“Cyber-Collectivism,” “Cyber-Progressivism,” or What?

by on February 14, 2011 · 5 comments

The folks at Reason magazine were kind enough to invite me to submit a review of Tim Wu’s new book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires based on my 6-part series on the book that I posted here on the TLF late last year. (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)  My new essay, which is entitled “The Rise of Cybercollectivism,” has now been posted on the Reason website.

I realize that title will give some readers heartburn, even those who are inclined to agree with me much the time.  After all, “collectivism” is a term that packs some rhetorical punch and leads to quick accusations of red-baiting. I addressed that concern in a Cato Unbound debate with Lawrence Lessig a couple of years ago after he strenuously objected to my use of that term to describe his worldview (and that of Tim Wu, Jonathan Zittrain, and their many colleagues and followers). As I noted then, however, the “collectivism” of which I speak is a more generic type, not the hard-edged Marxist brand of collectivism of modern times. For example, I do not believe that Professors Lessig, Zittrain, or Wu are out to socialize all the information means of production and send us all to digital gulags or anything silly like that. Rather, their “collectivism” is rooted in a more general desire to have–as Declan McCullagh eloquently stated in a critique of Lessig’s Code–rule by “technocratic philosopher kings.” Here’s a passage from my Reason review of Wu’s Master Switch in which I expand upon that notion:

What’s perhaps most troubling about The Master Switch is something it shares with Lessig’s book: a concerted effort to redefine “Internet freedom.” In the Lessig-Zittrain-Wu construction of Internet freedom, technocrats liberate us from the supposed tyranny of the marketplace and what Lessig calls “code failure.” High-tech entrepreneurs are cast as villains; their innovations are viewed as threats to our liberties.

When challenged, Wu, Lessig, and Zittrain all vehemently reject the notion that their outlook is pessimistic. They occasionally insist that they are actually libertarians at heart. But a plain reading of Lessig, Zittrain, and Wu provides little cause for optimism. Unless someone or something—usually the state—intervenes, they warn, the Net and all things digital are doomed. “Not only can the government take these steps to reassert its power to regulate, but…it should,” argues Lessig. “Government should push the architecture of the Net to facilitate its regulation, or else it will suffer what can only be described as a loss of sovereignty.”

Wu’s book has a very concrete regulatory vision in this regard (even though, strangely, he insists it really isn’t regulation at all). As I noted in my essay last week following his appointment as a senior advisor to the Federal Trade Commission, Wu wants a so-called “Separations Principle” to govern our modern information economy. It would require that all information providers be segregated into three buckets–creators, distributors, and hardware makers–and then kept strictly compartmentalized. He proposes this in the name of keeping private power in check, which he regards as the primary threat to the information economy, not the government. This is very much in line with the thinking we see in Lessig and Zittrain’s work.  Here’s how I summarize this thinking in my Reason piece:

Wu and other progressives don’t always come right out and say it, but they often suggest that private power, however defined, is so persistently insidious that the only way to counteract it is by greatly amplifying state power. We see that yearning for a stronger state in Wu’s suggestion that “the disposition of firms and industries is, if anything, more critical than the actions of the state in controlling who gets heard” and in his audacious regulatory solutions, which would greatly enhance the government’s power over the information economy.

For these reasons, I believe the “cyber-collectivism” label is appropriate. They want to collectivize (or politicize) decisions that some of us believe are ultimately better addressed by voluntary, spontaneous, bottom-up, marketplace responses and evolving social norms.

At this point, some might ask: Do we need such labels at all? As a philosophy junkie, I think such labels and classifications play a useful didactic role. After all, something quite profound separates these different camps and leads to endless squabbles about nearly every aspect of technology policy. Consequently, my attempt to identify leading schools of thinking about Internet policy issues is not an effort to disparage but, rather, simply an exercise in philosophical classification to help us frame ongoing investigations of these issues in a more rational manner.

I am certainly open to other classification suggestions.”Cyber-progressive” might be one option that packs less of a perceived punch than “cyber-collectivist.” I’ve also used the term “cyber social Democrat” and “openness evangelicals” to describe this movement, although both labels have serious shortcomings.

