Category Archives: critique

The concept of self-organization has recently made quite a comeback and I find myself making a habit of criticizing it. Quite generally I use this blog to sort things out in my head by writing about them and this is an itch that needs scratching. Fortunately, political scientist Steven Weber, in his really remarkable book The Success of Open Source, has already done all the work. On page 132 he writes:

Self-organization is used too often as a placeholder for an unspecified mechanism. The term becomes a euphemism for “I don’t really understand the mechanism that holds the system together.” That is the political equivalent of cosmological dark matter.

This seems really right on target: self-organization is really quite often just a means to negate organizing principles in the absence of an easily identifiable organizing institution. By speaking of self-organization we can skip closer examination and avoid the slow and difficult process of understanding complex phenomena. Webers second point is perhaps even more important in the current debate about Web 2.0:

Self-organization often evokes an optimistically tinged “state of nature” narrative, a story about the good way things would evolve if the “meddling” hands of corporations and lawyers and governments and bureaucracies would just stay away.

I would go even further and argue that especially the digerati philosophy pushed by Wired Magazine equates self-organization with freedom and democracy. Much of the current thinking about Web 2.0 seems to be quite strongly infused by this mindset. But I believe that there is a double fallacy:

  1. Much of what is happening on the Social Web is not self-organization in the sense that governance is the result of pure micro-negotiations between agents; technological platforms lay the ground for and shape social and cultural processes that are most certainly less evident than the organizational structures of the classic firm but nonetheless mechanisms that can be described and explained.
  2. Democracy as a form of governance is really quite dependent on strong organizational principles and the more participative a system becomes, the more complicated it gets. Organizational principles do not need to be institutional in the sense of the different bodies of government; they can be embedded in procedures, protocols or even tacit norms. A code repository like is quite a complicated system and much of the organizational labor in Open Source is delegated to this and other platforms – coordinating the work effort between that many people would be impossible without it.

My guess is that the concept of self-organization as “state of nature” narrative (nature = good) is much too often used to justify modes of organization that would imply a shift power from traditional institutions of governance to the technological elite (the readers and editors of Wired Magazine). Researchers should therefore be weary of the term and whenever it comes up take an even closer look at the actual mechanisms at work. Self-organization is an explanandum (something that needs to be explainend) and not an explanans (an explanation). This is why I find network science really very interesting. Growth mecanism like preferential attachment allow us to give an analytical content to the placeholder that is “self-organization” and examine, albeit on a very abstract level, the ways in which dynamic systems organize (and distribute power) without central control.

There are many things to be said about Clay Shirky’s recent book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations” and a lot has already been said. The book is part of an every growing pile of Web 2.0 literature that could be qualified as “popular science” – easily digestible titles, generally written by scholars or science journalists, which are generally declaring the advent of a new age where old concepts no longer apply and everything is profoundly transformed (knowledge, education, the economy, thinking, wisdom, organization, culture, journalism, etc.). The genre has been pioneered by people like Alvin Toffler and Jeremy Rifkin and it does now dominate much of the debate on the social, cultural and political “effects” of recent developments in ICT. There is of course merit to a larger debate on technology and the sensationalist baseline is perhaps needed to create the audience for such a debate. At the same time, I cannot help feeling a little bit unsettled by the scope the phenomenon has taken and the grip these books seem to have on academic discourse. Here are a couple of reasons why:

