the technical political spectrum?

by Sebastian Benthall

Since the French Revolution, we have had the Left/Right divide in politics.

Probably seven or so years ago, some people got excited about thinking about a two-dimensional political spectrum. There were Economic and Social dimensions. You could be in one of four quadrants: Libertarian, Social Democrat, Totalitarian, or Conservative.

Technology is getting more political and politicized. Have we figured out the spectrum yet?

Because there’s been a lot of noise about their beef, lets assume as a first pass that O’Reilly and Morozov give us some sense of the space. The problem is that there’s a good chance the “debate” between them is giving off a lot more heat than light, so it’s not clear if there’s a substantive political difference.

Let me try to take a constructive crack at it. I don’t think I’m going to get it right, but I’m curious to know how much this resonates and if others would map things differently.

A two-dimensional representation of the continuum of technical politics, with unscientifically plotted representatives

A two-dimensional representation of the continuum of technical politics, with unscientifically plotted representatives

Some people think that “technology”, by which most people mean technology companies, should be replacing more and more of the functions of government. I think the peer progressives are in this camp, as are the institutionalized nudgers in the UK Conservative party, who would prefer to shrink the state. There’s a fair argument that the “open government” people are trying to shrink government by giving non-state actors the ability to provide services that the state might otherwise provide. Through free flow of information and greater connectivity, we can spur vibrancy in civil society and perfect the market.

Others think that the state needs to have a strong role in regulating technology companies to make sure they don’t abuse their power. There’s a lot of that going around in my department at UC Berkeley. These people see that democratic state as the best representative of citizen’s interests. The FTC and Congress need to help ensure, e.g., people’s privacy. Maybe Morozov is in here somewhere. Monopoly concentrations of technical power are threatening to the public interest; technical platforms should be decentralized and controlled so that politics is not overwhelmed by an illegitimate technocracy.

Another powerful group, the Copyright lobby, is economically threatened by new technology and so wants to restrict its use. Telecom companies would like to effectively meter flow of information. Maybe it’s a stretch, but perhaps we could include the military-industrial complex and its desire to instrument the Web for surveillance purposes in this camp as well. These groups tend to not want technology to change, or to tightly control that technology.

Then there’s the Free Software movement. And Stanford’s Liberation Technology folks, if I understand them correctly. And maybe Anonymous is in here somewhere. Pro-technology, generally skeptical of both state and corporate interests.

So maybe what’s going on is that we have a two-dimensional political space.

In one dimension, we have Centralization versus Decentralization. Richly interconnected platforms managed by an elite with tight arrangements for data sharing, versus a much more loosely connected set of networks where the lines of power are less clear.

In the other dimension, we have Unrestricted versus Controlled. Either the technical organizations should be free to persue their own interests, or they should be regulated by non- (or at least less) technical political forces, such as the state.

What do you think?

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