As for myself, I have made no bones about my affiliation with what might be labeled the “cyber-libertarian” school of thought. Clearly, we’re a small band of brothers, and we are currently being utterly crushed in these intellectual debates by the cyber-progressives, who dominate almost all major university cyberlaw and Internet policy programs. Nonetheless, despite having so few adherents, I still think it is fair to identify cyber-libertarianism as a distinct school of thinking.

I think we’re also seeing the emergence of a clear school of thinking that we’ll eventually label “cyber-conservative,” as Jerry Brito alluded to in his post about “What Cablegate Tells Us about Cyber-Conservatism.” I think the defining characteristics for the cyber-conservative, as with conservatism more generally, can be boiled down to security, stability, moderation, and a healthy respect for tradition.  Conservatives occasionally place a high value on liberty in certain economic contexts, but when it conflicts too violently with those other principles, liberty typically gives way to planning. We see this in debates over many national security matters, some privacy discussions, and certain “faith and family” issues. Interestingly, however, conservative principles have never really taken hold in a unified or coherent way within the realm of technology policy, and it’s difficult to point to many scholars who would clearly fit under the “cyber-conservative” banner.  But I think that is changing today because of rising concerns about state secrets, cyber war, the ubiquity of content considered morally objectionable by many, fears about declining  “social order,” and so on. [See my comments on Rob Atkinson's Who's Who in Internet Politics for more discussion about cyber-conservatism.]

Do you have better labels for these philosophical schools of thinking about Internet policy matters? If so, I’m all ears.

_______________

Additional Reading:

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention “Cyber-Collectivism,” “Cyber-Progressivism,” or What? -- Topsy.com

  • Jim Harper

    A good piece, Adam, and I think it’s great to discuss the labeling of different groups, which can help advance debate or degrade it if not done carefully.

    I was struck by this claim, which I think is misstated: “[W]e are currently being utterly crushed in these intellectual debates by the cyber-progressives, who dominate almost all major university cyberlaw and Internet policy programs.”

    Certainly, cyber-progressives or -collectivists are crushing us in terms of their numbers in the academy. But what’s striking is how little currency their ideas have beyond that. They are not crushing us in the debates. The perceived need of these academics to claim libertarian motivations reflect the strength of our ideas. If only they understood the ideas of liberty through-and-through.

    Our job is to promote those ideas, which is incredibly difficult. It starts with disarming people of their ideological prejudices and then carefully articulating how liberty better reaches the ends most everyone seeks. We don’t do as good a job of that as I’d like. As you know, I worry about labeling because it tends to reinforce ideological positions rather than soften them.

  • Jim Harper

    A good piece, Adam, and I think it’s great to discuss the labeling of different groups, which can help advance debate or degrade it if not done carefully.

    I was struck by this claim, which I think is misstated: “[W]e are currently being utterly crushed in these intellectual debates by the cyber-progressives, who dominate almost all major university cyberlaw and Internet policy programs.”

    Certainly, cyber-progressives or -collectivists are crushing us in terms of their numbers in the academy. But what’s striking is how little currency their ideas have beyond that. They are not crushing us in the debates. The perceived need of these academics to claim libertarian motivations reflect the strength of our ideas. If only they understood the ideas of liberty through-and-through.

    Our job is to promote those ideas, which is incredibly difficult. It starts with disarming people of their ideological prejudices and then carefully articulating how liberty better reaches the ends most everyone seeks. We don’t do as good a job of that as I’d like. As you know, I worry about labeling because it tends to reinforce ideological positions rather than soften them.

  • Sunita Sharma

    Hello,

    My name is Sunita and I am the business coordinator at http://www.UFXpartners.com representing an affiliate/IB program of http://www.UFXbank.com a well known broker.

    I am interested in advertising on your site..I have some special offers for you.

    Please get back to me if you are interested so that we may discuss our business opportunities, please feel free to use my Skype or mail me back.

    Hope to hear from you soon.