  1. There are actually very few thoughts and arguments in the whole “Web 2.0 literature” that have not already been phrased in Tim O’Reilly’s original essay. Granted, the piece was quite seminal but shouldn’t academia be able to come up with a stronger conceptual viewpoint?
  2. The books in question are really lightweight when it comes to anchoring their thoughts in previous scholarly effort. A lot of room is given to metaphorical coupling with the natural sciences (some keywords: swarms, ecologies, auto-organization, percolation, critical thresholds, chaos, etc.) but although most of these books talk about the future of work (prosumers performing collective wisdom, in short), there is very little interaction with the sociology of labor or economic theory. Sure, a deeper examination of these topics would be difficult, but without some grounding in established work, the whole purpose of scholarship as a collective endeavor is meaningless – which is especially ironic given the celebration of cooperation one can find in Web 2.0 literature
  3. As I’ve already written in another post, I find the idea that “participation” and “leveling of hierarchies” equates democracy deeply troubling. Richard Sennett’s argument that stable social organization and work relations are necessary prerequisites for true political discourse – politics that go beyond the flash mob activism often presented as prove for the new, more democratic age that is upon us – is ringing louder than ever.
  4. Much of the Web 2.0 literature is basically antithetical to the purpose of this blog. Shirky’s idea that the new social tools allow for “organizing without organizations” is largely ignoring the political power that is transferred to the 21st century tool maker and the companies that he or she works for. I’m not advocating paranoia here, but the fact that many of the tools that power mass sociability online are produced and controlled by firms that are accountable to their shareholders only (or the people that got them venture capital) is at least worth mentioning. But the problem really goes beyond that: the tools we currently have incite people to gather around common interests, creating and activating issue publics than can indeed take influence on political matters. But politics is much more than the totality of policy decisions. The rise of issue publics has coincided with the demise of popular parties and while this may look like a good thing to many people, parties have historically been the laboratories for the development of politics beyond policy. Europe’s social market economies are unthinkable without the various socialist parties that worked over decades to make societies more just. One does not have to be a left winger to recognize that the loss of the stable and accountable forum that is the political party would be at least ambiguous.
  5. While Web 2.0 literature is light on politics and serious political theory it is not stingy with morals. The identification of “good” and “bad” effects that 2.0 ICT will have on society often seems really at the core of many of the texts published over the last few years. But as point 4 might have shown, the idea of “good” and “bad” is really meaningless outside of a particular political (or religious) ontology. What actually happens is the understatement of a vague political consensus that takes a position antithetical to the premises of critical sociology, i.e. that conflict is constitutive to society.
  6. An essay stretched over 250 pages does not make a book. (I know, that’s a little mean – but also a little true, no?)

Don’t get me wrong, many of the books I’m referring to have actually been quite interesting to read. What worries me is the lack of more scholarly and conceptually demanding works but perhaps I’m just impatient. In a sense, “Digital Formations” by Robert Latham and Saskia Sassen already shows how sophisticated Internet Research could be if we switch off that prophet gene.

The philosophical discipline of ethics is, in my view, the intellectually most daunting field in the humanities. The central problem has been identified by David Hume in his “Treatise of Human Nature”, published in 1738, and is resumed by this paragraph:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

Know as the “is-ought problem”, the change of register implied by going from a descriptive mode towards a prescriptive one, poses the question on what to found the latter. There is a necessary recourse to something non-descriptive, a system of values that cannot be stabilized by the scientific method and is therefore necessarily a terrain for permanent struggle. Value systems are, however, by no means random but deeply embedded in historic process and while the conflictual nature of the “ought” cannot be dissolved, the contents of ethical debate can be treated as just another “is”, i.e. a field of discourse that can be described and analyzed. While the specific answers we give to Kant’s question “what should we do?” may well be products of long and hard reasoning, they are nonetheless developed against the backdrop of long-standing “networks of significance” (Geertz), that is, culture.

Having grown up in a German-speaking country, living in France but also following and participating in the globalized English-language sphere of discourse, it is hard not to be amazed by the striking differences in how recent developments in technology and digital culture are framed and appreciated. I have recently attended the “Web 2.0 Politics” conference near London and in a sense the experience had the quality of an epiphany. From the perspective of a drifter like me, culture (defined in national or linguistic terms) can sometimes look like a vast assembly of automatisms and reflexes. Coming from the outside, we cannot help but see how little in culture is actually decided upon and how much seems to be simply received. This is especially true when it comes to intrinsically shifty areas like ethics and political reasoning. What struck me at this conference was how certain words seemed to pass through what one could call “automated moral preprocessing”, which would allow filing very complicated and ambiguous concepts very quickly into neatly labeled boxes, largely divided into “good” and “bad”. This is very effective because it speeds up the reasoning process and bridges the rift between “is” and “ought” without much effort. A concept like “participation” for example gets preprocessed into the “good” box and can then be used as a general-purpose moral qualifier for all kinds of technological and cultural phenomena. Online services that allow people to participate can suddenly be called “democratic” because “participation” and “democracy” are commonly filed together. This is the moment when my Germanic “me” comes to spoil the party and points to the fact that pogroms and lynch mobs are in fact quite participatory activities. The little Frenchman that has secretly taken up home somewhere in my wetware adds that “populisme” is a permanent danger to true democracy and that only strong institutions can guarantee freedom. Catholicism’s heritage is a profound mistrust in human nature. These are perhaps nothing more that worn clichés, but in my case the effect of multiculturalism is a permanent cacophony of competing automatisms that disables the “good” / “bad” preprocessing that so much of the current Web 2.0 discourse seems to fall victim to.

