Progress doesn’t just ’emerge’
By championing spontaneous collectivism, internet geeks and gurus are giving up on human agency.
Many commentators claim that the internet is reinvigorating civil society and mass, or rather ‘grassroots’, politics.
The editors of the recent Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace describe ‘an emerging grassroots potential and willingness to work for social change in the network society’. The prominent technology journalist Dan Gillmor’s new book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People, concerns ‘journalism’s transformation from a twentieth-century mass media structure to something profoundly more grassroots and democratic’ (1).
Because the internet allows so many diverse people to communicate and collaborate, it lends itself to the idea that collective activity is preferable to individual activity – by mere virtue of being collective. Technology guru Howard Rheingold, the man behind the concept of the ‘smart mob’, expresses his hostility to individual endeavour in a contribution to Shaping the Network Society: ‘We need to think about a new way to think about technology…. The solution must be collective – another Descartes or Newton will not be good enough this time.’ In the same book, editors Peter Day and Douglas Schuler flag up ‘the notion of civic intelligence not as an abstract concept but as an organic and living project’ (2).
This emphasis on the ‘organic’ aspect of civil society – not to mention the ironic distaste for the ‘abstract’, from writers who are all too fond of using abstractions – chimes with the wider use of biological, environmental and evolutionary metaphors in debates about technology’s impact on society. This kind of language is not only employed by lofty academics; it has been embraced by the business world too. In his new book Word of Mouse: The New Age of Networked Media, veteran media industry executive Jim Banister even argues that as a consequence of technology, ‘we are…evolving into a different species…. We are becoming Homo telanimus, “a living or conscious web of man”. As individuals, we are humanodes, a single node within that web.’ (3)
What’s behind this strange jargon? The idea that the collective is automatically superior to the individual is a distortion of democracy, which in its proper sense is hostile neither to the collective nor the individual. Rather, democracy embodies the various means through which collectives made up of individuals deliberate and govern themselves.
Also the democratic process, as traditionally understood, is purposive – it involves society debating and seeking to achieve particular objectives. The new social formations celebrated on the internet are, by contrast, purposeless; the biological metaphors used to describe them suggest that they develop according to some natural logic, external to human agency.
The term that best sums up this idea is ‘emergence’, which has been borrowed from the fields of evolutionary biology and chaos and complexity theory, and is now routinely used to describe the supposedly benevolent way that the internet shapes society. ‘Emergence’ conveys the idea that collective behaviour, which is complex, derives from individual behaviour, which is simple. From this perspective, collective behaviour is not attributable to any individual’s specific intention or will, but rather derives from some greater purpose whose true nature is obscured. Coincidentally, this is a fairly good description of a religion.
One writer who has popularised the use of the term ‘emergence’ is the technology guru Joichi Ito. His influential paper on ‘emergent democracy’ proposes ‘a method for citizens to self-organise to deliberate on and address complex issues…without any one citizen being required to know and understand the whole. This is the essence of an emergence, and it is the way that ant colonies are able to “think”‘ (4).
Insects such as ants are locked into performing specialised functions, within a more complex system that they are oblivious to, because this is the most effective way for such simple organisms to survive. Ito and his colleagues suggest that human beings aspire to organise their society in the same unconscious way as ants are organised in an ant colony.
If ‘the essence of an emergence’ is, as Ito says, that we no longer be ‘required to know and understand’ the systems within which we move, then emergence is directly opposed to enlightenment and progress. The essence of these human projects is the pursuit of a conscious understanding of the world we inhabit, that we might transform it for the better.
Theories of emergence are generally hostile to this kind of insight and deliberation, instead making a virtue of spontaneity. The intelligence driving emergence is attributed either to the anthill-like totality of unthinking ‘humanodes’ (to use Jim Banister’s term), or to the technology we use to communicate.
A popular saying among techies (coined by the counterculture figure Stewart Brand) is that ‘information wants to be free’, implying that information has a life of its own beyond what humans do with it. Similarly, Banister asserts in Word of Mouse that ‘media technology is on an evolutionary march toward being networked because systems want to be networked’ (5). These things can be invested with an autonomous role in the world, only because theories of emergence have denuded humans of any such autonomy.
Emergence is not a useful category for seeking a rational understanding of the world. Its purpose is fundamentally irrational; it makes life easy for those who study society and technology, because it means they no longer have to substantiate their assertions. They can get away with attributing significance to any phenomenon, simply by claiming that it is ‘emergent’. Day and Schuler admit in Shaping the Network Society that ‘it is too early to state with certainty that the initiatives we introduce here are representative of a transnational civil society movement’, but they still claim that these initiatives are ‘indicators of an emerging grassroots potential and openness to social change in the network society’. They also declare proudly that ‘our goals are diffuse, impossible to specify precisely, and possibly contradictory’ (6).
