Imagined [Network] Communities

In the last days there has been a debate between Larry Lessig and Kevin Kelly about how to “name” the governance of network societies. Kevin Kelly proposed “new socialism” which Larry Lessig found irresponsible. Everyone and their grandmother (incl. me) chipped in with alternative names ranging from anarchy to participatory democracy. It might make sense to step back and take the macro-historical view.

It was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) that gave us the toolkit to think about the “historical” phenomenon of nationalism:

Nationality, nation-ness, and nationalism are cultural artifacts whose creation toward the end of the 18th C was the spontaneous distillation of a complex ”crossing” of discrete historical forces; but that, once created, they became ”modular,” capable of being transplanted to a great variety of social terrains, to merge and be merged with a variety of political and ideological constellations.

He then went on to define nationalism as an imagined political community, imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow- members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. […] In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to- face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined. The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation in the way that it was possible, in certain epochs, for, say, Christians to dream of a wholly Christian planet. It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. Coming to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions, and the allomorphism between each faith’s ontological claims and territorial stretch, nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gauge and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state. Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

This way of thinking clearly outlines the types of questions we need to ask of network societies. We first need to look for discrete historical forces that are being distilled and are becoming modular and then we need to develop a definition of the form of collective life. Here are my candidates for historical forces:

Pattern Recognition. XML stands for the separation of form and content that allows us to exchange data between different databases. With automatic data-generation and aggregation (Google search, the Amazon recommendation engine, etc.) we can make relationships visible and create values in ways not possible before. By mashing up automatically generated and aggregated data with collaboratively produced information (geo-mapping like Google Earth), we develop a new depth of  understanding our worlds.

Collaboration platforms. The idea of allowing users to simply manipulate content radically changes our conception of production. In order to work, such a platform must be simple enough that contributions can be modular and granular. Wikipedia clearly shows that this can work.

Self-publishing. Tools that allow us to self-publish and have universal access to self-published content changes how we perceive cultural production.

Social networking. Different social networking platforms have different aims (making your social graph actionable, expanding your network, finding expertise, living communal life), but all lead to different conceptions of how we understand society. The contract metaphor that our nation state system relies on is challenged by the network metaphor.

This is a first cut and I am not sure if it is exhaustive, but it delineates the main discrete historical forces behind the phenomena that we often refer to as Web 2.0. The question is what we will want to name a society based on the distillation of these forces and how we can define it. Imagined? Unlimited? Not-Sovereign? …What do you think?

About Philipp

Philipp Müller works in the IT industry and is academic dean of the SMBS. Author of "Machiavelli.net". Proud father of three amazing children. The views expressed in this blog are his own.

01. June 2009 by Philipp
Categories: Blog | Tags: , , , | 11 comments

Comments (11)

  1. jenniferamiksch@aol.com'

    Why isnt’t it simply called “New Democracy”?

    Everyone has the right to participate, nobody is excluded. But besides the fact that it is by “those who favor government by the people” it is no system in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them.
    People do not have to vote in favor of something- they can chose whatever they prefer immediately. All by themselves.

    • Thank you for the comment! I think what you would be thinking of is participatory democracy. I personally am not persuaded, because what you are describing is so far from what we have come to expect from democracy so I think we should give it a new name.

  2. jenniferamiksch@aol.com'

    Why isnt’t it simply called “New Democracy”?

    Everyone has the right to participate, nobody is excluded. But besides the fact that it is by “those who favor government by the people” it is no system in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them.
    People do not have to vote in favor of something- they can chose whatever they prefer immediately. All by themselves.

    • Thank you for the comment! I think what you would be thinking of is participatory democracy. I personally am not persuaded, because what you are describing is so far from what we have come to expect from democracy so I think we should give it a new name.

  3. ethersong@gmail.com'

    Isn’t there more than one dynamic at work here? I commented quite a lot through the Wired article (as etherfire) but the responses I got were all rather befuddled in my opinion. I see that you are a professor of public policy so I would say you have much more knowledge on the subject so it’d be good to hear what you have to say particularly on the subject.

    After reading the article I tried to get a handle on the ideas of socialism and fascism over at my blog here:http://nearlyempty.com/culture/socialism-and-fascism-defined-we-have-some-of-both/ With my limited knowledge this is the best that I could characterized some extremely misunderstood political concepts. If I am not correct on those accounts, I’d like some feedback (it’d be helpful for the discussion).

    If I am correct in my characterization then there are two things at work: the level of statism and the level of communitarianism. In your assessment here you focused on the idea of statism and the identity that is formed together as a group and as a state. I also tried to tackle some of this over here: http://nearlyempty.com/culture/thinking-local-in-a-global-world/ but it is by from complete in my mind.

    So we have a few dynamics at work: nationalism, communitarianism, and then also the economic organization like you also mention above. These three dynamics all indicate a different political aspect and they are all being changed by the things Kelly was getting at. Likewise, all three concepts are tied up in the classic forms of socialism, fascism, and democracy. It seems like every political system deals with all three aspects, but, to be more particular, every formation of government at any given time deals with the three elements differently.

    The radical thing Kelly was pointing out is the way these dynamics change in revolutionary ways with the rise of the internet. For example (and correct me if this is completely wrong), for a good part of history the movement towards an emphasis on community came at the cost of liberty so that they formed opposite sides of a spectrum. For example, the implementation of public schools was for the benefit of the community (an essentially socialist endeavor) at the expense of individual liberty (now we’re all forced to go to school). So almost every gain for the community came at the expense of liberty, which culminated in extreme forms of socialism being extremely repressive (thereby leading to the misconception today that socialism is necessarily repressive). But now, this new form of “socialism” that Kelly is talking about is radical because it allows for communitarian efforts to be formed without a loss to personal freedom–or at least with much less loss.

    If this concept is true it may mean that socialism can finally fulfill it’s somewhat unspoken dream, to quote Kelly:”to maximize both individual autonomy and the power of people working together.”

  4. violetta.pleshakova@gmail.com'

    Although the concept of new socialism has a certain appeal to me, I have to admit that it does not describe the social changes that we are witnessing fully and comprehensively. In fact, it does grasp some important traits and components, but the new socialism does not equal all the changes we see. It seems that new socialism can describe only part of it. To label a change, a totally new concept is needed.
    But..after all I’d rather agree with Kelly than with Lessig.

  5. justuslenz@gmx.de'

    What about “second order democracy”?

  6. justuslenz@gmx.de'

    What about “second order democracy”?

  7. azhcba@yahoo.com'

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