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"Hypercivility"? Or the "War of All Against All"? Mark Pesce at Civic Hall 2/19

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, February 16 2015

"VMasks" by hawken king - Licensed under CC BY 2.0

This Thursday, Civic Hall is welcoming digital ethnographer Mark Pesce, in town briefly from his home base in Australia, to give a talk on "Hypercivility" and I want to give some background on why I am personally so excited to hear what he has to say. In a sentence, it's this: Pesce has been consistently ahead of the curve on how mass connectivity is changing politics and civic life, and I always learn something new when I hear him speak.

The first time Pesce spoke at Personal Democracy Forum was in 2008, a talk he titled "Hyperpolitics, American-Style." Recall that at that moment, we were at the high point of Internet-powered politics in America--Barack Obama's grassroots network had just overwhelmed Hillary Clinton's more conventional political machine and the online playing field was central to the shift. Many people were celebrating this development, but Pesce was thinking ahead, to how hyperpowered individuals, copying each other's innovations faster than ever before (hypermimesis), were creating a new "hyperpolitics" that many of us wouldn't recognize as democracy. In his talk, he warned that the coming world would be quite chaotic:

Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a rapid descent into the Bellum omnia contra omnes, Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all.” A hyperconnected polity – whether composed of a hundred individuals or a hundred thousand – has resources at its disposal which exponentially amplify its capabilities. Hyperconnectivity begets hypermimesis begets hyperempowerment. After the arms race comes the war. Conserved across nearly four thousand generations, the social fabric will warp and convulse as various polities actualize their hyperempowerment in the cultural equivalent of nuclear exchanges. Eventually (one hopes, with hypermimesis, rather quickly) we will learn to contain these most explosive forces. We will learn that even though we can push the button, we’re far better off refraining.

A year later, Pesce returned to the PDF stage, building on those ideas with a keynote talk on "The Dangerous Power of Sharing (Power)." In that talk, Pesce described how Wikipedia's editors had just voted to block a series of IP addresses connected to the Church of Scientology from making edits to the crowd-sourced site. It wasn't clear, at that time, whether Wikipedia's actions to defend its process from the church's minions, who wanted to delete any public criticism from their institution's Wikipedia page, would stick. The clash, Pesce noted, was between a top-down hierarchy (Scientology) that defends itself with command-and-control methods like lawsuits, and Wikipedia's adhocracy, built on a social contract amongst its contributors and users.

Pesce predicted that the 21st century would be marked by these kinds of mismatched conflicts, and offered some thoughts on how hierarchies like governments could work with well-intentioned adhocracies (such as investigation-minded bloggers). But then he warned the audience about other, newer actors like Anonymous, which was then well along in its fight with Scientology, and had also just begun a new front in solidarity with the people protesting the fraudulent votes of the 2009 Iran election. I'm pretty sure this is when many of us first heard of "Anonymous"--and even more, the first time we heard that some authorities might consider the group a font of "terrorism."

Well, we're now living in the midst of the war of all against all that Pesce foresaw, and it's not just Anonymous and other shadowy networks shooting at each other, but many of us in our daily postings online. As Slate's editors so ably documented with their "Year of Outrage" special edition at the end of 2014, every day is another Day of Outrage, as social actors and forces constantly clash, demanding our attention and whipsawing the culture.

Thus I think what Pesce is coming to talk about, the notion of "hypercivility," could be very timely. As he wrote to me, outlining what he plans to talk about:

Hyperconnected humanity is here: 51% of us own a cell phone. Connecting, sharing and learning from billions of others, our capacities regularly leap ahead of our empathy. Connectivity accelerates both mind and heart, opening the door onto the Age of Outrage.Do we accept this status quo, resigned to an endless War of All Against All? Or is there a space for detente, the Realpolitik of a hyperconnected civilisation? Can we inhabit this new planetary connectedness in ways that do not lead to Mutually Assured Destruction? With the number of Internet users set to double in the next five years, these questions can no longer be avoided.

This of course isn't just a conversation Pesce is sparking--many thoughtful people are wrestling with these questions (see Kyle Wagner on Gamergate, Michelle Goldberg on "Feminism's Toxic Twitter Wars," or Willow Brugh on the weaponization of social media, for example). We won't get this all answered in one sitting. But if you are someone who is concerned with these issues, come join us Thursday at Civic Hall for Mark Pesce's latest talk.