Re-public on Wiki Politics

The Greek online journal Re-public (“Re-imagining Democracy”) has devoted its April issue to the timely issue of “Wiki politics,” a.k.a. the democratic promise of the Internet. This topic has been around since at least the early 1990s, when tech pioneer Mitch Kapor wrote in Wired magazine (September/October 1993) that “life in cyberspace seems to be shaping up exactly as Thomas Jefferson would have wanted: founded on the primacy of individual liberty and a commitment to pluralism, diversity and community.”

Kapor was being a bit too sanguine, of course; online life has not really become a Jeffersonian utopia. But let’s face it, he was writing way early in the game. The Web had not even gone public, and email was still called “electronic mail.” Despite disappointments in the intervening years, the democratic potential of the Internet remains irresistible, if only because the Internet does in fact empower individuals and upstarts, often at the expense of the Big Guys. Also, it offers an attractive, practical counterpoint to real-world governance (Congress, President Bush), which remains resolutely resistant to democratic transparency and accountability.

It is refreshing, then, to watch a crop of astute commentators assess this issue with a probing, critical eye, and with the benefit of 15 years of experience with the Web. The introduction to the issue by editor Pavlos Hatzopoulous expresses a certain wariness: “It is still doubtful how the use of new collaborative tools (wikis, blogs, forums, mailing lists, podcasting, and videos) can transform the ways politics are practiced and how the increasing prospects for larger political participation can result to the emergence of active citizens.” So Hatzopoulous wisely focuses on how specific tech innovations may or may not be facilitating new democratic forms.

Yanis Varoufakis, an economist at the University of Athens, is skeptical of Wiki politics. In his essay, “What does it take to transform an e-mob into an empowered demos?” he writes that wikis are “a terrible way to organize a debate in the context of conflicts of material interest.”

Why? “As long as our societies are typified by a stark separation of the political from the economic sphere, reserving equal rights for the former while allowing the latter to be characterized by increasing inequality in the allocation of property rights, wiki can play no significant role in civilizing them.” Varoufakis says that “rather than heralding a revitalized politics, [wikis are] part and parcel of the ethos of fragmentation that devalues political goods and turns democracy into an empty shell.”

Michel Bauwens, who runs the excellent P2P Foundation blog, has a more optimistic view about the potential of wikis and other “peer production” systems. Bauwens writes in his essay, “P2P Politics, the State, and the Renewal of the Emancipatory Traditions”:

In the modern view, individuals were seen as atomized. They were believed to be in need of a social contract that delegated authority to a sovereign in order to create society, and in need of socialization by institutions that addressed them as an undifferentiated mass. In the new view however, individuals are always-already connected with their peers, and looking at institutions in such a peer-informed way. Institutions therefore, will have to evolve to become support ecologies, devising ways to create infrastructures of support.

The other essays in this issue of “Wiki politics” are also nourishing reads. Mark Wagstaff suggests that governments are now using “user-driven structures in more sophisticated ways to co-opt communities of choice to government interests.” Geert Lovink, in an interview with editor Hatzopoulos, believes that “wikis reflect a culture of pragmatic non-commitment.”

I have an essay in this issue as well — “The Commons and Emergent Democracy,” expressing some of my skepticism that the new social technologies will significantly intervene in the conduct of power. Yet I am also hopeful in some respects because there is little question that the economics of the technologies are creating new, more egalitarian and open cultural norms.

This issue is only Part I of two issues devoted to wiki politics. Check out Part II next month!