Networks and democracy – a true paradox

This is a post based on the panel talk in Cairo this weekend on the Swedish embassy, which I participated in. I came a bit overprepared for the discussion, and time constraints made it impossible to cover all lines of thought that I intended to express. But, that’s what blogs are good for, I guess.

It is a common conception that the Internet in itself, as an ever more efficient and widespread technology, is a source of democracy and citizen emancipation. This type of argument not only reduces democratization to a simple matter of hardware and software, but it also fails to recognize that the Internet can be many different things, depending on what we do with it as a collective. From the flickering web pages of the web, to the deep undersea fiber cables, the Internet was built by societies, for certain purposes and under special conditions. The Internet as we know it, and live it, emerges in the intersection of technical networks and social networks; and it immediately displaces and transforms both of them.

Social networks, more commonly known as social media, are one of several ways of using the rapidly expanding technical network of the Internet to shape networks of people. These networks have the potential to transgress the confinements of other political arenas, such as political parties, institutions, or for that matter, cafés and squares in a city.

The possibility of mediating democratic change on a global level seems to be in reach, as we follow for example the circulation of news and updates across the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa, where the uprisings have seemed to spread almost virally from country to country. At least from a safe distance, the global arena has shrunk to a few milliseconds from corner to corner. Simultaneously the importance of physical places never seem to have diminished, except in the cyber-utopian dreams of corporate solutions.

This phenomenon, exemplified with let’s say the Tahrir Square in Cairo, operates not only on a symbolical level; the power of a physical place to serve as an intensifier of protests should never be underestimated. Rather, what we need is a wholly new terminology for thinking the connections and interfaces between the ultra-fast digital networks and places bound physically to time and space. The philosophically ‘dualist’ version of a real space and a virtual space has already crumbled (both the utopia and the dystopia). We are now talking instead of these relations between spaces in a much more ‘monist’ fashion, studying the connections in qualitative terms, to see how they enforce and weaken, open and close boundaries, make new events happen that were impossible yesterday etc.

Returning to the Internet and its possible ‘democratization effect’, we must first of all recognize its dependence on non-democratic entities. The services we use for creating social networks, in such services as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, are served by large-scale corporations, whose definitions of a common good remain opaque. Secondly, the Internet-mediated social networks are not yet for everyone, but depend heavily on income, education and language skills. We are not yet in a place where the Internet is for everyone, even less where everyone has equal access to it.

But on a more profound level, that of the ‘protocol’ of the network (technical or social), the internet has never been democratic (and consequently has Facebook neither been democratic, ever). The technology that drives the Internet, called packet-switching, was made in the 1960s for surviving nuclear attacks, then later on for resource sharing of expensive computational power. It was never built with any of the features of democracy as we know it in mind. Social network services, such as Facebook or Twitter, neither have much democracy built into them. They are commercial services, made to facilitate social relations which are primarily based on nepotism. It seems that we are using fundamentally anti-democratic means to pursue democracy, and this is why it sounds quite childish when people complain about ‘censorship on Twitter’. You can’t have censorship if there wasn’t any freedom of speech to begin with, and there never was in those services.

But, it could also be the other way around; maybe we aren’t using social media to make democracy, but instead, we are using democracy to be able to be anti-democratic, to be able (and have the right) to nepotism. The primary task of a totalitarian rule, to simplify a little for the sake of argument, is to destroy all social networks, except the ones that can be formalized within the State, to erect yet another ”democratic peoples republic of the people”. In a liberal line of argument, it would be rather logical to use democracy to be able to shape non-democratic networks, perhaps this is even desirable.

Instead, I think it is more useful to think the Internet, concerning its different services and networks, as things that necessarily need to be displaced before they can work in the service of democratization. Democracy is an ideal vision that we pursue by political practices, usually in the forms of constitutions, elections, and institutions safeguarding this ideal. This practice is always situated and mediated through different (non democratic) communication interfaces; be it squares, cafés, schools or Facebook. But we can not by definition invent a technology that is democratic in itself. A machine of democracy instantly turns in to the opposite of democracy; autocracy, or even technocracy.

When using the Internet for political struggles, these limitations should be kept in mind. But even more importantly, we should all reflect on what we want to create in the future. Who will control the services that we use in the future? Who controls the infrastructure? And, who decides what is a legitimate expression and what is not? When I visited Tahrir Square, there were protests and minor clashes with the police. The struggle over the square seemed, at least on the surface, to be an even fight. Protesters advanced and police retreated, and vice versa.

However, when it comes to Internet access, it is the one who controls the cables, the antennas and the protocols for routing traffic, that has a much more asymmetrical power. In comparison, it only takes a few of keystrokes to shut the Internet down, but it takes hundreds of police officers to get a few protesters to leave the square, even for a brief moment.

Will the next revolution be ”tweeted”, or will it be sparked by yet another Facebook group? We couldn’t really tell, because services come and go on the Internet. But most certainly it will be preluded by, and mediated through, the Internet. Exactly how this will be done, we do not know yet. But it is a matter of concern for all of us, and we should make sure that the possibilities global networks bring are not vaporized from our hands, but instead, that the control over them comes closer to the people using them. Only when we recognize that the most important nodes of the networks are the collective societies that we make up together, not computers or commercial services, we can maximize the political potential of a networked future.

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