Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, June 03, 2006

P2P: It's About Now, Not Mao

Here is a comment I posted, more or less on impulse, to something I read on Huffington Post this evening by John Brockman, quoting a hero of mine, Jeron Lanier. I mention that I replied on impulse, since I really think I was responding more to the language of Brockman himself rather than the ideas of Lanier that were presumably under discussion.

Brockman's post, entitled "The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism," was quite, er, provocative, and here are some highlights: "The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?"

What Brockman is calling "the hive mind" here, and "online collectivism" elsewhere is the emerging peer-to-peer democratization of culture and politics facilitated by digital networked media and social software. "The problem," he writes, for example, "in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used [is] how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly." There is indeed in Lanier's essay a sensible but by now quite familiar discussion about how factually authoritative disputative collaborative research and policy-making tools can be, and under what conditions, and how we can make them better, and how we can best benefit from them. But that rather modest topic hardly justifies the flame-throwing eagerness of Brockman's language, however.

He continues: "And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less" -- and more to the point, one suspects for Brockman, nothing more -- "than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise[.]" I for one would be very interested to discover anyone at all who argues that peer-to-peer knowledge aggregation, testing, critique, formulation, editing is all-wise, rather than, say, good-enough to call into question the so-called indispensability of current costly elite-sponsored alternatives that existed hitherto, and also attractively open to collaborative self-improvement in ways that these costly elite-sponsored alternatives may not be.

Further, Brockman proposes that the "new collectivism" of peer-to-peer entails the view "that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force." One need only recall that the vanishingly cheap and instantaneous global publication, editing, and circulation of creative content by individuals faciliated by digital networks is a challenge precisely to the immemorial bottleneck of expensive unweildy elite-owned printing presses and studios and broadcast networks to grasp what an extraordinary inversion Brockman seems to be driving at here.

"This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy," Brockman intones, wringing his hands. Now, I'm trying to restrain my suspicion that "representative democracy" here, as it has come to be practiced here in America, is an ideal too little concerned about, for example, just how many congressional multimillionaires currently claim to "represent" the interests of citizens who are overwhelmingly not multimillionaires. I'm trying likewise to restrain my suspicion that "meritocracy," means here, as it so often does, that prvileged people deserve their privileges and everybody else deserves their lot no less, however utterly interdependent we all really are in fact.

I'm trying to restrain these suspicions, but that first sentence of his keeps resonating in my brain: "The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?" What kind of democracy, what kind of meritocracy does that sound like to you?

"This idea," by which Brockman means the dire and drear "collectivism" he descries in peer-to-peer, "has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right" -- heck, he knows what the meat and potatoes need to be when one is posting to a lefty blog like Huffington Post... but then here comes the gravy -- "or the extreme Left [emphasis added] in various historical periods." "Extreme left" wikipedian blogospherical peer-to-peer movements, eh? My, now that certainly sounds ominous...

And so, it was to this rhetoric that I replied in my own comment on HuffPo. Here is what I actually wrote:
Communities are more intelligent than individuals are, although diverse and self-critical communities are by far the most intelligent of all.

Democracy always looks scary to aristocracies nervous about the likely loss of their unearned privileges. Peer-to-peer collaboration in matters of creating, publishing, and editing online content (wikis and websites), achieving warranted scientific descriptions (consensus science), keeping authorities accountable (blogracking, real democratic journalism), invigorating critical culture (the blogosphere and the eclipse of broadcast media models), deliberating about public policy and global development (online juries, position papers, fora, organizing, petitions, small-donor aggregation), and for exchanging goods, favors, gifts, and services is much more a matter of using technology to deepen democracy than it is about enforcing some kind of conformism or raising some silly twentieth century collectivist bugbear from history's dustbin.

Jeron Lanier (whose work and thinking I really admire, actually) is right to highlight hazards to better ensure that the emerging peer-to-peer culture lives up to its promise rather than getting mulched into the usual accommodation with corporate-militarism that has dashed our democratic hopes time and time again. But certainly there is no reason for pre-emptive despair to derange or distract us from what is truly hopeful in this moment.

We have the power. Let's see what we can do with it.

When I went on to read Lanier's piece more carefully later I came to decide that he is making some valuable points that are not necessarily well-captured in Brockman's citation of them.