If this rhetoric sounds familiar, that’s because it is the same rhetoric used by the new anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation and anti-war movements to argue that their diffuse character and lack of clear principles are strengths rather than weaknesses – or, to use the technological argot, features rather than bugs. The term ‘grassroots’, used to convey the democratic credentials of these new social movements, fulfils a similar purpose to the term ‘emergence’. It comes across as granting power to the multitudes, but is actually about relinquishing responsibility for ideas and actions and submitting to the spontaneous.
One of the initiatives discussed in Shaping the Network Society is the Independent Media Centre, or Indymedia, an anarchic online network which originally emerged from the anti-capitalist/anti-globalisation protests in Seattle in 1999. Indymedia participant Douglas Morris explains that ‘Indymedia expresses media democracy…through open publishing. Open publishing means that anybody with access to an internet account can post news…to any of the network newswires.’ (7)
Such absence of central authority allows Indymedia to act as a ramshackle international forum for publishing seditious material and organising protest activities, while evading legal responsibility and frustrating attempts at regulation. This lack of any clear responsibility recently prompted drastic intervention by officialdom, when 20 of Indymedia’s websites were closed down and two of the servers used to host its websites were seized – reportedly by the FBI acting on behalf of the Italian and Swiss authorities (8).
Of course the censure of Indymedia, in many ways a test case in determining the way that free speech is being limited on the internet, should concern anyone who supports free speech. But even as we defend Indymedia, we should also take a critical look at what use this network is putting free speech to, if any.
Despite Indymedia’s avowed aim of pursuing ‘radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of the truth’, its exclusion of any central authority from its activities precludes it from formulating coherent objectives. As Morris points out in Shaping the Network Society, Indymedia ‘has repeatedly failed in attempts to develop networkwide decision-making and planning processes’, because ‘the criticism has been made that the ongoing role of a small group of organisers performing key tasks centralises power’ (9). The only foolproof way for Indymedia to preserve its philosophy of collectivism with no prescribed purpose, would presumably be to purge itself of ambitious and successful individuals.
One might be tempted to dismiss Indymedia as a fringe phenomenon, but in We the Media Dan Gillmor makes a case for the principles of grassroots internet journalism being adopted by the mainstream news media. He argues that ‘the technologies of tomorrow’s news are fuelling something emergent – a conversation in which the grassroots are absolutely essential’.
Most notably, Gillmor disparages the idea of the journalist as an authority on their subject, insisting that journalists should be self-deprecating by nature: ‘I take it for granted…that my readers know more than I do – and this is a liberating, not threatening, fact of journalistic life. Every reporter on the beat should embrace this.’ He goes on to explain that he welcomes corrections and feedback from his readers, and that ‘being the least knowledgeable person in the room has its advantages; I always learn something’ (10).
While it’s important for journalists to be open to criticism, Gillmor’s suggestion that they should profess ignorance goes further than this. Conveniently for him, it absolves journalists from having any responsibility for getting their facts straight in the first place. But hard facts are not Gillmor’s principal concern – instead, he revels in the unreflective immediacy of online reportage.
Gillmor recalls how the internet helped to make 9/11 more tangible to him, when on the day of the attacks he was emailed a link to a satellite photo of ‘an ugly brown black cloud of dust and debris hanging over much of lower Manhattan’. It’s difficult to see what insight he might have derived from that image; he simply admired its emotive power, urging us to ‘imagine Rodney King and Abu Ghraib times a million’. The nadir of his book is his reverie regarding how 9/11 might have been reported, if its victims had been in possession of better technology: ‘What would we remember if the people on the aeroplanes and in those buildings all had camera phones? What if they’d been sending images and audio from the epicentre of the terrorists’ airborne arsenal, and from inside the towers that became coffins for many?’ (11)
We the Media, far from being the radical manifesto it would like to be, is a celebration of some of the worst characteristics of contemporary journalism – sloppy reportage that goes for maximum visceral impact, encouraging prurience and voyeurism in its audience instead of contributing to intelligent reflection. Gillmor, a would-be champion of new media, does technology a sad disservice when he identifies these tendencies as its distinctive contribution to journalism.
The internet and related technologies are potentially very useful tools for the pursuit of quality journalism. But they can only fulfil this potential if we impose more rigorous standards than can be found in what Gillmor calls ‘tomorrow’s emergent, self-assembling journalism’ (12). By definition, quality journalism cannot be ‘self-assembling’ – it has to be assembled by skilled writers and editors.
