Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Cart Before the Horse

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 28, 1998

Posted to HotWired 29 Jan 98

I can't help but think that Katz has hit upon something important here. Not because we need representation on Crossfire or lobbyists at Congress - these are minor matters to non-Americans. But rather, because there needs to be a reflection of our many voices on the internet, a way for us to express our views to each other. Government, after all, is only to a degree about relations with external entities, and to a much larger degree about relations between individuals within a given entity.

But Katz puts the cart before the horse when he recommends that a net president be elected. In the formation of any sort of government, clearly, it is reasonable first to determine the configuration of such a government, and then to elect or appoint the relevant officials, if any. Perhaps Katz was merely demonstrating an American bias, or perhaps he feels that an American style of government is best for the net, but clearly, he assumes a lot when he calls for the election of a president.

The many posts prior to this one have already pointed to some of the fault lines inherent in such a debate. A presidency assumes a representative form of government, and we need to ask, do we want representatives, or would we prefer to represent ourselves. An election presumes a democratic form of government, but we should ask, do we prefer, say, a meritocracy.

Concerns expressed especially by the non-Americans raise the question of whether minority rights will be respected, for I suspect that the majority of non-Americans have very different ideas as to how to conduct themselves on-line. If so, how should such rights be protected? Constitutionally, in the tradition of the civil code? In a Bill of Rights (or as we Canadians say, a Charter of Rights)?

How about participation in such a government. Katz doesn't raise the taxation issue directly, but when he suggests that people be required to participate to some degree, he is suggesting taxation after a fashion (and eventually, directly, for it is only a matter of time before people hire other people to perform their required participation).

And what of the sub-structure of government. The United States is a federation - "One nation, indivisible" and all that. Many nations are not federations. Canada, for example, is explicitly a confederation. Other parts of other nations form an even looser association with the whole. Each community on the internet would, I think, want to maintain to more or less a degree its autonomy from the whole, its own standards, conventions, and rules, its own definition of freedom.

When all of these issues are considered, one after the other, particularly in the light of the potential of the technology we employ, and in the light of previous models of government (including the American one), the overwhelming conclusion is, I think, that we can do better.

For one thing, I think that, given the nature of the internet, the rule of government by the consent of the governed will have to be an inviolate rule. If I don't like what you are telling me to do, I terminate the connection and try another site. If I don't think you represent my views, I express my own point of view in an equally forceful manner.

Additionally, I think that any form of net government would have to embrace diversity. The American melting pot model of society is not workable on the web - a fact most Americans will realize the day they notice that the society they must melt into is Chinese, Hindu, or some other non-American mixture. Diversity is necessary because the world is diverse, and the internet is a global network. Moreover, there is no way to force other people to be like you and to think like you.

A further trait of on-line government is that it would have to be governance by protocol, not legislation. The internet is, at its heart, a network of wires linking computers. if, even, you do not like TCP/IP, you are free to employ some other standard. And less vital protocols may be equally bypassed. The same will hold true of human interactions. On Hotwired, the protocol allows swearing. Tolerance of swearing is a requisite of participation. On other forums, swearing is not permitted.

A fourth trait which seems to emerge as being essential is distributed government, in other words, the very antithesis of centralized government. Distribution of government would occur in a variety of modes: geographically, as governments react to the laws and standards of their host nations, technologically, as programmers and users adapt to the standards set by hardware and software companies, culturally, as people with shared interests or backgrounds form their own communities, and topically, as groups form and break up according to the fashion of the day. Indeed, given the vast and various nature of the net, it would be unthinkable to have a single, centralized administration. It would be inevitable that a net president would focus on Congress and Crossfire; no human could understand even the vageries of politics in 197 nations let alone the millions of subgroups within and among them.

What emerges even from these four traits is government which is very different than any model we have seen before. To a significant degree, it resembles anarchy, but not so much in the sense that there are no rules, but rather, in the sense that there is no one set of rules, and that people can pick and choose the set of rules they wish to follow.

How such a government could be structured, monitered, reported on, represent itself: these are areas worthy of study. For as I said, Katz has a point. But the point is not so much, how can we govern ourselves online. Rather, the point is, how can we govern ourselves globally, as a species.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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