Exiles on Main Streets

Every once in a while, my friend and editor Micah Sifry and I get into a conversation about the power and influence of networks. Micah, the optimist, is one of those who thinks that a new politics of Liberal engagement is going to spring up from all this knowing one another. I’m more inclined to think that the power that individuals can exercise on networks isn’t always a source for what Liberals would define as “good.” I’m a lot more convinced that the self-reliance of Libertarianism will triumph.
On Sunday, we got a look at this conversation from another angle when Jeffrey Rosen’s “The Unregulated Offensive,” appeared in The New York Times Magazine. It’s a wonderful – and scary – look at a group of dedicated conservative legal scholars who are working to overturn the theories and supports that justify the existence of almost every U.S. regulatory agency out there, from the Federal Communications Commission to the Environmental Protection Agency. This Libertarian-inspired movement isn’t a trivial one; in fact it’s cutting-edge legal theory. And it shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s strength – conscious or not – comes from an increasingly common belief on both sides of the political spectrum that government cripples individual’s rights. It can’t be a coincidence that this belief is rising up at the same time that on-line activity – the ability, say, to IM someone in Beijing – is increasing individual’s power to control their economic destiny. I know a little bit about this last part first-hand. You’re reading the results.
The two ideas – the increasing interconnectedness of things and the belief that property rights are a personal right guaranteed by law – don’t seem connected at first blush if you don’t live in Silicon Valley. But consider this: Tom Friedman, in the appearances I’ve seen to promote his new book “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century” places great emphasis on the Internet allowing individuals to act for and by themselves on a global stage. That’s why he says the world is flat.

So when I read stories like this Times magazine piece I want to shake optimists like Tom Friedman until they know more about the world they’re embracing with such enthusiasm. Individual power unchecked is not necessarily a good thing in and of itself. And the assumption that the 19th Century social and legal values we have in place will survive this move to a globally connected world isn’t a well-founded one either them.
The simple truth is that all this networking has consequences that we as a society don’t fully understand or appreciate. That’s why the optimism that Friedman espouses – among other things he insists that wars are less likely between nations that do business together – is often silly. For starters, people have been known to fight over money. Anyone who lives on the net understands how quickly it’s power can be turned against one person.
It’s this sense of the dangers that come from sacrificing control that lie behind computer geeks’ talk about open source systems. Some of the embrace of open-source is idealistic, a belief in collaboration and co-operation. But some of it is also cynical in its appreciation of the ways in which power can corrupt. Open source fights power with transparency, which – socially and in a host of other ways — restrains individual power. Friedman likes open source because it sounds nice and appears to grant ultimate freedom; besides everyone in Silicon Valley thinks it’s cool. But it’s better to like open source – which the Constitution in Exile folks would probably regard as an abridgement of property rights – as a policing system.
Writing in Slate on Monday, Robert Wright, one of the few East Coast guys to draw the line between a globally networked economy and Osama Bin Laden’s success on 9/11, doesn’t hit this point in his friendly review of Friedman’s book. It’s an odd omission because Friedman has embraced it in his TV interviews, probably for the shock value inherent in talking about Ben Laden as a savvy international businessman. But it’s a point worth thinking about. Because for all the talk of democracy spreading via commerce and trade and how our form of government prevents war and fosters international harmony, there’s something less attractive: the belief that the individual – with all his rights as he defines and sees them – should triumph. And that power is a dangerous thing, more dangerous now than ever.
Belief in the superior power of the individual to rise up and fight what he sees as oppression is not something to be taking lightly in a world where the exercise of that power is easier than it’s ever been. Anyone who stresses on the power of individuals and the minimization of the state’s authority needs to address this point. Few are. The Constitution in Exile movement instead – like Friedman but for different reasons — places a naïve faith in the power that interconnectedness gives individuals the opportunity to police themselves as social cohorts or groups.
The reality, I suspect, might be much grimmer. Open source thinking – collaborative, co-operative — wouldn’t stop a Bin Laden or whatever group next grows up on the network. Nor will the current approaches which ignore the realities of networks and try to assert order the old fashioned way: with tanks, guns and soldiers. Open source isn’t perfect and it can be corrupted but it does make folks who insist on control and domination easier to spot. It also applies a kind of peer pressure that inhibits bad behavior. Friedman’s optimism about individual rights has the opposite effect because it seems to assume changes in how we conduct ourselves will have only limited effect on how we govern ourselves. His glowing view of globalization is the panacea dished out to an interconnected world of folks who don’t really understand the consequences of abandoning the power of the state and putting their faith in the force and mobility of self-organized networks of like-minded individuals. And it has also, as Wright points out at great length, been unfairly dismissed by the Left as defending oppression rather than describing a new reality.
Open source is not a cure-all as Geeks entering politics would have you think. It’s true implementation means that almost everyone involved has to sacrifice a great deal of control. That’s why so many businesses have such a hard time with peer-to-peer file sharing and other on-line activity. Politicians, regardless of party, aren’t much better. But what’s truly disappointing is that no response to this genuinely new world order – other than lip service to decentralization or flattening — seems to be rising up to answer the conservative movement Rosen details or to the optimism espoused by Tom Friedman. Together, these two attitudes can be a dangerous cocktail. Because this isn’t just a conversation about healthcare benefits or immigration or job security, the things that politicians have gotten bogged down with as they try to come to grips with new economic realities. It’s not about data mining and privacy or chat rooms filled with pedophiles, whether blogger or journalists or if peer-to-peer is stealing.
It’s a little bigger than that. It’s a conversation about how we’re going to behave in a network and interconnected world. This conversation – which should be a political and policy discussion — goes to the heart of questions about responsibility networked societies have for and to all their members. There’s a big risk in placing too much faith in the individual – and his or her actions – and not the network. That’s really what open source is all about. But getting there – man, that’s going to take work. Not to mention faith.