Well-meaning and reasonable persons wandering for the first time into electronic discursive spaces where radical technological developments like molecular nanotechnology or genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification medicine are seriously contemplated and debated, need to be prepared for repeated and unexpected encounters with belligerent young American males (mostly) who will berate them from a perspective they describe as "libertarianism."
There has been a welcome diminishment of this sort of thing since the height of the “irrational exuberance” of the so-called “dot.com era” of American technology enthusiasm in the 1990s, when stubbornly insistent delusions of an indefinitely prolonged “Long Boom” filled the pages of WIRED magazine and California “Extropians” declared war on both death and taxes -– the one via superlative digital and biomedical technologies, the other via the “spontaneous order” of market triumphalism.
But the dream remains alive more stubbornly and with altogether more self-assurance than one might otherwise expect, from eager online salons of “dynamists” who espouse via neologism the familiar combination of free-market politics and unregulated technological development championed by Virginia Postrel (the editor from 1989 to 2000 of the American market libertarian Reason magazine) in her book The Future and Its Enemies, to the popular online technology magazine Tech Central Station which publishes under the banner, “Where Free Markets Meet Technology.”
Libertarianism in this idiosyncratic, “anarcho-capitalist” denotation tends to have three primary characteristics:
First, these curious market-fundamentalist libertarians take an appealing commonsense Millian (or, I suppose, even more broadly, “Golden-Rulian”) commitment to a general Non-Initiation of Force as if it represented a kind of axiom, and then treat that axiom as the foundation from which one might then exhaustively characterize a just, stable, and prosperous social order.
Because the non-initiation principle delineates an essentially negative concept of liberty, I routinely describe these figures as “negative libertarians.” One could usefully distinguish, for example, purely negative libertarians from civil libertarians for whom a “positive” conception of liberty is necessary to affirm what is valuable in a human rights culture, or in the support of civic institutions like a separation of church and state, an independent press, vibrant and widely accessible education and so on. (My use of the terms “negative” and “positive” here is derived from the canonical formulation by Isaiah Berlin.)
Second, negative libertarians will thereupon tend to reduce all conceivable political and public relations to contractual relations (as against acts of force or fraud which they will identify as criminal and so anti-political, or acts of love, familial obligation, or generosity which they will tend to privatize and domesticate as intimate or charitable and "hence" pre-political, or simply not-political).
Third, negative libertarians will tend to identify the outcome of whatever they apprehend as a proper market exchange as always both the most optimally efficient and optimally fair or just, or at any rate the most practical and defensible, outcome on offer. Of course, what actually counts in the world as a “market” outcome is in fact profoundly contingent historically and territorially, and depends on a context of agreements, protocols, implicit and explicit norms, and so on. But technophiliac market libertarians very widely seem to conceive of market orders as spontaneous and universal upwellings out of what is deeply and immutably calculating and acquisitive in human nature as they conceive of it, or as if emerging from the sloppily sloshing tidal forces of supply and demand treated as deeply and immutably analogous to physical principles like the Laws of Thermodynamics.
Because of their stubbornly provincial misreading of contingent generalizations from the market conditions that prevail in their own neighborhoods as if they delineated eternal principles, I will sometimes describe these negative libertarians likewise as “market naturalists.” It is among the many ironies of the apparently irresistible allure of market naturalism among negative libertarian technophiles, that many of these ideologues otherwise cultivate a profound suspicion of deployments of the idea of “nature” to justify customs, institutions, or norms -- especially whenever the deployment of such customary putatively “natural” intuitions would inhibit an embrace of or access to emerging technologies.
Now, against the purported spontaneity and inevitability of “market” relations, so-called, market libertarians typically array what they take to be the countervailing and always-only coercive machineries of national states. All governance, and all the conduct of government representatives, is reduced to its “essence” as an expression of Weberian state coercion and so the market libertarians tend to discern in governing nothing but monotonously reiterated acts of violence and repression. From there, they then declare, practically as a matter of fiat, that “market outcomes” (and typically market behavior will be treated as synechdochic with corporate conduct) are always-only non-coercive.
