Monday, May 15, 2006

Socialist Software

Ulises asks, "But how do we challenge the hegemony that has been coded into the technology?"

The important step is to recognize that it has in fact been coded into the technology, which means that the challenge to the hegemony can also be coded into the technology.

My own view is that a denser and more distributed network of connections acts directly counter to the hegemony, because it lessens the influence and importance of the central nodes. This is the view I try to advance in Community Blogging.

In particular, the sorts of network applications that will promote just such a network can be, again in my view, identified via four salient properties:
- autonomy - they empower individual users
- interaction - they foster peer-to-peer connections between users
- openness - anybody can read anything, anybody can write anything
- diversity - a multitude of technical, social and political systems is supported
These are just my rough characterizations; I would not say that this is the definitive list, but this is an approximation of what the list would look like. I argue for this list in Connective Knowledge.

The answer to the question posed in this essay, therefore, boils down, in my view, to this: we build and select and use software that instantiates the four principles, and where possible, we foster and encourage the use of such software in our institutions.

It will be very difficult for the hegemony to resist the use of such software, for the principles it embodies are fundamentally democratic principles, which means that efforts to oppose such software will appear more and more authoritarian (as does, for example, the recent campaign against social software).

2 comments:

  1. As a great example of a politically coded technology, take a look at Beer's work in Chile under Allende:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/chile/story/0,13755,1037547,00.html

    Beer is interesting, as he explicitly links technology, organisational management, and political ethics.

    So Beer (and Flores) would certainly support openness as a critical factor in a coordination channel, but not peer-to-peer, as this causes a coordination problem where there are numerical imbalances - it prevents transduction. Allende (RIP) couldn't communicate the needs of the Chilean state to each of the workers in individual conversations - he had to amplify his policies on the one hand, and attenuate the voices of individual people, or be swamped by data and paralyzed into inaction.

    I like the types of network you describe, but I think we have to be careful of over-generalizing from one type of channel. (e.g. The autonomous, peer2peer, open, diverse network is ideal for encouraging reverberation across distributed groups, but isn't ideal for coordination).

    However, your basic thesis - that the properties of the network has political value - is one I can definitely agree with, and we shouldn't be surprised by some of the negative reactions.

    I'm more surprised by the positive reactions from people in education, as essentially the properties you've described are in many ways supportive of a deschooling approach. Maybe there are more closet Illich fans out there than we realize :-)

    The trick, I think, is in the other types of channels - for example, the politics coded into the community blogging-style network can be interpreted in either a socialist-liberal way or a right-wing libertarian way.

    The characteristics of the channels used to coordinate and amplify collective action, as opposed to reverberating culture and ideas, would I think show something more fundamental. And be a good place to target: http://www.systemdynamics.org/conf1999/PAPERS/PLEN1.PDF

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  2. The stuff on Stafford Beer is fascinating; thanks for the links.

    I am less convinced of the need to "coordinate and amplify collective action."

    In the sort of network I describe, there is sufficient communications to allow a message to be quickly transmitted from end to end, provided that people are willing to transmit the message.

    Anything over and above that implies that there will be some people who have a privileged capacity to send a message, in such a way that they can circumvent the willingness of people to pass it along.

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