In the next few days, I want to counterpose some approaches to the tension between individualism and collectivity, in the new types of relationality that I monitoring in our specialized wiki section as well as a special Delicious tag dedicated to P2P-Intersubjectity.
Today, we present what I would guess is a more neoliberal or neoconservative approach, that appeared as a reaction to an essay in Open Democracy. The author is a known critic of Wikipedia governance, and in general, of those features of the new online public sphere, which enhance lowest-common-denominator groupthink, but also the rule of an elite mob of geeks, that emerge out of the ‘tyranny of structurelessness‘. I think there is a lot of value in such a critique, even though I find the approach to be too reactive and one-sided, too much a defense of liberal individualism, unchecked by the balancing factor of community.
After this contribution, we will publish a left version of the arguments, by Jeremy Gilbert.
“I’m very glad you’ve taken this project on. I realize you will be getting to some of the “tyranny” problems in coming installments, but I thought it was important to react now.
I was very apprehensive reading along, because I wasn’t sure where you were going to come out — still protecting our liberties, or ceding them to some hive mind feel-good in the end. Still hopeful.
You’ve flipped the two issues I myself have identified. You’ve flagged hyper-individualism as the problem, and “exercising our collective freedom” as the way out.
I’d put it just the opposite. (http://secondthoughts.typepad.com/second_thoughts/2009/02/the-coming-collectivization.html)
What we have now already forming is a tyranny, or tyrannies of the group or groups. Masses of groups that make up what James Harkin has called in the Age today “the chain gang” of IMs, friends online, chat rooms, etc. with which we are constantly engaging all day and which shape us (http://www.theage.com.au/news/technology/web/synapses-sex-and-second-life/2009/02/06/1234027907804.html).
I’m well aware of the problem of the inflation especially of the anonymous individual, but I’m more troubled now by the deliberate dimunition of the individual which you can see in the writings of Beth Noveck (http://www.democracyjournal.org/article.php?ID=6570), who wants expertise no longer to be accepted from individuals, or experts appointed by elected governments, but only from collaborative groups online, and who constantly elevates the collective group above the individual, believing that online communication automatically involves constructiing a collectivized identity shaped utterly by reputational pluses and minuses awarded by groups, and Clay Shirky, who actually believes that when we log-on, we leave behind our individuality, and also take on this collectivized persona, brutally subject to reputational systems and “sharing”. This is awful stuff, Tony.
When Zittrain bemoans the over-regulation of the Internet as some threat to creative freedoms, what he fails to include is some reflection on the reasons that might lead us to urge government regulation of IT — merely to get our civil liberties of free speech, privacy, and freedom of assembly *back*!
Why? Because they will have been wrested away from us by various Internet/social media/virtual world company or service provider Terms of Service that take them away. The average TOS is about as free as the constitution of North Korea, with concepts that date at best from the Middle Ages making access to services and the properties generated in them soley at the provider’s discretion — and with only a “forced migration” policy in place to “go somewhere else” if you don’t like that particular service. Cloud computing whisks away all our data out of our hands and our earthly communities and puts them into the hands of coders — coders who everywhere are making decisions about the 2-D and 3-D Internet by themselves, without lay persons, in the belief that these are “mere technical matters”.
What companies have from account holders isn’t just personal information like a bank account, of course, they have intentional searches, conversations, sometimes of a highly personal nature, transactions, health care data, etc. It’s not just that a prospective employer or online community manager where you spend much of your waking hours might see your questionable Facebook party photos or posts or gain access to your intentional Google searches, it’s that he might, on the basis of all that data, begin pushing connections, information, links to you as well, utterly shaping your perception in a corporate hold. The average social media already does that to you automatically. Indeed, in the wacky, extremist belief system known as Connectivism (see George Siemens), people are encouraged to construct their own personalized trusted “knowledge networks” of media sources they are willing to read, blocking all others. This is why I was so concerned last year about the ability to “block track” on Twitter, i.e. the request of power users like the News Gang aggregating the news off Twitter to block any feedback or backchat sent to their attention through filters.
Where is the wealth of networks, which first strip away all our data and many of our rights, going to come from, Tony? Lessig is offering the stone soup of copyleftism and opensource mania that browbeats everyone into giving up the rights to sell their intellectual property by offering it for free — merely for credit on the vast unpaid Creative Commons. The model for making money from Kevin Kelly’s “generatives” out of opensource software and digital content (which is increasingly THE content that people consume!) is merely to add a layer of technical obfuscation so as to necessitate the charging of a consulting or customization fee. “Your information wants to be free; mine is available only for a consulting fee.” It’s about a closed, not an open society in the end, as again, it becomes utterly dependent on coders who set up interfaces, log-ins, databases, processes *for you*.
Like many secular writers before you (Shirky does this), you have to include a bashing of the Catholic Church and the Pope, showing how new technology eroded the Church’s powers. What has collapsed lately in our cities, Tony, local newspapers and book stores or local Catholic churches?
