly in power due to the onslaught of Moore’s law and the market’s relentless productization).

Richard Telofski, a corporate consultant who writes on these issues from the standpoint (and that’s an understatement) of the corporation, describes something that sounds quite similar to Robb’s individual superempowerment. After quoting Mark Twain on the folly of picking a fight with “a man who buys his ink by the barrel,” Telofski updates the principle for the 21st century: “never get in a dispute with someone with access to a computer,” or “who is mad enough and persistent enough to make your life ‘hell.’” He illustrates the basic principle with a saying of Sonny Crockett on Miami Vice, who threatened to “clear my desk of all my other cases and make your life a living hell.

Of course it was possible for determined individuals even before the digital/network revolution, as exemplified by the “Leo Szlyck” character in Jeremy Leven’s Satan, to inflict serious punishment through nothing but letters and phone calls.  Szlyck’s method was quite effecitve, in terms of destroying his target’s life, when he got a serious hard-on against someone.  But the new possibilities offered by network organization make Szlyck’s efforts look positively tame by comparison.

Malcolm Gladwell dismisses networked activism, of the kind organized through social media, on the grounds that it’s “built on weak ties.” It doesn’t elicit the same levels of personal commitment, or require the same levels of sacrifice from those buying into it, as did (say) the sit-ins of the Civil Rights era. It is, he says, a cheap substitute for commitment. I think this misses the point.

Gladwell argues that the levels of effort and commitment involved in most networked participation are quite casual compared to the dedicated effort required for real change. But he’s assuming that the amount of effort needed to combat hierarchies is itself fairly constant. The real change, which he ignores, is the shift in the relative balance of power between individuals and small groups, versus hierarchies:  the rapidly declining amount of effort it takes for a motivated individual to put a serious hurt on a large institution. His reference to the level of commitment needed to “persevere in the face of danger” is begging the question. The amount of damage that one pissed-off individual can do to a hierarchy with little or no danger to herself is increasing exponentially.

The beauty of individual super-empowerment is that it lowers the levels of cost or sacrifice required to inflict major defeats on hierarchical targets. The reduced levels of risk made possible by new technologies of encryption, enabling networked movements to operate under the cover of darknets, are a plus. The whole point of networked organization is that it shifts the balance of power. Gladwell sounds a bit like an aging geek boasting that “in my day, we had to use a slide rule!”

Gladwell himself admits that an advantage of network structures is that they are “enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations.” But he neglects the possibility that the level of risk itself is not a constant—that warfare against state and corporate hierarchies is becoming a progressively lower-risk situation because of advances in network technology. The whole point of super-empowerment is that the risk and cost entailed in organizing against the state are becoming lower and lower.

And whether or not they require the same levels of effort and risk as your grandfather’s activism back in the day, the examples of Wikileaks and Anonymous make it clear that in our day networks are, as Mike Masnick pointed out, achieving significant real-world results.

Malcolm Gladwell recently got some attention for a [sic] writing a New Yorker piece dumping on Twitter, saying that “real” revolutions come from the strong ties that bind people together, rather than the “weak” ties found on Twitter. But, as many people have already responded, this is totally missing the point. This isn’t just about “Twitter,” either, or about whether a group of folks online were able to change the course of history yet. They haven’t. But, to ignore the rising power (for good or bad) of groups of people who can connect (often anonymously) in a distributed fashion to do things that shake foundations and lead government officials to demand they be killed, suggests something a bit more powerful than just a bunch of folks talking about eating lunch on the internet.

A good example is the minimal effort required to spark the Occupy Wall Street action, whose proximate cause—as we shall see in the appendix—was just a tweet from the Adbusters editorial staff.

Richard Telofski uses the terms “chaotic” and “cosmic” to distinguish the uncoordinated individual posting of negative information by consumers and workers on the Internet from coordinated efforts by organizations. But the distinction is overblown. He ignores the extent to which individual and small group superempowerment, and stigmergic organization, make it possible for even a few individuals to organize a movement with cosmic effectiveness in cases where their resources would have limited them to chaotic attacks just a few years earlier.

Of course none of this means that networked movements will lack a core of activists with the same level of commitment as the civil rights activists of fifty years ago. As David de Ugarte has argued, even in networked activism a single node will generally be the source of new initiatives.

But networked organization drastically lowers the transaction costs entailed in a single node of committed activists leveraging support through the network, and drastically increases the size of the larger coalition which the committed activists can leverage from the less committed. The increased ease of drawing additional support from the less committed does not reduce the preexisting number of the more committed who would have participated anyway. It just increases the bang for the buck from that preexisting level of commitment. And on the other hand, even if Gladwell wants to dismiss the significance of “activism” that consists of clicking a PayPal widget to contribute a few bucks, it’s not like that person would have attended meetings and participated in marches absent such alternatives. They just wouldn’t have given the money, either.

