Friday, August 12, 2011

The Open Society and its New Enemies

I find it interesting that the name of Karl Popper has not come up in the recent discussions of the role of social media in mass protests, whether violent or nonviolent.  Popper will be remembered for many achievements, including a ten-minute argument with Ludwig Wittgenstein that David Edmonds and John Eidinow turned into a book of almost 350 pages, Wittgenstein’s Poker.  In this particular case, however, Popper’s relevant achievement is his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, whose Acknowledgements page includes “deeply indebted” recognition of Friedrich Hayek.  This is one of those books more talked about than read, particularly due to its influence on George Soros and Soros’ particular approach to philanthropy.

Popper’s “enemies list” is a short one, consisting essentially of Plato, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx, each of whom believed that “social order” had to be prescribed, rather than being allowed to evolve through a natural unfolding of events.  Plato tops this list for the advocacy of a controlled society that goes back to his “Republic;”  and Popper begins his book in terms of an imaginary debate between Plato and Pericles, the latter represented by the following sentence:

Although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it.

One can appreciate the sympathetic alliance between Popper and Hayek, since it is probably the case that Hayek was working on The Road to Serfdom at the same time that Popper was completing the first volume of The Open Society and Its Enemies, the one that focuses almost entirely on Plato.

There is a tendency to frame the open society concept as an early endorsement of radical libertarianism bordering on anarchy.  This explains much of the current debate, since cyberspace remains an anarchic “place” (to the extent that we can call it a place at all).  There are those who have tried to talk about governance, but those who talk the most about the concept tend to be those who have studied the concept the least and are just shooting from the hip.  They are countered by those who believe that the public should be deprived of any resource that can be used for sociopathic purposes, even if most of the uses of that resource are innocuous and some may actually be beneficial.  David Cameron seems to be the current cheerleader for this latter position;  and conditions in the United Kingdom are such that he has all three parties in the British Parliament joining in the cheers.  It is a little bit like the bipartisan enthusiasm for military action over here in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

When everyone is cheering the same thing, it is important to remember the wisdom of The Money Game, whose author published under the pseudonym “Adam Smith.”  The most important sentence in this book expresses the precept:

The crowd is always wrong.

Where the dangers of social software are concerned, Chris Matyszczyk has come up with a useful corollary in his Technically Incorrect blog on the CNET Blog Network:

I don't remember--before the advent of these heinous social media tools--plotters being blocked from using telephones. I don't remember conspirators or looters being prevented from, say, frequenting a pub or a Turkish bath because that's where they conducted their conspiring.

I know that this is very much in the same vein as the National Rifle Association’s favorite motto:

Guns don’t kill people;  people kill people.

Nevertheless, those who promote blocking the latest generation of digital technologies to support communication are doing nothing more that seeking out the most convenient scapegoat.

Those “happy few” with a sense of history can relate the current uproar to the debate over the Communications Decency Act during the Clinton Administration.  For those unaware of the reference, this was the first concerted effort on the part of our Congress to impose a framework for censoring Internet content.  It was a passionate debate;  and, as is almost always the case, the increase in passion was matched by an increase of silly propositions.  Diane Feinstein went as far as to declare that the Internet was hazardous because anyone could go there and learn how to build a bomb.  This left me wondering whether or not her next move would be to shut down all public libraries across the United States.

Popper made the right call by tracing it all back to Pericles.  Each of us is capable of judging the policies under which we live.  Our judgments may not always be properly informed;  but, for better or worse, they are embedded in our respective mindsets.  Back when I was deep in the throes of knowledge management research, a lot of evangelists liked to talk about a new world of “shared understanding.”  Ultimately, I realized that this was a fool’s errand, simply because that concept is inconsistent with the social axioms behind an open society.  Understanding may be negotiated to a point where opposing parties can live with each other’s difference, and that will always be far more realistic than aspiring to everyone embracing a common point of view.

How does this relate to mass protest?  When opinions differ, the worst thing that one side can do is exercise power to a point where any opposing side will “pass unnoticed.”  Social software makes it easier for those who hold a minority opinion to discover each other and to unite to an extent to which it is harder for them to pass unnoticed by the majority.  Once they become noticed, their opposition can try to shut them down (which is almost always counterproductive);  or it can recognize the need to establish negotiated understanding.  Unfortunately, those with power tend to prefer the former option, lest any negotiation lead to giving up some of that power that takes priority over all other values.

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