The “aristocracy of nerds” isn’t just some quaint artifact that diminished as more and more ordinary people became conversant in using the Internet. The aristrocracy grows and persists and demands and takes more power. Have you ever looked at the “Tao” of the IETF, the group that runs the Internet standards? They believe that voting is archaic. Why have democracy when you can’t determine who is enfranchised? Better just to literally hum in hive mind (http://www.ietf.org/tao.html#getting.things.done)
You’ve also apparently fallen for the contrived technocommunist shill that all the nerds push constantly in their analysis of the Internet — and I want you to go back over this. Yes, there is a profound non-market — communist might be a better term! — element to these soi-disant “open systems” — and that’s a bad thing. They screamed about closed proprietary code — even though in fact, it is closed proprietary code, in Microsoft, in businesses like amazon.com and ebay.com that made the commerce engine of the Internet work; the Internet is not merely a set of technical protocols, it is human connections in commerce as well. AOL is derided as the service overtaken by events when the Internet roared past it – yet which instant messaging system is now used by virtually every teenage Internet user on the planet?
This recurring notion that proprietary worlds are “silos” that must be pried open and forcibly made “interoperable” is utterly unexamined. Yet worlds like World of Warcraft, There and Second Life which still hang on to their proprietary code have shown that the way money is made from both entertainment and business in these applications *is through proprietary code*. There is nothing on earth or heaven that says that just because the Compuserve or Prodigy model for communication was overtaken in the first iteration of the Internet, Web 1.0, that Web 2.0 absolutely has to follow lock-step those “lessons learned” — look at the actuality today of Web 2.0, with its still-niched proprietary 3-D virtual worlds and more massive social media NOT opensourced for the most part (Facebook and Twitter aren’t opensource programs, they merely create some admissibility of widgets by making some elements of the program interoperable).
There are 11 million people on World of Warcraft, which sells subscriptions, and over one hundred million on Facebook, which sells ads and still offers opt-out from Google. There simply weren’t that many people using the Internet at the Web 1.0 juncture that saw the transition out of the Compuserve model — there was a relative handful by constrast. Why, given the millions of people engaged in proprietary systems on a market model that is actually running Web 2.0 and making money for people, are we still harping about the mandatory lockstep need of opensourced platforms a la Web 1.0, Tony? Why? Please do the math here.
We don’t get the goods that we are supposed to get from the opensource=closed society gang because we can’t participate unless we are geeks and know code ourselves. Everywhere, on JIRAs, wikis, forums, etc. the coders rule and make the decisions about *social* software like Twitter or Second Life *without everyone else*. To try to participate (as I have done) anyway is merely to make yourself a recurring target of the most horrendous stalking, harassment and griefing by hordes of anonymous tekkies.
Zittrain strikes me as still unable to come to terms with “who pays for what”? The lion’s share of the opensource movement has come from the seemingly inexhaustible supply of geeks funded out of Mom’s Basement, My Big IT Corporation, My Video Store Clerk Job, My Foundation, and My School. In the recession, these wells are drying up. Who will go on paying? Big corporations like IBM foster opensource development so they later can swoop in and scoop up the results of unpaid labour — and then offer services and consulting on top of it. It’s a very narrow pyramid, who actually gets paid from promoting opensource (Zittrain is one of the elite who gets paid through books, lectures, etc. — most cannot make a living from it.)
You really should revisit Wikipedia as well — there aren’t even any 5,000. A tiny handful of coders decide everything, mainly the rules of contribution and clearance. It’s wrong. (http://secondthoughts.typepad.com/second_thoughts/2008/12/the-evils-of-wikipedia-and-the-hope-of-second-life.html)
If Popper thought that (I’d love to find that quote, too), then, he’d be disappointed once he came into a place like Second Life and had the opportunity to interact simultaneously with thousands of minds, minds poisoned often by the Internet and its glib and erroneous “facts,” minds shaped by memes disseminated as fast as the speed of light not even by “thought leaders” (bad enough!) but accidental YouTube pile-ups — and so on.
What I have found with the use/misuse of blogs, Twitter, etc. by regimes such as in Kazakhstan is that “transparency” and the promotion of free expression of complaints merely becomes a bureaucratic tool to exact more strict performance of underlings in the bureaucracy. It’s like the perfect tool to *this time* make communistic bureaucracies work. Hordes of blog commenters are unleashed on hapless provincial officials from the Center in a giant Stakhanovite speed-up. The cook rules the state by constantly Tweeting to the Prime Minister how rotten the potatoes are at Store No. 42 so that the manager is condemned or fired.
Basically, I’m profoundly troubled and in near despair over what I see as the coming new cyber-collectivization, that’s going to be made palatable in true propagandistic fashion by proclaiming that it is “more democratic” — People’s Democracy! — and more transparent — glasnost! I think the only solution comes in protecting the individual, even if it means suffering through some of his hypertrophied online manifestations and anonymous antics. It means curbing the group online under the rule of law — not the rule-by-laws of the TOS, but real-life Constitutional law grounded in real flesh-and-blood democracies where people can vote — not the humming of engineers.”