Technology, politics, and balance

When Mitch Ratcliffe and I published Extreme Democracy in 2005, the question came up whether the discussion of politics and social technology was technoutopian. Without getting into the specifics of the book (which included diverse articles, some more positive than others about the potential role of what we now call social media in our political life), I can say that I rejected the “technoutopian” label as a rather shallow dismissal of a complex question: does a technology that gives everyone the potential to have more of a voice bring us closer to a democratic ideal? Or does it turn up the noise and overwhelm the signal? Or could it do both?

I thought about this after reading Cory Doctorow’s piece about the general question of technology optimism vs pessimism. Cory says that he’s a techno-optimist, but note that his position embodies both optimism and pessimism: ” the concern that technology could be used to make the world worse, the hope that it can be steered to make the world better.” He has a great example:

To understand techno-optimism, it’s useful to look at the free software movement, whose ideology and activism gave rise to the GNU/Linux operating system, the Android mobile operating system, the Firefox and Chrome browsers, the BSD Unix that lives underneath Mac OS X, the Apache web-server and many other web- and e-mail-servers and innumerable other technologies. Free software is technology that is intended to be understood, modified, improved, and distributed by its users. There are many motivations for contributing to free/open software, but the movement’s roots are in this two-sided optimism/pessimism: pessimistic enough to believe that closed, proprietary technology will win the approval of users who don’t appreciate the dangers down the line (such as lock-in, loss of privacy, and losing work when proprietary technologies are orphaned); optimistic enough to believe that a core of programmers and users can both create polished alternatives and win over support for them by demonstrating their superiority and by helping people understand the risks of closed systems.

On the question of democracy, I feel an optimism that we can have better transparency and more participation through the Internet-based technologies we’ve created, and are still evolving. Certainly more people are engaged in conversations about politics and the ideas that inform political action. However I have worrisome concerns. One is that too many voices in the mix, too much commitment to consensus, can stall or prevent effective action in governance, and we have too many critical problems to be stalled.

I’m also concerned that “the will of the majority” is not necessarily guided by intelligence, and that it can be manipulated by effective propaganda, such as self-serving well-orchestrated astroturf email and blog campaigns founded on a memetics of fear, uncertainy, and doubt – the “birther” phenomenon is an example of this.

In my last post I mentioned the possibility of an Open Source party that leverages the kind of thinking about organization and action that has emerged from projects based on what Benkler calls commons-based peer production, “in which the creative energy of large numbers of people is coordinated (usually with the aid of the Internet) into large, meaningful projects mostly without traditional hierarchical organization (and often, but not always, without, or with decentralized, financial compensation).” I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about this idea; will be exploring it further… I’m clearly pessimistic that the current direction of politics is sustainable, so it’s time for new ideas and experimentation.

Author: Jon Lebkowsky

Co-wrangler of Plutopia News Network, cohost Radio Free Plutopia. Podcaster, writer, dharma observer, enzyme. Former editor/publisher, FringeWare Review; associate editor at bOING bOING and Factsheet Five; writer at Mondo 2000, 21C, Wired, Whole Earth Review, Austin Chronicle; sub-editor at Millennium Whole Earth Catalog; blogger at Worldchanging. Digital culture maven, podcaster, writer, dharma observer, enzyme. On The WELL, Cohost of VC (virtual communities), Media, and Civil War (.ind) conferences.

5 thoughts on “Technology, politics, and balance”

  1. I think you’re right on with the idea of an Open Source political party, and believe such an organization can effectively address your concerns of “too many voices” and the easily swayed “will of the majority”. The key concept in this idea is decentralization, which also implies competition. Groups which organize with too much commitment to consensus will find themselves outpaced or ignored. Likewise, the will of the majority only matters as far as the power of that majority extends. Push power out from the center, give individuals power over their own lives, and let them aggregate how they choose.

  2. In my limited experience, the key to democratic success is for moderators to transparently and unselfishly demonstrate the willingness to serve those that cannot or do not speak for themselves effectively and make that voice their primary focus in a sustainable way. It ought to be the primary hallmark for people to extend trust to emerging leadership.

    I currently have the view that all groups that do not have a face to face knowledge of each participant regardless of the method of organization include the seeds of their own failure or can be co-opted. Rules for transparency cannot breach the social boundaries – so we need to make the social aspect of individuals work for the group not against it. Corporations, military units and churches and to a certain degree academic institutions do this blending of social and political very well.

  3. I think the question is how we effectively cluster participation so that it scales, and is also effective – i..e. creates a context for the kinds of reasonable and effective decisions that governance requires. I really like the thoughts expressed in both comments above – the importance of decentralization and the need for effective moderation/facilitation and transparency. Many thanks for your input. The International Open Source Party has a Facebook page at – we could talk more there.

  4. I’d love to join the conversation, but I’m afraid I’m a bit of a Facebook “conscientious objector”. A personal hangup, I guess you might say. :)

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