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The liberty of the networked (1)

About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at

Does technology liberate or enslave? When Prometheus first started the industrial revolution, Zeus thought he had liberated humanity and should be punished for it. The tension between technology as empowering versus technology as sinister control continues. The web versus the database, liberation or tool of tyranny? The Convention on Modern Liberty of which openDemocracy is a sponsor, asks us to make the question of technology's social role central to our political thought and activity. The Convention is right that we must not patiently allow a new technological order to deeply rebalance tyranny and liberty.

This long essay, to be published in parts, tries to make sense of the libero-genic hope and potential of computer and communications technology in a framework that also makes sense of the dangers. I return to a an essay from the adolescence of liberalism - Benjamin Constant's 1816 "The liberty of ancients compared with that of moderns" - to argue that the liberating hyper-individualism of the web is also the source of its greatest dangers. It is now more urgent than ever for us to reclaim our ability to decide all together on our common futures: we need to exercise our collective freedom to preserve our modern liberty.





Mill and Constant


Newspapers and railroads are solving the problem of bringing the democracy of England to vote, like that of Athens, simultaneously in one agora.
John Stuart Mill, de Tocqueville on Democracy, 1840, p165.(Mill, 1840)

Will the technology optimists always be with us? Each age of technology brings with it the hope that the ills of modernity will be cured. The railway that Mill pinned such hopes on also ferried troops to the front 75 years later for carnage on an unprecedented scale. The newspaper and other mass media that would bring Athens to England would also stir up the passions that ushered in the totalitarianisms of the the twentieth century. Is it different this time, with the Internet? It might be. But the forces of social and technocratic tyranny are well poised to turn the new networks into chains. This paper tries to describe the lay of the battlefield ahead.

When Mill hopes to bring Athens to England, he is pointing back to the basic dilemma of modernity expressed 30 years earlier by Benjamin Constant (Constant, 1816) in his analysis of the liberty of the ancients and the moderns.

Constant applauds the freedom of the moderns--the ability to get on with one's own life and projects without interference of the sovereign--but worries on two counts that we will miss the political freedom of the ancients:

  1. an instrumental reason: the private and individual freedoms that thrive in modern mass society are dependent for their continued existence on a proper, wise delegation of power to representatives of government. However the very desire to get on with our private affairs saps the will to hold power to account. The powerful will naturally take advantage of such political dis-engagement and our modern freedoms will eventually be undermined.2


  2. an intrinsic reason: participation in public life and collective decisions is part of the good life.3Participation in a free political realm--the common determination of collective goods and behaviours through discussion--is not just a means to private welfare, but itself a condition of a good life.

The issues identified by Constant are certainly with us still. Modernity in the West has hugely expanded the private realm of freedom, but the government of mass society has tended to destroy the meaningful exercise of self-determination in collective life--the ``freedom of the ancients".

John Stuart Mill expresses the refrain of the modern techno-libertarian. The railway and the printing press accomplish Constant's request that we need to find social organisations that merge the two freedoms.4The railway reduces distance; the printing press carries wisdom and discussion. The agora, the public forum in which the citizens of Athens participated in collective decision-making, is reconstituted in virtual form.5

Today we have the same question: are the Internet and the blogoshpere at last the solution to Constant's request that we cure mass society of its public-realm emptiness without abandoning the gains for individuals of Enlightenment modernity? Should we now see the Internet as essentially a technology of freedom? Will the freedom of the networked be, at last, the synthesis of the freedom of the ancients and of the moderns?

The alternative view is as desperate as this one is hopeful. Just as Mill saw the potential of the railway for freedom and self-realisation, Saint-Simon, keen to use the new technologies to replace the "government of men by the administration of things", prefigures a manipulative, bureaucratic attitude to mass society.6Will the new networked world be an instrument of Saint-Simonian technocracy or will it create an arena for Millian liberty? I will argue that liberty does not -- as it were -- come for free. It will not just drop out of the technological developments of the age. Every technology pits tyranny against freedom, and every technology requires the battle to be fought again.


