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Build Internet communitarian memory

A video of Jonathan Zittrain's lecture at Duke on who owns the archive and the politics of making sure that the Web's memory will persist, with an extended comment by Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
Jonathan Zittrain Tony Curzon Price
9 March 2010

When the Patriot Act wanted to snoop on all reading habits, it was university and public libraries, not Google and Amazon that led the resistance. Imagine trying to get every copy of "1984" destroyed in a particular jurisdiction because of copyright violation ... well, Amazon did it at the push of a button on the Kindle. Where does power lie to maintain memory on the new Read-Write-Control web? Watch Zittrain's important lecture and join in the comments.

Commentary by Tony Curzon Price

We end up centralising more than we think, and often there are deep commercial rather than technological forces at work in doing this. Who would have thought that ebooks would actually make culture less distributed and pervasive, more under Orwellian control? Watch the video.

I like what Zittrain is doing with the schema that he first presented at the LSE 2 years ago, but I continue to puzzle a bit about the orthogonality of the axes - indeed, about what they really mean...

I wrote up my version of this schema recently over here, with top-down/bottom-up being the liberty axis and Zittrain's hierarchy/polyarchy being the equality axis (or, in another transformation, the "openness" versus "democracy" axes respectively). I think we more or less map onto each other, except that both my bottom left and bottom right have communitarian aspects -- Ruskin and Sorel and even the later Mill are all into cooperatives, localism, etc rather than "right anarchy" (the folks from reason.com, Cato institute, etc) which I have in the middle of bottom line and Zittrain has in the far right of his schema.


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He has a very interesting characterisation of the vertical axis in this talk: is there a separation between agents -- producers/consumers, priest/congragation ruler/ruled etc. If so, you are in a "Top-down" oganisation. We might call this the Dog Food Test: in the advertisements for the dog food, is the dog really eating the advertised dog-food or something else? Are the rule-makers playing by the same rules as the ones the rules apply to?

In a way, Zittrain is asking whether the internal organisational structure is a reflection of the wider society it fits into. Top-down organisations in hierarchical societies -- think, for example, "the family" in Confucian China -- are using a consistent template for how things go. within and without. Similarly in the Polyarchal/Bottom-up quadrant: frontiers-town life (according to Hollywood, anyway) has horse-riding groups of rugged individuals making their way in empty spaces with only occasional social contact and under self-government -- the band of cowboys is internally organised in the same way that the society around it is organised. The market and the polis (the top right and bottom left) are the positions in tension between inside and outside, as it were: the corporation is authoritarian inside but – in the best of cases – contributing to a realm of freedom outside; the polis is self-regarding, self-defining (ie bottom-up) but offers no life outside those definitions because it defines a space in which choice destroys what is good (ie it needs to be herarchical).

Maybe the lesson is that those tensions are all to the good. The top-left, bottom-right line all rely on fantasies of harmony which no one ever asked for anyway.

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