Thursday 26 March 2009, day 66 of Barack Obama’s presidency, may be remembered as the day that his clean-living administration went to pot. The occasion was the launch of Obama’s Online Town Hall, designed to build on the momentum of his net-fuelled campaign by inviting ordinary Americans to pose questions directly to their new leader. The idea was touted in advance on the Whitehouse’s website, and 92,000 people turned up online to speak directly to the President.
When the roster of questions bubbled up to the President’s monitor at the press conference, however, most were obsessed with the decriminalisation of dope. The imbalance was astonishing. In the middle of a deep recession and with the United States’s armed forces mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, the top four questions about both the economy and the budget were all about marijuana. The issue of dope dominated in the section about “green jobs and energy”, too, where the most popular query invited the new President to “decriminalise the recreational/medical use of marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and a multi-billion dollar industry right here in the US”.
After addressing some questions which came in lower down the list, Obama gamely tried to laugh the whole thing off. “I have to say that there was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether legalising marijuana would improve the economy and job creation,” he said. “And I don’t know what this says about the online audience.”
I wonder what it says about our politicians. The internet is one of the most dazzling inventions of the last 50 years, indispensable to the way we live today. But the truth is that many of those in authority have stopped seeing the internet as a medium in which people send messages and receive feedback via a loop of electronic information. Instead, they have invested the flow of electronic information with an almost metaphysical significance about human nature and how things work. That’s why politicians can talk about the net as a revolution. It’s how they can see a game of sending out information into the electronic ether and batting back feedback as having anything to do with democracy. And it’s why some thinkers have begun to imagine that online gadgetry might level the economic playing field and might even begin to alleviate inequality – that it might, in the memorable phrase of the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, succeed in making the world flat.
How did this come about? Before the early network of computers which gave rise to the internet was cobbled together by military-funded researchers in American universities in the early 1970’s, it was inspired by an idea called cybernetics. Cybernetics was the invention of an American mathematician named Norbert Wiener, who, while working on an anti-aircraft predictor machine to help shoot down German bombers more efficiently during the second world war, became fascinated by the philosophical implications of his own research. Looked at from the outside, according to Wiener, it was as if gunner, pilot and their respective instruments had all been fused together via an information loop into a new kind of self-regulating system which constantly righted its errors through feedback from its environment. Wiener concluded that, in the new age of electronic machines, all of us were best thought of as existing on a continuous electronic information loop, constantly sending out messages and rapidly responding to feedback in order to correct our mistakes.
Wiener’s “cybernetics” was always an impoverished idea of how human relationships work. In the immediate aftermath of the second world war, however, as intellectuals and scientists sought out unsullied new models for understanding human behaviour, it proved enormously influential. The American military would go on to use Wiener cybernetics to build very sophisticated systems for air defence in the 1960s. Just as important, however, was the influence of cybernetics on the remnants of the American counter-culture in the early 1970s. The momentum of the “revolution in the head” in 1968 quickly over-vaulted itself, and many veteran hippies had responded by retreating to a nest of close-knit communes around the San Francisco Bay Area to escape the attention of the authorities. Even more so than the young pretenders of the New Left, the hotchpotch of radicals who made up the counterculture was suspicious of leadership of any kind. For some of them, Wiener’s idea of laying an information loop between their various communal hideouts seemed to suggest a way around bureaucratic mechanisms for social control.
Many of those veterans of the counter-culture would become enormously influential in the development of the computer industry and of the net in the following decades. As the high-tech economy of the San Francisco Bay area spread outwards in the 1980s and early 1990s, and computers began to appear in more and more homes and offices, the idea of networks was borrowed by business and even political leaders. One could see the appeal. While the old model of production – the traditional, Fordist economy of manufacturing goods on strictly regimented factory assembly lines – was stumbling along from recession to recession, the computer industry was advancing in leaps and bounds. It occurred to many futurologists that what they were witnessing was the birth pangs of a whole new economy, one thoroughly networked and constantly adjusting itself to the continuous feedback of its suppliers and its customers.
