Future Perfect:
 The Case for Progress in a Networked Age 

here are two ways to be wrong about the Internet. One is to embrace cyber-utopianism and treat the Internet as inherently democratizing. Just leave it alone, the argument goes, and the Internet will destroy dictatorships, undermine religious fundamentalism, and make up for failures of institutions.1
Another, more insidious way is to succumb to Internet-centrism. Internet-centrists happily concede that digital tools do not always work as intended and are often used by enemies of democracy. What the Internet does is only of secondary importance to them; they are most interested in what the Internet means. Its hidden meanings have already been deciphered: decentralization beats centralization, networks are superior to hierarchies, crowds outperform experts. To fully absorb the lessons of the Internet, urge the Internet-centrists, we need to reshape our political and social institutions in its image.
They arrive at this reform agenda in a rather circuitous way. First, they assume that the Internet has a logic that is currently at work re-shaping a bevy of digital platforms and industries. Here is how Clay Shirky—the thinker who has done the most to popularize the McLuhanesque idea that the Internet has a coherent logic—explains why we are so worried about privacy and Facebook: “Facebook is . . . our current target for our worries about privacy in exactly the same way that the music industry obsessed about Napster [and] the newspaper industry obsessed about Craigslist, which is to say: the logic of Facebook, the logic that Facebook is exposing, is, in many ways, the logic that is implicit in the Internet itself; Facebook just happens to be its current corporate avatar.”
Once the elusive logic of the Internet has been located, it is not uncommon to see Internet-centrists move to deflate its actual novelty. Thus, Yochai Benkler, a Harvard legal scholar and an exquisite purveyor of Internet-centrism, can marvel at the worlds of Wikipedia, open-source software, and file-sharing—which he, too, takes to represent the logic of the Internet—and then proceed to weave them into a larger narrative about human nature. For Benkler, the Internet proves that humans are collaborative, well-meaning creatures, and that our political institutions, shaped in accordance with a much darker Hobbesian view of human nature, have never been adequate for facilitating meaningful social interaction.
Benkler does not view the Internet as a tool so much as an idea that proves (and disproves) philosophical theories about how the world works. The Internet, for him, reveals only what has been true—that humans love to collaborate—all along. Not surprisingly, the Internet occupies just a few chapters of Benkler’s most recent book; the rest is him deploying the latest research in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and experimental economics to find the spirit of the Internet in the worlds of Toyota and lobster fishermen, of Spanish farmers and Obama’s 2008 campaign.
This attempt to rediscover reality in terms and categories of a supposedly coherent Internet culture is the crucial idea behind Internet-centrism. In defining what is knowable, on what terms, and to what purposes, Internet-centrism produces a novel epistemology of its own. Analytically, it is similar to anthropocentrism—only it worships a different deity. Most adherents of Internet-centrism have traditionally kept quiet about their quasi-religion. But with the publication of Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect, they finally have a briskly written manifesto that distills all the major tenets of their worldview—and adds quite a few blinkers of its own.
Like Shirky and Benkler, Johnson is grappling with the thorny question of what the Internet means. His conclusion, alas, is not very original: the history of the Internet tells us that decentralization is preferable to centralization. And, to quote Steve Jobs, “It just works!” Thus, early Internet protocols were built on the principle of packet switching, whereby the content to be transmitted is broken into packets, which are sent separately from each other and reassembled upon receipt. No centralized authority was needed: the packets could travel through a myriad of different routes independently of each other. The likes of Google and Wikipedia also thrive on decentralization; Google, for example, ranks sites for relevance by studying how sites link to each other. Google’s relevance index, then, emerges out of individual decisions by millions of site-owners; it is not centrally planned.
Johnson even claims that the creation of ARPANET—the Pentagon-funded precursor to the Internet—and of TCP/IP—the Internet’s most important communication protocol—are “milestones in the history of political philosophy.”2 This is a stark claim, which Johnson supports by writing that “the ARPANET was a radically decentralized system that had somehow emerged out of a top-down agency.” That system, in turn, relied on “fluid, dynamic structures that lacked hierarchies and centralized control.” Johnson calls those fluid structures “peer networks”—for him, they are the real currency of the Internet and, as it turns out, of many innovative projects that predate the Internet. (Here, as in Benkler, we see the logic of the Internet at work in non-Internet or even pre-Internet contexts.)
With Johnson arguing that decentralization has been propelling not just the growth of Internet infrastructure but also that of its seminal projects like Wikipedia, we are back to the world of Internet-centrism and the idea that there is a coherent logic to the Internet and its many components: the hardware, the software, the platforms, the users. This logic may not solve all of the world’s problems, but Johnson believes that it should be our default response to our current social and political predicaments: “when a need arises in society that goes unmet our first impulse should be to build a peer network to solve that problem.”
How can we afford not to reform the world around us when we know that something as unlikely as Wikipedia actually works? “Wikipedia is just the beginning,” enthuses Johnson. “We can learn from its success to build new systems that solve problems in education, governance, health, local communities, and countless other regions of human experience.” Projects such as Wikipedia are just another reminder that Internet logic is the correct way to run the world; when we remodel our institutions and practices accordingly, we might solve most unpromising problems.
Author: Steven Johnson
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