Achieving democratic digital power through design?

This is a crucially important essay by Harry Halpin, which stresses that behind the protocols that govern online social systems, there are people, and that therefore, purely technical strategies are bound to fail. Above all, Halpin warns us for strategies of retreat from the present internet.

So, in a crucial way, this is a critique of Alexander Galloway’s earlier book on Protocol and the updated version of his ideas that Galloway co-wrote with John Thackara, The Exploit, a book of which I haven’t heard yet.

His main charge is that this thinking has evolved into a form of political paranoia. According to Halpin Galloway fetichizes/idolizes the technical structure, called for an anti-Web, but that also means in a fundamental way that all hope in the present possibilities of the internet and the web have been forsaken. In this sense, calling for an anti-web is a profoundly defeatist proposition.

Here’s how Harry introduces the theme of his essay in Mute Magazine, which is entitled, The Immaterial Aristocracy of the Internet:

This ‘class’ concept refers to the groups of people that are most influential in creating democratic online realities, through their intervention in the design of social protocols, and their work in standard bodies. As protocols are the works of humans, the terrain of struggle cannot be limited to the protocols itself, but is also a struggle for human choices, either through self-organized protocol design, or through political participation in standard bodies and other instruments of what he calls digital sovereignty.

Let’s retrace his argumentation, though this does not replace the recommended full reading of the original.

Harry Halpin:

Galloway is correct to point out that there is control in the internet, but instead of reifying the protocol or even network form itself, an ontological mistake that would be like blaming capitalism on the factory, it would be more suitable to realise that protocols embody social relationships. Just as genuine humans control factories, genuine humans – with names and addresses – create protocols. These humans can and do embody social relations that in turn can be considered abstractions, including those determined by the abstraction that is capital. But studying protocol as if it were first and foremost an abstraction without studying the historic and dialectic movement of the social forms which give rise to the protocols neglects Marx’s insight that “Technologies] are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified.”

Bearing protocols’ human origination in mind, there is no reason why they must be reified into a form of abstract control when they can also be considered the solution to a set of problems faced by individuals within particular historical circumstances. If they now operate as abstract forms of control, there is no reason why protocols could not also be abstract forms of collectivity. Instead of hoping for an exodus from protocols by virtue of art, perhaps one could inspect the motivations, finances, and structure of the human agents that create them in order to gain a more strategic vantage point. Some of these are hackers, while others are government bureaucrats or representatives of corporations – although it would seem that hackers usually create the protocols that actually work and gain widespread success. To the extent that those protocols are accepted, this class that I dub the ‘immaterial aristocracy’ governs the net. It behoves us to inspect the concept of digital sovereignty in order to discover which precise body or bodies have control over it.”

Harry then offers an extended history and commentary on the struggle for digital sovereignty. This central part of the essay is a very important history of the forms of power that have governed the internet, and interestingly, Halpin detects 3 movements. One, an realized and successful attempt to create ‘absolute democrary’, this is very close to what I call peer governance, through the self-aggregation of volunteers in the IETF, the Internet Engineering Task Force; then a loss of control to private and state interest; and a partial recapture of more democratic power through the W3C which governs web standards, and is governed by representive, not absolute, democracy. The original loss occurred because the original ‘anarchist’ format could not create universal standards, which gave leeway to private standards to emerge, but the universal standard of the web achieved a new compromise between collective/common interests of the users and engineers, and of the corporations. It achieved this by enticing the totality of corporate interests to enter into the democratically governed universal standard body.”

This is a convincing, and very important account, in my opinion, a story which hadn’t been written as well before.

