New Political Communities

Not democrat, not republican, not socialist, not capitalist, anarchist or ultraliberal. As I said: new.

Bigeyed Scad school, Kona Hawaii

Bigeyed Scad school, Kona Hawaii. Source: Flickr.

“Politics as such is strategic action”, writes Byung-Chul Han in Transparenzgesellschaft (“Transparency Society”, Matthes & Seitz, 2014), “a secret sphere is consequently its constituting element. Total transparency paralyses it.” According to this argument, the South-Korean born philosopher would be against the principles of the German Pirate Party, which are in line with the hacker ethic and with initiatives such as Anonymous; but it is not difficult to extend this reasoning to a global framework which would include, above all, Wikileaks and its consequences. Byung-Chul Han’s defense of a secret political sphere is one of the many debatable points in his essays, in which he claims that Facebook eliminates mediation, for example, when in fact it simply makes it more complex through a mutating algorithm. If I had to choose a current book that is the opposite of Transparenzgesellschaft, I would pick Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect. The Case for Progress in a Networked Age (Riverhead, 2012). His project seems much more spot on and stimulating than that of Byung-Chul Han, who insists on the importance of the sublime and of negativity, at the expense of the masses, the ‘vulgar’ and democracy  –which cannot and should not be sublime. And this may be significant, because one of our two authors is a university philosophy teacher and the other a simple popular science writer.

But this North American who writes about popular science and technology is also a new media theorist, designs apps and promotes his own political projects. This is what his latest book published in Spain is: a very serious ideological proposal. And one that is totally consistent with the path that Johnson embarked on with his first two books, Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (1997) and Emergence. The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (Penguin, 2001). Starting with these two works in which Johnson analysed interfaces and complex systems –the ways in which human beings are creating increasingly sophisticated networks– all of his subsequent books have looked at techno-scientific innovation as a synonym of progress, with a particular focus on the history of ideas in the 18th century, which is the period in which Johnson lays the foundations of his poetics as an author.

It was almost inevitable that he would arrive at the key concept of Future Perfect: peer networks. This is how he defines them: “They are decentralised in their control systems; no single individual or group is ‘in charge’ of the system.” And he goes on to say that they are dense networks, that they involve a large number of participants with many interconnections between them; that they are diverse, with different opinions and perspectives; that they favour open exchange over private property; that they are structured in layers, with new platforms of collaboration built on top of earlier ones, and that they “incorporate some mechanisms for assigning value to the information flowing through the network, promoting the positive deviants and discouraging the negative ones, creating incentives for participation in the network, or steering the system towards certain goals.”

There are many examples: educational institutions, non-governmental organisations, neighbourhood communities, protest movements, artistic collectives. Like Byung-Chul Han, Johnson distances himself from what he calls “cyber-utopian” authors and activists and from new incarnations of the old idea of anarchy. He thinks that the left can believe in the power of the market, become part of the neoliberal system. He of course distrusts executives, advisers, monopolies, multinationals. “Unlike traditional libertarians,” he says, “peer progressives do not believe that markets are capable of satisfying all of our human needs.” That’s why there’s Google, but also the powerful example of Wikipedia. For each relative failure (Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring), there is at least one resounding success of these horizontal, participatory, electronic, human systems, such as Kickstarter, which has raised over 230 million dollars to finance more than 23,000 creative projects since it was founded in 2008: it is not “a platform for expressing outrage at the woeful state of arts founding. It is a platform for getting things done.”

There is a new, unstable, polymorphous zone in which creative communities meet their patrons, their audiences, their recreative or recreational communities (unless we are actually talking about the same communities, which swap roles according to the time of day or the week, from reading to production, funding to writing, collecting to networked creation). But more interesting perhaps are other frontier zones in which crowdfunding meets urban planning, the solution of social problems and decision making. Finnish project Brickstarter –related to Kickstarter even in name– is a platform that aims to become an interface between citizens and institutions, using the potential of new technologies (particularly apps and social media) to identify problems and seek solutions that include local residents, volunteers, investors, local entrepreneurs and public representatives. Among progressive peers. It is one of the many initiatives, scattered here and there, that support Johnson’s utopia.

Corporate structures such as Facebook are based on progressive peer logic at user level, but they are actually governed by a hierarchical, rigid, panoptical structure that seeks financial profit and controls content. “Peer progressives,” Johnson continues, “are wary of excessive topdown government control and bureaucracy; they want more civic participation and more accountability in public sector issues that affect their communities.” An involvement that ranges from the minimal (the private garden, the neighbourhood park, a school blog) to the maximal (global communication networks, the right to privacy in the age of super-servers). And that entails a proposal for radical renewal of the traditional left, in the technological context of the twenty-first century: “They want more choice and experimentation in public schools (…) They believe the rising wealth and income gaps need to be restored to levels closer to those of the 1950s. (…) They believe that the de-centralized, peer-to-peer architecture of the Internet has been a force for good and that governments or corporations shouldn’t mess with it.”

While the new left movements in Spain and Latin America are imagining themselves in terms of local bodies (assemblies) that challenge the market and that require a leader, Future Perfect suggests an intelligent, responsible use of information technologies to identify social problems, discuss them, and resolve them through the generation of localised or delocalised human networks, without pre-existing hierarchies, integrated into the dynamics of capitalism. New, profoundly political communities. Not democrat, not republican, not socialist, not capitalist, anarchist or ultraliberal. As I said: new. It is up to us to turn this possible newness into a probable reality.

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