Lanier writes: "A core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds. This is analogous to the claims of Hyper-Libertarians who put infinite faith in a free market, or the Hyper-Lefties who are somehow able to sit through consensus decision-making processes." I have written about pernicious complementarities between the rhetoric and culture of "spontaneous order" as it expresses itself sometimes from the Right, sometimes from the Left, and I see Lanier's argument (whatever my disagreements with some of its specificities and thrust) as a useful one in this vein. Frankly, I believe that notionally left-leaning technophiliac arguments appealing to the rhetoric of "spontaneous order" are not so much analogous to market libertarian arguments but straightforward expressions of precisely the same falsifying "naturalist" ideology. For more, again, check out my essay, Trouble in Libertopia. Be that as it may, returning to Lanier's claim about the "faith" some of us have may have in peer-to-peer processes of knowledge production, it seems to me that there is all the difference in the world between those who would argue

[one] that problems and inaccuracies in knowledge-production are inevitable whatever media architectures articulate them, but that peer-to-peer processes are the best most efficacious and most appropriate practices to address such difficulties in societies that are commited to democracy; as against those who would argue

[two] that peer-to-peer architectures are a technofix bypassing the intractible and interminable quandaries of stakeholder politics by connecting up in some deep way to the structure of the "natural order" itself thereby rendering the arrival at optimal solutions or final factually true descriptions "inevitable."

It's hard to believe that anybody on earth would take up the kind of facile moonshine expressed in [two] but I think we can probably take Lanier's word for it when he claims "we are witnessing today is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective. Numerous elite organizations have been swept off their feet by the idea." He goes on to say: "They are inspired by the rise of the Wikipedia, by the wealth of Google, and by the rush of entrepreneurs to be the most Meta. Government agencies, top corporate planning departments, and major universities have all gotten the bug." To this one must add that elite organizations may be inspired by any number of things, and may see what they want to see in any number of developments, especially when what they want most is reassurance that they will maintain and consolidate their privileges in the midst of disruptive technodevelopmental churn. But this scarcely means that they are seeing things clearly.

Needless to say, Lanier is right when he reminds us that "[h]istory has shown us again and again that a hive mind is a cruel idiot when it runs on autopilot. Nasty hive mind outbursts have been flavored Maoist, Fascist, and religious, and these are only a small sampling. I don't see why there couldn't be future social disasters that appear suddenly under the cover of technological utopianism." It seems to me that history has comparable lessons to teach when it comes to cruel and idiotic self-appointed elites and aristocrats and authoritarians -- and, one suspects, some of the very stories he may be locating in the "misbehaving hive-minds" genre might be located with equal justice in the "misbehaving elites" genre as well.

He continues: "If wikis are to gain any more influence they ought to be improved by mechanisms like the ones that have worked tolerably well in the pre-Internet world." By these, he means the role of public reputation in credible peer-review, the introduction of institutional fixes like time-based restrictions on editorial publication at times of conspicuous disputation, and the like. I have no doubt that advocates of peer-to-peer will be among the first, not the last, to embrace such discussions and suggestions as useful ones.

"The illusion that what we already have is close to good enough, or that it is alive and will fix itself, is the most dangerous illusion of all," Lanier concludes. With all due respect, it seems to me that few but the usual suspects from the era of irrationally exuberant extropian libertopian technophiliac digirati are really saying things like this these days among the more sensible progressives excited by peer-to-peer (like Yochai Benkler, James Boyle, Lawrence Lessig, Michel Bauwens). "By avoiding that nonsense," writes Lanier, "it ought to be possible to find a humanistic and practical way to maximize value of the collective on the Web without turning ourselves into idiots. The best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first." I think this is a useful and deeply attractive recommendation. But where matters of "avoiding nonsense" to the contrary of Lanier's reasonable recommendation are concerned, one wonders if part of the problem may be mistaking an old-school digirati discursive space like in the first place for the world now.

And by way of conclusion here, let me say an additional word or two about the "Brights," free-marketeers, evolutionary psychologists, and memeticists who gather in the "Third Culture" salon of, under the inspiration, provocation, and guidance of John Brockman.

I sometimes talk here about the awkward and unproductive distrust and even outright incomprehension that sometimes seems to prevail between traditional technoscientific and traditional humanistic or literary cultures. This is a difficulty exacerbated to the point of crisis in late modernity, due to the opportunistic restlessness of global capitalism having its way with traditional discourses and cultures and due as well to the ferocious premium that has come to freight the real accomplishments and hyperbolic imagination of technoscientific practice. This is a problem perhaps most famously discussed in Snow's "Two Cultures" essay.