    Regards

    SUNITA SHARMA >
    Business Development Executive
    E-Mail: Sunita@ufxpartners.com Skype: sunita.ufxpartners
    Phone: +91.761.4032917 http://www.UFXBank.com http://www.UFXPartners.com

    http://www.ufxpartners.com/images/Uploads/signature/partnersMailSeperator.jpg

    http://www.ufxpartners.com/images/Uploads/signature/PartnersLogo.jpg

    http://www.ufxpartners.com/images/Uploads/signature/JoinUs.jpg

    http://www.ufxpartners.com/images/Uploads/signature/FanPageiPadPromo.jpg

  • http://www.facebook.com/catherine.fitzpatrick Catherine Ann Fitzpatrick

    I’m interested to discover you and your blog and writings and look forward to reading the Reason piece.

    I’ve been waging the battle against cyber-collectivism for at least six years. I’ve also targeted Lessig, Doctorow, Kevin Kelly, Mitch Kapor, Doug Rushkoff for what I call their “technocommunism”. I’ve taken no end of ridicule for being brave enough to call these ideas what they are — a modern reworking of Marxism and Leninism — but given the overwhelming power of the collectivists and “progressives” and what you only call gently “evangelists” (I would call them anarchic nihilists and cynical thugs), I think it’s more than fine to label a body of thought what it is. I don’t do this lightly; I am a 30-year-long student of the Soviet Union, I speak and read Russian fluently, and have lived in Russia, and I can find many of the parallels, indeed even direct linkage between the Port Huron descendents and Red Diaper babies and today’s modern California Business Model of cyber-collectivism.

    You have to remember a basic premise of communism: the state is supposed to wither away, remember? Every cook is supposed to be able to rule the state. Well, now that’s happened, see? The Internet represents the withering away of the national security state in many respects in many places, and communism has succeeded.

    As for the notion that there are no Gulags and that’s silly, well, yes and no. In a virtual kind of way, every day thousands of geeks and coders and curators sentence people to death at dawn — the boot them from forums for critical speech; they ban their accounts; they delete the accounts and any user-generated content they have; they boot them from the virtual worlds of World of Warcraft or Second Life and don’t compensate for seized property or use due process.

    This might all seem like ‘the Internet is srs business” and “lulz” until you contemplate how much the Internet and its reputational systems are in fact taking over people’s livlihoods, and how they can lose a job over a Tweet or a Google linkage.

    Lessig (who’s awfully quiet lately, have you noticed?) has been happy to take over the state, or advise the president, or get a job in the state, because he thinks it’s his state. Same with Tim Wu and all their friends pouring into the White House, Gov 2.0 thinktanks and projects, and into the FTC and FCC. They want to take the state because they a) think its takeable b) it’s theirs.

    If it were Bush’s or McCain’s state, let’s say, passing the Communications Decency Act, oh noes, then we must rant and rave like John Perry Barlow about The Man.

    I’ve developed my thinking over this time to at first, calling for state intervention of the unfreedoms and illiberties that these collectivist represents — perhaps it was fanciful (and a Reason-like libertarianism) to think that we could invoke notions of company towns like Marsh V. Alabama to reclaim all these platforms for the First Amendment, as its the politically correct Silicon Valley influencers who control them all now. Of course the Sony case put an end to any notion of reviving Marsh, but I’ll be the first to say having the state come in, in an analogy of say, federal troops securing the desegregation of schools in the South, is a beneficial thing for universality and human rights, but if they hang around and then want to pressure other aspects of the educational system, etc. then that would militate against state’s rights.

    I’m for making a more honest broker of the FCC rather than abolishing it (although if it keeps up as it is, perhaps that call will become necessary). What I really think is doable and desirable rather than making these “philosopher kings” do all the driving for us is to have a market in First Amendment service-level agreements and a market in levels of freedom of association and freedom of speech. Don’t like incivility? Join the platform that curbs speech. Want to avoid being banned because you criticize thin-skinned devs? Sing up for the company promising never to do that without a court-order from a successful libel suit. Want to store documents stolen from the US government by anarchist collectives? Then don’t expect a mainstream company like Amazon under the rule of law with a TOS about warranting material as your own to do that for you. Go to the crappy little walk-up start-up that is willing to take the national security letters over what you feel is right. And so on. Pluralism. Free market. All those things libertarians say they are for, but which they sometimes abandon in their zeal to have just their way prevail.

Previous post:

Next post: