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[OP-ED] Peter Fein at #PDF12: 'Democracy Is Obsolete'

BY Peter Fein | Tuesday, June 12 2012

Peter Fein. Photo: Esty Stein / PDM

Peter Fein is an agent of Telecomix, which has been described as tech support for the Arab Spring. He gave a talk Tuesday at Personal Democracy Forum in New York. These are his remarks as prepared for delivery, which we are publishing as an op-ed.

I'm going to tell you a story about the future, and the past, and the Internet. I'm here today to tell you that democracy is obsolete. Obsolete doesn't mean worn out, but rather out of date. That we've found better ways of doing something that are cheaper, faster or scale to larger numbers of people. An axe wears out chopping down cherry trees; your first generation iPod still works, but it's obsolete.

Things that are obsolete don't magically disappear and the leftovers are called legacies. Legacies can hang around for quite a long time, because they're large and pervasive and the costs of upgrading all at once are too high. As we push them further and further beyond their limits, legacies accumulate cruft, grow more and more massive. Audio cassette tapes are obsolete; signing your name when you pay by credit card is legacy. If you think this has nothing to do with politics, remember we still name our months after Roman emperors who have been dead for two thousand years.

I'm going to tell a very abbreviated story about democracy and obsolesence. When we talk about democracy, we a mean form of government where citizens vote for a representative who goes off to the seat of power and represents your interests and makes decisions on your behalf. This is the model of the US Constitution, which has been exported around the world and been scaled up & down from your local school board to the United Nations. In 1789, we needed representatives because it took three days to get a letter from Boston to Washington DC, if it arrived at all. Democracy is government for the horseback age.

But this more or less works for about 100 years, so let's skip ahead to the invention of radio, which should finally obsolete hand written letters. But radio never gets a chance to fully develop, because in the late 1920s, it's completely taken over by the government and commercial interests and becomes a one-way broadcast mass medium. While Germany gets the Nazis, in the US we still have this legacy of a horseback democracy. Representation doesn't really scale though, so we implement larger and larger bureaucracies. A "free press" is no longer a literal printing press, but a commercially controlled, government blessed institution. Go forward three generations and the state and the market and the law have completely eaten everything else. There's no space left, to the point where we have non-profits and non-governmental organizations with no identity of their own.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the end of history. In 1996, we get the Internet on speed dial. Within just a few years, broadcast mass media is obsolete. This leaves us some big crufty legacies, like CNN's millions of Twitter followers and the NY Times. The net allows for richer, faster, cheaper communications, directly from person-to-person. So we hope that the Internet will allow us to build a "real democracy" as Doug Rushkoff called it, or fret as he did that it won't, as if we could somehow return to a mythic past that's already several generations obsolete.

Then in 2011, the world just seems to go nuts - the revolution will be tweeted, there's Wikileaks, and Anonymous, and Tahrir and the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous again and the SOPA blackout and huge street protests against ACTA. Yet we keep viewing these events through an obsolete mass media lens. While we know that you can't just add twitter and water and watch your democracy grow, we still have no way to explain what's happening. I've had the privilege of participating in a quite a few of these movements in the past two years. I think we need some new words.

Adhocracy exists in the spaces left over and in between. It's a politics of practice and oral tradition. While I can stand up here and try to explain adhocracy to you like a high school teacher, it's kinda like sex - you can't really understand it until you do it. But here are a few stories about what its like under the covers.

Telecomix is an adhoc activist cluster of a few hundred humans and machines- programmers, network admins, students, punks, politicians, pirates, parents and others. Journalist John Pollock said the Libyan resistance was a network of cousins - you need a ride, or some guns, you get it from a cousin, or from a cousin's cousin. In that sense, Telecomix is a network of friends and datalovers.

We have no formal members, we have no leaders, we have no permanent subgroups. We're all volunteers - we take no money at all, we have no mailing address, there's nowhere you can send a package. We certainly have no official spokespeople. If Telecomix exists anywhere, it's in our chat networks and the relationships of the people who participate. We operate on a simple principle: you show up, find collaborators, and just go do.

I'll be honest, mostly we hang out and chat and do nothing. People have other interests and occupations - remember, it's ad-hoc. But some days, we help keep the Internet running in the Middle East - the press calls us tech support for the Arab Spring. We've deployed advanced encryption and built drones, rebuilt dial up modem pools and spammed fax machines with treatments for teargas. When the Mubarak government blocked Twitter, Egyptians found our chat network and gave us news reports that we tweeted using our account - that's the kind of facilitation of communication that we do. Like the rest of the Internet, Telecomix is put together with bubble gum and popsipcle sticks - some days the server crashes, or gets DDOS'd or someone forgets to pay the domain bill and nothing seems to ever get written down. This turns out to be a good thing, because when the Internet breaks, we can get some more popsicle sticks and go fix it. When the net went down in Egypt, Telecomix didn't call Ron Wyden to call Hillary Clinton to call Obama to call Mubarak and say "pleeeease turn the Internet back on". Instead we took direct action- we got out some modems and faxes and just did it ourselves.

Though Telecomix is just a bunch of telecommunist cipherhippies, we don't have a bank account mainly because we couldn't be bothered to set one up. The paperwork and the forms and incorporation, and "what country is this all located in, sir?" - it's a huge amount of bureaucratic overhead. If you're focused on getting things done, it's actually more cost effective to simply not use money at all.

No really, this works better. The State Department invited me to a workshop on Internet freedom, and after five days of back and forth emails about travel logistics, I finally gave up and booked my own plane ticket. When Telecomix started our Syria operation last July, we had network scans and contacts on the ground inside three days. Those scans uncovered evidence that a US company called Blue Coat's hardware was being used by the Syrian government to censor the net. Within six months we built front page stories on Slashdot and the Wall Street Journal and then politicked in the European Union, which for the first time ever enacted export controls on Internet censorship hardware. A dozen people can set in motion a loose chain of events ending in a change of international law in less time than it takes the goverment to buy a plane ticket.

While this may seem all very new and networked and cool, adhocracy is actually quite old. I met an anthropoligist who's spent the past 20 years studying rural villages in Latin America. She told me they'll have a meeting; 300 people will get together and sit around and talk and argue for an hour or two and nothing really seems to be decided. And then two days later, a bridge has been built. We already know how to do this - adhocracy is as common as negotiating where to go for dinner or seat swaps on an airplane.

Ad-hoc movements are popping up because our formal political institutions have failed - the U.N.'s ongoing inability to act in Syria being an egregious example. We think regressive laws like SOPA & ACTA are a threat to the Internet, and they are, but the radical disconnect between the policies they propose and the practice of our day-to-day lives is in fact a greater threat to the rule of law itself. Politics is no longer left vs. right- it's Internet vs. television.

When you have an obsolete legacy system on the edge of collapse, it can be tempting to just throw it out and start fresh. But experience with technology teaches us to avoid this if we can- revolution is expensive and risky. It doesn't work so well when you have a large, dependent user base and it often turns out you know less than you thought you did going in. Instead, you have to replace a legacy piece by piece from the bottom up. We need to starve the beast- not of dollars, but of our personal investment and energy. It took a long, long time to get into this mess, and the struggle to rebuild a better world is going to take the rest of our lives.

The question we need to ask is not what our country can do for us, or what we can do for our country, but rather what can we rebuild, for ourselves, for each other and for our Internet.