TECH FEBRUARY 5, 2013
By Steven Johnson
Riverhead, 233 pp., $26.95
There are two ways to be wrong about the Internet. One is to embrace cyber-utopianism and treat the Internet as inherently democratizing. Just leave it alone, the argument goes, and the Internet will destroy dictatorships, undermine religious fundamentalism, and make up for failures of institutions.1
Another, more insidious way is to succumb to Internet-centrism. Internet-centrists happily concede that digital tools do not always work as intended and are often used by enemies of democracy. What the Internet does is only of secondary importance to them; they are most interested in what the Internet means. Its hidden meanings have already been deciphered: decentralization beats centralization, networks are superior to hierarchies, crowds outperform experts. To fully absorb the lessons of the Internet, urge the Internet-centrists, we need to reshape our political and social institutions in its image.
They arrive at this reform agenda in a rather circuitous way. First, they assume that the Internet has a logic that is currently at work re-shaping a bevy of digital platforms and industries. Here is how Clay Shirky—the thinker who has done the most to popularize the McLuhanesque idea that the Internet has a coherent logic—explains why we are so worried about privacy and Facebook: “Facebook is . . . our current target for our worries about privacy in exactly the same way that the music industry obsessed about Napster [and] the newspaper industry obsessed about Craigslist, which is to say: the logic of Facebook, the logic that Facebook is exposing, is, in many ways, the logic that is implicit in the Internet itself; Facebook just happens to be its current corporate avatar.”
Once the elusive logic of the Internet has been located, it is not uncommon to see Internet-centrists move to deflate its actual novelty. Thus, Yochai Benkler, a Harvard legal scholar and an exquisite purveyor of Internet-centrism, can marvel at the worlds of Wikipedia, open-source software, and file-sharing—which he, too, takes to represent the logic of the Internet—and then proceed to weave them into a larger narrative about human nature. For Benkler, the Internet proves that humans are collaborative, well-meaning creatures, and that our political institutions, shaped in accordance with a much darker Hobbesian view of human nature, have never been adequate for facilitating meaningful social interaction.
Benkler does not view the Internet as a tool so much as an idea that proves (and disproves) philosophical theories about how the world works. The Internet, for him, reveals only what has been true—that humans love to collaborate—all along. Not surprisingly, the Internet occupies just a few chapters of Benkler’s most recent book; the rest is him deploying the latest research in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and experimental economics to find the spirit of the Internet in the worlds of Toyota and lobster fishermen, of Spanish farmers and Obama’s 2008 campaign.
This attempt to rediscover reality in terms and categories of a supposedly coherent Internet culture is the crucial idea behind Internet-centrism. In defining what is knowable, on what terms, and to what purposes, Internet-centrism produces a novel epistemology of its own. Analytically, it is similar to anthropocentrism—only it worships a different deity. Most adherents of Internet-centrism have traditionally kept quiet about their quasi-religion. But with the publication of Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect, they finally have a briskly written manifesto that distills all the major tenets of their worldview—and adds quite a few blinkers of its own.
Like Shirky and Benkler, Johnson is grappling with the thorny question of what the Internet means. His conclusion, alas, is not very original: the history of the Internet tells us that decentralization is preferable to centralization. And, to quote Steve Jobs, “It just works!” Thus, early Internet protocols were built on the principle of packet switching, whereby the content to be transmitted is broken into packets, which are sent separately from each other and reassembled upon receipt. No centralized authority was needed: the packets could travel through a myriad of different routes independently of each other. The likes of Google and Wikipedia also thrive on decentralization; Google, for example, ranks sites for relevance by studying how sites link to each other. Google’s relevance index, then, emerges out of individual decisions by millions of site-owners; it is not centrally planned.
Johnson even claims that the creation of ARPANET—the Pentagon-funded precursor to the Internet—and of TCP/IP—the Internet’s most important communication protocol—are “milestones in the history of political philosophy.”2 This is a stark claim, which Johnson supports by writing that “the ARPANET was a radically decentralized system that had somehow emerged out of a top-down agency.” That system, in turn, relied on “fluid, dynamic structures that lacked hierarchies and centralized control.” Johnson calls those fluid structures “peer networks”—for him, they are the real currency of the Internet and, as it turns out, of many innovative projects that predate the Internet. (Here, as in Benkler, we see the logic of the Internet at work in non-Internet or even pre-Internet contexts.)