Schema--The ancient, the modern and the networked

The dangers to freedom are summarised in the the top row of table 1. The ancients had no checks on the power of society; mores and law were fused. Here is Constant again:

Similarly ostracism, that legal arbitrariness, extolled by all the legislators of the age; ostracism, which appears to us, and rightly so, a revolting iniquity, proves that the individual was much more subservient to the supremacy of the social body in Athens, than he is in any of the free states of Europe today.
(Constant, 1816) Society gave power to the individual, but also had absolute power over including or excluding the individual. Collective power was bought at the cost of individual rights and certainties. One of the most troubling aspects of the wired world, with its assault on privacy and its technologies of manipulation, may recreate and amplify this aspect of the world of the ancients.

At the same time, centralised, personalised databases, whether they are governmental or civil, give bureaucracy great power over the individuals. These are modern concerns, classically expressed in Kafka (1925) and Orwell (1949). The industrial processing of information brings this modern abuse of power frighteningly within the reach of our states and companies.



Avoid the top, encourage the bottom.

The lower part of table 1 represents technology-optimism. The networked world offers a myriad of new opportunities for participating in collective spaces, some new and some old but newly enhanced by technology. Wikipedia has brought encyclopaedic knowledge-gathering into the public realm (openDemocracy is working at doing the same for news analysis and commentary); Flickr has brought photographers from all over the world into the creation of a public photo archive; YouTube hosts any number of niche communities that provide a public space for performance. In the digital age, Andy Warhol might have said, everyone can be famous to 15 people (Weinberger, 2002). This creates opportunities for the sort of socially rich, collectively oriented self-realisation and self-determination that Constant saw that modernity had destroyed.

At the same time, that quintessential freedom of the moderns, the expansion of the realm of unrestricted private choice is being expanded by new goods and services, some very cheap, many free, and many seemingly free (more later on the indigestion that the Web2.0 "free" lunch is likely to cause).


Arguments and Forces



Lines of battle. (The weight of the line represents my assessment of the scale of the danger)

The remainder of this article is an elaboration of the forces depicted here . Briefly, these are the effects I will cover:

Finkielkraut, Warner
These are all thinkers who have described the way in which technology is changing--sometimes for the worse, they claim-- our thoughts, individuality and identities. The tyranny of the group is moulding us as never before. These are interesting speculations, but I argue that they are not the fundamental vector of tyranny.
Sunstein (2007)
argues that the new economics of knowledge dissemination fragments society into non-communicating shards; solipsistic communities that grow apart and potentially find it increasingly hard to co-habit as any habit of compromise is lost. We thus are moving from the freedom of the moderns, with its ``broad tent'' political institutions like parties and newspapers, to an ``unfreedom of the ancient'' with its warring city states squaring up across the Peleponese.
Zittrain (2008)
sees that the Internet, once the fertile ground for all sorts of creative, ``generative'' communities organised on Athenian grounds and delivering the social goods of ancient freedom, is in danger of becoming the ``first self-closing open system" under the weight of insecurity, theft and other bad user experiences. Governments will be tempted to regulate, corporations will reduce the freedom of users that created the realm of pure possibility that the Internet briefly was.
Kafka (1925), Orwell (1949) and McNealy
Technology is being used to realise the nightmares of the database state. In some countries--China, Russia, Iran--the process is advanced. In the West, it has gone much further than most of us realise. These are not just government databases, but the use by governments, criminal organisations and some corporations of all sorts of overlapping databases of personal and quasi-persoanl information. We are building a world in which Jozef K.'s paranoia will become a natural state of mind for many. We are willingly contributing, in the name of convenience, security or out of sheer ignorance, to the databases that could be used to enslave us. Imagine the world of the Stasi as decribed in Donnersmarck (2006), with information willingly auto-submitted and efficiently processed.



Get over it!


In all this gloom is the hope, expressed in Net-Topians like Anderson (2007), Benkler (2006) and Lessig (2000) who argue for the transformative potential of the Internet. ``The Wealth of Networks" will allow for the fusion of the freedom of the old and the new: alienation and anomie, the diseases of the freedom of the moderns, will be banished by the flexibility and abundance of the virtual world; social tyranny, the disease of the ancients, is banished by the endless multiplication of identities and affiliations that we can now enjoy.


Modern/Libero-genic: cheap communication

, anthropologist for Nokia, says the cell-phone has come as close to being a modern cultural universal as money and keys. He explains this by the ultimate safety it provides, a fundamental component of the freedom of the moderns.



Keys, money, cellphone.

Chipchase ought to give more weight to the ability the cellphone has provided to move around mass society while never being more than a thumb-twiddle from our friends--the private realm of family and friendship has become portable.7

There have been previous massive changes in the cost and technology of disseminating information, and these have had profound effects on society and the progress of freedom.

