“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.


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