Towards an information-centric political philosophy

It took about 100 years of the Industrial Age before Karl Marx introduced a revolutionary new political philosophy centered on the most important issue affecting citizens of the day: labour. One hundred and fifty years later, nearly a half century into the Information Age, we have yet to move on. The increasingly numerous knowledge-worker proletariat has not mobilized for a political philosophy centered around the most important commodity of our time: information. As Future Perfect author Steven Johnson put it of his own country: “The United States is still living with an operating system that was conceived and designed before railroads were invented.”

As I see it, there are two major facets of information that are critical for our society: manipulation and control.

The manipulation of information (ability to find, filter, analyze, etc) is key to being a productive citizen, and it is what we are trying to teach our children. More and more of our understanding in the fields of commerce, biology, climate science, sociology, etc. hinge on advancements in computing and networking capabilities. So many of our problems as a society are being recast as information problems. Having the skills to parse these problems is increasingly necessary.

Second, the control of information (transparency, privacy, surveillance, encryption, copyright, etc) is a critical question for our times. For the past 150 years Marxists have decried the exploitation of labour and encouraged citizens to value their labour and use it as a source of power. Today, whether it is the NSA or Facebook, it is information exploitation that needs to be brought to the attention of the general public. Institutions are learning to become more transparent and individuals are learning that they need to be better at controlling which of their information is public and private.

Thus, the engaged citizen of the 21st century must be information savvy (able to manipulate and control information) for both personal and economic reasons and deserves a political philosophy that reflects this reality. I am temporarily labeling such a philosophy “Information Politics”.

The alternatives

For the part of society that is already directly engaged in the manipulation and control of information (ie. the technology industry) there are typically four competing political movements available to choose from: libertarianism, crypto-anarchism, the Pirate movement and peer progressivism.

Whether or not libertarianism is rampant amongst the meritocratic digerati of Silicon Valley has been the subject of recent debate between New Yorker Columnist George Packer and author Steven Johnson. However, libertarian philosophy centers around personal liberty and private property. It is rooted in the anti-nobility movements of the 17th century. There are dozens of variations of libertarianism but what can be said is that “information” does not play a central role in the core political philosophy. It is the product of a different age.

Crypto-anarchism — with the rallying cry of “freedom through encryption!” — is considered a subcategory of libertarianism. It makes privacy a central tenet, as well as control of information through its advocacy of encryption technologies. Although I think it was an important contribution in the 1990s, there is not enough depth for a revolutionary political philosophy.

The Pirate Party movement rose out of the anti-copyright internet culture. The founder, Rick Falkvinge, thinks that “self-empowerment of the identity” is the “core” of their philosophy. The Pirate Wheel is his attempt to flesh out the niche pirate theme of copyright into a wider political philosophy. Like the internet, the Pirate movement is borderless. Yet, I find it interesting that even though the organizational operations of the Pirate Party reflect the internet, the method of action has been to participate in the staid domestic political systems based on Westphalian states, rather than taking a more disruptive approach.

Peer progressivism, as proposed by Steven Johnson in Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age (my review here) positions itself as an alternative to libertarianism. The philosophy is network-centric rather than information centric, but it has the advantage of being formed in an era with vast distributed communications networks, something the libertarian philosophers of the 17th century lacked. Future Perfect also impressed David Ronfeldt (of netwar fame). See his 4 part runthrough (1, 2, 3, 4)
of the book, comparing it to his own TIMN theoretical framework. Although I will not go into it here, I think peer progressivism shares many characteristics of the type of philosophy I am looking for, but the emphasis is slightly different.

In conclusion, of the four current alternatives, there seems to be no established fit for my ideal of Information Politics. I cannot seem to find an academic or thinker or philosopher attacking this problem of finding a political philosophy for the information age.

Questions going forward

In my search for Information Politics, I am left with a number of questions:

  • can Peer Progressivism turn into Information Politics? What about the Pirate movement?
  • or is Information Politics really just a subset of libertarianism? Could there be another classical root?
  • what does functional politics in IP look like? Liquid democracy? Participatory budgeting?
  • can this even fit into current (19th C) democratic political process?

Also, what kinds of questions need to be answered by a political philosophy in general?

  • economic theory
  • national security
  • international affairs (as a transnational movement, we might have the advantage of a ground up apolitical solution here)
  • native rights
  • climate change
  • justice

What are some core values of such a philosophy?

  • democratization
  • decentralization
  • access to information
  • transparency
  • freedom of information (copyright)
  • protection of privacy
  • shared innovation
  • meritocracy
  • the “network”
  • technology as a force for progress

Conclusion

I have been rolling this concept around in my mind for a few months now, and have built up many notes and articles. Unfortunately, I cannot dedicate enough time searching out resources. I expect there is an academic out there that has already gone over this ground. I would appreciate it if you all could suggest readings for me, or connect me to people who I could talk to to further develop my thinking on this problem. Heck, if you can come up with a snappier name, that’d be great! Please send me your feedback either by (encrypted) email or comment on Hacker News.

Author: Chad Kohalyk

Bellatrist, communitarian, tech contrarian. Generous with Likes. http://chadkohalyk.com