August 2, 2006

Looking Backward - Internet Naivete

I'm sitting here near Mendocino, California at the Heritage House.  It's a very nice place to get away and relax.  I've been coming here on and off since the early 1980's.  Right now I'm looking down on the waves of the Pacific as they break across the outer rocks and come into the cove.

The nearby town of Mendocino is often used in TV and films as a New England town.

While driving here we dropped a friend off at at her house up on the ridge over the Navarro river.  Doing as I always do I scanned the books on the bookshelf and my eyes landed on a book that I had read about but had never read - Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000 = 1887.

The book is the story of a man who, in 1887 goes to sleep and wakes up in the year 2000.  The world of 2000 that he encounters is a Utopia in which all goverment, production, and enterprise is through a single industrial system that is merged with the government.  It's a begnin system that provides a safe and equal life to everyone.  But every person is channeled from birth to be a cog in this system.

The Utopia described in the book is very naive - it is a world in which individuals are coerced into rough conformity.  Career paths are predefined - there is little room for personal creativity or enterprise.  Goods and services have a Wal Mart uniformity - quite the antithesis of the hand crafted, one-of-a-kind people and things that so much populate this Mendocino area.

What struck me was how closely this kind of 1880's Utopian thinking - which is so amusing today - is mirrored in the way people think of the internet and internet governance.

We know that real life people are sometimes dishonest, and they are often avaricious or seek positions of power.  We know that the unique and different are often highly valued.  We know that people have different tastes and preferences and that people change greatly over their lifespans.  And we know that real life corporate structures tend to ossify into non-responsive bureaucracies and that the products are uniform and fungible.

Yet when it comes to internet governance we seem to forget what we know about human and corporate nature.  We look at the internet as if it were a kind of new-world, not all that different from the Utopian world described in Looking Backward.  The imagined world of the internet is full of vague, Utopian concepts - such as governance by "consensus" and revulsion when a for-profit corporation actually goes out and tries to make some money. (I'm referring here to the revulsion that is expressed when Verisign uses its position to create new products, such as SiteFinder.  Sheesh, did people think that Verisign, or any other for-profit corporation would sit still and let business opportunities pass?)

And there's all this Utopian nonsense about "stakeholders".  There is no idea in internet governance that is more pernicious than the idea that internet governance should be open to "stakeholders" and closed to everyone else.

Every person who uses the internet has a stake in the internet.

And every one of the "stakeholders" we frequently find in internet governance is really an aggregate composed of individual people.

The stakeholder idea is really a way of saying that the only thing that matters in internet governance are organized aggregations, mainly ones that have a commercial interest in the internet.  The corollary is that individual people do not count except insofar as they happen to be employees or members of some aggregate that has been gifted with the lofty title of "stakeholder".

Just as Bellamy's future perfect society forced individuals into pre-conceived channels and created a worldwide uniformity of goods and services, the present thinking of internet governance elevates industrial aggregates and subordinates the individual.  This is not democracy.  Rather it is a kind of industrial oligarchy, slightly mitigated by the presence of non-governmental organizations, in which individuals have value and voice only as members of some aggregate entity.

If we are to have democracy, representative democracy, in internet governance we must abandon the dangerous concept of "stakeholder."  Otherwise we will build a system as flawed as Bellamy's Utopia.

Posted by karl at August 2, 2006 12:45 PM