Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Does the Unthinkable Come after Farce?

At the beginning of this year, I titled one of the final posts to my previous blog "Ignoring History: What comes after Farce?" I drew that title from the opening sentences of his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which probably deserve to be reproduced:

Hegel observes somewhere that all great incidents and individuals of world history occur, as it were, twice. He forget to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

These days we seem to have no end of opportunities to consider this lesson, and the Middle East should probably be given pride of place in the priority ordering. This particularly blog post, however, was not about military adventurism but about adventurism in cyberspace, specifically a debate over the legal rights of a Second Life avatar. I tried to argue that the history that could not afford to be ignored concerned "the emergence of governance in different gatherings of individuals, whether they are the Children of Israel wandering around in the desert after being released from their bondage in Egypt, the Founding Fathers of the United States, the enlightenment philosophers behind the French Revolution, the early settlers of Deadwood, or even the 'wizards' of LambdaMOO."

That last example is particularly appropriate to a story reported at the BBC NEWS site this morning. The story is about Kathy Sierra, author of the blog Creating Passionate Users, who began receiving death threats four weeks ago. Ms. Sierra has taken these threats seriously enough to cancel her appearance at ETech in San Diego yesterday, where she was a keynote speaker and suspend her blog. The BBC further reported:

Some supporters have temporarily suspended their blogs in a show of support while others are discussing the need for a bloggers' code of conduct.

Personally, I am not a reader of Creating Passionate Users; and I have little sympathy for the ways in which cults of celebrity status seem to be emerging throughout the blogosphere. As I explained when I created this particular blog, my primary interest in having a place to "rehearse" material that I am considering writing in more "serious" settings. Having readers is nice, as if having constructive feedback; but my primary interest is in expressing and then cleaning up "unkempt thoughts."

However, whether or not I have any feelings about the content of Creating Passionate Users or its author, I do feel strongly about a letter that Voltaire supposedly wrote to the Abbé le Riche on February 6, 1770:

Monsieur l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.

I would therefore question the wisdom of suspending blogging "in a show of support" when more substantive support can come from confronting the nature of the situation and discussing how it can be addressed.

So it is that I wish to return to the question of governance, and the best point of departure is the text of our own Declaration of Independence (hopefully without arguing over the masculine bias of the text):

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their CREATOR, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

If we grant the "right to blog" as "unalienable" (which I am willing to accept as a principle under the condition of arguing specific cases when necessary), then the Declaration stipulates that it is necessary to "secure" that right. It asserts that such security resides in the institution of government, subject to a set of constraints that we tend to take for granted in the "real world."

The question at stake, then, is whether such thinking can and/or should be translated from the "real world" to the "virtual world" of cyberspace and its many instantiations, such as the blogosphere and Second Life. This is where, in my own opinion, we should not ignore history, because, as my earlier blog tried to argue, even the short history of cyberspace has lessons to teach us. The particular lesson I invoked in that earlier post was the case of cyber-rape in LambdaMOO and the extent to which the administrative "wizards" of the LambdaMOO software "instituted" a level of government to "secure" the "unalienable Rights" of the LambdaMOO population.

Learning from this lesson, however, will not be an easy matter. LambdaMOO was a far more "closed society" than the blogosphere is; and the prospect of governing the entire blogosphere is probably about as feasible (let alone desirable) as that prospect of "governing" the entire Internet (whatever that may mean). Rather, we need to think in terms of whether or not more "closed" environments may be created within which governments may be instituted in a viable manner. Entering such an environment would then entail a "social contract" to accept its governing authority; and violation of the contract would be dealt with according to that governments rules, just as the LambdaMOO wizards could deal with the presence of a rapist in their community.

This involves much more than the sort of code of conduct cited in the BBC report. Indeed, it probably involves considerable time and commitment in an environment that has prided itself on the minimum of commitment required to make "the system" work. The lesson of history, however, is that minimal commitment will not longer cut it for the social consequences that are beginning to emerge; so it is time to "review the bidding." A good first step would be for one of the major blog managers, such as Google's Blogger, to review their current "ground rules" and start thinking in terms of a move towards a more institutionalized government, whose organization could be "inspired" by the principles of our own Declaration of Independence. The decision to use Blogger would then also be a "commitment of citizenship" and acceptance of the consequences entailed by that commitment. This is a pretty tall order for a concept that has long prided itself on its anarchic spirit, but the most important lesson from the experience of Kathy Sierra is that anarchy may have finally had its day. If governance is not to emerge, better that its emergence receive due consideration.

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