Splitting the world

August 26, 2020

The manifestos of the early 2000s were right: the internet, open source, and cheap computing have put incredible powers within the reach of individuals.

Before the internet, the ability to widely publish information, opinion, and perspectives was only affordable to a limited number of institutions. These institutions shaped what issues were on the public agenda and what the public thought about those issues.

Because of the internet, it’s all so cheap now. The monopoly is broken.

Open source and cheap computing have similarly transformed the productivity of people who can program. Individuals who can program are able to undertake information processing tasks and creative endeavors that were once the work of entire departments.

The manifestos of the early 2000s were wrong: the empowerment of individuals has not led to a more free and democratic society.

The hope that empowering individuals would lead to a more free and democratic society assumed a basic conflict in our social and political life between people and institutions. The underlying political idea was that the gap between the power of individuals and the power of institutions and organizations eroded freedom and democratic self-determination. Information technology would increase the power of individuals relative to institutions and that would make us more free and, almost tautologically, more democratic.

I embraced this vision, and it is a vision that I think motivated much of open data, open source, open gov, and transparency work. We believed that information technologies really had a chance to give individual people more power relative to institutions, and if we did, then good things would proceed.

This way of splitting up the worlds has not been useful. The most important struggles of our time are not between undifferentiated people and powerful institutions. Our struggles for our uncertain future were and remain as struggles amongst social groups, classes, and organized powers.

The way to make a people more powerful is to make its institution more powerful, and accountable, and democratic. We should have spent the past 20 years focused on that project of people power.

Individuals acting as individuals, even very empowered individuals, are not very relevant to to the struggles.

Honestly, that is for the best.

Subscribe to get Slow-News as an email newsletter.