Finally, Halpin offers his conclusions:

This inspection of the social forms, historical organisation, and finances ofthe protocol-building bodies of the net is not a mere historical excursion. It has consequences for the concrete creation of revolutionary collectivity in the here and now. Many would decry the very idea that such collectivity can be developed through the net as utopian. In the face of imperialist geopolitics masquerading behind the war on terror and rampant accompanying paranoia, such a utopian perspective is revolutionary. Clearly, a merely utopian perspective is not enough, it needs to be combined with concrete action to move humanity beyond capital. One critique of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s concept of ‘the multitude’ as the new networked revolutionary agent is that its proponents have no concrete plan for bringing it from the virtual to the actual. Fashionable post-autonomism in general leaves us with little else but utopian demands for global citizenship and social democratic reforms such as guaranteed basic income. An enquiry into the immaterial aristocracy can help us recognise the social relations that determine the technological infrastructure which enables the multitude’s social form, while not disappearing into ahistoricism.

The technical infrastructure of the web itself is a model for the multitude:

…“The internet is the prime example of this democratic network structure. An indeterminate and potentially unlimited number of interconnected nodes communicate with no central point of control, all nodes regardless of territorial location connect to all others through a myriad of potential paths and relays.”

Our main thesis is that the creation of these protocols which comprise the internet was not the work of sinister forces of control, but the collective work of committed individuals, the immaterial aristocracy. What is surprising is how little empirical work has been done on this issue by political revolutionaries – with a few notable exceptions such as the anarchist, Ian Heavens. Yet the whole development of the internet could easily have turned out otherwise. We could all be on Microsoft Network, and we are dangerously close to having Google take over the web. One can hear the echo of Mario Tronti’s comments on the unsung struggles of the working class:

…”perhaps we would discover that ‘organisational miracles’ are always happening, and have always been happening.”

The problem is not that ‘the hardest point is the transition to organisation’ for the multitude.
The problem of the hour is the struggle to keep the non-hierarchical and non-centered structure of the web open, universal, and free so as to further enable the spread of new revolutionary forms of life – although the cost is the continual spread of capital not far behind. The dangers of a digital civil war are all too real, with signs ranging from the great firewall of China, the US military plans revealed in their Information Operation Roadmap to ‘fight the net as it would a weapons system’, to the development of a multi-tier net that privileges the traffic of certain corporations willing to pay more, in effect crippling many independent websites and file-sharing programs. Having radicals participating in open bodies like the W3C and IETF may be necessary for the future survival of the web.

There is no Lenin in Silicon Valley, plotting the political programme of the network revolution. The beauty of the distributed network is that it makes the very idea of Lenin obsolete. Instead of retreating into neo-surrealism as The Exploit does, revolutionaries should be situationists, creating situations in which people realise their own strength through self-organisation. These situations are created not just by street protests and struggles over precarious labour, but through technical infrastructure.

One example par excellence would be how the internet enabled the communication networks that created the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement. Of course, nets are not synonymous with revolution or even anti-capitalism, as the use of the net by corporations and governmental bodies to coordinate globalisation far outweighs its use by the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement. Still, given the paucity of any alternative put forward by Galloway and Thacker, the thesis that the very nature of protocol is inherently counter revolutionary seems to be a theoretical dead end. It would be more productive to acknowledge that political battles around net protocols are increasingly important avenues of struggle, and the best weapon in this battle is history. A historical understanding of the protocols of the net can indeed lead to better and more efficient strategic interventions.

‘Hackers’ and net artists’ struggles against protocol are not the only means of liberation. The vast majority of these interventions are unknown to the immaterial aristocracy and those outside the circles of ‘radical’ digerati. Instead, we should see the creation of new protocols as a terrain of struggle in itself. The best case in point might be the creation of the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol, which took instant messaging out of the hands of private corporations like AOL and allowed instant messaging to be implemented in a decentralised and open manner. This in turn allowed secure technologies like ‘Off-the-Record’ instant messaging to be developed, a technology that can mean the difference between life and death for those fighting repressive regimes. This protocol may become increasingly important even in Britain, since it is now illegal to refuse to give police private keys for encrypted email. These trends are important for the future of any revolutionary project, and the concrete involvement of radicals in this particular terrain of struggle could be a determining factor in future of the net. Protocol is not only how control exists after decentralisation. Protocol is a how the common is created in decentralisation, another expression of humanity’s common desire for collectivity.”