Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic: mapping the drivers behind social media, companies and states in the public sphere

My own view of this space was initially shaped in 2004, after I first watched Laurence Lessig’s Free Culture OSCON talk. I became more conscious of the earlier debates (which continue today) around freedom and the online sphere.

Back then, I took comfort knowing we had a map of the terrain; we knew the players and their power. On the one side sat organizations like Mozilla and the leverage provided it by Firefox. On the other was Microsoft with its platform, marketing budget and customer base. As it turns out, a small, and effectively self-organized subset of the public (Mozilla & others) was able to tackle a de facto monopoly (Microsoft) and win.

Snowden (and Evgeny Morozov had much to say on this before Snowden) crystallized in the public’s mind that the real challenge to freedom on the internet is not companies, but states. China and Russia (and even the UK) offer a view into a dystopian world of persistent surveillance, while the NSA’s activities (and the US government’s response to his leaks) have destroyed people’s confidence in it as a model — particularly for non-Americans using US-based online services. In my mind, the biggest consequence of Snowden is that the United States functionally legitimized mass surveillance. While this prompted some governments to (publicly) recoil in horror, I suspect many more said “I’d like that too, thank you.” The post-Snowden era is defined by the state’s overt efforts to reassert control over the online space, particularly via company proxies. In the battle of the internet versus the state, today states want to win, and are comfortable saying as much publicly.

Probably not the right breakdown…

Given all this, for those of us who believe the internet should be a place where people can work, debate, shop and live without the threat of persistent surveillance, it is easy to assume certain actors are inherently good or evil. Governments must be evil — and the online public sphere, those organizing via social media must be good.

But nothing is ever that simple. And the good/neutral/evil moniker is almost never a fixed thing for a group of actors. So what is a more helpful frame?

No map is perfect, but as a simple tool to tease these differences out, I’ve enjoyed leveraging a current internet meme about good, neutral and evil. There are an endless number of these (the computer geek and The Office examples are particularly fun), but as I enjoy The Princess Bride, here’s an example:

Recreating a chart like this in the online space, I see countries as (generally) concerned with control, companies with money, and social media as chaotic. This description, albeit still imperfect, is at least accurate around what I believe to be the fixed variable:

Lawful Neutral and ChaoticThis in turn helps provide a frame for a conversation around how these actors behave. Take social media (a nebulous actor at best, I know). Several years back, Ethan Zuckerman, while talking about his then upcoming book, described the online social media environment as a giant unpredictable ball which people try to push or temporarily sway (at the time the Stop Kony movement was an example). I see him now as describing the public sphere, with its diverse interests, opinions, goals and ideas constantly clashing and in flux, as inherently chaotic. While this was true of an old bazaar, one element that make the online public sphere particularly chaotic is its ability to scale up in ways that were previously more difficult, and at a much faster pace.

However, there is nothing about the discussions in the public sphere — in person or online—that are inherently good. A public sphere conversation can be as much about promoting racism or doxxing activists as it can be about ending tyranny.

So here are some illustrative examples of where some actors are currently positioned in relation to some of the policy debates I think about.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 12.39.18 PMSome observations

First, I’m sure people will find reasons to disagree with the choices above — although the X axis is relatively fixed in my eyes, the Y axis is both more fluid and subjective. My goal is less about accuracy than to help provide a framework for thinking about this space and prompting conversation. If it causes you to debate where actors fall, or maybe where your own employer or country falls, great.

Second, it also outlines the challenge around some policy debates. In 2005 the focus of those who cared for freedom, privacy and self-expression on the internet focused (more) on companies. Post-Snowden, companies matter, but the real challenge is the state. There are legitimate reasons why a state would want to surveil a specific target: child pornography, terrorism, etc… what I think people fear about is the capacity for institutionalized mass-surveillance.

And by legitimizing such mass-surveillance, the US has prompted more actors in the “state/lawful” column to move downward towards (what I would define as) evil. More critically, these state actors are asserting significant pressure on the companies (the neutral column) to move downward to help them fulfill that objective.

The current strategy, as I see it, is to grow the “chaotic good” group as a way to try to first counterbalance the state and its efforts to coerce companies, but to ultimately shift the state upward to at least a neutral and ideally a “good” place. There is a world of lawful, limited surveillance. The question is how are we going to ensure it is created.

Third, your allies are probably not other actors in your column — so people who look, organize or act like you. Rather your allies are people in your row. So how do you connect, empower, leverage and enable them?

Fourth, one thing I like about the above is that social media and self-organization genuinely is chaotic. It is also often far better at protesting and “tearing something down” than it is at building something. Stopping a proposed law or seeking to destabilize a government is something social media has been effective at. Creating an alternative law, or forming a coherent government in waiting, much less so.

Finally, I am deeply conscious of several actors who aren’t listed and not sure where I would put them. EFF (lawful good?), Mozilla (Chaotic good?), W3C (true neutral — although the DRM stuff…?), so none of this is perfect.

Again, I’m playing around with this to try to build tools that simplify some complex thinking around players, organize the online sphere, and make it easier for people to access the conversation. Feedback, public or private, is always great.

One thought on “Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic: mapping the drivers behind social media, companies and states in the public sphere

  1. Erhardt Graeff

    David, I like this attempt to create a framework for the forces at play in the contemporary public sphere. I am curious about how we might classify the relative or temporal power of these categories. I also want to note that while Iceland is a great model for aspiring to Lawful Goodness, the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative that was meant to usher in a free media that protects data privacy has yet to actually be implemented and this has been reflected in its slippage on various media freedom indices since the resolution was originally proposed. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2015/iceland

    Reply

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