In 1557, in reaction to the printing revolution introduced to the West by Gutenberg,8Pope Pius IV published the first Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the titles that printing had let into minds to corrupt them. Pius IV had it right that printing would revolutionise religion and fundamentally weaken the church, but had it wrong that he could stop it. Or take the mass-circulation dailies and weeklies that appeared in the nineteenth century after paper-making and steam presses cut the cost and time required to publish fast and in huge quantities. Governments quickly imposed selective taxes on printed material (like the Stamp Act of 1765, with the riots this caused in the Americas) designed both to raise revenues and silence sedition. They could do the first, in the short term, but not the second.



Net brain syndrome.


The printing press--the epoch that some are already calling the Gutenberg parenthesis--can be argued to have destroyed the authority of the Church, created the Protestant individual, made the industrial revolution and organised mass social movements. The technology of the press and later of broadcasting impose large fixed costs of production, so encouraged the development of mass markets.9

Changing production functions in the transformation of information are likely to be significant social events because knowledge is itself such an important input to the creation of social behaviour. We would expect the networked computer to have very broad social impacts--similar changes in the costs of ball bearings would be big news, but probably not socially transformative in the same way.

The almost zero fixed costs of information dissemination and retrieval; the almost zero marginal cost of serving an additional copy of the information--the first round effect of this is to create "The Long Tail": the micro-markets for informational goods and services that were previously ruled out by market-size constraints.


Ancient/Libero Genic: Every web site is a republic

The Internet itself has grown in an admirably Aristotelian way (Curzon Price, 2008). Intended from the beginnings of ArpaNet as a network so decentralised it would allow the basic functioning of government even after a targeted nuclear strike, the Internet invented rules for its operation as it went along. Experts who needed to get a job done formed ad hoc committees and established de facto standards. The Unix gurus who were the head of computer systems at the big American Universities, in the major research establishments and in a few early-adopting corporations formed an aristocracy of nerds who built an open, scaleable network architecture that became the Internet we know.

Zittrain (2008) tells the story of the development of this ``generative" technology. At every turn, the ad hoc groupings made decisions that maximised the flexibility of the network. The principles of experimentation, procrastination--``make constraining decisions as late as possible"--and contribution rule in this world. Academic institutions provide the "infant industry environment" in which systems that rely in their early stages on expert users all providing good will that allows the Internet to stabilise, open itself outwards and become the phenomenon of general scalability we saw in the 1990s.

There is a profoundly non-market aspect to this development of open systems. The market, with Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL tried to deliver closed, controlled and safe networks. The French State, with its Minitel, did the same. The American academe provided the world with a remarkable interconnected hierarchy of public goods--from the most basic protocols like TCP/IP to the machines that could operate the network (Stanford University Netowork, SUN) to the complex software that bundled all this together (Berkeley Standard (Unix) Distribution, a version of which this Apple still runs on today) and the millions of lines of useful code, much of it developed under the watchful eye of Richard Stallman, the austere high priest of the free software movement, at MIT, that provided end-user functionality.

This is (Zittrain, 2008):

The generative Internet and PC were at first perhaps more akin to new societies; as people were connected, they may not have had firm expectations about the basics of the interaction. Who pays for what? Who shares what? The time during which the Internet remained an academic backwater, and the PC was a hobbyistÕs tool, helped situate each within the norms of Benkler's parallel economy of sharing nicely, of greater control in the hands of users and commensurate trust that they would not abuse it.

That culture of expert-led generative development has extended into the domain of web applications with projects like Wikipedia. A self-selected and self-appointed group of under 5,000 editors, fact-checkers, conflict resolvers and coders have created a compendium that will rank with the Diderot's and d'Alembert's Encyclopedie as a great achievement of human culture. Under the aegis of open-access, transparency and the power of self-determination, Wikipedia is its own republic. It levies voluntary taxation from users; its aristocracy makes critical decisions about the common good. It gives away what it makes, since making it, and having it used and perceived as useful, is its own reward. Benkler (2006) finds in this sort of project ``The Wealth of Networks", and these are enabled in all sorts of new spaces by the technology of near zero cost information dissemination. openDemocracy, for example, has staked its ground as being the global Public Service provider of news analysis and commentary.


