Friday, October 7, 2011

Hacking the Warlord Complex

The Presidential campaign has been settling into full embarkation on the quest mode this week, as the pool of candidates locks in. Christie and the Rogue are staying on the sidelines. The Republican voters who would dethrone a demonized Obama have lost the possibility of a better choice than the current stable. For my adult lifetime, the Republicans have been waiting for the second coming of Ronald Reagan, and unsurprisingly, he's really dead.

Across the aisle, Democratic voters wait for the President to more emotively channel their feelings, their aspirations for proto-utopian benediction, a rekindling of that feeling they had on the night he won. Unfortunately, HOPE is a little more complicated when it is expressed through MQ-9 Reaper drones.

Meanwhile, a somewhat eclectic collection of dissenters is busy trying to #Occupy the abstraction, declaring that it is not looking for leaders. While there are things about the Occupy movement that seem pretty old school (like their admonitions to bring back the Glass-Steagall Act of 1932, which mandated segregation of investment banking and deposit-taking until its repeal in 1993, as if that were a silver bullet to kill the vampire infestation of Capital), the idea of the leaderless opposition movement is very much in tune with the Zeitgeist. Networks are the dominant organizational model of the 21st century, and they don't have heads. Perhaps that's what took the media so long to pay attention—the lack of a figurehead really hacks the master narrative (same way that the media desperately tried to elect Mohammed el-Baradei the leader of the Egyptian movement when he parachuted in from his plush life in the West).

The Presidential election season really stands in profound contrast to the movements we have seen all over the world this year. We have come to take voting for granted, as a kind of old world civic duty, structured as a consumer choice between two similar products. Coke or Pepsi? "Politics practiced as a branch of advertising," as JG Ballard noted. The liberated vigor that voting represented when it was a new freedom achieved through revolutions against capricious monarchs has degenerated into an emphysemic wheezing, as we watch our mature republics struggle to navigate a radically morphing world. Is it too heretical to question whether 18th century political structures are really up to the task of managing the 21st century world?

To me, it is self-evident that contemporary human social networks mediated by computing technology are naturally evolving to provide a more complete and participatory means for our governance, one that is likely to radically change existing republican political systems in the same way the tech boom of the 1990s challenged monolithic corporate powers tat had evolved in the 20th century. I think any development that lessens the concentration of power in any particular individual or group is a good development, one that will promote a healthier and freer society. But I also can't help but wonder: is there some inherent human need to elect chiefs that one is foolish to think can be changed? Can you really have a human society that is not structured as a pyramid with one dude at the top, expressing superior power to maintain order?

Consider the fact that, at its root, the Anglo-American legal system is based on the methods a family of nomadic warlords developed to administer the territory of England after they had conquered it under force of arms. Our property laws, largely evolved from the means used to settle disputes between the warlord's senior minions about the respective lands they were charged with running to maintain dominion. Is it really surprising when you hear the Russian intelligentsia whine about how the people don't really want democracy—they just want Putin the tiger hunter to maintain order and the pride of the nation? The fact that basically every corporation is structured like a medieval military band with a single chief at the top, only periodically accountable to the board of elders or the tribal stakeholders to whom they are accountable, says a lot about the natural order of things. Are we always waiting for the return of the King?

One can't help but wonder whether the great danger of atomizing the distribution of power through new constitutional codes of the network wouldn't just expose us more to a mob that can be manipulated by a strongman that knows how to push their buttons. Network-based movements give me great hope for the potential for a more authentic democracy. But they also make me wonder: what would Goebbels do with Facebook?


Lawrence Person said...

But of course the entire idea of the U.S. Constitution is to provide a decentralized power structure, to pit the Executive against the Legislative against the Judicial, the federal government against the states, the states against localities, so that no one power center can override the rest. This worked quite well for a while, until the Supreme Court decided in a series of decisions (of which Wickard vs. Filburn is perhaps the exemplar) that the 10th Amendment did not, in fact, mean anything at all.

This has allowed power to concentrate at the federal level, as well as in the "Deep State," the bureaucracies, joining in their crony capitalist friends in the legislature, public sector unions, lobbyists, and their backers on Wall Street, for an ongoing, permanent regulatory capture. Most classic political theory does not recognize that the staffers of government and their co-enablers are, in fact, their own special interest, a revolving door between each that perpetuates the interests of this class above all others.

I see no reason to believe that a network centric social structure would obviate this class. Indeed, looking at the groupthink in places like Slashdot and Wikipedia, I think it would be more likely to amplify it. We would go from he who counts the votes deciding everything to he who picks the moderators deciding everything.

Moderatores, qui moderari?

Chris N. Brown said...

Lawrence — Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think you are absolutely right about entrenched power elites, and about how perhaps well-intentioned erosion of federalism contributes to that entrenchment. But I don't think it really addresses the question of political disengagement by mass movements that are finding the voice through network-enabled means, be they Tea Partiers or #Occupiers. What do you think about the idea that the constitutional systems of the West are trying to evolve to a more authentically participatory mode, by using the network to achieve something closer to direct democracy? I think the evidence is there that is happening. What do you think the authors of the Federalist Papers would have to say about it?

— Chris

Ryan Michael said...

Wikipedia seems like a perfect case study in decentralization, and the fact that structure (rather than, say, ideology or charisma) is the critical element in networks. One of my favorite quotes is from Anathem "Topology is destiny". The question in my mind is what the structure of a decentralized polity would be; not only how moderators are chosen, but how conflict is resolved, how agendas are set, how efficiency is achieved, what defines the constituency, etc.

I just returned from observing #OccupyAustin and was fascinated by the lack of structure and attendant feeling of aimlesness. I started wondering about how decision-making could possibly take place in an organization with no 'membership', in which people constantly join and leave the organization, and in which there exists no canonical statement of position or even governing process.

I also wonder if government is really worth considering in the context of networked culture; it seems like (as you mention) government is inherently tied to an increasingly obsolete cultural milieu, which would imply that the structures of networked culture will emerge and evolve in parallel (rather than opposition) to existing governmental system. Which makes me wonder where the domains of each begin, end, and overlap.

Thought-provoking post...