With Johnson arguing that decentralization has been propelling not just the growth of Internet infrastructure but also that of its seminal projects like Wikipedia, we are back to the world of Internet-centrism and the idea that there is a coherent logic to the Internet and its many components: the hardware, the software, the platforms, the users. This logic may not solve all of the world’s problems, but Johnson believes that it should be our default response to our current social and political predicaments: “when a need arises in society that goes unmet our first impulse should be to build a peer network to solve that problem.”
How can we afford not to reform the world around us when we know that something as unlikely as Wikipedia actually works? “Wikipedia is just the beginning,” enthuses Johnson. “We can learn from its success to build new systems that solve problems in education, governance, health, local communities, and countless other regions of human experience.” Projects such as Wikipedia are just another reminder that Internet logic is the correct way to run the world; when we remodel our institutions and practices accordingly, we might solve most unpromising problems.
For Johnson, the Internet is not a solution but a useful way to think about the solution.
For Johnson, the Internet is not a solution but a useful way to think about the solution. “One could use the Internet directly to improve people’s lives, but also learn from the way the Internet had been organized, and apply those principles to help improve the way city governments worked, or school systems taught students,” he claims. But what kind of a solution is it? Is Johnson just a libertarian in disguise? After all, doesn’t his agenda amount to shrinking government, scuttling expensive reform efforts, and replacing them with bottom-up solutions modeled on Wikipedia? He preempts such criticism by introducing his own ideology—“peer progressivism”—which posits that we need to preserve big government and keep the spirit of reform alive, but also push the bureaucrats to think in newer, Internet-friendlier ways—to have them acknowledge that crowds and networks can be smarter than individuals.
To this end, Johnson juxtaposes the horizontal approach of Kickstarter—an online platform where those in the creative industries can raise money from their fans—with the top-down approach of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Noting that in 2012 Kickstarter stood to raise more money than the entire budget of the NEA, Johnson argues that, instead of scrapping the NEA, we have to ask how we can make it more like Kickstarter. And we can apply the same lessons elsewhere: Johnson urges governments to imagine how “the core principles that governed the design of the Net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems—the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools.”
Johnson’s argument boils down to this: before the Internet, our institutions could not be as participatory, decentralized, and leaderless as Wikipedia and Kickstarter. Today they can be—and should be. “We didn’t have Kickstarter or Wikipedia before the Web came along because the organizational costs of connecting all those people were prohibitive,” he writes. Now that the costs have fallen, there are no good reasons for hierarchies to exist.
For all his talk about political philosophy, Johnson makes no effort to ask even basic philosophical questions. What if some limits to democratic participation in the pre-Wikipedia era were not just a consequence of high communication costs but stemmed from a deliberate effort to root out populism, prevent cooptation, or protect expert decision making? 3 In other words, if some public institutions eschewed wider participation for reasons that have nothing to do with the ease of connectivity, isn’t the Internet a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist?
To understand why Johnson never ponders this obvious question, it might help to trace where Johnson locates—spatially—all his political battles. His preferred level of scalar analysis is that of the city; he says very little about the nation-state or the international system. His favorite examples of “peer progressivism”—New York’s 311 hotline, where anyone seeking information about some city issue is greeted by a live operator and re-directed to the appropriate resource, and the SeeClickFix initiative, which allows anyone to use the Internet to report a non-emergency neighborhood problem—all revolve around navigating or fixing the decaying urban infrastructure.
Better systems for aggregating and dispensing knowledge can certainly help to solve many problems, but those are problems of a very peculiar nature. Can Washington’s reluctance to intervene in Syria—to take just an extreme example—be blamed on a deficit of knowledge? Or does it stem, rather, from a deficit of will, or of principle? Would extending the participatory logic of Kickstarter to the work of the National Endowment for Democracy or to the State Department’s Policy Planning staff lead to better policy on democracy promotion? Or will it result in more populist calls to search for Joseph Kony? 4 Can’t the lowering of barriers to participation also paralyze the system, as some would argue is the case with the proliferation of ballot initiatives in California?
