Caught in the net. The New Statesman, 4 May 2009

Thursday 26 March 2009, day 66 of Barack Obama’s presidency, may be remembered as the moment at which his clean-living administration went to pot. The occasion was the launch of Obama’s online town hall, Open for Questions, 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 White House website, and 92,000 people rolled 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 America’s armed forces still mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, the top four questions relating to 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 multibillion-dollar industry right here in the US”. After addressing some questions that 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 past 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 by which people send messages and receive feedback via a loop of electronic information. Instead, they have invested the flow of electronic information with a metaphysical significance about human nature and how things work. That is 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 that gave rise to the internet was cobbled together by researchers in American universities in the early 1970s, 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 that 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 US military would go on to use Wiener cybernetics to build sophisticated systems for air defence in the 1960s. Just as important, however, was the influence of cybernetics on the remnants of the American counterculture in the early 1970s. The momentum of the “revolution in the head” in 1968 quickly overvaulted 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 counterculture would become enormously influential in the development of the computer industry and of the net in the following decades. As the hi-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 economists and business leaders. While the computer industry seemed to be advancing rapidly, it helped, too, that the old model of production – the traditional, Fordist economy of manufacturing goods on strictly regimented factory lines – was stumbling from recession to recession and that businesses were searching for new ways of operating. 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 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 that sat alongside its many and shifting employees and suppliers like a node in a network. By the late 1980s, influential think tanks such as the Global Business Network, staffed by former hippies like Stewart Brand, were offering advice to huge multinationals on how to re-engineer their operations according to cybernetic principles. One study of management literature in western countries, by the French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, found that between the 1960s and 1990s the number of mentions of networks increased more than twentyfold. 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. In the course of just a few years at the beginning of this century, as broadband connections became widespread and opened up a permanent window on the web, many of us took to zoning out at work or disappearing into the spare room at home to spend hours watching or communicating with one another online. No longer content with passively absorbing information on the internet, we began to set up our own castles on its turf. As we came together in online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and busily ferried messages to and fro between ourselves in a vast online information loop, the idea began to gain ground that this exchange of information between peers in an online network would change everything before it. By laying a vast electronic information loop between all of us, we 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 benefit from being joined together in a continuous loop of instruction and feedback. It is not without its uses. 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 in a series of sophisticated feedback loops.
Every time we choose from the list of hits that Google serves up to us in response to our search, 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 the company decided to measure the value of a website by looking at how many other people found it worthwhile, it sewed into its operation a feedback loop that 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 $100bn. Its machinery makes for an ingenious way of organising our information on the web, but there is no reason to think that it can be of 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 ushered in. One reason that politicians can be reluctant to question all this is that, with the fading of the conventional 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 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 as newspapers in Britain and the US are firing trained journalists and cutting their staff numbers, many of them are also paying huge 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 that befell Obama’s online town hall. It turned out that a small Washington-based lobby group, the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, had urged its members to vote for questions supporting the legalisation of cannabis. What happened after that was significant. Lost in the bowels of the White House’s website and unsure of how to make their presence felt, most of the nearly four million voters had simply chosen to “buzz up” the questions of the dope-smokers who had 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 Columbia 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. They asked the first group to make their decisions independently of each other while they allowed the second 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.
The results, when they came in, were clear. Those who could see the download charts, the researchers discovered, gave 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 if other people liked them. The result was to make the choices of those in the second group unpredictable, with much 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 always 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 Columbia 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 that 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, our decisions about quality and taste, it seems, can 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 an initiative whereby people in England would get more powers to rate the performance of GPs, police, childcare and councils on-line. 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, National Health Service patients would, from this summer, be able to comment on local services and provide feedback on GPs through a new raft of websites.
Are the workings of an online auction site 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 other’s honesty and reliability. It works very well, but only by introducing distortions of its own. In an intriguing public statement in February 2008, for example, eBay announced it was overhauling its feedback system to ban sellers from leaving negative comments about buyers. What was happening, it conceded, was that when buyers gave “bad” feedback to sellers from whom they had bought, those sellers responded 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. The system was in danger of collapsing into one of mutual self-congratulation. Far from being a model of democratic debate, eBay had begun to resemble a kind of 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 an electronic chain gang. It is not hard to decipher these biases, 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 internet, but everything depends on what they expect that technology to do for them.
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 he arrived 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. Our own Cabinet Office, through its Power of Information review, has been doing much the same.
This is all very well, but without directions to guide us through this ocean of electronic information, 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 mountain of data that comes their way and to shape it into arguments and ideas – not simply throw it back to us in digital form, to see what we think.
It is true that many of our mainstream cultural and political institutions lack legitimacy and are limping from one crisis to the next. 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. Yet 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 offer feedback which now come our way can often obscure where real power lies. Marshall McLuhan’s dictum, that the medium is the message, is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If our rulers seem entranced by the medium of online information, perhaps that is because they have absolutely nothing else to say.