Well, it seems to me that John Brockman thinks this clash of North Atlantic intellectual cultures is somehow "reconciled" by the creation of what he calls a “Third Culture” which I'm afraid consists pretty much of truly interesting and often quite important figures on the technoscientific side of the traditional culture divide (including heroes of mine like Freeman Dyson, Jeron Lanier, Lynn Margulis, and Bruce Sterling) who declare a kind of pre-emptive victory over the humanities side by indulging in what too often amounts to dilettantish speculation over the key problems of this tradition without paying much attention to what is being said at the moment by most of the truly interesting and often quite important figures actually making their home in the traditional humanities today, literary, critical, or cultural theorists, or even science and technology studies folks who certainly should be included in any honest attempt at such a conversation about science of all things.

Indeed, I suspect that the “Third Culture” would gleefully dismiss most of this work in the “humanities” (scare quoted here because here in the humanities we have grown quite suspicious, don’t you know, of the parochial elitism that has often sought to speak in the name of all humanity to the benefit of at best a lucky few human beings) as “fashionable nonsense,” “pomo relativism,” effete aestheticized “English Department radicalism,” wink wink nudge nudge, and the like.

In other words, the “Third Culture” re-enacts the usual gesture diagnosed in the “Two Cultures” argument, but with the novel twist that this time around at least one side is so breathtakingly oblivious to their parochialism that they express this parochialism as a grand overcoming of parochialism. All the while, here on the humanities side we just roll our eyes with knowing desolation and howl at the moon as our budgets get slashed again and again to better fund the hard-science he-man bomb-builders and statisticians, so I guess justice is served (Stangers With Candy joke, don’t ask).

It is my hope that the radical democratization of politics peer-to-peer will dislodge and transform the disastrously skewed priorities of societies too resopnsive for now to the kind of corporate-militarism that supports the position of established elites. Meanwhile, I hope the re-imagination of human creativity and expressivity peer-to-peer will open spaces for a fuller flowering of literary and critical culture that will no longer be contemplated primarily from the perspective of such threatened and precarious elites and hence will no longer be forever construed as a menace to the technoscientific practices on which these elites have parasitically depended hitherto for much of their power.


Michel said...

Dear Dale: thanks for this, one of the best commentaries on Lanier's rant. I have my own response here,at
from which I'm selecting an excerpt:

"This articulation, based on a autonomous self in a society which he himself creates through the social contract, has been changing in postmodernity. Simondon, a French philosopher of technology with an important posthumous following in the French-speaking world, has argued that what was typical for modernity was to ‘extract the individual dimension’ of every aspect of reality, of things/processes that are also always-already related . And what is needed to renew thought, he argued, was not to go back to premodern wholism, but to systematically build on the proposition that ‘everything is related’, while retaining the achievements of modern thought, i.e. the equally important centrality of individuality. Thus individuality then comes to be seen as constituted by relations , from relations.
This proposition, that the individual is now seen as always-already part of various social fields, as a singular composite being, no longer in need of socialization, but rather in need of individuation, seems to be one of the main achievements of what could be called ‘postmodern thought’. Atomistic individualism is rejected in favor of the view of a relational self , a new balance between individual agency and collective communion.
In my opinion, as a necessary complement and advance to postmodern thought, it is necessary to take a third step, i.e. not to be content with both a recognition of individuality, and its foundation in relationality, but to also recognize the level of the collective, i.e. the field in which the relationships occur.
If we only see relationships, we forget about the whole, which is society itself (and its sub-fields). Society is more than just the sum of its “relationship parts”. Society sets up a ‘protocol’, in which these relationships can occur, it forms the agents in their subjectivity, and consists of norms which enable or disable certain type of relationships. Thus we have agents, relationships, and fields. Finally, if we want to integrate the subjective element of human intentionality, it is necessary to introduce a fourth element: the object of the sociality.
Indeed, human agents never just ‘relate’ in the abstract, agents always relate around an object, in a concrete fashion. Swarming insects do not seem to have such an object, they just follow instructions and signals, without a view of the whole, but mammals do. For example, bands of wolves congregate around the object of the prey. It is the object that energizes the relationships, that mobilizes the action. Humans can have more abstract objects, that are located in a temporal future, as an object of desire. We perform the object in our minds, and activate ourselves to realize them individually or collectively. P2P projects organize themselves around such common project, and my own Peer to Peer theory is an attempt to create an object that can inspire social and political change.
In summary, for a comprehensive view of the collective, it is now customary to distinguish 1) the totality of relations; 2) the field in which these relations operate, up to the macro-field of society itself, which establishes the ‘protocol’ of what is possible and not; 3) the object of the relationship (”object-oriented sociality”), i.e. the pre-formed ideal which inspires the common action. That sociality is ‘object-oriented’ is an important antidote to any ‘flatland’, i.e. ‘merely objective’ network theory, on which many failed social networking experiments are based. This idea that the field of relations is the only important dimension of reality, while forgetting human intentionality . What we need is a subjective-objective approach to networks.
In conclusion, this turn to the collective that the emergence of peer to peer represent does not in any way present a loss of individuality, even of individualism. Rather it ‘transcends and includes’ individualism and collectivism in a new unity, which I would like to call ‘cooperative individualism’. The cooperativity is not necessarily intentional (i.e. the result of conscious altruism), but constitutive of our being, and the best applications of P2P, are based on this idea. Similar to Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand, the best designed collaborative systems take advantage of the self-interest of the users, turning it into collective benefit.
This recognition would help in distinguishing transformative P2P conceptions from regressive interpretations harking back to premodern communion."