Many of our political institutions regularly confront problems that are not the result of knowledge deficiencies. Johnson’s fixation on the city, however, makes him erroneously conclude that most problems do stem from knowledge gaps that can be easily, quickly, and cheaply filled with better data. He never mentions that some problems (even at the city level) can only be mitigated—never solved—through bargaining, because those problems emerge from competing interests, not knowledge gaps. Johnson’s is a post-ideological world, where history has ended and politics has been reduced to fixing potholes and reviewing patent applications. Think Palo Alto, not East Palo Alto. In this world, the only evil to be reckoned with comes from lazy bureaucrats who refuse to publish data in easily accessible computer formats.
Projects such as 311 and SeeClickFix face very little opposition from anyone. After all, who would oppose a faster, more effective way to report potholes? But participatory budgeting—another one of Johnson’s favorite examples of “peer progressivism”—is not like that at all. Participatory budgeting is a reform effort that started in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre and has now faddishly spread around the globe; its main tenet is that local communities should have a say in how their budgets are spent. Participatory budgeting is far more contentious than 311, as it seeks to take power from one group—elected and unelected city officials, but also city planners and even real estate developers who have been cultivating connections to corrupt officials—and shift it to a previously marginalized group: citizens.
In Johnson’s world, such transfers of power happen smoothly. It’s not hard to see why: his Internet-centric theory of politics is shallow. Wikipedia, remember, is a site that anyone can edit! As a result, Johnson cannot account for the background power conditions and inequalities that structure the environment into which his bright reform ideas are introduced. 5 Once those background conditions are factored in, it becomes far less obvious that increasing decentralization and participation is always desirable. Even Wikipedia tells us a more complex story about empowerment: yes, anyone can edit it, but not anyone can see their edits preserved for posterity. The latter depends, to a large extent, on the politics and the power struggles inside Wikipedia.
Johnson’s sophomoric treatment of power turns his argument into a fairy tale. Take participatory budgeting. Scholars have identified three challenges—the problems of implementation, inequality, and cooptation—that come to plague such reforms. The first arises quite naturally, given that both government and even non-government players are reluctant to relinquish power over budgets to citizens. The second is also easy to grasp: the weakest members of society are often reluctant to participate in such new schemes, as they have no time to attend meetings and lack the self-confidence to voice their opinions. And finally, participatory budgeting is often used to tame—or coopt—otherwise unruly civil society groups. By giving them a small budget to play with and integrating them into existing state structures, the government can neutralize powerful non-state players.
All three problems can be overcome, as the weaker groups learn how to organize, to make alliances, and to refuse the tight embrace of the state. In Porto Alegre, where the practice originated, all three have indeed been overcome. But Johnson never says how this was accomplished: participatory budgeting was the flagship program of the Workers’ Party, which governed the Porto Alegre municipality between 1989 and 2004.6 The idea of wider community participation didn’t just reflect the party’s leftist ideals; it was also a way to chip away at some of the local clientelism that for decades had impeded political reform in Brazil.
The Porto Alegre experiment succeeded because there was a centralized effort to make it work. Centralization was the means through which the end of decentralization was achieved. Without well-organized, centralized, and hierarchical structures to push back against entrenched interests, attempts to make politics more participatory might stall, and further disempower the weak, and coopt members of the opposition into weak and toothless political settings. This was the case before the Internet, and, most likely, it will be the case long after.
But Johnson is completely blind to the virtues of centralization. In discussing 311, he lauds the fact that tipsters calling the hotline help to create a better macro-level view of city problems. But this is a trivial insight compared with the main reason why 311 works: Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to centralize—not decentralize—previous models of reporting tips. Here is how Accenture, the firm that assisted New York in its switch to the 311 system, describes the origins of that project: “[Before 311], customers looking for government assistance were confronted with more than 4,000 entries on 14 pages of the NYC telephone book, and more than 40 resource-intensive call centers were required to direct inquiries to the right city offices. The Mayor’s vision was that of a high-performance, centralized, all-purpose call facility, accessible through the simple-to-remember 3-1-1 phone number.”