Never mind that extraordinarily many real-world corporations, of course, routinely use physical threats and engage in exploitation and deliver harm in the effort to improve their bottom lines. And never mind that legitimate governments, of course, whatever their flaws, routinely enagage in social administration that is the farthest imaginable thing from physical threat. Once one puts the negative libertarian blinders on every nice social worker and dedicated public servant suddenly becomes a jack-booted thug and every corporate titan, even if he is little better than a mafia don, suddenly becomes a Randian Archetype of boundless dynamism and benevolent creative energy.
Minarchists and neo-classical liberals will for the most part affirm all three of these three planks as their own worldview, but for whatever reasons, will compromise their applications in certain key areas, usually on utilitarian or strategic political grounds. Typically these compromises are experienced as exceptions that prove the rule rather than deep challenges to the overall correctness of the negative libertarian viewpoint.
While the coterie of technology enthusiasts who espouse market fundamentalism in an undiluted form remains in fact a vanishingly small one (though unbelievably noisy for its scale), it is key to recognize the extent to which the more “mainstream” neo-liberal and neo-conservative practical and institutional universe, with its incessant drumbeat for deregulation without end, its lust for “market discipline” for the poor and military-industrial welfare entitlements for the rich remains importantly (and unfortunately) continuous in its assumptions, in its sense of the problems at hand, and in many of its aims with an extreme “market fundamentalist” negative libertarian world-view this mainstream would presumably and properly explicitly disdain in practice.
Of course, quite a few people will affirm the appeal of a non-aggression pact in some form or other, but I think few would go on to affirm its adequacy as a self-evident axiom on the basis of which one might erect an adequate social order. “Non-initiation of force” is a purely negative conception that will rely for its intelligibility and force on all sorts of implicit (some of them likely disavowed) positive conceptions of what constitutes initiation in the first place, what counts as force, what is and isn't violation, and a whole host of assumptions about what all of this is good for. Hence, for many people, defenses of individual autonomy and deep suspicions of authoritarian concentrations of power will be complemented by equally foundational defenses of a need for fairness, say.
Most people are likewise sensitive to the ways in which many so-called “market-exchange” outcomes in particular will often seem profoundly improper in fact, that they can occur under conditions of duress that the beneficiaries of an exchange can readily rationalize away while the losers have relatively little room to protest the outcome. And in any case, few would claim it is even possible to characterize actual contract-making and contract-adhering behavior exclusively in contractual terms, let alone adequately capture all of the complex, unpredictable, often unconscious political relations in which they are enmeshed through the figure of explicit contractual agreement.
If it really is true that the debate between markets and central planning was concluded in the twentieth century, it seems to me that something uninspiring like “regulated markets” were the verdict of that debate. And since there has never been, nor could there ever be a “pure” market against which one properly arrays an alien and antithetical force of regulation, it seems the time has come to describe the principle of market regulation itself as the norm rather than always as a compromise of a market ideal that does not exist and hence cannot function as a norm.
The modern “liberal” state, whatever its deficiencies and whatever occasional pretensions to the contrary are voiced by those it most empowers, is simply not a straightforward sovereign state in that its powers are not exercised unilaterally. Regulation is always already multilateral in the modern state, contested through a rough-and-tumble separation of powers at the state level and further diffused through the competing demands of diverse civic, cultural, media, business, and consumer interests. To a significant extent broadly liberal, imperfectly democratic hegemony seems to recuperate and so tolerate resistances. Given these complexities, the market libertarians seem to me to be enraptured by models of power, authority, consent, autonomy, and exchange that were already hopelessly simplistic by the nineteenth century, let alone the twenty-first. No doubt this accounts for an important measure of their allure.
