Sunday, October 18, 2009

Information and Power (and the apocalypse, too)

There was a element of melodrama behind Ronfeldt, Arquilla, Castells, and Benkler’s arguments this week. From Ronfeldt & Arquilla’s discussion of an apocalypse and their patriotic declaration of all the wonderful ideals America stands for (from openness, freedom, democracy, the rule of law, humane behavior, respect for human rights, to a preference for peaceful conflict resolution) to Benkler’s giddy enthusiasm for all the possibilities the Internet could provide to humanity, I started to get nervous that none of them would come back to reality and discuss the real issues going on with communication. Thankfully, they did.

While Ronfeldt & Arquilla may be years from seeing their dream of a “noosphere” realized, their call for a focus on soft, ideational power is welcome and encouraged. Perhaps recognizing their idealized view, they themselves acknowledged that all realpolitik is not bad and all noopolitik is not good – citing Al Queda’s use of the noopolitik concept in successful communication. Their general assertion, seconded by the other articles, is that information and power are increasingly intertwined, and it’s time to reconcile this relationship.

Likewise, Castells argues that “the media have become the social space where power is decided”. This power struggle is being played out in the changing roles of journalists, their media corporations, and politicians. He observes that while the 24hr news cycle has served to increase the importance of politicians for the media, it is likewise decreasing the autonomy of journalists. In the end, much as information and power are increasingly intertwined, so too are media corporations and governments. Castells offers that mass self-communication is providing a new place for social movements and “rebellious” individuals to “build their autonomy”. (I’d argue that an individual does not need to be considered rebellious to crave autonomy.)

Benkler discusses this mass self-communication in detail, praising it as a new mode of production unrestrained by physical capital requirements. While this isn’t to say that users aren’t ignoring market opportunities, that isn’t the only reason these opportunities are being created. The expenses that normally prohibited entry to certain creative markets are now shared between users. (Large websites that host mini-stores like provides a perfect example). Even as he acknowledges that “any consideration of the democratizing effects of the Internet must measure its effects as compared to the commercial, mass-media based public sphere, not as compared to an idealized utopia of how the internet might be”, Benkler’s praise for the possibilities of the internet does deserve some challenging. In highlighting the “very fluidity and low commitment required of any given cooperative relationship” and how this can increase the “range and diversity of cooperative relations people can enter, and therefore of collaborative projects they can conceive of as open to them”, are we, too, buying into the media’s “hyper” commitment to 24hour production? Just because there are increased opportunities for individuals to engage in cooperative relationships, does that make them valuable? By citing the “low commitment” required, Benkler himself indicates that we are spreading ourselves more thinly across an increased number of modes of communication. (To provide the obvious example, simply because Facebook connects us to people we may easily reach out to, does that make these relationships meaningful?) While I may reserve a slight amount of cynicism with respect to the vast opportunities offered by the Internet, I also concur much of what Benkler lays forth. As all the authors surmise: while we may not like the new ways in which communication is being used, we can’t afford to ignore these evolutions.

1 comment:

  1. I really like how you attempt to put Benkler's seeming euphoria in perspective-- it is pretty rahrah..

    And I agree with your point about the possibility and existence of empty, meaningless communications from our 'low commitment' access to each other and to information. But I think I'm going to say that the benefits by far outweigh the detriments, and that aside from twitter/facebook-update-navel-gazing, that low commitment has, as Benkler points out, allowed yet another strong, viable critique of the econ 101 concept of self-interested actors. As you point out, etsy is indeed a great example of the low-cost, small business market opportunities provided by the interwebs, but what's more significant are the non-market projects going on out there-- people floating over and adding a few lines of code or submitting their ideas simply because they want to, because they like to, with no desire for monetary compensation-- it really is something new and kind of exciting.

    Clay Shirky showed Benkler and Castells up by writing a really insightful illustration of this point and of the paradigm shifts re institutions (bricks and mortar corporations and businesses) vs collaboration (webby stuff) outlined in Benkler's intro 4 whole years ago at TED, and I feel he deserves credit for throwing his own free genius out there ;) Ok, plus, I love any opportunity to relate something to TED.