T.I.A.A.*: Voting, The Internet & Democracy

If voting chaged anything
I have been taken aback today by the number of people tweeting or texting me to check that I have voted.
This is a really interesting phenomenon.

I don’t think I can recall as many people putting out the call to become politically active before.
But what’s the driver for this? Is it public disenfranchisement with the political status quo following recent political scandals?

Or is it something much broader – perhaps the trend that people are becoming more and empowered in everything from purchasing decisions to political choice?

There’s probably a bit of both at play and I believe (of coruse!) that this is being catalysed by the Internet. But while the Internet is perhaos galvanising these emotions, their roots lie deeper in the drive for accountability (thus transparency) and a fundamental desire for empowerment – both political (with a small 'p') and personal.

These thoughts were most recently crystallised in a presentation on the Internet and democracy I delivered in the Isle of Man, which – funnily enough – is the world’s oldest, continuous parliamentary democracy.

What follows is blog short-hand for many rambling, overlapping and unexplored ideas knocking around in my head so please excuse any non sequiturs!

I began by looking at two great scholars of the Internet and the Information Age: Manuel Castells and Yochai Benkler.

To grossly précis and paraphrase the pair, Castell’s argues that networked organisation in society is greatly reducing the validity of the state, government and political parties; Benkler argues that the Internet is creating a new ‘commons’ enabling peer production of economic and cultural good and increasing democratic freedoms.

Put together we can plot major faultlines opening in the traditional role of institutions (state, government, political parties and even NGOs) to govern and conversely significant opportunities emerging for individuals and communities to self-govern.

Or rather not 'govern' as we traditional conceive of it as 'governing' implies a hierarchical organisation that uses power over others to achieve organisation.

I appreciate that non-hierarchical organisation is not as simple as this sentence implies (the Tyranny of Structurelessness' for starters – although I also believe the Internet can help overcome this** – see below if you're interested) but the idea of self-organisation has a much more deep-rooted basis than that espoused by Clay Shirky.

What we perceive as contemporary political democracy originates more or less in the Enlightenment and is best exemplified by Jurgen Habermas's vision of the 'public sphere' where civil society was created by consensus.

However, contemporary French philosopher, Jacques Ranciere, has ideated a vision of democracy that is rooted in dissensus, rather than consensus. For Ranciere, consensus is not true democracy, but rather compromise based on the way civil society is framed by its historical institutions e.g. the state, political parties, NGOs, etc.

This is what brings – eventually – back around to 'real' democracy and the Internet. Ranciere sees democracy as unmediated – direct connections between individuals or even loosely affiliated, affinity groups. Does the internet help people achieve this?

It was Jeff Jarvis who wrote (in The Guardian) back in early 2006 that:

"The internet … disaggregates elements and then enables these free atoms
to reaggregate into new molecules; it fragments the old and unifies the
new. So in the end, the internet gives us the opportunity to make more
nuanced expressions of our political worldview, which makes obsolete
old orthodox"

Is this not dissensus-based politics? And is it not potentially driving a societal shift towards a world where people want political engagement and democracy to be on an individual level? Without party politics and ingrained corruption and unchecked power? I dunno. I'm only asking!

* T.I.A.A. – There is always an alternative: my interpretation of Thatcher's T.I.N.A.

** The Tyrany of Structurelessness (TToS) – For those interested I believe that the paradox inherent within (my reading) of TToS could potentially be (and, indeed, is) overcome by the Internet and self-organising, horizontal networks. The original issue in TToS was that attempts to create a structureless (i.e. non-hierarchical) organisation in the physical world became undone as groups spend there efforts at creating a structureless organisation, rather than achieving anything through that structurelessness.

However, as the Internet in instrumentally structureless, any organising done using the Internet is inherently structureless also. Therefore it removes the need to artificially create a structureless organisation allowing the group to organise non-hierarchically and achieve things.

Tags: democracy, elections Tyranny of Structurelessness, Jacques Ranciere, Jurgen Habermas

Am I the only person not to finish Here Comes Everybody?

This may be somewhat controversial, but I can’t bring myself to finish Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody.

It may be this year’s bestseller, but I am struggling to find anything new or ground-breaking between the covers. Admittedly, there are a couple of anecdotes or examples I find interesting enough to dog-ear the page, but the number of dog-eared pages is low.

As I’ve read the book some ideas I can’t help but feel I’ve read before. The chapter ‘Sharing Anchors Community’ has some dog-earring but both David Weinberger and Yochai Benkler have covered off the Internet’s challenges to institutional ecology from a more social and economic perspective.

Likewise, in the chapter Publish, then Filter, Shirky explores the idea that with massively decreased production and storage costs (specifically, the cost of publishing content via blogs) the Internet changes the media model whereby barriers to creating content disappear giving everybody (from the book’s title?) a chance to compete with hitherto professional creators/publishers etc.

I admit I’m simplifying here, but the idea the Internet is re-shaping human knowledge and the ways in which we interpret the world around us based on the growing digital (dis)order is explored in much more depth in Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous. See my review for a bit more about this.

Writing about the book in response to Felix Stalder‘s review in Mute magazine, I suggested that HCE is a business book, rather than a study in digital sociology or emerging digital economics.

A colleague suggested that idea to me independently when he remarked that “like all business books, it could have pruned to about five pages.”

I have to agree. There’s a lot of homely anecdotes which frankly I just find are filler. And that’s why I’ve given up two-thirds of the way through.

 What do others think? Am I being too unforgiving?

Technorati tags: Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, business books

Clay Shirky Responds to the Copyright Issue

A few weeks back I blogged about a fascinating review by Swiss academic Felix Stalder of the social media book of the year, Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody (HCE).