We can all easily agree that coercion is wrong. We can all agree that many of the sources of coercion and exploitation inhere in human nature, such as it is, and probably we can agree that conspicuous asymmetries will invite exploitation and abuse. The liberal state seeks to diffuse the ineradicable violence and risk of coercive governance through competing state apparatuses and the multilateral institutions of civic society. Negative libertarians simply define coercion out of existence by declaring "market" outcomes as non-coercive by fiat. Liberals recognize the abuses of our system as is, but seek to ameliorate coercion through reform, while market naturalists seem stubbornly wedded to their word-magic and pie-charts.
To what can we attribute the ongoing allure of the sadly sociopathic libertarian imaginary, especially to American technophiles? Perhaps it is a matter of technical-minded people who prefer the clarity of reproducible results to the ongoing and unpredictable reconciliation of contending ends among the multiple stakeholders to social problems. Perhaps it is a matter of the elitism of the highly educated or the early adopters, or the more straightforward elitism of people who believe that they are innately superior and hence will always be among the winners in any outcome where there are winners and losers. Perhaps it is simply the commonplace disavowal by the privileged of the extent to which individual accomplishment inevitably depends on the maintenance of social norms, enforced laws and material infrastructure beyond itself.
Lately, I have begun to suspect that at the temperamental core of the strange enthusiasm of many technophiles for so-called "anarcho-capitalist" dreams of re-inventing the social order, is not finally so much a craving for liberty but for a fantasy, quite to the contrary, of total exhaustive control.
This helps account for the fact that negative libertarian technophiles seem less interested in discussing the proximate problems of nanoscale manufacturing and the finite and problematic benefits they will likely confer, but prefer to barrel ahead to paeans to the "total control over matter."
They salivate over the title of the book From Chance to Choice (in fact, a fine and nuanced bioethical accounting of benefits and quandaries of genetic medicine), as if biotechnology is about to eliminate chance from our lives and substitute the full determination of morphology -- when it is much more likely that genetic interventions will expand the chances we take along with the choices we make.
Behind all their talk of efficiency and non-violence there lurks this weird micromanagerial fantasy of sitting down and actually contracting explicitly the terms of every public interaction in the hopes of controlling it, getting it right, dictating the details. As if the public life of freedom can be compassed in a prenuptual agreement, as if communication would proceed more ideally were we first to re-invent language ab initio (ask these liber-techians how they feel about Esperanto or Loglan and you will see that this analogy, often enough, is not idle).
But with true freedom one has to accept an ineradicable vulnerability and a real measure of uncertainty. We live in societies with peers, boys. Give up the dreams of total invulnerability, total control, total specification. Take a chance, live a little. Fairness is actually possible. Justice is in our reach. Radical technological development regulated to ensure that costs, risks, and benefits are all fairly shared can emancipate the world. Liberty is so much less than freedom.
II. Spontaneous Order on the Left
“The Internet is antithetical to commerce.”
With this declaration, science fiction novelist and technology writer Cory Doctorow began an editorial essay for the O’Reilly Network (the online home of the key publisher of technical computer books and manuals as well as an organizer of important conferences on media and technology issues) in December, 2001. His next sentence was an epic exhalation of pent up frustration and nervousness: “There, I said it.”
I can well understand his exasperation, as well as his palpable relief at finally pronouncing his verdict.
Contemporary especially American technocultural, technofuturist, technophiliac rhetorics sometimes seem fantastically fixated with markets. I have already described an anarcho-capitalist libertarian viewpoint for which market relations are imagined to be uniquely expressive of a competitive, acquisitively maximizing "human nature," for which the sum of these relations is imagined to constitute the space of freedom figured as a "spontaneous order," and for which the principal emancipatory demand that compels the just is for the elimination of state regulations that are uniquely imagined to restrain this order from its otherwise inevitable crystallization. This deregulatory demand is typically figured as a radical privatization of the institutions of civic life hitherto associated with the public sphere.
