From Zittrain to Aristotle in 600 words

Can cyber-communities tame punks, restrain big business, become the state - and make us good?
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
7 March 2008
From Zittrain to Aristotle in 600 words

Tony Curzon Price

March 6th 2008

Here is a picture taken during Jonathan Zittrain's LSE lecture yesterday on ``The Future of the Net (and how to stop it)''. In case you can't read it or guess it, the word tattoo-projected onto JZ's forearm is not ``open is we'' or ``CC rules'' but ``Communitarian''. When I saw the word, the memory bells started to ring. I'll tell you why.


The Communitarian Corner

JZ's thesis goes roughly that the Net is in danger: the openness that allowed it to flourish sows the seeds of its closure. Pragmatic, expert-driven communities "got things done" on the Net, all the way from the protocol stack in the Internet's innards to its Domain Name Server (DNS) system to Wikipedia. But forces of organised interests that do not play by the rules, like malware peddlers, identity thieves and spammers are allowing another army of interests---corporate protectionists, often--- to demand centralised, authoritarian solutions. This is the future of the Net unless we stop it. The lecture---and forthcoming book, I presume---are about how we navigate the perils ahead.

First JZ's taxonomy of organisational forms.

Polyarchical/top-down is where the market lives. Polyarchical in that competition means that there are many ways of achieving almost identical ends. Top-Down in that the control structure within the firm is pretty centrally directed ...it is also the space of federalism, where may equal units of government, each of them moderately centralised, come together to coordinate joint problems. Hierarchical Top-Down Is the space of most our politics--representative democracies establish a single structure of control, with, in reality, little choice between them Polyarchical//Bottom-up is where the techno-libertarians and anarchists live: each individual--or at most small ad hoc groups--pursues projects and purposes frequently exercising the right (and real option) to secede and fragment. Pirates, and some parts of FOSS live these lives. Hierarchical/Bottom-up is the home of the communitarians. Communities coalesce around projects--like Wikipedia--and follow strict rules that establish hierarchies and distinctions amongst participants. The difference between the top-down and the bottom-up hierarchies is that the top-down ones make a claim to the total organisation of affairs. The bottom-up hierarchies emerge as ad hoc, purposive, but not totalizing. Wikipedia is only an encyclopedia, not a way of life ...The Hierarchical/Bottom-up is often monopolistic--there is just one Wikipedia--and often competes with all the other quadrants. Wikipedia runs up against Britannica, it poaches energy from the cyber-anarchists who might become contributors and it provides the sense of meaning and belonging--or a part of it--that is the most powerful offering of the top-down hierarchies.

Next on to how the taxonomy informs cyber-policy. JZ thinks that we tend always to look for solutions to the problems thrown up by technology by moving to the top-left quadrant. Monopoly tendencies in the top right (Microsoft, Google) tend to get moved to regulatory fixes handed-down by authority (top left). When the pirates in the bottom right undermined the business models of the music industry, the industry's response was to try to find legal, regulatory and ``social engineering'' solutions. JZ flashes up one of the funniest of these attempts, this one from the UK's Department of Trade and Industry report on Intellectual Property: if you can't get DRM code to work in the hardware, wire it into the brains of tomorrow's consumers:


When Software Engineering Fails, Try Social Engineering

The same happened with PGP and the Clipper Chip and, almost, with the Domain Name system.

Similarly in our space of news-making, many people are asking how the blogosphere can be controlled, can become more responsible. Does libel have to be tightened? Does anonymity, for example of wikileaks, have to be curtailed?

JZ's impassioned cry in the face of all these attempts to move problems into the realm of authority is to ``give communities a chance''. JZ's view of the future of the Internet is that it will continue to be assailed by ills of various sorts, from malware to business interests protecting their old way of making bacon. If at every turn we acquiesce and allow the top-down ``solution'', the Internet will have demonstrated its ``self-closing'' property: the open system that shut itself down.

So there's a real weight on the shoulders of the communitarians! The anarchy of the bottom right does not produce much order beyond the small-scale, and is largely parasitic on other orders. Can communities really counter a whole-sale reversion to macro-authority?

Well, that's a question for another post. For now, let me just leave you with this thought. I was listening to Alain Finkielkraut's weekly diatribe against modernity on France Culture--this time about the nature of the surgeon's profession--and as usual, he had some very telling observations and asides. ``Communities'' he started, worrying about the myth of leaderlessness in the ``new surgery,'' ``I call them institutions. Indeed, in many ways, I would like to say that I want institutions and not communities, with all their overtones of egalitarian communes ...''

In a way, JZ is agreeing. The Communities that underpin the Communitarian Internet are full of rules. They are micro-institutions. In that respect, JZ's ``communitarian'' view of cyberspace connects with the 1970's and 1980's communitarianism of MacIntyre, Sandel and Walzer: the realization of these thinkers, who started to become hard to categorize into left or right, was that institutions made values and shaped people, and the details of those institutions made good lives possible. This marked a return to virtue ethics as the groundwork for politics.

So which code is it that makes you good? Not actually open source computer code, but the normative codes of institutions. In the cyber-world, each web-site with a community around it becomes its own polis, and it is life in the polis that makes virtue and fulfillment possible.

There we go, from Z to A, Zittrain to Aristotle in 600 words.


tony curzon price 2008-03-06
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