Today's date:
Spring 2011

Social Networks vs. Governing Authority

The overthrow of autocracy in Egypt and Tunisia has demonstrated that the connectivity of Twitter and Facebook can foment revolution. Clearly, virtual technologies can unite a diaspora of the disaffected and mobilize them into a physical throng occupying Cairo’s Tahrir Square. As the more liberal elements of the Arab rebels are now finding out, however, upheaval is not governance. You can’t tweet a constitution.

It is also apparent that, despite globalization, we don’t yet live in historically parallel times. While social networks may unite those who challenge a system such as Egypt’s where the people’s voice was not heard, they can fragment a society such as the United States where every voice is heard, paralyzing the capacity to find common ground and act collectively.

The great question for the future therefore is how to balance the participatory power of social networks with the legitimate governing authority required to provide for the common good and sustain a society over the long term.

As connectivity converges with the other new reality of the 21st century—mega-urbanization—all societies must address this issue from their different starting points. This is particularly true of China, where the McKinsey Global Institute projects 15 megacities with more than 20 million inhabitants each by mid-century.

The architect and urban theorist Rem Koolhaas has argued that the Internet is like the metropolitan city where many spontaneous events take place simultaneously without coordination, a riotous collage without coherence that is a celebration of diversity. George Yeo, Singapore’s foreign minister, has similarly noted that the Internet expresses the complexity of urban relationships in China today which profoundly unsettle the traditional hierarchies of the agricultural order upon which both Confucianism and the Communist Party, organized as a peasant movement, were founded.

If China’s modern mandarinate doesn’t create participatory space for that vast country’s increasingly empowered voices, its brittle authority will break. If technologically empowered diversity in the West undermines any sense of commonality and the ability to govern on that basis, democracy, divided against itself, will fail. Both need balance in their own way as they face a common future.

The intensification of participatory feedback loops through close urban connectivity will enable self-governance to become more intelligent. As the arcologist Paolo Soleri has posited, the distance and time that block information response will be obliterated by wired density, thus mimicking the miniature circuitry of the brain.

At the same time, by amplifying individual behavior several million fold the mega-urban condition can turn the sanity of retail choice into wholesale madness. After a certain threshold, the collective consequence of individual mobility is the immobility of congested gridlock. The carbon exhaust of millions of individual cars in cities with millions of people can add up to climate change.

To realize its potential, the mega-urban world needs “civic software” that not only fosters the intelligence of connectivity through transparency and participation but also balances empowered individuals and social networks with institutions that filter short-term, self-interested demands in the name of the common good.

In environmental terms, the efficient intelligence of wired density will necessarily clash with the industrialized desire of consumer culture. Frugality, the wise husbanding of scarce resources, will become the premier civic virtue of an urban planet.

Just as it was for the ancient Greeks, governance today and in the future is about the rule of reason over the unrestrained “appetites” of every individual that would result in a war of all against all. The new challenge is that, in the global public square of cyberspace, all hierarchy is leveled and all authority disputed, from illegitimate Arab autocrats to the rule of reason itself.

As David Brin, author of The Transparent Society, has argued, the spread of knowledge through technology has given birth to “the age of amateurs,” where ordinary individuals possess the same information as doctors or governors. Not only is knowledge shared, but everything is exposed to everyone through Wikileaks or YouTube, whether beaten Tibetan monks censored on Chinese TV, Kim Kardashian’s sex life or President Obama’s diplomatic secrets.

In such open societies where nothing can be hidden and everything is known the compact between rulers and ruled must be rethought anew. As Jack Dorsey, the inventor of Twitter, asks, “Who will control whom?”

That is surely also the question on the minds of China’s leaders looking out at the information age from behind the walled Forbidden City compound of Zhongnanhai where they live and work. Indeed, a recent column in the official China Daily opined that “Twitter and Google are manufacturers of chaos.” While “controlled anarchy and creative chaos have their charms, will they last for long before demands ring out for order?” Brin asks from a different set of worries.

It also concerns Brin that, despite the leveling power of the Internet, all information is not equal. Too much information flowing from all directions can inundate cultural bandwith with indecipherable noise, clogging the synapses that carry the feedback of intelligence. Oceans of information are available but, as Brin warns, much of it is unverified, plain wrong or just outright lies. Yet, it is embraced nonetheless as truth by like-minded social networks and enters the discourse along with everything else. (Think the “birthers” who believe Barack Obama was not born in America.)

Brin acknowledges that the “centrifugal” tendencies which threaten to tear a transparent society into a million pieces need to be countered by “centripetal” forces that draw adversarial groups back together. He suggests “disputation arenas” to balance out different interests and contest ideas—not unlike the aim of institutions of deliberative democracy.  He also calls for “truth cells” to keep government and “professional cabals” accountable.

While censorship is out of the question, Dorsey does suggest that a key mediating function within transparent societies must be editing capacity “to filter information up instead of out.” If meaning cannot be separated from data or truth from falsehood the information age risks becoming the age of non-communication.

In a “follow-up” to the paperback edition of The Transparent Society, Brin poses two questions raised by his further reflections, the first of which would apply to China’s mandarinate and the second of which would apply to America’s consumer democracy.

First, he asks, “What accumulations of power are best controlled by forcing accountability on them” through the new tools of transparency?

Second, he asks, “Do we need new social innovations to help unite and draw us together while we fly apart into a million tribes?”

Addressing these issues, Tung Chee Hwa, the Beijing-blessed former governor of raucous, high-rise Hong Kong, put it succinctly in a recent conversation: “We need to balance Facebook with the Party,” he says.  One could put it precisely the other way around as well: The Party needs to be balanced by Facebook.

Both China’s meritocratic mandarinate and the West’s one-man-one-vote democracy face the same challenge from different points of departure. For both, intelligent governance for our urban planet must be legitimated by performance and checked by transparency, accountability and participation.

Nathan Gardels, editor