Wirearchy at 10

When I ran across the Guardian piece excerpted below, I was prompted to reflect on the concept that has framed much of my interest and attention for the past 10 years, namely, how the Web is having impact on the ways we now interact and why, and how those are expressed in social habits and institutions.

If anything, I see elements of the principle I call wirearchy – a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a  focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology – appearing more clearly and more frequently than ever before.  The impacts on traditional power structures have positive and negative aspects, and most of what is happening is well understood by theorists in a range of fields.  Yes, the Web has wrought disruptive major change, and yes, much of what it is used for (but not all) is operating not far from the hands of corporate / government control and commercial purpose.

But, do we know how potent will be the combinations of technology and anthropology yet to come, as they come face-to-face with a world characterized by the need to benefit from widespread collaboration illuminated by a shimmering digitally-infinite wall of commercial white noise ?

I don’t for a moment think it’s all wonderful and that the Web will save the world (but I am sure that if anything can, the Web will play a role in whatever it is) … I am with the researcher / author in the Guardian piece quoted below:

What I have come to conclude is that who we are on the web is simply a reflection of who we already are offline. We project hierarchical systems into the virtual world. We extend our interests and make them happen using the tools the web provides. We seek out things that make us feel good about ourselves.

The web is a mirror, and we have to face it in confidence, warts and all.



Democratic, but dangerous too: how the web changed our world

In two decades the world wide web has become the most powerful information tool since Gutenberg’s printing press, but also the most intrusive and threatening. Aleks Krotoski, presenter of a major new series on the history of the net, reports:

On Thursday, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, gave a speech on internet freedom at a journalism museum in Washington, arguing that the architecture of the web must be free from censorship and manipulation. It is a position that stands in stark contrast with the approach of countries, including China, Egypt and Iran, that seek to curb access – and while there was a whiff of economic self-protectionism in Clinton’s words, she opened up the floor to a global discussion about the potential revolutionary power of this invention.

Less than two decades after it came into being, the web is now a pawn in an international public policy debate that could create rifts between nations so deep that they lay the foundation for future wars.

For the past year, I have been working on Virtual Revolution, a four-part documentary series for BBC2, co-produced by the Open University. It aims to identify the true political, economic, social and psychological implications of this new technology. I spoke to an extraordinary cast of characters including the web pioneers, the e-entrepreneurs, and the sceptics who have seen it all before.

We identified the new power brokers in our society, whose non-traditional ascents through the web have challenged hundreds of years of hierarchy. We found the kids who took down the economic, communication and political pillars of an entire country with the press of a button. We looked at the tactics extremists use to radicalise new recruits, and compared them to the methods that have proved so successful in getting a generation that had been dismissed as dispassionate involved in politics.

We also looked at how the trails of information that we leave across the web are not only redefining privacy, but are creating feedback loops that may be narrowing our horizons, rather than opening our eyes to the new. And we discovered how the web is changing how we think and who we are.

I started the journey travelling through Ghana with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the unassuming Englishman who put the first website in history online on 6 August 1991.

[ Snip … ]

The web has brought about an enormous transformation in what information we have at our fingertips. It is extremely empowering: every­one has the freedom to participate in the library of knowledge collected online, by accessing it or creating it. Anyone who has historically held control over the distribution of information – governments, media, agents – is having to reposition in the face of this information tsunami.

“Individuals without great wealth or bases of power and the industrial world economy can exert influence on others who find their ideas resonating with them,” Gore said. “It is inherently democratising and egalitarian and promotes a greater role for the rule of reason.”

It is always dangerous, however, to be blinded by idealism. The web is undoubtedly a transformative technology on a par with the printing press, but it’s difficult to believe that it will bring the end of inequality or will eradicate international conflict. In fact, some have learned to manipulate the web’s power for their own ends.

When this sits well with our personal politics, we celebrate. A 25-year-old from San Francisco can create a piece of software that opens up a channel of communication on the violent streets of post-election Iran, giving protesters the ability to transmit what is happening to the rest of the world. Teenagers in London can organise mass protests on climate change, rallying people from around the country to march on a coal-fired power station in Nottinghamshire. But when the same techniques and tools are used to radicalise new recruits to fundamentalist causes, to attack a country’s banks and newspapers, or to promote propaganda within authoritarian states, the web becomes something to condemn.

The debate becomes even more personal when you consider how our use of this overwhelmingly commercial space is transforming what privacy means in the 21st century. As we traipse across the web, our trails of personal information are captured and manipulated. We get services for free, but our actions are analysed to produce precisely targeted advertising that funds the companies behind the websites.

The greatest shock to most people is that we willingly create this commercial pact when we think we’re alone. A Google search, for example, transcends the barrier between what we view as public and what we view as private. When we do a search on our computers at home, in the office or on the road, we have a misplaced sense we are transacting only with our machine. In fact, when we type a query in Google’s search box, we are divulging our intentions to a technology located across the planet, with hundreds of potential eyeballs sifting through our search terms for the perfect advertising match. Yet we still treat it lik
e an oracle, asking it deeply personal questions and looking for answers in its computer brain.

The surveillance implications for this are clear, but there are wider cultural implications when the money people behind the scenes get their rewards for feeding us exactly what we want. Amazon’s recommendation engine, Last.fm’s social music service, even news sites such as the Huffington Post, reduce the possibility for serendipity by serving up what they think we want, channelling us into a loop of confirmation. As author Douglas Rushkoff says: “The more like one of my kind of person I become, the less me I am, and the more I am a demographic type.”

Socially, this is as potentially damaging as what the extremists peddle; we are coagulating into tight-knit groups who reinforce our own beliefs. It’s a far cry from the global group hug that web proponents such as Fry or Gore had hoped it would be.

In addition, the web may be fundamentally changing how we think. There is evidence that there is a generational difference between how children and adults consume information online. A team of researchers led by Professor David Nicholas, of the independent research group Ciber, at University College London, has begun a series of experiments to test whether the architecture of the web put into place by Berners-Lee is transforming the connections in our brains. A lifetime of use seems to be having a cognitive effect.

Under-18s who have grown up with the web are better at multi-tasking. They also spend less time searching for information before deciding on what they view as the best answer to a question. Most intriguingly, the youngest users, born after 1993, “crowdsource” their knowledge: they look for the wisdom of their friends, networking what they know, rather than holding on to the information for themselves.

My PhD research looked at the social psychological implications of our interactions online. What I have come to conclude is that who we are on the web is simply a reflection of who we already are offline. We project hierarchical systems into the virtual world. We extend our interests and make them happen using the tools the web provides. We seek out things that make us feel good about ourselves. The web is a mirror, and we have to face it in confidence, warts and all.

Our relationship with the web is a synergy: as it matures, so will we. And as it draws us into its networks and its hyperlinks, we will shape them in our global image. It is the most revolutionary evolution that we as a planet have ever participated in. “The sorts of things which the internet brings by connecting people,” Berners-Lee said to me while we were travelling to a community centre in Abiriw, outside Accra, “is openness and understanding of other people’s ideas.

“On a good day,” he added. “I hope we have a lot of good days.”




Hi, Euan, Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I remember your blog post. I too will look forward to seeing the work, and I appreciate TBL’s last line above.

“I hope we have a lot of good days.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *