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Hard copies of The Desktop Regulatory State are now available at Amazon.
The Countervailing Power of Networks and Super-Empowered Individuals
February 28, 2012 36 Comments
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March 30, 2011 6 Comments
The subject of my previous book — The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low Overhead Manifesto — was the way in which falling capital outlays required for both information and material production was eroding the rationale for large organizations, and shifting the balance of power toward individuals, small groups and networks. In particular, I focused on the radically reduced capital outlays required for manufacturing were giving rise to a low-overhead micromanufacturing economy in which the large quantities of land and capital to which the privileged classes had access were becoming increasingly irrelevant, and the material basis for the factory system and wage employment was collapsing.
In this book, my subject is how the same phenomenon is empowering individuals against the large, powerful institutions — both state and corporate — that previously dominated their lives. The implosion of capital outlays associated with the desktop revolution, and the virtual disappearance of transaction costs of coordinating action associated with the network revolution, have (as Tom Coates has said) eliminated the gap between what can be produced within large hierarchical organizations and what can be produced at home in a wide range of industries: software, publishing, music, education, and journalism among them.
The practical significance of this, which I develop in this book, is that many of the functions of government can be included in that list. The central theme of this book is the potential for networked organization to constrain the exercise of power by large, hierarchical institutions in a way that once required the countervailing power of other large, hierarchical institutions.
Traditionally, the power of the large corporation was explained by the large amounts of capital required for manufacturing, broadcasting or publishing. Such large amounts of capital meant that only the very rich, or a very large aggregation of rich people, could afford the outlays to undertake production, and that these people had to hire wage laborers to actually work the machinery for them. Such outlays also required a large, hierarchical, bureaucratic institution to administer the plant and equipment. And these large institutions, in turn, required other large institutions like regulatory agencies, big establishment unions, and the big establishment media, to act as watchdogs.
Unfortunately, despite Galbraith’s theory of countervailing power, in practice government agencies, corporations and media outlets tended to cluster together in complexes of allied institutions in which the ostensible regulators and regulated were actually on the same side. Rather than the liberal “interest group pluralism” model implicit in Galbraith’s analysis, what we actually had was an interlocking Power Elite of the sort described by Mill and Domhoff. The large size and small number of institutional actors, and the enormous entry barriers erected against ordinary people attempting to compete with them, made such a clustering of interests based on shared bureacuratic culture inevitable.
The desktop and digital revolution, the network revolution, and the forms of stigmergic organization that they make possible, together destroy the material basis for the old mass production/bureaucratic/broadcast model described above. Instead — just as, in my previous book, I described the increasing ability of micromanufacturers with a few thousand dollars in capital to undertake forms of production previously requiring million-dollar factories — individually affordable capital goods for information production and network organization are leading to what John Robb calls “individual superempowerment.” The individual increasingly has at her disposal the means of taking on large, powerful bureaucratic institutions as an equal.
Networked consumer, environmental and labor activism, with its ability to subject corporate malefactors to boycotts or tort actions, and to expose them to humiliating scrutiny, offers the potential to control and punish bad corporate behavior at least as well as did the regulatory state or the traditional press, and — insofar as they are not prone to the same sorts of cross-institutional collusion — to do an even better job of it.
This includes “culture jamming” of the sort employed by the McLibel defendants and by Frank Kernaghan against Kathie Lee Gifford. It includes labor-led boycotts and information campaigns based on “open mouth sabotage” like those of the Imolakee Workers and the Wal-Mart Workers Association, and a whole host of online “employernamesucks.com” websites. It includes targeted campaigns to embarrass such corporate malefactors in the eyes of their suppliers, outlets, major stakeholders, and labor and consumer interest organizations. It includes networked activism through umbrella movements of labor, consumer and social justice organizations linked together for ad hoc single issue campaigns against a particular corporate criminal. It includes efforts like Wikileaks to promote whistleblowing and provide secure platforms for circulating embarrassing information about corporate misbehavior. It incorporates a large element of what John Keane calls “monitory democracy.”
Networked organization offers, as well, to supplant the regulatory state’s old licensing, authentication and quality certification functions. If Consumer Reports was pithecanthropus in this evolutionary schema, and Angie’s List is homo erectus, then the future lies with full-blown networked civil societies, organized on a voluntary basis, providing a context within which secure commercial relationships and other forms of cooperation can take place. The future of this model has been described variously as neo-Venetianism or phyles (fictionally in Stephenson’s The Diamond Age and non-fictionally in de Ugarte’s work), the Darknet in Suarez’s Freedom, and “economies as a social software service” by John Robb.
In short, networked activism offers to do to the state and the large corporation what the file-sharing movement has only begun to do to the record industry, and what Wikileaks has barely even begun to do to the U.S. national security community.