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Building Democratic Governance On The Internet

Above photo: Nathan Schneider.

The default form of governance on Internet platforms is “implicit feudalism,” Nathan Schneider provocatively declares in his new book Governance Spaces: Democratic Design for Online Life. Implicit feudalism is “a bias, both cultural and technical, for building communities as fiefdoms,” in which founders become “benevolent dictators for life,” he argues. 

Unfortunately, authoritarian governance is not confined to social media platforms. The same tendencies bleed into the “real world,” too, if only because the lines between online and “real life” have become quite blurry these days. Not surprisingly, our acquiescence to autocratic tech CEOs makes us more willing to accept authoritarian politicians as well. The crucibles of democratic practice have atrophied under advanced capitalism.

Schneider invites us to consider a daring idea, that “online spaces could be sites of creative, radical and democratic renaissance.”  He suggests we could “learn from governance legacies of the past to [make the Internet] a more democratic medium, responsive and inventive unlike anything that has come before.”

Intrigued by this gust of fresh air, I invited Schneider to join me on my Frontiers of Commoning podcast (Episode #49). Our conversation was a sobering tour through some distasteful zones of online culture, and yet it was oddly encouraging, too. New and emerging platform technologies offer some genuinely exciting possibilities – if progressive activism can find the imagination and resolve to leverage them.

Schneider is a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he directs the Media Economies Design Lab, an academic center that explores Internet culture from crypto-economics and DAOs (digital autonomous organizations) to various forms of digital commoning and beyond. What makes Schneider’s research so interesting is Schneider’s deep grounding in African-American and decolonial history, social movement strategies, feminist economics, cultural theory, and the utopian visions of early Internet history.

“In an age where social movements are so often running on the rails of the Internet,” Schneider asked, “How do we create durable power? How do we create critical connections that can enable a movement to fulfill its promises and viral messages? It seems to me that the ability to self-govern in digital space is central. But social movements are relying on networks that aren’t designed for building durable power. They’re designed for advertising and inflaming people.”

Schneider noted that social media tends to foster passivity and dependence on corporations, leaving no meaningful space for user sovereignty and control. He observed that

“when you fire up a new online space or chat on Discord or whatever platform you’re using, it invites you into a very top-down structure. Whoever creates the space has essentially absolute power over it. Your only tools for addressing conflict are censorship and exile. This is the logic of implicit feudalism, and I think it is an unfortunate school for building more democratic online spaces.”

And yet many such alternatives exist, he said, citing Mastadon, an open source Twitter-like micro-blogging site that uses cooperatively run servers.

To build a new type of democratic governance online, Schneider believes that progressives need to build a set of “governable stacks” – a software term that refers to a set of interoperable protocols that work at different technical levels. For example, he believes crypto – distributed ledger technologies like blockchain software – offers “a rupture of design possibilities.”

By enabling distributed, peer-to-peer communications, crypto opens up the possibility of more egalitarian, participatory power structures than those of websites, which rely on centralized servers that corporations generally control. At least as a practical imaginary, crypto is “a medium and gateway to a different world, a different politics, with different symbolic and mythological references points,” writes Schneider.

In fact, remarkable governance innovations are already being used in many crypto spaces, says Schneider. These innovations include decision-making processes that evaluate preferences in nearly real time; algorithmic dispute resolution; widely shared accountability and distribution of benefits; ease of exit and capacity to fork systems; self-enforcing security and censorship resistance; sovereignty from external control or regulation; and transparency of on-chain activity; and novel interfaces for governance activity; among other innovations.

Not all of these experiments will prove their worth over the long term for general purposes. It’s also true that much of the crypto world is overrun with scams, hustles, and speculative currency bubbles. As for DAOs, they may make networked coordination much easier, but coordination is not the same as democratic governance. Greater “user control” can simply mean more direct, frictionless marketplaces, such as a stock exchange, or new types of business partnerships and investment markets. Hardly a democratic breakthrough.

Here is where Schneider’s application of African-American history and decolonial writers proves so helpful. Thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis realized that it is not enough to abolish oppressive institutions, whether they are slavery, Jim Crow, or prisons, said Schneider. “You have to build alternative democratic structures that actually produce citizenship, belonging, and participation.  For Du Bois, a big part of that was cooperatives. He was a deep believer in everyday democracy as an essential practice for Black liberation.”

“If you go to the website of your average progressive advocacy organization, there’s no button to join,” Schneider complains, just a button to donate. The websites are not usually designed to help build a bottom-up membership or mobilize mass action. He argues that we need to design online tools that can “bring people up the ladder of engagement, from volunteering to leadership. Sites need to build and encourage people to develop power rather than just to discourse endlessly.”

There’s a lot more interesting stuff in my interview with Nathan Schneider. You can listen to it here. Schneider’s book, Governable Spaces, is available in open access format here. You may also want to check out my October 2020 interview with Nathan, in Episode #7   of this podcast.

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