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P2P Surveillance vs. the Whiggishness of Networks

Thanks to Mike for the heads-up on the Crooked Timber discussion of Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks, which finally spurred me to read (some of) the book. (Several long train rides didn’t hurt either!)

Benkler’s basic contention is that cheap, ubiquitous internet communication is advancing individual autonomy in a revolutionary way, and will continue to do so unless the ‘net is throttled by misguided policies. It’s hard to overstate the scope and ambition of WN. It genuinely aspires to the range and interpretive power of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. In its critique of hypercopyright and privatized mass media, it largely succeeds….and we can hope that the cultural policies Benkler discredits will someday seem as quaint as the mercantilism Smith attacked. Whatever issues I explore in this or other posts should not obscure my deep sympathy with the aims of the book. It takes the world-historical importance of the internet seriously–and we need only think of the ways TV revolutionized politics, or the printing press changed religion, to imagine the importance of the changes we are in for.

But my concerns with the book lie with its whiggishness….a sensibility Bruce Ackerman enthusiastically adopts in his Foundations series, and which seems endemic at Yale. The Whiggish welcome the new, seeing change as tantamount to progress. I think Benkler succeeds in showing that digital technologies are changing the world, but I doubt one can confidently assert that they will change it for the better *overall*. I’ll post a few humble challenges to the Whiggishness here, and perhaps a few more later.

Benkler brilliantly analyzes several collaborative projects where amateurs build up information in a distributed way. (Think Wikipedia.) For example, the NASA “clickworkers” program lets thousands of individuals describe extraterrestrial surfaces in a few hours of their spare time, creating a map that a single expert would have taken years to develop. We can easily imagine great extensions of this idea in map mashups, traffic websites, etc. But what would Benkler make of this program of border security–a digitized “Minutemen?” Or the internet “shamings” that have happened in China or South Korea?

Perhaps these examples are unfair. But I think they begin to suggest the diminutions in autonomy that digital technology can bring. Sure, you can have a profile on Facebook, but you’d better be sure not to publish anything that can diminish your employability! The same network that enables instant publication also promotes surveillance and control.

All this reminds me of one of Foucault’s analyses of the sexual revolution, to wit: “Responding precisely to the revolt of the body, we find a new mode of investment which presents itself no longer in the form of control by repression but that of control by stimulation. ‘Get undressed–but be slim, be good-looking, tanned!'” Hierarchical (and heteronomous) structures get translated into the very network we’d hoped would evade them.

To his credit, Benkler explores many ways of making networks and information production more egalitarian…including the creation of a wiki page on which critiques like these can be posted! But the tension between openness and privacy strikes me as a genuine antinomy. I agree that the new information networks promote autonomy in some fields, and diminish them in other…and perhaps “field” is not nearly fine-grained enough to do the inquiry justice. But I doubt we can say they are autonomy-enhancing overall. And don’t even get me started on whether “autonomy” should be our summum bonum!