4.2.A. De-Monopolization of Power

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4.2.A. De-Monopolization of Power

How to explain the emergence of such P2P networks in the political field?

It reflects new cultural values, the desire that authority grows from engagement and expertise, and that it is temporary to the task at hand. It reflects the refusal to give away autonomy, i.e. the rejection of the transcendence of power as defined by Toni Negri. It reflects the desire for self-unfolding of creative potential.

Networks are incredibly efficient: they can operate globally in real-time, react and mobilize around events in the very short term, and offers access to alternative civic information that has not been massaged by corporate-owned mega-media. In a political network configuration, the participating individual retains his full autonomy.

Politically, P2P processes reflect a de-monopolization of power. Power, in the form of reputation that generates influence, is given by the community, is time-bound to the participation of the individual (when he no longer participates, influence declines again), and can thus be taken back by the participating individuals. In the case where monopolization should occur, participants simply leave or create a ‘forking’ of the project, a new path is formed to avoid the power grab .

There is an important counter-trend however, and it concerns the scarcity of attention. Because our time and attention are indeed scarce in a context of information abundance, mediating portals are created, who collate and digest this mass of information. Think about Yahoo, Google, Amazon, eBay who exemplify the process of monopolization in the ‘attention economy’. But the user community is not without power to affect these processes: collective reaction through opinion storms are activated by abusive monopolistic behavior, and can quickly damage the reputation of the perpetrator, thereby forcing a change in behavior in the monopolistic ambitions. Competing resources are almost always available, or can be built by the open source community. But more fundamentally, the blogosphere practice shows that it is possible to route around such problems, by creating mediating processes using the community as a whole. Thus techniques such as folksonomies, i.e. communal tagging, or reputation ranking, such as the ‘Karma’ points used by the Slashdot community, avoid the emergence of autonomous mediating agents. The blogosphere itself, in the form of the Technorati ranking system for example, has found ways to calculate the interlinking done by countless individuals, thereby enabling itself to filter out the most used contributions. Again, monopolization is excluded. What is the mechanism behind this?

For this we have to turn again to the concept of non-representationality, or what Negri calls immanence. In modernity, the concept is that autonomous individuals cannot create a peaceful order, and therefore they defer their power to a sovereign, whether it be the king of the nation. In becoming a people, they become a ‘collective individual’. They loose out as individuals, while the unified people or nation behaves ‘as if’ it was an individual, i.e. with ambition for power. It is ‘transcendent’ vis a vis its parts. In non-representationality however, nothing of the sort is given away. This means that the collective hereby created, is not a ‘collective individual’, it cannot act with ambition apart from its members. The genius of the protocols devised in peer to peer initiatives, is that they avoid the creation of a collective individual with agency. Instead, it is the communion of the collective which filters value. The ethical implication is important as well. Not having given anything up of their full power, the participants in fact voluntarily take up the concern not only for the whole in terms of the project, but for the social field in which its operates.

Anticipating our ‘evolutionary’ remarks in section 4.3, we can see the above examples as illustrating the new form of protocollary power, which is becoming all-important in a network. The very manner in which we devise our social technologies, implies possible and likely social relationships. The protocols of the blogosphere enable the economy of attention to operate, not through individual actors that can become monopolistic, but by protocols that enable communal filtering. But when used by private firms such as Yahoo and Google, they may have a vested interest in skewing the protocol and the objectivity of the algorithms used. In the blogosphere, protocols are also important since they imply a vision: should everyone be able to judge, and in that case, would that not lead to a lowest common denominator, or should equipotency be defined in such a way that a certain level of expertise is required, to allow higher quality entries to be filtered upwards?