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Nathan Gardels

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"Who Controls Whom?": Gatekeepers vs. Gated

Posted: 02/24/2012 10:22 am

"We hope to change how people relate to their governments and social institutions. We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time. By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored. Over time, we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few."

-- Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook IPO letter to investors

All that was solid about the established guilds, intermediaries and custodians of perception is melting into air under the assault of what David Brin calls "the age of amateurs" unleashed by Zuckerberg and the other virtual red guards of Silicon Valley. Connectivity among the newly empowered voices is unraveling the last hanging threads of authority -- cultural, social and political -- and weaving another pattern of power.

"Who, whom?" was the famous question Karl Marx asked as he set out in Das Kapital to define the power relations of the highly stratified societies of early industrial capitalism.

"Who controls whom?" is the question Twitter's Jack Dorsey has asked about our societies that are becoming ever more transparent as networks that distribute shared information equally undermine the control and authority of "gatekeepers" and empower the "gated."

As Dorsey has also noted, social media networks like Twitter or Facebook are utilities shaped by their users. This reciprocal dependence, Karine Nohan argues, creates a "fuzzy" balance of power between the utility and the user, the gatekeeper and the gated, that is ever-shifting. In the end, the gatekeepers in social networks maintain their power only through "consent of the gated."

Similarly, governments which derive their legitimacy as "servants of the people" (China) or "democracies" (the West) can be considered utilities that are forced by the transparency of shared information to be responsive to the robust feedback enabled by social networks.

Nowhere is this powershift more evident than in China. The rise there of a vast and roiling "monitory webocracy" in recent years has changed the balance of power between citizens and the party-state. What David Brin calls "sousveillance," or monitoring of the authorities from below, through weibo on every issue from tainted milk and train wrecks to air pollution and official corruption is doing in spades what Sun Yat-Sen envisioned for his proposed fifth branch of government - the "Control Yuan" aimed at catching corrupt and incompetent officials.

George Yeo and Eric Li have argued that this monitory webocracy has already become an organic part of the fabric of Chinese governance because the Communist Party uses it as an early warning feedback mechanism to correct policies that might undermine its performance-based legitimacy. By effectively processing criticism with acute responsiveness, the Party cements its hold on power. Who controls whom in such a circumstance? The gated or the gatekeeper?

Others are less starry eyed. John Keane reminds us of the multitude of censors lurking in all corners of cyberspace with Chinese characteristics searching for unauthorized keywords and regularly hauling in bloggers who persistently go too far for "a cup of tea served with fear."

No doubt both views of what is going on in China are true. What is not in doubt is that "the pendulum of power" is rapidly gaining momentum there. And that has major implications for the future if heavy instead of deft hands seize the lever of the state and try to impede the forces of gravity.

GOVERNANCE. Tempting though it may be to celebrate "amateurs like us" shaping the utility of powerful social networks, we should be no less wary than the American Founding Fathers of trading in monarchy for the mob unshackled from institutional restraints and unburdened by experience or expertise. The stodgy Framers contrived as children of the Enlightenment to put "the cool mind" of deliberative institutions (representative legislature, the non-elected Senate, the Supreme Court) between power and the direct exercise of popular will. Their aim was to avert tyranny of the populist majority as well as government by the inexperienced and unenlightened.

One-person-one-vote electoral democracy is in crisis today because short term self-interest expressed by the individual voter, unfiltered by strong deliberative institutions that have now eroded, does not collectively amount to what is in the long-term common interest for society. Retail rationality at the ballot box can easily add up to wholesale madness.

This can be seen most clearly in California, which practices the very kind of direct democracy through plebiscite that the Founding Fathers swore off after the sad experience of government under the Articles of Confederation. As the result of a series of seemingly sensible (if taken alone and from the narrow standpoint of rational self-interest) popular initiatives over the years slashing property taxes and seeking to punish criminals, California now absurdly spends more on prisons than on higher education, undermining the building blocks of its future.

The empowerment of amateurs or "Fox populi" over and against mediating elites and institutions through social networks is direct democracy on steroids. "Alerted to problems through shared information," David Brin says, "the two populisms of our present culture war -- those against liberal culture and those against the 'smarty pants guild' -- act viscerally according to pre-set modules. Then you get a whole bunch of little Nuremberg rallies across the Internet."

Without checks and balances cyber-powered direct democracy can undermine instead of bolster good governance.

In this respect, the former Italian foreign minister Gianni de Michelis is quite right that, "we need a Montesquieu of the information age."

Brin has posed some of the challenges:

• What accumulations of power are best controlled by forcing accountability on them through the new tools of transparency?
• Do we need "arenas of disputation" to deliberate complex issues and separate truth from fact?
• Do we new need social innovations to help unite and draw us together while we fly apart into a million tribes?
• Is the "cyber-enhanced" wisdom of a "smart mob" possible, where individual stupidities are cancelled out and the sum of the whole is smarter than the parts? (Opposed to the "dumb mob" in which the IQ of the dumbest members is divided by the number of members in the mob.)
• In a transparent society, can we develop an "agile meritocracy" based less on credentials than on the earned credibility of "flowing, living, breathing reputation?"

A COMMON NARRATIVE VS. DISPARATE CONNECTIVITY. While the participatory power of social networks, as we have seen in Egypt and Tunisia, can tear down authority by mobilizing diasporas of the disaffected, we have yet to find through it the means for consensus-building that can establish the legitimate governing authority required to provide for the common good and sustain society over the long-term. You can't tweet a constitution.

As David Brin points out, "Twitter and Facebook are good for simple-minded coalescing of those resolved to act. But these interfaces collapse when it comes to the enlightenment processes of reasoned negotiations and problem solving."

As we have also learned from the experiences of the "Facebook children" in Egypt and Tunisia, what matters most when it comes to sustained power is not connectivity, but a "common narrative" defined by and aligned with real social and economic interests. If users shape the utility of social media it is the narrative that shapes the users.

If at certain moments a kind of "flash narrative" crystallizes and can bring an otherwise disparate crowd into the streets, it cannot sustain them in the seats of power. That requires what Gramsci called "the hegemony of a shared worldview" -- an ideology -- that ties people together into a unified mindset and defines with authority what is included and what is excluded from the political agenda. It is what the Islamists have in Egypt today, It is what the free spirits of Facebook lack.