This new kind of economy would be powered by computers and electronic networking devices, to be sure, but it was about much more than just technology. What it demanded was nothing less than the flattening or levelling of the old-fashioned, hierarchical firm into a new, leaner kind of organisation which sat alongside its many and shifting employees and suppliers like a node in a network. By the late 1980’s influential think-tanks like the Global Business Network (GBN), stafffed by former hippies like Stewart Brand, were offering advice to huge multinationals like Shell on how to re-engineer their operations according to cybernetic principles. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, one study of management literature in western countries by the French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello found that the number of mentions of networks increased by more than twenty-fold. After all, the logic went, if something as flat as a network could be so powerful, why not stretch everything flat so it looked just the same?
The politics of the counterculture had long been eclipsed, but its central idea of bringing about direct communication between peers outside of the reach of authority survived intact. It wasn’t until the turn of the century, when a devastating controlled explosion in the high-tech sector exploded one vision of the new economy, that the cybernetic idea was fully realised. During those gloomy years in which the financiers closed the door on it, the strangest thing happened. In the course of just a few years, as broadband connections became widespread and opened us up a permanent window on the web, many of us took to zoning out at work or disappearing off to the spare room to spend hours watching and communicating with each other online. No longer content with gawping at flashy websites on the net, we began to build our own castles on its turf. Huddled together on online social networks like Facebook and Twitter and busily ferrying messages to and fro between ourselves on a vast online information loop, the idea began to gain ground that this exchange of information between peers on a real online network was going to change everything before it. By laying a vast electronic information loop between all of us, it would put millions of ordinary people back in touch with each other as online peers, thus stretching everything perfectly flat and leaderless – and leaving bureaucracies and hierarchies, without any means of controlling information, to collapse of their own volition.
This picture of ourselves as essentially messaging creatures has now so far inveigled itself into our lives that we barely notice. It began as an idea that we could all benefit from being joined together in a continuous loop of instruction and feedback, and the idea slowly become flesh as the technology caught up. It is not without its uses. The reason for Google’s enormous success in the search engine business owes something to the cybernetic idea. While other online search engines were using human editors to serve us up a range of information, Google’s brilliant technicians realised as early as a decade ago that the best way to organise the information out there on the web was to stitch every piece of information together via a series of sophisticated feedback loops. Every time we choose from the list of hits which Google serves us up in response to our search, in other words, we are helping Google rank the information of our peers, and that information is in turn used to track what the best destinations are on the web. When Google decided to measure the value of a website by looking at how many other people found it worthwhile, it sowed into its operation a kind of feedback loop which helped traffic flow much more easily around its system. As a result, it became one of the richest companies on earth: Google is now capitalised at roughly one hundred billion dollars.
Google’s machinery makes for an ingenious way of organising our information on the web, but there is no reason to think that it can be much help in organising the rest of our society. As computer networks found their way everywhere, however, the idea that we can be treated as information processors on a giant social network was flagged through on the nod. One reason that politicians can be reluctant to question all this is because, with the fading of the traditional ideologies of left and right, there seem to be precious few good ideas around for organising the good society. That is why David Cameron was so keen to make the pilgrimage to Google’s headquarters, and why Gordon Brown chooses to address Google’s conferences and be seen under its banner. For the same reason, many mainstream institutions are in thrall to the hokum of a new breed of internet evangelists. At the same time that newspapers in Britain and the US are firing trained journalists and cutting their staff numbers, for example, many of them are paying vast fees to listen to modish ideas about how net-based collaboration (so-called crowdsourcing) might help to reinvent their operations.
Take a closer look at the fate which befell Obama’s Online Town Hall. A small Washington-based lobby group named the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, it turned out, had urged its members to vote for questions supporting the legalization of cannabis. What happened after that was much more telling. Lost in the bowels of the Whitehouse’s website and unsure of what to make their presence felt, the vast majority of the nearly four million voters had simply chosen to “buzz up” the questions of the dope-smokers who’d arrived just before them. To anyone who has studied how popularity contests work on a closed online information loop, none of this came as any surprise. In an intriguing experiment conducted in the last three months of 2004 and the first three of 2005, three academics at Colombia University in New York used the web to invite as many as 14,000 young people to rate songs by relatively unknown bands and download the ones they liked. The researchers began by dividing their subjects into two groups. The first group they asked to make their decisions independently of each other while the second they allowed to see a rolling chart of how many times, in descending order, each song had been downloaded by others – telling them, in effect, which songs were most popular among their peers. When they came in, the results were clear. Those who could see the download charts, the researchers discovered, tended to give higher ratings to the songs at the top of the chart and were more likely to download those songs. People tended to like songs more, in other words, if other people liked them. The result was to make the choices of those in the second group highly unpredictable, with a great deal depending on who rolled up to make their choices first. Identical songs were judged to be hits or flops depending on whether other people had been seen to download them earlier.