Johnson’s internet-centric worldview is biased toward all things decentralized.
Nor does Johnson say whether there are limits to decentralization, or how we can understand what needs to be kept centralized, if only temporarily. Instead, he opts to identify the spirit of the Internet in the workings of modern politics. Thus, writing of the Occupy Wall Street movement, he notes that “as the Internet grew to become the dominant communications medium of our age, social movements would increasingly look like the Internet, even when they were chanting slogans in the middle of a city park.” This, for Johnson, is invariably a good thing: the more decentralized and horizontal it is, the more likely a social movement is to succeed.
Whether Occupy Wall Street got its shape thanks to the Internet or to the ideas of horizontalism—first tested in Argentina around 2001 and promoted by Marina Sitrin, a prominent activist, in the decade that followed—is something to be debated, and Johnson makes no effort to engage with such alternative explanations.8 (The first rule of Internet-centrism is that if something can be explained according to the Internet, it must be explained according to the Internet.) But even assuming that Johnson is right and the idea of the Internet does indeed inform how social movements form and operate these days, it is not immediately obvious why this is a model worth pursuing. Not everyone believes that Occupy Wall Street was a runaway success.
Besides, what would this model look like in practice? For Johnson, it means a switch from hierarchies to networks, from centralization to decentralization, from leaders to horizontal assemblages. There are two possible responses to such claims. One is to assume that such remodeling rests on a theoretical fantasy about how social movements work in practice. Another is to concede that, whereas some such decentralization might be feasible, absolutely nothing guarantees that, as far as efficacy is concerned, decentralization beats centralization.
The first view—that social movements will never be able to transcend hierarchies and replace them with horizontal networks—was cogently expressed by Jo Freeman in 1972 in her landmark essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Freeman argued that hierarchies are bound to emerge anyway, and that pretending that they do not exist simply lets unacknowledged leaders escape accountability. The Internet has not fundamentally altered these dynamics. If anything, it has only complicated them, as the number of communication channels that elite factions can exploit has exploded. Consider how a participant in the Occupy protests put it in a provocative post for The Daily Kos:
One of the consequences of just how difficult and time consuming participating in the movement became is that key players stopped showing up. Well not exactly; they still showed up, but mostly for side conversations, informal gatherings, and the meetings that planned what would happen at the public meetings. Using social media ... they formed an invisible guiding hand that simultaneously got shit done, avoided accountability, and engaged in factional battles with each other ... you know what's worse than regular same-old elites? An [sic] barely visible elite that denies it is an elite and can't ever be called to account.
But these elites never provided the kind of efficient centralizing machinery that Occupy Wall Street needed to convert millions of people curious about its cause into card-carrying members of the movement. This failure can be partly ascribed to the absence of coherent demands, but it must also be blamed on the movement’s proud lack of organization, which is how decentralization often ends. So, while Occupy Wall Street may have had plenty of unacknowledged leaders, it had no intermediate structures for scaling up; those—unlike shadow elites—do not just emerge on their own. Another participant in the protests put it this way:
Systems did emerge to engage newcomers. But those systems.... were not nearly as effective as the moment demanded ... some of the email addresses floated around as a primary point of contact were left unchecked, accumulating more than 11,000 unanswered emails.... Meetings would be announced at a particular location and then held somewhere else. Newcomers would show up for working group meetings, add their name to a list passed around for future contact, and never hear from anyone again. It's nearly four months since the occupation and there still isn't a clearly labeled sign up page. Hell, there isn't even an official public facing website that represents OWS.
If one assumes that political reform is long, slow, and painful, hierarchies and centralizing strategies can be productive. After all, they can keep the movement on target and give it some coherent shape. Ideas on their own do not change the world; ideas that are coupled with smart institutions might. “Not by memes alone” would be an apt slogan for any contemporary social movement. Alas, this basic insight—that political reform cannot be reduced to the wars of memes and aesthetics alone, even if the Internet offers an effective platform for waging them—has mostly been lost on the Occupy Wall Street crowd.9 Challenging power requires a strategy that in many circumstances might favor centralization. To reject the latter on philosophical grounds rather than strategic grounds—because it is anti-Internet or anti-Wikipedia—borders on the suicidal.
