Law in the Internet Society

The perils of smug optimism

There is nothing more disgusting than smug optimism. ---V.I. Lenin

-- By LizzieOShea - 30 Oct 2015

As power relations begin to ossify in our networked society, activists and critical thinkers are faced with an opportunity and a challenge. A world of unparalleled potential is within the grasp of humanity. Central to this possibility becoming reality, a new class of people is coalescing; this is a future generation in which considerable social and materialist power will reside. But like a proverbial Western tourist in foreign lands, most of us cannot even be bothered to try and speak their language. We prefer to patronise geeks, like reactionary incarnations of luddites. But on our watch, a world is being built with catastrophic power concentrated in the hands of a few, while the many are left in a squalor that should be a relic of history.

The traditional left thinking

The engagement of the left with the politics of internet society has had its moments. Certainly, the left is talented at deconstructing state power and cataloguing the virtues of privacy. This has been politically productive, generating movements of activists across traditional divides. Unholy but necessary united fronts have been built between libertarian ideologues and democratic socialists. Together we have begun to craft a narrative that undermines the necessity of state surveillance, drawing on a good amount of somewhat unctuous Orwellian imagery.

But while showing devotion to civil and political freedom, the left is less interested in the question of genuine liberation. A society that is built on and around a network of computers is a society of considerable – really, unprecedented – potential. It creates a possibility of vastly more efficient production, power generation, transportation and less waste. It means that people will have access to better healthcare and education. It is a future of abundance; the opposite of the one of deprivation that too many seem to think is inevitable (whether explicitly or otherwise). There is a reason we call it a hive mind. But contrary to the derogatory implications of such a term, there is something noble, impressive, exciting about this analogy. We have a lot of gain from cultivating swarm intelligence.

But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. This kind of optimism, adopted in its most vague sense, creates a troubling tendency: a kind of technological determinism takes over. It is analogous to a problem among climate activists, which takes the form of shortcut solutions via geoengineering. This is the exact kind of thinking that has dominated leftist analysis of infotech politics. It represents a lazy form of pessimism, forsaking the possibility of genuine emancipatory change through diligent movement building in favour of deferral and dilettante ignorance, paradoxically giving rise to a form of smug optimism.

The opportunity

There is a choice between socialism and barbarism. But that is a choice we are going to have to fight for. This choice comes at the zenith of a transformation is not unlike what occurred during the industrial age, when Marx wrote: ‘Not only have we here an increase in the productive power of the individual, by means of co-operation, but the creation of a new power, namely, the collective power of masses. This power, and how it is harnessed and exercised, will have a significant impact on how this particular conflict between productive forces and productive relations is resolved.

But this is not the usual Marxist concept of class. Information technology creators are arguably a new kind of class. They are a minority with the power to create highly valuable capital, but also to destroy its value. They have the capacity to dictate the direction of human endeavour, and the offer of handsome remuneration for doing so. But they also have the power to untether technology from its proprietary fetters and expose the emperor in his horrific nakedness.

Among this class is where we need to have discussions and debate about what a free society looks like, what potential for human liberation is on offer. Among this collective power, we can build the spectre haunting Europe (and other seats of power and privilege), we can be part of the awful roar of the ocean’s many waters, we can build the little things from which big things grow.

The apiary demonstrates that bees make decisions using swarm intelligence democratically. Democracy is not about consensus. Just like a sustainable future is not about depravity. In bee democracy, “the process is built upon disagreement.” How do we put into practice in a networked society?

The challenge

The aim is to win the opportunity to ask these exciting questions. But there is the antecedent battle that must be won to be able to ask them. Here, the left faces a challenge. Hacker culture and the coding community – if there is such a thing – has not grown from existing political culture, it is altogether a modern phenomenon. The world of geekery is an unsettling place for people from the world of social, legal and political activism. Credibility derives from such things as knowledge of classical mythology and literature. Such movements prioritise anonymity, autonomy and diffuse activity, which certainly has its benefits, especially when confronting certain foes. But the movement is also less about leaders or structures that facilitate organisational responses. Despite bringing some brazen, impressive guerrilla tactics to internet activism, it is clear that there is internal resistance to this politicisation. As such, there is much that is uncomfortably divisive and unfamiliar.

But this kind of tech-anarchism is just one part of the equation. Parts of the movement are also emerging with great vim and more orthodox design. For these organisational structures to meaningfully collaborate with and even lead the creator class, activists and critical thinkers must actively engage with the movement. So many of those involved in fighting for freedom in a network society are fiercely anti-establishment, motivated by curiosity and a commitment to do no harm. These ideas are the lifeblood of left traditions. These ideas are a unifying force that should mean that movements for digital democracy, in its truest form, are the natural home for radical leftists.

Optimistic but realistic

Traditional left critiques or power and property actually have a lot to offer in the context of understanding and transforming internet society. The overreach of government power is perhaps more clearly a problem to many in the digital age, so it is no surprise that this misuse of the power has inspired a string of whistleblowers (such lack of surprise does not negate their immense bravery). But is it possible to imagine a day in which we defend equivalents of Edward Snowden, prepared to reveal the widespread, insidious wrong that Facebook is doing to and on the internet? Would any member of the creator class gainfully employed by Microsoft be prepared to tell the truth about the NSA key, or any other skeletons hiding in proprietary closets? Will there be a class of creators who realise that proprietary interests are a millstone around the neck of human potential?

The job of activists and critical thinkers is to inspire such resistance. The job of lawyers is to offer a structure for the creator class: to create, agitate and strive to maximise the benefits of a networked society for the many. Critically, if we want to encourage these kinds of truth tellers, we must commit to defending them when they speak to power.

It will not be easy. But the work of building movements to challenge power never are. The good news is that now more than ever we have a chance of winning.

The point, I take it, is that scientific socialism welcomes the transformation of human society in the direction of higher efficiency and better equality in the division of welfare, set against the caste implications of hive structure if not of hive mind, and as always somewhat ambivalent about civil liberties to the extent that they reinforce existing privilege.

So the places to look are clear enough: (1) how to ensure a commitment to human equality, in which the self-development of each is the self-development of all, rather than a system of "customized" regimentation that rewards with immortality the privileges of those who control those who control the machines; and (2) how to instantiate respect for the inviolable civil liberties of individual human beings in a system whose technological realities deny the fragile human sense of free will?


Webs Webs

r3 - 11 Nov 2015 - 05:11:06 - LizzieOShea
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