There is nothing new about facing pressure from our peers when it comes to making decisions about whether music is good or not. People have long been affected by the taste of those around them, and that susceptibility to influence helps them make up their own minds. The effect discovered by the Colombia University researchers, however, was much bolder and more specific than that. When an electronic feedback loop is called on to make decisions about quality, their work suggests, there arises an effect which throws everything out of kilter and amplifies the decisions of a few early arrivals into a randomly self-reinforcing spiral of continued popularity. Left to fend for ourselves in a sea of online information with only our online peers for direction, it seems our decisions about quality and taste can quickly become snagged in a self-perpetuating feedback loop of follow the leader.
American politicians are not the only ones trying to stitch politics back together with the information feedback loops. Two weeks before the inaugural outing of Barack Obama’s Online Town Hall, in a paper titled Working Together, Gordon Brown announced a fresh initiative whereby people in England would get more powers to rate the performance of GPs, police, childcare and councils online. It was a scandal, said the Prime Minister, that online businesses such as eBay had “higher standards of transparency” than those for public services. The British government had thus far been “much too slow to make use of the enormous democratising power of information”. To make amends, he said, NHS patients would from this summer be able to comment on local services and provide feedback on GPs via a new raft of websites.
Can the workings of an online auction site be an appropriate model for a mature democracy? Think about how eBay works. Its operation is stitched together by information feedback loops in which buyers and sellers are encouraged to rank each others’ honesty and reliability. It works very well, but only by introducing distortions of its own. In an intriguing public statement in February 2008, eBay announced it was overhauling its feedback system to ban sellers from leaving negative comments about buyers. What was happening, eBay conceded, was that when buyers gave “bad” feedback to sellers they had bought from, those sellers were responding by leaving negative feedback of their own. Fear of incurring such retaliation had driven both buyers and sellers to award one another excellent but quite unwarranted feedback, and the system was in danger of collapsing into one of mutual self-congratulation. eBay’s feedback loop oiled the wheels of its online auction very nicely, but only by sparking a kind of electronic peer pressure whereby the first person to arrive at a decision in any exchange would likely find it echoed by those with whom they were dealing. Far from being a model of democratic debate, eBay had begun to resemble a robotic dance routine, in which one dancer’s decision to step in one direction leads to everyone else automatically following suit.
Just like any other medium, the net has biases which pull our behaviour in peculiar ways. At its worst, making decisions on the net tends towards a self-reinforcing populism which binds everyone together in a kind of electronic chain gang. These biases are not hard to decipher, if you analyse our experience online as a medium rather than celebrate it as a revolutionary new political idea. There is nothing wrong with politicians keeping up with new technology and the net, but everything depends on what they call on that technology to do. In his inspiring campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama used mobile phones and online social networks as a tool to spur his supporters into action. Since arriving in the White House, however, his enthusiasm for the net has begun to look like an end in itself. Aside from his online popularity contests, Obama has made plans to digitise information about the workings of government and put it online. Through its “Power of Information” review, too, our own Cabinet Office has been doing much the same. This is all very well, but without directions to guide through this geyser of electronic information – to help us figure out what it is supposed to mean – the danger is that we might drown in the data. Transparency is all very well, but not all of us are investigative journalists. Politicians are supposed to make sense of the vast mountain of data which comes their way and shape it into arguments and ideas – not simply throw it back to us in digital form, to see what we think.
It’s true that many of our mainstream cultural and political institutions lack legitimacy and are limping from one crisis to another. They are out of sync with the populace, and they seem to know it. All of this presents exciting possibilities for those of us who are interested in change. But we should be wary of letting the information geeks inherit the earth, wary of replacing the crumbling authority of the media and political classes with a glut of electronic information and phantom ideas about democracy and equality. Whatever the prophets of the net say, information is not power. Power is power, and the relentless gush of electronic information and invitations to feedback which now come our way can often obscure where real power lies. Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, that the medium is the message, is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If our rulers are so entranced by the medium of online information, maybe that’s because they don’t have any messages to deliver.