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Circling the wagons: the net politics of exclusion

Why dodgy metaphors don't help

Election 2004 Here's a fable. In summer 2004, a vacancy comes up in a London office, and the manager sets about recruiting. He interviews a blue man and a green man. The blue man has impeccable qualifications and very good experience. The green man’s qualifications are weak, and he is under-experienced - but he's witty and he gets on well with the manager.

After more background research, the manager reflects on their qualifications and experience, and he also reflects on their personalities and reputations. He decides that although the blue candidate is clearly better on paper, that he got on so well with the green candidate, that he will give him the job. He reckons he’ll fit in well, despite the fact that he isn’t an especially strong candidate. That’s the politics of groups for you.

In this fictional London of 2004, the Royal family are green, 95 per cent of the House of Commons is green, and 84 per cent of the population of the UK are all green. Blue people are only around two per cent of the population.

However, being blue is associated with lower educational outcomes and worse employment prospects. Centuries-old political inequality, built on a history of imperialism, combined with dubious socio-biological theories have resulted in a society which is, from some perspectives, institutionally racist.

But the manager's decision to give the green man the job was not racist, nor was it motivated by the desire to oppress people. It was simply motivated by the desire to build a strong team in the workplace, and by the fact that the two of them gelled. As an example of the politics of groups, it was perfectly understandable.

As an example of the politics of this particular society in 2004, however, it was wrong. The blue candidate was objectively better qualified in terms of the institutions that had endorsed him, while the green candidate was aesthetically better qualified on the basis of the mannerisms and personality traits that won him friends.

So what does this have to do with the politics of the internet?

The group isn't us

Well, what we call 'the politics of groups' is not really politics at all. But there is a danger that the politics of the net is supplanting real politics with a false notion of group politics. In truth we are only able to make the most important political distinctions - those between justice and injustice - on the basis of sociological analysis, and never on analyses of group activity. The politics of groups is not good or bad, it is just true or false

But just see how popular this analysis is in the context of the Internet has become. For example, Clay Shirky's writings on social software are based almost entirely on group psychology. The notion of 'a group is its own worse enemy', for instance, is an observation of how groups tend to behave; it attributes innate characteristics to social behaviour. Groups can't help but be as they are.

Once we increase the scale of the social unit involved, different forms of analysis are called for, but it still has no critical dimension. Once the scale of the community goes beyond anything explicable in terms of group psychology, people look around for analogies. The biological analogy of emergence is used; the mathematical analogy of power laws is used. Both attribute innate qualities to social behaviour, and duck often troubling political questions in the process. Inequality, according to the theory of power laws, is not wrong, but simply an outcome of scale.

This sleight of hand is almost identical to what the neo-liberal right did in the US and the UK during the 1970s and the 1980s, when it set about convincing people that free markets are a natural and innate social order, rather than a deliberate political construct with winners and losers. Inequality was not presented as the political preference of the right, but an outcome of the market's natural mechanics. Perhaps if someone had told Thatcher about power laws, she would have used them instead.

Sociology, on the other hand, looks at institutions, intellectual systems and political decisions. It locates individuals, groups and communities within the social systems that it believes shapes them. Perhaps most importantly, it is able to identify the people and cultures that get excluded from mainstream politics, and sometimes never get their voices heard in the first place. It is this form of sociology, what's referred to as critical theory, that I think is an crucial condition of a genuinely political world view. And it's almost entirely lacking on the internet. Why is this?

We can keep you out: the diminishing social space of the net

I think we have a difficulty in viewing the net sociologically and critically partly because it is a global system with very remote governance structures. Rather than see it as a constructed social system, driven by politics, it is far easier to see it as an entirely neutral and indeed natural social space, within which new political units can be created. New Labour takes a similar approach to capitalism these days – it sees it as too massive and complicated to be changed, so it becomes easier to see it as part of the furniture.

One result of this is that the politics of the net tends to involve shrinking it as a social sphere. This is what social software does, through creating new hierarchies, built on reputation and recommendation. It is very difficult for progressive politics to be built upon the shrinking of a social space, because this inevitably requires the creation of new forms of exclusion and division. By contrast, the progressive thinkers of the enlightenment in the late 18th century, such as Immanuel Kant, looked to newspapers and pamphlets to expand the sphere of debate, to include more people, across more nations. Divisions between people were to be broken down, until there was a single public sphere which included everybody. Newspapers were about lifting people out of communities, into society; social activities on the net threaten to reverse this process.

The real politics of the net does not consist in creating new communities, with new forms of governance, moderation and values. It consists in mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion, that tend to follow pre-existing sociological and economic divisions.

A progressive agenda for the net, as with the progressive agenda of newspapers, books and pamphlets, is to overcome pre-existing forms of exclusion. We can think of familiar examples – an alienated gay teenager in a rural community who uses the net to discover that others face the same difficulties; the old person who cannot leave the house, but relies on the net for social contact. These are the old, slightly corny examples of the net’s political potential. We may have grown slightly bored of them, but that doesn’t mean that they have ceased to matter.

A regressive agenda for the net, on the other hand, consists in using it to entrench exclusion. The digital divide, which is rarely discussed amongst the geek avant garde, is a genuine form of exclusion – not a new one, because it follows existing forms of exclusion, but a real one. It still exists in this country as a sociological fact. Even if 96% of people know a place where they can get online if they need to, close to 40% of people face some form of physical, cognitive, sensory or motivational barrier to full enjoyment of the internet.

And once people are online, the net can be used to entrench other forms of exclusion and privilege – routers can be programmed with software that prioritise packets of information differently, based on real-time, corporate judgements of the real or potential profitability of the person sending the traffic.

Blog rolling, rolling

But what’s perhaps most disappointing is how those with the most egalitarian hopes for the Internet can often end up constructing equally impenetrable hierarchies. The geek avant garde rarely discusses macro socio-technical issues, and tends to prefer micro-political systems, which calls self-organising and emergent. I was at ETCON in February, and as a slight outsider, I wondered how much that community realised how hierarchical and exclusive it appeared. It seemed that the technical mechanisms of reputation, such as blog-rolls and Technorati, had codified social inequalities in charisma and popularity (the politics of groups), until they had actually become institutionalised political forms.

There’s an analogy often made between the American settlers and internet dwellers, and it’s a good one (things like ‘the cyber-frontier’). Like the American settlers, internet dwellers create a myth that there was no politics before they arrived. In order to establish entirely new and egalitarian communities, American settlers had to ignore the fact that the land was already occupied. To the same end, Internet settlers choose to ignore the historical and sociological facts of how the Internet is run, who can't get on to it and why, and the mechanisms used online to divide people. The risk is that the politics of the net follows America towards gated communities, each having only an inward-looking, group-based notion of politics, and ceases to question the macro institutions and systems around them.

About the author

William Davies is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research in London. At the Work Foundation he authored You Don't Know Me, But ... Social Capital and Social Software. This speech was delivered at the NotCon 2004 conference in London in June.

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