2008-10-05»technological determinism, open exceptionalism, defensive politicisation»
Even though I end up being the person at the party who is (almost literally) contractually obliged to defend a fairly radical set of positions with regards to the Net, I’m often far more fascinated in probing other people’s views on how the Net works, and how it should work — even when they appear to agree with me. Of course, there have been alternative points of view since the Net began: it’s not everyone who was comfortable with the individualist libertarian free-speech default settings that dominated the early Net. But beyond the surface policies, I think there might be a deeper divide in expectations about the future of the net, even among believers in a common set of values. Those who believe in the positive values of having an open Internet, with unencumbered free communication, with non-proprietary solutions to most problems, often have diverging ideas about how those positions should best be defended.
The first, and earliest stance, is technological determinism, which is the stance that assumes that the technology just naturally rolls along to maximize the right degree, and kinds of freedom. The internet is genetically immune to censorship; privacy is provided by encryption, and those who don’t use it deserve to lose theirs; corrupt empires are always stupid, and always fall. If you feel this way, then you probably don’t feel much of a need to overtly defend anything, apart from in Slashdot comments. If a particular situation occurs, you might even argue that its existence gives it a kind of moral credibility (Huge privacy violation? Inevitable consequence of sharing too much online). A lot of people still hold with this position. If you become disillusioned with it, you often end up with a far more sceptical position of the Nets benefits than average. I often read critiques of the Net that starts with a personal voyage of discovery that begins with this stance, and ends with wholesale cynicism of the corporatist, ad-ridden, society-undermining filth of the interwebs. It’s also the most common position to project onto your opponents if you’re criticising “techno-utopianism”.
A modified version of technological determinism states that while the Net and allied systems doesn’t always provide positive values, it can certainly protect its best values when assaulted by alternative models. I guess the earliest model for this is the pragmatically-arguedThe Cathedral and the Bazaar. In this, open systems are presented alongside more closed systems, and it’s posited that they while there’s no inherent technological inevitability about them, their benefits are such that they can hold their own in a free market against other technological futures. There’s still a touch of determinism: Windows’ market share was always going to be eaten away a little by little by Linux; but only by virtue of the fact that Linux’ openness provided key advantages against a more closed system. AOL and TCP/IP can do battle, and AOL could win, but TCP/IP would more likely to, because its’ values of openness provided for better solutions than AOL. Call it open exceptionalism: the open solution will triumph, not because it’s right, nor because it’s built into the nature of technology, but because it has an unassailable market advantage. I think that open exceptionalism is probably the default position of the Google/Linux generation. It implies a greater degree of activity in the world in order to achieve good results than technological determinism, but not by much. It’s sort of the difference between salvation through faith alone and salvation through faith and good works.
And then you have a Lessig-like pessimism about the inevitability of those positive values. Openness is good, but the Net doesn’t always show it, and the preservation of its best attributes requires constant vigilance against vested interests that would undermine it. There’s no exceptionalism here: the Internet was incredibly lucky to reach the place it did quickly enough before anyone realised it would be a threat. It existence is a good in itself, but it can always be bent to bad ends, and may already be collapsing without us realising. We must use all our political tools to protect it, or risk losing any benefits it might once have offered us: a defensive politicisation of the Internet’s basic values.
it’s surprising how these frames of mind can put similarly-thinking people on the opposite sides of policy decisions; think about net neutrality, ISP filtering, DRM, open standards for government in any of these contexts and you’ll see what I mean. I personally oscillate between defensive politicisation and open exceptionalism.
And of course like everyone else I spend a lot of time trying to clarify the often incredibly vague ideas of “open” and “free” that muddy any of these stances.