The key contribution of technophiliac free-marketeers to this libertarian discourse would appear to be the regularly reiterated proposal that some particularly disruptive emerging technology or other –- it might be digital networks, or encryption technologies, or surveillance devices, or virtual reality systems, or intelligence-enhancing or virtue-enhancing neuroceuticals, or molecular manufacturing tirelessly replicating cheap goods at the nanoscale, or space elevators, you name it –- is about to arrive on the scene, whereupon the sudden ubiquity of this disruptive superlative technology will either unleash of its own accord the creative energies that will constitute the emergence there and then of the spontaneous market order the libertarians crave, or will at any rate introduce a profound destabilization that will break the crust of convention, bypass the intractable knot of pluralist stakeholder politics, overcome the regulatory impasse and thereby facilitate the emergence of this market order in due course.
In 1996, in an essay that has been widely (but possibly not exactly rightly) taken as an example of such libertarian technophilia, John Perry Barlow notoriously addressed himself in one of the founding political documents of internet technoculture to the “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel.” To them he declared, “I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
The proximate inspiration for Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” was in fact the sudden and overbearing intrusion of government "decency" censors and opportunistic regulators into a vibrant online culture about which they had taken no time to gain any sense of its customs, institutions, values, or technical capacities. “You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation... You do not know our culture, our ethics... Our world is different.”
In Cory Doctorow’s essay, “The Carpterbaggers Go Home,” a comparable claim is directed from a self-appointed (there is of course no other kind as yet) representative of a network technoculture to an unwelcome interloper. But where Barlow addresses his attention to representatives of the State, Doctorow addresses himself instead to representatives of Business. Arriving after a decade of network-hype conjoined to fervent market enthusiasm, such a shift in itself felt in reading it for the first time rather like a watershed.
For Barlow, “Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.” This apparent disavowal of the material basis for digital media and the ongoing imbrication of digital technocultures and their prosthetic practices in bodily life and material culture provoked for a time, and naturally enough, a whole cottage industry of criticism of Barlow’s piece.
Doctorow’s internet, in contrast, is swarming with bodies doing stuff on the streets where they live. “The spare-time economy” he writes of mobs of underemployed techies and geeks unleashed onto the world by the sudden collapse of the 90s internet boom, “has yielded a bountiful harvest of weblogs, Photoshop tennis matches, homebrew Web services and dangerously Seattlean levels of garage-band activity.” He goes on to vividly evoke “untethered forced-leisure gangs… committing random acts of senseless wirelessness, armed with cheap-like-borscht 802.11b cards and antennae made from washers, hot glue, and Pringles cans.”
But in a precisely analogous move to Barlow’s own, Doctorow ascribes to this swarming mess of shifting practices, protocols, and devices an essential nature that he contends is deeply antithetical to a particular kind of practice he disdains. While Barlow proposes that digitality conceived as a kind of ineffable spirit is invulnerable to the material coercions of worldly States, Doctorow proposes that internet practices are inherently improvisatory and unreliable in ways that will only rarely provide sustainable occasions for commercial profitabiltity.
“The Internet is loose and wobbly from the bottom up,” writes Doctorow. “TCP/IP is all about non-deterministic routing: Packet A and Packet A-prime may take completely different routes (over transports as varied as twisted pair, co-ax, fiber, sat, and RF) to reach the same destination... Internet… traffic… is positively Brownian, fuzzy and random and bunchy and uncoordinated as a swarm of ants randomwalking through your kitchen.” Here, Doctorow fatally reads the end-to-end principle through the discourse of negative liberty (a move that will return later in the term "Net Neutrality" among other places) and then treats this negative libertarian formulation as an ethos that defines the cyberspatial sprawl across its many layers: “Fuzzy at the bottom: TCP/IP. Fuzzy in the middle: message-passing protocols. Fuzzy on top: services.”
According to Doctorow this indeterminacy of the internet is deeply “antithetical to all our traditional notions about success in branding and business.” This is because “[b]usiness is built around reliability, offering a predictable quality of service from transaction to transaction. Even the messiest, one-off businesses are based on reliability; for example, estate auctioneers are predictable -- indeed, they provide the only touchstone of predictability in one-off sales, through the authorship of dependably consistent auction catalogs.”