This antipathy to hierarchies and leaders is part of a broader Internet-centrist backlash against institutions; they are believed to be incompatible with the logic of the Internet. This anti-institutional bias is most visible in Johnson’s discussion of American politics. He sincerely believes that one way to improve it is to get rid of the hassle that comes with political parties, leaders, and other mediating institutions, and then allow citizens to cast votes directly on issues they care about or to delegate those votes to more knowledgeable friends—a delegation mechanism that Johnson calls “liquid democracy.” In 2005, in an essay that previewed many of the themes that he tackles in Future Perfect, Johnson turned to one of his favorite subjects—sociobiology—to argue that, if only we had the right tools, leaders would not be needed altogether:
Just as the ants find their way to new food sources and switch tasks with impressive flexibiliy, our community tools should help us locate and improve troubled schools, up-and-coming playground, areas lacking crucial services, areas with an abundance of services, blocks that feel safe at night and blocks that don't— all the subtle patterns of community life now made public in a new form. That kind of politics— the kind built from the ground up, without leaders—is truly within our grasp right now, if we can just build the right tools.
In Future Perfect, Johnson pushes this rhetoric even further, writing that “the parties are institutions stuck in older ways of organizing the world”; they have forced the electorate “to distort the square peg of its true political worldview to fit the round holes of the two parties.” This is an odd explanation of the longevity of the party system. Many democracies outside the United States have more than two mainstream parties; the binary “round holes” that Johnson complains about are not a feature of some existential divide between the old and new forms of organizing and certainly not the consequences of inadequate communications infrastructure.
Johnson believes that the old party system is bad simply because it is Internet-incompatible. He never pauses to examine what positive role parties—and partisanship more broadly—have played in American politics. Nancy Rosenblum and Sean Wilentz have recently advanced sophisticated historical arguments in defense of partisanship, but Johnson does not much care about the fine print; he just finds political parties suffocating compared, well, with Wikipedia.
Where exactly would Johnson’s “liquid democracy” lead us? In a footnote, he notes that “the German Pirate Party has implemented ‘liquid democracy’ techniques with some success in recent years.” “Some success” is a gross overstatement, as their unlikely success in Germany appears to have been rather short-lived. Yet in many ways, the Pirates have self-consciously adopted all the imagery and rhetoric of the Internet; they are the living embodiment of Internet-centrism. Obsessed with process—decentralized and horizontal, of course—they offer little by way of goals and policy positions. Worse, they think that such vacuousness is actually an asset; as the party’s spokesperson declared in 2011, “What we’re offering is not a program, but an operating system.”
A party with no strong stance on issues beyond copyright, censorship, and privacy, the Pirates remain a mystery to most German voters, who have lost their early enthusiasm for the cool young kids. Once polling in the double digits, the Pirates today are unsure of even passing the 5 percent threshold needed to get into the Bundestag in the upcoming elections. The lack of leadership and basic discipline within the party—some of its members show up at legislative sessions in shorts—has turned them into a national joke.
The Pirates’ rhetorical embrace of “liquid democracy,” where everyone can participate and delegate votes to each other, has not worked in practice; even almighty software cannot excite ordinary citizens about the humdrum and arcane issues of which most politics is made. By October 2012, in North Rhine-Westphalia—a region with eighteen million inhabitants—the Pirates used their trademark Liquid Feedback software to gather opinions on only two issues. A poll on one such issue—the controversial ban on circumcision—attracted only twenty votes. As Der Spiegel dryly put it, “It’s a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate.”
Anyone familiar with critiques of direct democracy would not find this surprising.10 The attempt to reform politics needs to start with some basic account of the very limitations of politics itself, and not just salivate over the infinite opportunities of digital technologies. The Pirates took the idea of the Internet seriously—only to discover that the rhythms and rituals of old-school politics do not stem merely from inferior technologies, but rather reflect assumptions about human nature, power, and justice. Relations among humans have many more layers of complexity than those among ants; there are inequalities, asymmetries, and grievances to be found at all layers—and what might seem like inefficiencies or gaps in participation or transparency might, on second look, prove to be the very democracy-enabling protective tissues that allow liberal societies to function.