Like Gillmor’s encomium of emergent journalism, the broader celebration of emergence serves to obscure what is most positive about internet technology. The technology is used as a pretext for the surrender of human agency, when in truth the technology’s true potential lies in its being used in the service of human agency.
Not all of the contributions to the discussion of emergence are uncritical. Sociologist Tiziana Terranova complains, in her verbose but occasionally insightful book Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age, that ‘the science of multitudes has definitely given up on the individual, which it dismisses as an epiphenomenon that is simply too coarse and rigid to be more than a byproduct of emergence’. She also notes the lethargy of a technology sector that revolves around people’s informal activities and hobbies, pointing to ‘the overreliance of the digital economy as such on free labour, free both in the sense of “not financially rewarded” and of “willingly given”‘ (13).
Such critical reflections are rare. More common is the sentiment that all we need to do, in order to use the internet to our best advantage, is to submit to the chaotic patterns that emerge from our playful use of it. As Jim Banister argues, ‘eventually, collective consciousness within networked media will evolve to the point that it surpasses collective ignorance – a collective conscience, if you will’ (14).
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Ignorance cannot be overcome, nor progress maintained, through this passive stance; these things were hard won by our historical predecessors, and they have to be continually fought for. The natural process of evolution may have supplied us with the bodies we inhabit, but it is we who have taken things forward from there – developing, among countless other achievements, medicine with which to combat infirmity, transport with which to traverse the globe, electrification with which to power our technology, and yes, the internet with which to communicate.
We could just drop the baton and leave it at that, using the internet as a playground in which to be indolent humanodes, letting things emerge as they will from now on. Or we could live up to our potential as human beings and take the next step in the march of progress.
Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace, ed Peter Day and Douglas Schuler, is published by MIT Press (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People, by Dan Gillmor, is published by O’Reilly (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). Word of Mouse: The New Age of Networked Media, by Jim Banister, is published by Agate Publishing (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age, by Tiziana Terranova, is published by Pluto Press (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
Another debate is possible, by Francis Boorman
Computing communities, by Martyn Perks
Going global: the politics of another planet, by David Chandler
(1) ‘Prospects for a new public sphere’, Peter Day and Douglas Schuler, in Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace, ed Peter Day and Douglas Schuler, MIT Press, 2004, p354; We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People, Dan Gillmor, O’Reilly, 2004, pxii
(2) ‘What do we need to know about the future we’re creating?: technobiographical reflections’, Howard Rheingold, in Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace, ed Peter Day and Douglas Schuler, MIT Press, 2004, p259; ‘Prospects for a new public sphere’, Peter Day and Douglas Schuler, in Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace, ed Peter Day and Douglas Schuler, MIT Press, 2004, p374
(3) Word of Mouse: The New Age of Networked Media, Jim Banister, Agate Publishing, 2004, p108+. Commenting on the use of evolutionary and biological metaphors to describe technology, Joe Kaplinsky reminds us of ‘Charles Darwin’s most important insight – that evolution by natural selection has no goal’. Getting to grips with the grid, by Joe Kaplinsky
(4) Emergent democracy, Joichi Ito et al, 1 October 2003. See Whose election is it anyway?, by Sandy Starr; Computing communities, by Martyn Perks
(5) Word of Mouse: The New Age of Networked Media, Jim Banister, Agate Publishing, 2004, p81. See the Stewart Brand section of the WELL website
(6) ‘Prospects for a new public sphere’, Peter Day and Douglas Schuler, in Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace, ed Peter Day and Douglas Schuler, MIT Press, 2004, p368, 370
(7) ‘Globalisation and media democracy: the case of Indymedia’, Douglas Morris, in Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace, ed Peter Day and Douglas Schuler, MIT Press, 2004, p335. See the Independent Media Centre website
(8) See FBI and other legalbreaking news, on the Independent Media Centre website
(9) About Indymedia, on the Independent Media Centre website; ‘Globalisation and media democracy: the case of Indymedia’, Douglas Morris, in Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace, ed Peter Day and Douglas Schuler, MIT Press, 2004, p337-338
(10) We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People, Dan Gillmor, O’Reilly, 2004, pxiv, 113
(11) We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People, Dan Gillmor, O’Reilly, 2004, p20, 49
(12) We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People, Dan Gillmor, O’Reilly, 2004, pxvii
(13) Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age, Tiziana Terranova, Pluto Press, 2004, p122-123, 93-94
(14) Word of Mouse: The New Age of Networked Media, Jim Banister, Agate Publishing, 2004, p121
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