But despite this presumed antitheticality, Doctorow ends up talking an inordinate amount about commerce after all: “[I]t's time to leave behind the idea of traditional reliability as value-proposition. The technical reality of the Internet doesn't care about the successful business strategies of yesteryear. The businesses that succeed in the unreliable world will find new ways of providing reliability.” And: “The businesses that succeed [will]... exploit the new reality rather than denying it.”
Given this mild collapse into corporate futurological speak, it comes as a more than mildly incongruous surprise when Doctorow stirringly concludes in the tonalities of a manifesto: “The close-enough-for-rock-n-roll revolution is a-comin' -- to the streets, comrades!”
The problem is that although his language mobilizes (even if I don’t doubt that Doctorow’s tongue was firmly planted in his cheek when he penned his revolutionary coda) the discursive paraphernalia and emotional excitement of radical political emancipation here, the piece is really one with no sense of the political in it in the least. One has to assume that the marvelous experimental, collaborative, playful prosthetic practices Doctorow highlights in his piece are valuable enough to protect and defend rather than simply to celebrate as they are unfolding. But to the extent that this is true, then it offers little comfort or protective cover to suggest that conventional commerce cannot finally profit from digital networks (a claim I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on in any case, let alone my life) if it happens that in their quixotic pursuit of such profits conventionally commercial interests are moved nonetheless to exploit, oppress, or undermine these practices he celebrates.
When Doctorow chuckles at the strategy of corporations to commercialize the Internet by “carv[ing] out pockets of sanity in the anarchy” there is an ominous sense in which “anarchy” is being treated as substantial here in a way that would presumably generate some kind of automatically and inherently efficacious resistance to onerous intervention. This is a very familiar trope for technocentric libertarians indifferent to or disdainful of the political as such, and to the demands of democratic politics in particular, except to the extent that one can find a trace of democracy in the duressed contracts, exchanges, and elite-orchestrated consumption practices available under market-fundamentlist construals of capitalism.
In an editorial entitled “Tech Bloom in Full Flower,” written nearly two years later for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in November 2003, Alex Steffen offered up an argument that reproduces the contours of Doctorow’s case, in ways that inspired the very same enthusiasm as well as the very same worries for me. Together with Jamais Cascio, Steffen is the creator and primary producer of the highly influential and simply incomparable WorldChanging Blog, which conjoins discussions of digital networked information and communication technologies with discussions of environmental sustainability, social justice and global development issues, and the provision of practical suggestions for the collaborative address of social problems.
“The conventional wisdom, during the Tech Boom, was that what drove innovation was the lure of giant piles of cash,” writes Steffen, framing his argument with the familiar trauma of the high-tech crash that ended the century. But “[t]hat idea now rubs shoulders with the Berlin Wall.” (Notice, once again, that the language here has mobilized the imagery of political emancipation.) “What makes creative people tingle are interesting problems, the chance to impress their friends and caffeine. Freed from the pursuit of paper millions, geeks are doing what geeks, by nature, really want to be doing: making cool stuff.” Against the drear banality of bourgeois profitability, Steffen reminds us that creativity is driven as often as not by the pursuit of pleasure and, as you will remember Clay Shirky pointing out already in a related context, a desire for attention.
And so: “In basements, garages and the empty warehouses that once held the Next Big Thing, tech-savvy folks are huddled over their laptops, working together online to give away the future. The result? We're seeing a surge of technological creativity that easily trumps anything we dreamed of with the dot-com PR guys crooning in our ears.”
Steffen then surveys a scene with which the reader will now be quite familiar, and provides a useful summary of the varieties of social software to which I devote no small amount of my own hopeful attentions:
There's the software, such as Linux, where teams of coders are working collaboratively in every corner of the globe to perfect what's rapidly becoming the world's most important operating system. "Peer-to-peer" programs, Napster's cousins, are busily creating networks of millions of users all giving each other software, movies, music, books -- nearly anything that can be digitized, whether they own it or not. "Distributed computing" projects use the idle power of volunteers' home PCs to tackle massive tasks such as mapping genes and scanning the stars for intelligent life.