We seriously need to get back to understanding ethics – and as a consequence politics – as deeply troubling subjects. The usual suspects of French philosophy have become household names but their principal lesson has been washed away like the famous face in the sand: that critical thinking must look at the ground it is built on. That doesn’t mean that normative arguments should be excluded, quite on the contrary – a new Habermas is direly needed. It could mean though that Hume’s bafflement at how the “ought” suddenly seems to spring out of nowhere should trouble us, too.

I have recently been thinking quite a lot about what it means to be “critical”. At a lot of the conferences I go to, the term is used a lot but somehow it remains intuitively unintelligible to me. The dictionary says that a critical person would be “inclined to judge severely and find fault” and a critical reading “characterized by careful, exact evaluation and judgment”. I cannot shake the impression that a lot of the debate about the political and ethical dimension of information systems is neither careful, nor exact. Especially when it comes to analyzing the deeds of big commercial actors like Google, there has been a pointed shift from complete apathy to hysteria. People like Siva Vaidhyanathan, whose talk about the “googlization of everything” I heard at the New Network Theory Conference, are, in my view, riding a wave of “critical” outrage that seemingly tries to compensate for the long years of relative silence about issues of power and control in information search, filtering, and structuration. But instead of being careful and exact – apparently the basis of both critical thought and scholarly pursuit – many of the newly appointed Emile Zolas are lumping together all sorts of different arguments in order to make their case. In Vaidhyanathan’s case for example, Google is bad because its search algorithms work too well and the book search not well enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should let the emerging giants of the Web era off the hook. I fully agree with many points Jeffrey Chester recently made in The Nation – despite the sensationalist title of that article. What I deplore is a critical reflex that is not concerned with being careful and exact. If we do not adhere, as scholars, to these basic principles, our discourse loses the basis of its justification and we are doing a disservice to both the political cause of fighting for pluralism of opinion in the information landscape and the academic cause of furthering understanding. Our “being critical” should not lead to obsession with the question of whether Google (or other companies for that matter) are “good” or “bad” but to an obsession about the more fundamental issues that link these strange systems that serve us the Web as a digestible meal to matters of political and economic domination. I’ve been reading a lot recently about how Google is invading our privacy but very little about the actual social function of privacy, seen as a historical achievement, and how the very idea could and should be translated into the information age where every action leaves a footprint of data waiting to be mined. We still seem to be in a “1984” mindset that, in my view, is thoroughly misleading when it comes to understanding the matters at hand. If we phrase the challenges posed by Google in purely moral terms we might miss the ethical dimension of the problem – ethics understood as the “art of conduct” that is.

This might sound strange, but under the digital condition the protection of privacy faces many of the same problems as the enforcement of copyright, because they both concern the problem of controlling flows of data. And whether we like it or not, both technical and legal solutions to protecting privacy might end up looking quite similar to the DRM systems we rightfully criticize. It is in that sense that the malleability of digital technology throws us back to the fundamentals of ethics: how do we want to live? What do we want our societies to look like? What makes for a good life? And how do we update the answers to those questions to our current technological and legal situation? Simply put: I would like to read more about why privacy is fundamentally important to democracy and how protection of that right could work when everything we do online is prone to be algorithmically analyzed. Chastising Google sometimes look to me like actually arguing on the same level as the company’s corporate motto: “don’t be evil” – please?

We don’t need Google to repent their sins. We need well-argumented laws that clearly define our rights to the data we produce, patch up the ways around such laws (EULAs come to mind) and think about technical means (encryption based?) that translate them onto the system level. Less morals and more ethics that is.