Against the Internet-Centric Totalizing Anti-Hierarchy and Anti-Centralization Ideology
In 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? 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.
A view of Porto Alegro, Brazil, where budgets are set by the citizens. (Flickr/Alexandre Pereira) 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.”
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. (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.” (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112189/social-media-doesnt-always-help-social-movements)
A critique of internet-centrism
"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.
ABANDON SHIP The Pirate Party of Western Germany finds itself losing political power. (Getty/Patrik Stollarz) 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."
Against Internet Totalizing
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." (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112189/social-media-doesnt-always-help-social-movements)
From a book review of:
- Steven Johnson. Future, Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age.