I won’t rehash the full review, but in a nutshell Stalder points out that while HCE reveals how the social web ‘cannot be contained in the institutional structure of society’, Shirky fails to address how this unbeliveably transformative emerging collective/social power is challenged by the centralised systems on which the social web primarily operates.

At the core of these systems is the default tool used since the very earliest days of the industrial revolution to protect IP: copyright.

This, to Stalder, represents a “structural imbalance” or “tension” which he believes Shirky misses. Stalder goes as far as to say Shirky misses this deliberately as he consults with precisely the centralised media businesses in whose interest copyright functions.

As fortune would have it. I had the opportunity to put this question to Clay Shirky via Faster Future’s, David Cushman.

Here’s what he had to say:


Having watched the video a couple of times my reaction is that Shirky doesn’t really offer a robust defence of Stalder’s criticisms. To argue that he never intended on HCE covering the copyright debate is a bit of a cop out IMHO. Copyright/DRM is a major issue, couldn’t a passing reference explaining the ommission have been made?

I also think that Shirky derails Stalder’s argument by arguing that copyright is only an issue for media and broadcasters. This seems to imply that Stalder is criticising only the unauthorised (re)use of entertainment content when in fact Stalder is raising rather more broad questions about the ability of centralised systems (broadcasters, governments, pharmaceutical companies, etc) to control the social web.

That said, I don’t believe that Shirky avoids the copyright debate deliberately. Rather, it is a testament to HCE’s quality as a *business book* that has perhaps helped shape the route down which its narrative travels.

With this in mind, Stalder has perhaps opened another route down which the narrative can travel. Now all we need is for someone to explore that route and perhaps turn it into a bestseller.

*UPDATED* Since posting this I’ve discovered that Doc Searls has flagged Laurence Lessig’s Saturday column in the Wall Street Journal which calls for urgent changes to US copyright legislation – although copyright isn’t a major issue, remember 😉

Technorati tags: Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, Felix Strader, Copyright 


*UPDATED* Markets, the credit crunch, uncertainty and a social solution

Heard on Radio 4 this morning:

The market hates uncertainty.”

While most analysts and investment bankers would agree this is a truism, it is no doubt a problematic statement when it becomes clear that the idea of perfect market systems operating in a vacuum of efficiency and equilibirum is inherently false.

You could argue that those of us working in PR – particularly digital and social media – have been able to recognise this quicker than others.

Indeed, I think this is what Umair had in mind with piece on Next Gen Business Strategy.

Linked with this is a video interview with Clay Shirky by Faster Future’s David Cushman.

In it Clay addresses the current financial instability as an “interested amatuer” and thinks about how the financial ‘system’ might look in the future with community enabled micro-financing initiatives – such as Zopa or Prosper – supported through social and peer-to-peer lending.


As a footnote, it is worth noting that systems-based thinking is not alien to the field of communications: James Grunig built his four models of communication on systems theory and others in turn critigued his work for ignoring the ‘human’ elements within communication. You can download an evaluation of the debate Grunig vs Pieczka (pdf)I have written previously if you’re interested.

*UPDATE* Rainier Stephen Waddington has posted showing Zopa’s lending remains strong and asks: ” whether the current financial crisis has created an artificial bubble for social lending schemes or whether they are set to go main stream?

Technorati tags: Credit Crunch, Umair Haque, Clay Shirky, David Cushman, James Grunig

Clay Shirky and The Heart of Darkness – Copyright and Here Comes Everybody

I’ve seen a load of good reviews for Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody published earlier this year and I have to confess I haven’t yet got around to reading it (spare review copy anyone?).

However, by far the best review I’ve read came to my attention this week in the journal Metamute (“culture and politics after the Net”).

The first half of Felix Strader’s review follows the well-worn path trodden by other reviewers. It outlines Shirky’s basic premise and uses a couple of his case studies to illustrate these points.

But it is the second half of the review where Strader really reveals the gaping hole at the heart of the book:

For a book that claims to analyse a revolution that ‘cannot be contained in the institutional structure of society’. we get extremely little on politics or power. […] This lack of depth is the result of the single most problematic aspect of the book. It focuses almost exclusively on aspects that are entirely uncontroversial.”

Stalder uses this gaping void to explore what he calls the “tension” at the heart of web 2.0. This tension exists between the growing number of decentralized ‘amateurs’ creating and contributing value and content to the network and the spaces in which this creation unfolds which are largely centralized and possess vested interests in maintaining control over the public spaces online.

This has a number of clear implications that Stalder believes Shirky must be aware of but keeps quiet about; perhaps given his role as a consultant to the same companies.

As a result, the book’s one glaring omission is about the battle over copyright and DRM:

Tussle over copyright? Reading Shirky, you wouldn’t know there is one. This is probably the most glaring absence. Number of entries for copyright in the index of the book? Zero! In my view, this is inexcusable because it cuts right to the core of why ‘boring technologies’ are currently so ‘socially interesting’. File sharing, in particular, demonstrates most clearly the power of ‘organizing without organization’ so radical that, for the moment, nobody knows how to contain it within current institutional structures. Number of entries on P2P or file sharing in the index? Again, zero!

This omission is a monumental failure on Shirky’s behalf and “an indication”- to Stalder  at least – “of how constrained discourse has become, particularly in the US.” Damningly, Stalder concludes that this narrow view of the power and potential of Web 2.0 is “Self-censorship at work.”

While this makes total sense, I can’t offer a critique as I haven’t read Shirky’s book. Rest assured it’s an issue I want to return to once I have.

Technorati tags: Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, Felix Strader, Copyright, DRM