This morning, twitter network delivered a bit of a red herring argument due to lack of differentiation between the internet and the web. So it helps to say first what is internet and what is web (these are not proper official definitions but will have to do for the purposes of this post):
The internet is a set of open protocols that have given rise to a specific type of network – a heterarchy. By heterarchy, in this case, I mean a network of elements in which each element shares the same “horizontal” position of power and authority, each playing a theoretically equal role.
The wikipedia article also points out that heterarchies can contain hierarchical elements and DNS is an example. But an (infra-)structural heterarchy such as the internet ultimately undermines hierarchies. I often paraphrase what John Gilmore famously said: The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it – replacing censorship with control.
This feature of a heterarchical network:
…no one way of dividing a heterarchical system can ever be a totalizing or all-encompassing view of the system, each division is clearly partial, and in many cases, a partial division leads us, as perceivers, to a feeling of contradiction that invites a new way of dividing things.
- is the internet’s greatest advantage. Built into the fabric of the internet is the ability to bypass missing or ‘damaged’ nodes and so imposition of hierarchical structures is incompatible in the long run – such control is perceived as an obstacle and therefore damage*.
The above is the ‘defence mechanism’ of the internet as a network. Now the ‘offense mechanism’ or better yet, the disruptive one:
What makes the Net inter is the fact that it’s just a protocol — the Internet Protocol, to be exact. A protocol is an agreement about how things work together.
This protocol doesn’t specify what people can do with the network, what they can build on its edges, what they can say, who gets to talk. The protocol simply says: If you want to swap bits with others, here’s how. If you want to put a computer — or a cell phone or a refrigerator — on the network, you have to agree to the agreement that is the Internet.
The web, on the other hand, is a network of platforms and silos, with many intermediaries. Some of them have considerable ability to control large chunks of it in ways that would not be possible on the open network that the internet still is. Facebook and any platform based around control and management of my data spring to mind, regardless of how much ‘use’ or functionality they provide.
Still, even on the web, hierarchy is not the defining organisational structure though closed platforms undermine openness of the web as a whole. There are overtones of feudal serf-lord relationship – you can farm my land in exchange for tithes and/or working for me (just substitute platform and data and you’ve got the current relationship between users and Facebook etc).
That said, there are emerging orders on the web which structurally can be described as power law and socially/politically sometimes as meritocracy. So not all order is automatically a hierarchy.
Another fallacy is due to the term democracy having two meanings. Those who argue that the web is a force for democratisation often use them interchangably which can lead to confusion about the nature of democracy online.
Democracy as open access i.e. right to and equality of voting – one man, one vote (though sometimes it’s not hard to see the one Man with the one Vote) and democracy as rule of the majority. The web is strongly driving the first meaning of democracy – anyone can connect (assuming sufficient resources such as a device and internet connection) and interact online. I can set up an email (communication tool), a blog (publishing platform) and twitter (distribution network). Pretty powerful and heady stuff considering that in the offline world all three capabilities are very expensive and highly controlled and controlable.
Democracy as a rule of the majority is not applicable to the internet or even the web. Nobody tells me what to write on my blog or who I connect and interact with. There is no General Will or Greater Good that would dictate or subjugate my actions online… though social pressures and technical limitations make this a far cry from a utopia.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the argument that the internet (or the web) is being used and abused by various government to oppress their citizens. How is that evidence of either the internet or the web being hierarchical? If it is evidence of anything, it is of the effectiveness of online in distribution and management or monitoring of data… and governments’ eventual catching up with those capabilities.
As Alec pointed out in an IM conversation about this – would those citizens be any more free or less oppresssed without the governments (ab)use of the internet? I don’t think so.
The real problem with countries using the internet to oppress its peoples is not in the ‘virtual’ world – they wouldn’t be able to control that any more than the rest of us can – it is in their access to its infrastructural underpinnings.
The use of hackers and cyberwar techniques against other countries by Russia and many other countries is not a sign of governments’ control of the internet either. Such techniques are not limited to governments and can be (and sometimes are) applied to the government.
Finally, I do take issue with the concluding paragraph of the blog post that sparked off this rant:
The exaggerated claims of those who say the internet is inherently a destroyer of organisations and hierarchies or that it is bound to lead to greater democracy and collaboration are an unhelpful distraction from the important study of the internet’s real impact on real lives.
The claims that internet is inherently a destroyer of organisations and hierarchies are not exaggerated, they are based on understanding of the nature of the internet as a heterarchy. As long as that is unassaulted, the internet will be able to re-route around censorship, control or hierarchies as damage.
That said, none of this can or should be taken for granted. The web does reflect our mental models of organisation, social conventions and power structures. However, it is build on an infrastructure – the internet – that has already profoundly shifted balances of power, brought about phenomenal technological innovation and is currently having a go at social and organisational conventions. Let’s give it a hand where we can by keeping protocols, data and technology as open as possible.
*An important proviso – the underlying infrastructure of the internet has to remain open and not in the hands of some mega-hierarchy such as government, directly or via telcos.