Wikileaks as Distributed Governance

Hannah Arendt begins The Human Condition with an account of a world in which “speech has lost its power,” where scientific omnipotence is achieved through the manipulation of mathematical equations whose sense escapes even the mathematicians’ capacity to intuit, and the decision to unleash destructive nuclear powers has been foisted upon non-scientists who are even more ignorant than the scientists of the dark sorceries they control, struck mute by the unprecedented scale of the esoteric annihilation of atomic physics. The crucial connection between communication and comprehension has been severed, and the proper order in speech and silence has been tragically reversed. In the pages that follow, Arendt supplies and elaborates a hierarchical account of human activities, where the uncommunicative aspects of Arendt’s picture of the dystopian modern world are supplanted with a romantic sense of self-assertion and the achievements and honors of public life. Speech is impotent, but it cannot be restored to power through more talking. Rather, this dumb incomprehension can only be corrected by mending the world so that “men in the plural” can again “experience meaningfulness… and make sense to each other and themselves.”

I mention this because of a comment from John D, who summarizes the utopianism of the Irish futurist Johnny Ryan:

his suggestion is that increasing transparency is going to be an inevitable consequence of the internet. And that the Wikileaks programme is really only the first step in the transition to a new form of distributed governance. In other words, a step towards a kind of large-scale participative democracy which would have been impractical in previous eras due to geographical and communicative impediments. The internet has removed those impediments and so the traditional (representative) system of governance-by-elites can now be supplanted/attacked. He thinks that this, in effect, is what is now happening and that we will be witnessing the death throes of governance-by-elites over the coming years.

(And who knows? this distributed system of governance might lead to better decision-making for reasons advanced by, say, epistemic democrats, i.e. Jury theorems etc – although obviously such theorems are built on questionable assumptions.)

This may all be a little pie-in-the-sky. It certainly raises plenty of important questions: Are the distributed systems of governance going to operate within traditional nation-state borders? What about the truly authoritarian regimes? Can they be dragged, kicking and screaming into this new reality? What about the poor who lack access to the same ICT-infrastructure?

But perhaps it also explains the attractions of transparency to some and can lead to new arguments in favour of (and against) organisations such as Wikileaks.

Here’s Ryan:

where I think we are going in the longer term, beyond transparency and more representative candidates, is toward a system of network governance that gives the public much more responsibility in decision making. For the first time in history we have an infrastructure for consensus decision making among large numbers of people (think Wikipedia) that may allow us to radically reform how we govern ourselves.

This may well be where we’re headed, but I’m skeptical that this will be better than what we had. Evidence suggests that the governance dynamic for anonymous public editing doesn’t scale well or democratically. In any case, it’s a governance problem distinct from the problems facing states and non-encyclopedic institutions.

Steve Maloney and I have written about the problem of existential threats in fair epistemic proceduralism here. Other issues include Lawrence Lessig’s arguments in “Against Transparency” and Cass Sunstein’s arguments about Group Polarization in Republic.com 2.0 (more here).

Second Opinions