Movements are better off by the amount of each additional contribution, whether the contributor is strongly or weakly motivated. Would Gladwell prefer the strongly committed act alone without the additional help? As Adam Thierer wrote in response to a similar argument from Evgeny Morozov:

….Morozov belittles some of the online communities that have formed to support various charitable or civic causes by arguing that if you divide the number of members of such online groups by the aggregate amount of money they raise, it comes out to mere pennies on the dollar per community member. But so what? Do we know if those communities or causes would have come together at all or spent more money without digital communications and networking technologies? It is certainly true that merely setting up a new cyber-cause and giving a few bucks to it isn’t the same as going on a mission to Africa to build homes and water systems, but does Morozov really want to us to believe that more of that sort of thing would happen in the absence of the Net and digital technology?

Cory Doctorow suggests that Morozov’s snide approach—and the same critique applies to Gladwell—reflects a serious ignorance of real-world activism.

Morozov observes the hundreds of thousands—millions, even—of people who are motivated to take some small step in support of a cause, such as changing their Twitter avatar or signing an online petition and concludes that the ease of minimal participation has diffused their activist energy. I look at the same phenomenon and compare it to the activist world I knew before the internet, in which the people who could be coaxed into participating in political causes were more apt to number in the hundreds or thousands, and reflect on the fact that every committed, lifelong activist I know started out as someone who took some small casual step and went on to greater and deeper involvement, and I conclude that the net is helping millions of people wake up to the fact that they can do something about the causes they care about and that some fraction of those people will go on to do more, and more, and more.

Not to mention, as he points out, the sheer increase in efficiency network organization via the Internet makes possible in performing the routine administrative tasks of traditional activist organizations:

As to the question of privation as being key to hardening activists’ commitment, I’m confident that for every task that is automated by the internet, new, difficult-to-simplify tasks will well up to take their place. As a lifelong political activist, I remember the thousands of person-hours we used to devote to putting up flyposters, stuffing envelopes, and running telephone trees simply to mobilise people for a protest, petition or public meeting (Morozov minimises the difficulty of this, asserting, for example, that Iranians would just find out, by word of mouth, about demonstrations, regardless of their tools – which leads me to suspect that he never tried to organise a demonstration in the pre-internet era). I’m sure that if we’d been able to get the word out to thousands of people with the click of a mouse, we wouldn’t have hung up our placards and called it a day; that drudge work absorbed the lion’s share of our time and our capacity to think up new and exciting ways to make change.

Seriously: do people like Gladwell and Morozov really believe the Seattle protests or Occupy Wall Street would ever have happened without the spontaneous swarming potential enabled by the Web?  I’m surprised these good industrial age liberals haven’t tried to prohibit unlicensed activism without the supervision of properly qualified professionals.

Yochai Benkler expresses the same concept in terms of the “granularity” of the Web, or the size of the nodes.  Although the nodes vary widely in granularity, stigmergic organization and modularity mean that the transaction costs of cooperation between large and small nodes—and hence of leveraging a much larger scale of action than a single large node could achieve by itself—are radically lowered.

Imagine that you were trying to evaluate how, if at all, the Web is performing the task of media watchdog. Consider one example…: The Memory Hole, a Web site created and maintained by Russ Kick, a freelance author and editor. Kick spent some number of hours preparing and filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the Defense Department, seeking photographs of coffins of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq. He was able to do so over some period, not having to rely on “getting the scoop” to earn his dinner. At the same time, tens of thousands of other individual Web publishers and bloggers were similarly spending their time hunting down stories that moved them, or that they happened to stumble across in their own daily lives.  When Kick eventually got the photographs, he could upload them onto his Web site, where they were immediately available for anyone to see.  Because each contribution like Kick’s can be independently created and stored, because no single permission point or failure point is present in the architecture of the Web—it is merely a way of conveniently labeling documents stored independently by many people who are connected to the Internet…—as an “information service,” it is highly modular and diversely granular.  Each independent contribution comprises as large or small an investment as its owner-operator cares to make.  Together, they form a vast almanac, trivia trove, and news and commentary facility, to name but a few, produced by millions of people at their leisure—whenever they can or want to, about whatever they want.

To put it in Gladwell’s terms, a traditional activist organization like a union or civil rights organization, composed of a membership with strong ties and high levels of commitment, can achieve more on the Netwar or “corporate campaign” model—by leveraging weaker ties to a large number of other organizations, and weaker ties to sympathetic individuals—than it could in the old days when it would have had to rely entirely on the strong ties of its own members. The additional leverage of weaker ties does not negate or subtract from the preexisting strong ties. Strong ties and weak ties together are stronger than strong ties alone.

