Decentralization, democracy, and rationality

by Sebastian Benthall

I got into a conversation involving @billmon1, Brian Keegan, and Nate Matias on Twitter the other day. I got so much out of it that I resolved to write up thoughts on it in a blog post. It’s appropriate that I get around to it on Martin Luther King Jr. day, since the conversation was about whether technology can advance social and democratic ideals, a topic I’ve been interested in for a long time.

Billmon (I don’t know his real name–not sure how I got into this conversation in the first place, to be honest) opened by expressing what’s becoming an increasingly popular cynicism towards those that look to social media technology for political solutions.

Now, I’m aware of the critiques of the idea that social media is inherently democratic. But I this claim, as stated, is wrong in lots of interesting ways.

The problem is that while social media technologies can’t be guaranteed to foster liberal, democratic values, decentralization and inter-connectivity of communications infrastructure are precisely the material conditions for liberal democracy. State power depends on communications, if the state can control the means of communication, or if citizens are so disconnected that they cannot come together to deliberate, then there is no place for an independent public to legitimize the state institutions that control it.

This isn’t a novel or radical position. It’s a centrist argument about the conditions of liberal democracy. However, it’s a position that’s presently under attack from all sides. Will Wilkinson has recently written that “liberal” statist critiques of Snowden and Wikileaks, who were essentially acting in accord with interests of independent public media, are being cast as “libertarian” boogeymen for what are essentially liberal principles. Meanwhile, the left is eager to attack this position as not democratic or radical enough.

A number of these critiques came through in our conversation. And since I’m writing the blog post summarizing the conversation, naturally I won all the arguments. For example, Billmon pointed out that Facebook is itself a mega-corporation controlling and monetizing communication with political interests. But that’s just it: Facebook is not inherently democratic because it is under centralized control and does not promote inter-connectivity (EdgeRank is great for filter bubbles). Contrast this with Diaspora, and you have a technology that supports a very different politics.

Brian Keegan came through with a more conservative argument:

Keegan is way right about this. Because I’m a pedant, I pointed out that populism is in accordance with the democratic ideal. But I hate the tribalist mob as much as anybody. That’s why I’m looking for ways to design infrastructure to enable communicative rationality–the kind of principled communication that leads to legitimate consensus among its diverse constituents. Keegan pointed me to Living Voters Guide as an existing example of this. It’s a cool example, but I’m looking for something that could integrate better with communications infrastructure already used on a massive scale, like email or Twitter.

The problem with bringing up Habermasian rationality in today’s academic or quasi-academic environment is that you immediately get hit by the left-wing critique that came up in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Cue Nate Matias:

He’s right of course. He also pointed me to this excellent actual by Nancy Fraser from 1990 articulating ways in which Habermas idealized bourgeois masculinist notions of the public sphere and ignored things like the exclusion of women and the working class counterpublics.

Reading the Fraser piece, I note that she doesn’t actually dismiss the idea of communicative rationality in its entirety. Rather, she simply doesn’t want it to be used in a way that falsely “brackets” (leaves out of the conversation) status differences:

Now, there is a remarkable irony here, one that Habermas’s account of the rise of the public sphere fails fully to appreciate.8 A discourse of publicity touting accessibility, rationality, and the suspension of status hierarchies is itself deployed as a strategy of distinction. Of course, in and of itself, this irony does not fatally compromise the discourse of publicity; that discourse can be, indeed has been, differently deployed in different circumstances and contexts. Nevertheless, it does suggest that the rela- tionship between publicity and status is more complex than Habermas intimates, that declaring a deliberative arena to be a space where extant status distinctions are bracketed and neutralized is not sufficient to make it so.

(This is her only use of the word “rationality” in the linked piece, though poking around I gather that she has a more comprehensive critique elsewhere.)

So there is plenty of room for a moderate position that favors decentralized communications organized under a more inclusive principle of rationality–especially if that principle of rationality allows for discussion of status differences.

I’m personally happy with the idea of keeping irrational people out of my town hall. Otherwise, as Billmon points out, you can get people using decentralized communication channels to promote bad things like ethnic violence. This is already in fact the status quo, as every major social media host invests heavily in spam prevention, effectively excluding a class of actors who are presumed to be acting in bad faith. I’ve suggested elsewhere that we should extend our definition of spam to exclude more bad actors.

This opens up some really interesting questions. If we are willing to accept that there is an appropriate middle ground between centralized control of communications on the one hand and demagogue-prone chaos on the other, where should we draw the line? And how would we want to design, distribute, and organize our communications technology and our use of it to hit that sweet spot?