This lack of curiosity about how the world works is the most pernicious feature of Internet-centrism. Armed with the Internet, its proponents do not much care about the larger objective of their reform. They prefer to notice only those elements amenable to Internet interventions and discard all others. Johnson never actually states what bothers him about the NEA, and why it needs to become more like Kickstarter; for him, making it Internet-compatible is always right. He never asks what it is that the NEA actually does, how it sets its agenda, and what it hopes to achieve.
Is the kind of expertise that the NEA relies on additive? Does the cumulative knowledge of ten mediocre wanna-be art critics on Kickstarter equal that of one art wonk who works at the NEA? Will increasing participation in NEA funding open it to manipulation by Koch-funded Tea Party activists, steering funding to socially conservative projects? Do the film-makers who receive the most Facebook likes make the most provocative films? Is provocation something that our art policy should cultivate? These are the questions that anyone concerned with reforming the NEA cannot avoid asking. But Johnson is not interested in reforming the NEA—he is interested only in imposing his Internet-centric solutions on everything.
Johnson’s book would not be remarkable if its Internet-centrism—and the severe intellectual limits it has imposed on his narrative—were not so stark. What Future Perfect reveals quite clearly is that we have reached a point where scholars and intellectuals grappling with the Internet face a choice between two mutually exclusive methods of inquiry.
One—an outgrowth of Internet-centrism—is driven by the impulse to totalize and generalize; the other by the impulse to disaggregate and particularize. One has space for the Internet and little else; the other eschews any talk of “the Internet”—it deliberately puts it in scare quotes throughout—and engages with platforms and technologies on their own terms, as if they share no common logic.11 Instead of assuming that these technologies emerge from “the Internet,” this second approach assumes that it is “the Internet”—as an idea, if not as a technical network—that emerges out of those technologies.
The totalizing approach tries to collect disparate and often incommensurate insights and fit them into some grand narrative about the unfolding of the Internet’s spirit. The particularizing approach refuses any kind of spiritual talk; instead, it aims to document the multiplicity of logics and paradoxes of which “the Internet” is actually composed. This latter approach knows that networks are not inherently liberating; depending on how nodes are connected to each other, networks can be far more tyrannical, opaque, and anti-democratic than hierarchies.
The totalizing approach assumes that a site such as Kickstarter is just a straightforward mediator through which the voice of the people can be expressed; the particularizing seeks to peer inside Kickstarter’s algorithms and understand how they are manipulated. The former approach assumes that, on the Internet, “things go viral”; the latter investigates how such “virality” is produced, how popularity is created on each and every platform, and whose interests—those of advertisers, platform owners, or users—are boosted in the process.
The advantage of the particularizing approach over the totalizing one is that it can explain how an idea like “the Internet” emerges in public discourse, how it mutates with time, and what ideological purposes it might be serving at any particular moment. (Whenever you hear phrases like “This won’t work on the Internet” or “This will break the Internet,” it’s a good sign that someone is deploying “the Internet” to promote their political agenda.)12
The totalizers would happily follow Johnson in seeking answers to questions such as “So what does the Internet want?”—as if the Internet were a living thing with its own agenda and its own rights. Cue a recent Al Jazeera column: “The internet is not territory to be conquered, but life to be preserved and allowed to evolve freely. ... From understanding the internet as a life form that is in part human, it follows that the internet itself has rights.”13 That is the kind of crazy talk to be avoided. The particularizers would not invoke “the Internet” to embark on a quixotic attempt to re-make democratic politics; but the totalizers, in their quasi-religious belief, would do so gladly.
A good account of the Internet would never need to mention that dreadful word at all. This stringent requirement might uproot most of our Internet thinkers from the plateau of banal and erroneous generalizations where they have resided for the last two decades; after all, it is the very notion of “the Internet” that has allowed them to stay there for so long. Now that Internet-centrism is not just a style of thought but also an excuse for a naïve and damaging political ideology, the costs of letting its corrosive influence go unnoticed have become too high.