A slim crisis — a review of Disruptive Power

cover of Disruptive Power

Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age by Taylor Owen

From the book:

Coupled with the power that is derived by the state’s increasing sophistication in this space — whether through automation, biometrics, or the new forms of social control and the violence they enable — there is reason to question the narrative of empowerment that has been explored throughout this book.

Emphasis added. This quote comes from page 184 (of 210). That is 88% of the way into the book. It reflects my frustration with this book, as I spent much of my time questioning the “narrative of empowerment.”

Owen does a good job giving an overview of the state of tech and the state. Each chapter tackles big issues in tech and the way we govern ourselves: “activists, humanitarians, journalists, … terrorists”. All the usual suspects make an appearance — Anonymous, Bitcoin, Ushahidi — and the tried and true analysts like Shirky, Benkler, and Castells are cited at length.

But there is a shocking lack of critique.

A simple example:

Anyone can now disseminate information on a new media infrastructure. Blogs, social networks, and the wider Internet all allow people to self-publish and have the capacity to reach most people around the globe.

This completely ignores the inherent power imbalances the incumbents have (ie. talent pools, media relationships, existing audiences etc). Joe Sixpack blogger != CNN. This kind of statement has been debunked time and again. Throughout Disruptive Power there are a number of these observations which are seated more in the cyberutopian wishful thinking of the 1990s, than the analyses bourne out in the past few years.

Throughout the book Owen derides hierarchy, lauding liquid democracy and the “flat” structure of Occupy Wall Street. This belies how fractured and terrible the decision-making was/is in OWS and the Pirate Party. Owen pits hierarchy against networked organizations — yet, hierarchy is simply a type of network architecture. The book is riddled with such simplifications, and it detracts from his overall argument.

Owen cites tech critics like Evgeny Morozov, so he is surely aware of the negative aspects of the tech-boosterism he seems engaged in. His Twitter activity is also evidence of this. So why is this book so one-sided? Later in the book Owen takes on a more critical tone, and these chapters are much more satisfying. It is almost like this book was written in the same order it is presented, and the longer he researched, the more nuanced his opinion became.

A more likely hypothesis is length: Disruptive Power is a mere 210 pages (plus endnotes), and gives a whirlwind tour of some very large trends. Books have been written on each of the chapter topics. Owen barely scratches the surface. I would have liked him to add another 120 or so pages and include a more rounded-out argument. Disruptive Power may be a good primer on these topics, but it is not a thorough critical analysis. Read it as the beginning of a journey into this topic, not to get caught up on the current state of affairs.

Author: Chad Kohalyk

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