Hyperempowerment? Really?

In a recent issue of the Edge newsletter, I came across the transcript of a speech delivered by “digital ethnologist” Mark Pesce at the 2008 Personal Democracy Forum, titled “Hyperpolitics (American style)” that presented some interesting ideas on how the current explosion of connectivity (or hyperconnectivity, as Pesce emphasizes) is impacting politics in general, and liberalism and democracy in particular.

Citing Cambridge archaeologist Colin Renfrew and Guns, Germs and Steel author Jared Diamond, Pesce asserts that it was through increased sharing and connectivity that homo sapiens crossed the boundary from nature to culture, and again (e.g.) it was through the sharing made possible by Gutenberg that another burst of cultural development was set in motion, leading to the industrial revolution.

Today, contends Pesce, we are undergoing a similar process, with half the world owning their own mobile phone, and vast and increasing numbers of people being online. What this leads to is hypermimesis, a sped-up version of the “learning through imitation” that is at the basis of human development. Reminiscent of Clay Shirkey’s discussion of how the Internet speeds up the proliferation and dispersion of new knowledge, Pesce suggests that

Only a decade ago the network was all hardware and raw potential, but we are learning fast, and this learning is pervasive. Behaviors, once slowly copied from generation to generation, then, still slowly, from location to location, now ‘hyperdistribute’ themselves via the Human Network. We all learn from each other with every text we send, and each new insight becomes part of the new software of a new civilization.

This growing, amorphous Human Network encounters barriers and resistance from conservative forces but, says Pesce, every assault on its logic and movement has failed–even China’s great firewall has been acknowledged a failure. What does this mean for politics? Well, for liberalism:

[Wikipedia’s] phenomenal success demonstrates beyond all doubt how the calculus of civilization has shifted away from its Liberal basis. In Liberalism, knowledge is a scarce resource, managed by elites: the more scarce knowledge is, the more highly valued that knowledge, and the elites which conserve it. Wikipedia turns that assertion inside out: the more something is shared the more valuable it becomes. These newly disproportionate returns on the investment in altruism now trump the ‘virtue of selfishness.’

I’m not sure what definition of liberalism Pesce is working from here, but I fail to see how liberalism entails a scarcity of knowledge controlled by powerful elites. I think the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition shows how the new, post-modern conception of knowledge is entirely compatible with liberal capitalism. If liberalism means, basically, protection of the (property, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from arbitrary detention, etc.) rights of the individual, I don’t see any challenge to the core of liberalism here.

But what about democracy? Taking his cues from the mobilization of Obama supporters in the US which has become a mobilized mass, doing as it pleases, Pesce contends:

Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a rapid descent into the Bellum omnia contra omnes, Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all.” A hyperconnected polity—whether composed of a hundred individuals or a hundred thousand—has resources at its disposal which exponentially amplify its capabilities. Hyperconnectivity begets hypermimesis begets hyperempowerment.

Going further,

The power redistributions of the 21st century have dealt representative democracies out. Representative democracies are a poor fit to the challenges ahead, and ‘rebooting’ them is not enough. The future looks nothing like democracy, because democracy, which sought to empower the individual, is being obsolesced by a social order which hyperempowers him.

I think there’s a lot missing from the pseudo-syllogism, “hyperconnectivity –> hypermimesis –> hyperempowerment”. While the link between the first two terms is attested, we have yet to see anything like “hyperempowerment” resulting from increased connectivity and the broader adoption of social media. Honestly, we’re still pretty happy when we just get “empowerment”. If you look at Canada’s proposed amendments to our copyright legislation (Bill C-61) and the popular resistance that that bill has seen then you maybe get a taste for what Pesce might be talking about, but that’s one issue, and there’s no reason to think that that will become the norm, nor that that experience will bleed into other political issues, nor even that a significant portion of the 70,000+ people who joined the Facebook group have done anything to address the issue beyond joining the Facebook group.

I think there’s merit to some of what Pesce is saying and I’m glad there are people with his perspective to push the envelope and get us to think differently, but I just can’t be as starry-eyed. Show me something a bit more tangible than 135 comments on a post at DailyKos and maybe I’ll be a bit less cynical.

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