There's the hardware. "WiFi" aficionados are manically building free, ubiquitous, high-speed wireless Internet coverage for entire cities. GeekCorps is off wiring the world's poor. Others are hacking together "Freekboxes" from free software and recycled parts and shipping them to developing world human rights activists.
There's even the content. Slashdot, spinning the planet's best "news for nerds" out of little more than the enthusiasm of its users, and Wikipedia, compiling the world's first collaboratively built encyclopedia. Or the countless Web logs, travel guides, online libraries and college classes (like MIT's OpenCourseWare). Or Craigslist and Tribe.Net and the thousand other new free ways to find a date, a roommate or an honest mechanic. There's even a new form of copyright, the Creative Commons license, to help you give stuff away while protecting it from theft -- a legal system for sharing, a "copyleft."
Taken together, Steffen describes these prosthetic practices as “The Tech Bloom” (in contrast to the commercial “Tech Boom” of the 1990s), an overabundant proliferation of free creative expression, collaboration, and quite a lot of making-do.
While I find it nearly as difficult to restrain my enthusiasm for the practices that exercise the imaginations of Doctorow and Steffen as I find it to restrain my distaste for the practices that exercise the imaginations of some market libertarians, what I want to register here, yet again, is my worry that there is a disavowal of the substance of the political in this discourse even while it depends on a figural conjuration of the political to express its ambitions and communicate its joys. In this it is the possible continuities rather than the conspicuous differences that I would want to highlight between the market libertarians and these, call them, "progressive experimentalists" here.
Steffen concludes his piece with a vivid tableau that would concretize the distinction between the two: “If the Tech Boom had a graven image, it was the bull on Wall Street. The Tech Bloom is more likely to be found dancing around the desert at Burning Man, the annual festival where money is taboo, everything's a gift and creative participation is synonymous with cool.”
But the trouble with “The Tech Bloom” is that it can too easily degenerate as a discourse into another variation on “spontaneous order,” say, Spontaneous Order with a Human Face.
Steffen’s ambitions, like Doctorow’s, seem to me to be profoundly worldly ones, but the problem is that it is only politics and its interminable reconciliation of contending aspirations that gives you a world.
Burning Man isn’t the world, it’s a festival.
And festivals don’t scale globally.
This is not an expression of curmudgeonly hostility for the festive as such, nor is it an expression of resignation that should mobilize the can-do spirit of various technophilianarchic troopers of the temperamental left or the temperamental right.
Festivals are festivals to an important extent precisely because they are not the world. It is not a matter of indifference to me that whenever they hanker after the status of polis festivals soon enough will decline into sewers (and this tends to be true literally as well as figuratively).
Festivals want a world, even as they take their momentary measure of distance from the world on which they depend. It is never only those who join up or join in to public practices who constitute the stakeholders in those practices. It is never true that even the best most beneficent efforts fail to exact their costs and impose their risks. It does not denigrate pleasure to note that pleasure is not the same thing as political legitimacy and that political legitimacy is indispensable to freedom. It does not denigrate voluntary participation to note that voluntary participation is not the same thing as democracy and that democracy has come to be indispensable to freedom. It does not denigrate collaboration to note that neither is collaboration yet the same thing as sharing the world with peers who differ ineradicably from us in their capacities, their knowledges, and their ends.
Collaboration, contestation, consent are public scenes that depend on a ritual artifice invigorated, consolidated, and transformed through our own recourse to it, articulated through moral and ethical norms, laws backed by legitimate force, contingent protocols for the exchange of information, services, and goods, and any number of architectural constraints. There is nothing "natural" or "spontaneous" about politics, and certainly not democratic politics. Technology will not deliver us a more perfect union: For democracies, the formation, ordination, and establishment of that more perfect unoin is a lot that falls inescapably and interminably to "we the people," ourselves.