That’s the beauty of the stigmergic form of organization we examined in the previous chapter: the barriers to small contributions from independent actors are lowered. Individuals can make small contributions to a larger project, coordinating their own small efforts with the larger project through the common platform without any central coordinating authority. So stigmergic organization can leverage many, many small contributions that wouldn’t have been worth the transaction costs of coordinating them in the old days.

According to Clay Shirky, the original Wikipedia stub on asphalt in March 2001 simply read “Asphalt is a material used for road coverings.” In the years since then, thousands of individual contributors added bits of text, improved the wording of previous contributions, added external links, etc., with their incremental contributions adding up to an article comparable in quality to those in “professional” encyclopedias. Wikipedia’s predecessor Nupedia, an attempt at creating a “professional” online encyclopedia with entire articles solicited from experts, failed because it was hard to get any one expert to write an entire article for free. But millions of people who wouldn’t feel competent to write an entire article independently do feel competent to add a bit of information to one that already exists.

In the old days, the threshold for making a contribution to an encyclopedia article, like that for writing the entire article, was being qualified to write an entire article. Until some scholar was recognized as qualified to write an entire article and was also prepared to contribute the full effort of doing so, nothing would be written at all. And once the article was written, if it was, whatever errors were in it would remain until someone else was qualified and willing to write an entire new article, and the editors representing an organization with the capital to underwrite an encyclopedia could be persuaded to substitute one for the other. But under the rules of stigmergic association that prevail at Wikipedia, the contributor need only be qualified to add the specific material. Even someone who knows only a bit about a subject can use what she knows to improve the article. The lowered threshold for contributing makes individual thresholds less granular. Of his own experiences in contributing to an article on the Koch snowflake (an example of a fractal), Shirky writes:

You may have noticed that I accidentally introduced a mistake in my edit, writing “ad infitum” when I should have written “ad infinitum.” I missed this at the time I wrote the entry, but the other users didn’t; shortly after I posted my change, someone went in and fixed the spelling. My mistake had been fixed, my improvement improved. To propose my edit, I only had to know a bit about the Koch snowflake; there are many more people like me than there are mathematicians who understand the Snowflake in all its complexity. Similarly, fixing my typo required no knowledge of the subject at al; as a result, the number of potential readers who could fix my mistake was larger still….

In Wikipedia as in the networked activism dismissed by Gladwell, the larger project can incorporate efforts that would previously have been too small to bother with.

The same is true of stigmergic, modular projects like the Linux community. “The number of people who are willing to start something is smaller, much smaller, than the number of people who are willing to contribute once someone else starts something.”

In the case of social activism, Shirky gives the examples of the Flyers Rights movement sparked by the eight-hour diversion of several American Airlines flights to Austin in 2006, and student protests against  HSBC’s 2007 announcement—with no advance warning—that it was canceling its free overdraft protection policy. Social networking technology made it possible to leverage support from those with only limited motivation.

Many people care a little about the treatment they get from airlines or banks, but not many care enough to do anything about it on their own, both because that kind of effort is hard and because individual actions have so little effect on big corporations. The old model for coordinating group action required convincing people who care a little to care more, so that they would be roused to act. What Hanni and Streeting did instead was to lower the hurdles to doing something in the first place, so that people who cared a little could participate a little, while being effective in aggregate. Having a handful of highly motivated people and a mass of barely motivated ones used to be a recipe for frustration…. Now the highly motivated people can create a context more easily in which the barely motivated people can be effective without having to become activists themselves.

By the same token—as we saw earlier—new tactics developed at enormous cost by one node are now, thanks to stigmergic organization, immediately available at no cost to the entire network. So not only can small contributions be leveraged by large movements, large contributions can be leveraged by a large number of small movements. Either way, the contributions of each become a common-pool resource of all, and the transaction costs of aggregating all contributions—large and small—disappear.

Back in 2002, Javier Corrales noted that the hopes of “cyber-enthusiasts”—that “[t]he Internet would empower the political Davids… and restrain the Goliaths by making their actions easier to scrutinize”—never materialized.

Few major transformations in politics seem to be occurring. The bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2002 further dampened the mood of cyber-enthusiasts. Those who once expected dot-coms to revolutionize democracy now feel embarrassed at their hyperbole.

Looking back from my vantage point nine years later—I write the first draft of this passage in October 2011, nine months after the beginning of the Arab Spring and on the eve of Bloomberg’s threat to clear out Occupy Wall Street—it’s easy to laugh at Corrales’ dismissal. Sure, he really was to blame for missing the significance of stuff like Seattle and the campaigns against Nike and Shell. But a lot of it was natural, given the time he was writing in. His identification of the dotcoms with the hope for democracy is very telling. It was, in fact, the collapse of the dotcom bubble and with it the dead hand of Web 1.0 that made possible the revolution, organized through Web 2.0 technologies like social media, that has materialized.

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