High-Tech Democracy?


Many advocates of information technology claim it brings greater democracy. This optimism is naive if blindly accepted. Information technology must be managed at every step by citizen oversight. The role of new technology will be largely determined by how democratized our institutions are before it is implemented. Remember, technological discoveries come into existence willy-nilly often to the surprise of inventors and society alike. However roles for the technology are chosen.

This then becomes a 'which came first, the chicken or the egg' question. If the institutions and history have been for the most part undemocratic, then it seems very unlikely technology will democratize institutions.

Democracy has an implied 'participatory aspect,' but what about technology, shouldn’t it have a 'participatory' dimension to it? Maybe the lower the participation in one lends itself to a lower participation in the other.

History would suggest that no, democracy is not going to be helped along by technology. So it is an encouraging surprise that our contemporary world has the ultimate example of participation in technology: the open source movement. This movement is known for its massive number of participants, the size of the projects and wide use of the software it produces. People who write software do so for free, and users have free access – a cashless production-consumption cycle! The talking heads who claim new technology will lead to greater democracy may be right, but perhaps not in the form their advertisers intended.

The open source movement is a component of a larger paradigmatic shift towards technological innovation and use shaped by populism rather than top-down state/corporate social engineering. The terms 'decentralized' and 'distributed' characterize open source and free software in every stage – creation, production, promotion and use. Decentralization is a powerful buzzword because it has everything to do with the tactical success of a populist movement over state or corporate control.

In the early to mid-20th century large, systemic, electronic technologies were the province of the Pentagon and a few corporations such as AT&T. Since the 1980s, with such things as personal computers and online communities, some information technologies slipped out of the state/corporate centralized control. This was most likely unintended, and the more authoritarian members of the business and police sectors have been regretting this ever since. This network-information paradigm is more about distributed intellectual capital than it is about concrete technology – routers, computers, etc. It is by nature people empowering. But there are at least two obstacles to the people being empowered by the network paradigm.

One threat to the decentralized network paradigm is business. The more business gains control of the network the less powerful and less functional the network and information become for the public. To be fair, this definition of business as antagonistic is self-imposed by the monopolistic outcomes it seeks.

Another threat to this network paradigm is unavailability, the 'technological divide.' One area where we have a real revolution in closing the economically created technology divide is in recycled computers running linux. After the big consumerist orgy of the last ten years in which so many people bought computers, combined with how Microsoft Windows is designed to need the newest hardware, has caused a glut of old computers thrown into dumpsters. Organizations are snapping up these old computers, installing linux on them and giving them to poor kids and then following up with education, including computer science, programming and awareness of the social dimensions of networking. This is a real revolution. Thousands of urban poor kids communicating with each other in a hacktivist agenda is a serious threat to the corporate system. Rather than using an expensive computer solely in the process of earning or spending a paycheck, the hacktivist on a free computer using free software to pursue personal or community enrichment places a gaping hole in the corporate fabric.

This is not the entire revolution; these brilliant young urban hackers are merely a part of it. The revolution involves creating ways to step out of the profit motive, corporate-dominated system.

When people step out of the cash economy (alternatively called the corporate system) politicians and corporate CEOs lose money and more importantly lose control of the masses. Most often this stepping out of the cash system takes the form of self-sustenance – growing food and making the basics such as shelter and clothing. This is an empowering stance to take, but it is a closed system (by intention) and all of the empowerment is directed inward. When network users and programmers step out of the cash economy something else happens. It is an open system, not just open but an exponentially growing open system – where the commodity is spread in a non-deterministic pattern over time and space to an unknown amount of addressees, and then each addressee can modify, replicate or amplify the message and send it out again.

Self-sustenance kills corporatism locally. Populist network-informationalism kills corporatism and colonialism universally. Network-informationalism was a military technology/strategy implemented in 1969. Popular belief claims it was designed so that the corporate culture could survive a nuclear attack by a Communist super-power. Now the people of the global anti-capitalist movement, the real Communist super-power, have the network weapon, and we can survive any attack from the corporate super-power.

We live in a time with very recent unprecedented populist victories using networks. The Chiapas indigenous people’s war of resistance was the first anti-global-capitalism networked war. The people of Chiapas were the winners. The Seattle anti-WTO protests in November 1999 were another famous instance where a new complex level of populist uprising occurred called swarming. As of this writing, the Iraq uprising that began in April 2004 could become a second occasion like the Chiapas war in which a global network of anti-capitalists engage in and support on the side of the Iraqi general population.

Networked-informationalism will not feed or clothe us, it is the systemic method by which the oppressed will coordinate to circumvent or nullify institutions that would prevent us from feeding, clothing, educating and governing ourselves.

--Lance Miller can be reached through his website at .

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