Dale Carrico said...

I am deeply indebted personally to the account of agency I learned from my mentor Judith Butler, an account that is central to my conception of a nonthreatened interdependent individualist agency of a kind I think is complementary to the one you invoke here. I discussed (and idiosyncratically elaborated) Butler's view of post-sovereign "performative" agency in a section of the first chapter of my dissertation, entitled "Sovereign or Subject?" excerpted here:

In a nutshell, for Butler: “To become a subject means to be subjected to a set of implicit and explicit norms that govern the kind of speech that will be legible as the speech of a subject.”

To be a subject is always crucially to be intelligible as a subject. And this intelligibility is in turn crucially a matter of being (treated as) a competent speaker of the language of agency, competent in the intelligible citation of agency’s proper conventions. But just because a language is sufficiently stable as an object that one can usually reliably distinguish competent from incompetent speakers of that language, this does not foreclose the capacity of those very speakers, precisely because they are competent, to reform their language in speaking it, through figurative language or coinages, for example. Citation is almost never recitation, almost never a perfect repetition of some established norm. “To be constituted by language is to be produced within a given network of power/discourse which is open to resignification, redeployment, subversive citation from within, and interruption and inadvertent convergences with other such networks,” Butler goes on to say. And “’[a]gency’ is to be found precisely at such junctures where discourse is renewed.”

Language is competent to produce effects in the world (notice even in their most trivially “descriptive” registers languages risk the proposal of sufficient similarities among the play of differences in the environment on the basis of which one attends and acts decisively and then differentially succeeds or not in manipulating that environment and anticipating experience), and the competent speaker of language is thereby more or less efficacious for it. But a linguistic account of agency can never afford the consoling fantasy of omnipotent invulnerability. The interminable play of differences, among them the key instance of an ineradicable difference between world and word, provide the constant and conspicuous occasion for failure and frustration. Neither can a linguistic account of agency afford the consoling fantasy of omnipotent autonomy. Language confers intelligibility, and so its special measure of independent existence, only as a function of an ineliminable interdependence of speakers.

“Untethering the speech act from the sovereign subject,” writes Butler, “founds an alternative notion of agency and, ultimately, of responsibility, one that more fully acknowledges the way in which the subject is constituted in language, how what it creates is also what it derives from elsewhere.” She goes on to emphasize that “[w]hereas some critics mistake the critique of sovereignty for the demolition of agency, I propose that agency begins where sovereignty wanes.”

This is a stronger claim by far than that a linguistic account of agency affords adequate agency to satisfy our legitimate needs, despite, say, its registration of a disconcerting or unappealing vulnerability and radical dependency for the agent so construed. Hers is not necessarily a plea for a more modest accounting of agency. If efficacy is indeed importantly a function of intelligibility, then the radical inter-dependency of linguistic practice is a general condition for agency, even if it is frequently the occasion for its particular frustration as well. If freedom is indeed importantly a function of the open-ended character of linguistic practice, then the radical vulnerability of language to error, misinterpretation, and misunderstanding is a condition for agency as well, because it is the condition for the openness of language to improvisation, novelty, and poetry.

The disavowal of this dependency and vulnerability at the heart of the sovereign figuration of agency is not of course the same as the accomplishment of the autonomy and invulnerability it pines for, but on the contrary Butler suggests “weakens the sense of self, establish[ing] its ostensible autonomy on fragile grounds… requir[ing] a repeated and systematic repudiation of others in order to acquire and maintain the appearance of autonomy.” What is wanted instead, she proposes, are “fundamentally more capacious, generous, and ‘unthreatened’ bearings of the self in the midst of community” for which linguistic as opposed to sovereign accounts of agency have a more conspicuous affinity.