Coming next: Tyranny

So much for the good news. And it is very good. But in the next parts of this article, I will consider the threats to modern and ancient liberties posed by technology. Kafka, and Orwell in their distinct ways describe the worst of it. But Zittrain's and Sunstein's vectors are real and provide opportunities for the complex forces of modern tyranny.





Anderson, C.: 2007, The emerging world of ``free'', Video.

Benkler, Y.: 2006, The wealth of networks, Yale University Press.

Constant, B.: 1816, The liberty of ancients compared with that of moderns, Essay.

Curzon Price, T.: 2008, From zittrain to aristotle in 600 words, openDemocracy .

Donnersmarck, F. H. v.: 2006, Das leben der anderen, Film.

Kafka, F.: 1925, The Trial, Project Gutenberg EBook.

Lessig, L.: 2000, Code and other laws of cyberspace, Basic Books.

Mill, J. S.: 1840, DE TOCQUEVILLE ON DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA, Online Library of Liberty.

Orwell, G.: 1949, 1984, Secker and Warburg.

Sunstein, C.: 2007, 2.0, Princeton University Press.

Weinberger, D.: 2002, Small pieces, loosely joined, Perseus Books.

Zittrain, J.: 2008, The Future of the Internet (and how to stop it), Princeton University Press.


... networked1
Many thanks to all the people who have commented on early drafts of this paper--Selina O'Grady, Graeme Mitchison, Victoria Curzon Price, Anthony Barnett, Jonathan Zittrain, David Hayes, Jeremy O'Grady, Stefaan Verhultz. This paper owes a great deal to a seminar funded by the MacArthur foundation in March 2008, "Credibility in the New News" in London. Many thanks to Kathy Im and Elspeth Revere for making that gathering and space for thinking possible. I presented a version of this paper to the Annual Meeting of the Mont Pellerin Society in Tokyo in September 2009. It was a personally emotionally charged occasion, being the child of two members of the society while feeling uncomfortable with most of the positions taken by its members. On the question of the authoritarian state, however, we were on common ground - at least at some level of abstraction.
This is just the agency problem that the subprime crisis has made so familiar but applied to politics rather than finance. The gigantism of modernity--driven often by apparently genuine economies of scale--produces freedom-destroying loss of control. That loss of control should be factored as a cost into any analysis of the economies of scale that are justifying the move to gigantism. Technology can certainly be gigantisms's friend.
Constant writes that human beings are called to ``self-development [...] and political liberty is the most powerful, the most effective means of self-development that heaven has given us. Political liberty, by submitting to all the citizens, without exception, the care and assessment of their most sacred interests, enlarges their spirit, ennobles their thoughts, and establishes among them a kind of intellectual equality which forms the glory and power of a people.'' (Constant, 1816)
``Sirs, far from renouncing either of the two sorts of freedom which I have described to you, it is necessary, as I have shown, to learn to combine the two together". (Constant, 1816).
Every technology seems to call forth its wild optimists. Here, for example, Arthur C Clarke on the telegraph and the satellite:
A hundred years ago, the electric telegraph made possible - indeed, inevitable - the United States of America. The communications satellite will make equally inevitable a United Nations of Earth; let us hope that the transition period will not be equally bloody.
Arthur C. Clarke, First on the Moon, 1970
Constant anticipates the position:
From the fact that the ancients were free, and that we cannot any longer be free like them, [some thinkers] conclude that we are destined to be slaves. They would like to reconstitute the new social state with a small number of elements which, they say, are alone appropriate to the situation of the world today. These elements are prejudices to frighten men, egoism to corrupt them, frivolity to stupefy them, gross pleasures to degrade them, despotism to lead them; and, indispensably, constructive knowledge and exact sciences to serve despotism the more adroitly.
I am told--and would love to find a reference--that Karl Popper thought that mass society would be civilised only once instant communication between any members became possible.
Note, from Korea, and not from China as often mis-stated. The Chinese bureaucracy encouraged the printing of a small number of classic texts. These could be produced quite easily with fixed-type technology. It was the Koreans who first introduced moveable type, the invention which allowed the printer to re-use and re-assemble the plates used by the press. The Gutenberg revolution was one of movable type--just as Zittrain (2008) argues that the true revolution of the networked PC is its myriad, decentralised re-purposability, which he calls ``generativity".
The capital costs of the Internet are huge too, but they are general purpose and, often by regulation, open access--the same telephone line is used for all the content that passed down it.