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 ofÂ 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?