Bruce Sterling: Network Culture Is Incompatible with Representative Democracy

TechCrunch TV interviews Bruce Sterling on Hacktivism at SXSW:


  1. this title is misleading; he never says, “network culture is incompatible with representative democracy” — rather he says, “hacktivism is anti-democratic…” hardly the same thing…

  2. furthermore, sterling seems to be over-generalizing about the ways in which the internet relates to democratic participation; ultimately his views on all of the above –and particularly regarding the recent anarchic cyber-responses to old paradigm propaganda and politics– come across as facile and reactionary (i.e., conservative).

  3. Bubba, at 4:07 in the fourth video:

    Interviewer: “Are you saying that network society people and democracy are incompatible?”

    Sterling: “Uh, yeah. I don’t think they’re inherently incompatible, but certainly republican democracy with its set of geographical settings and you know power coming from geographic regions and networks don’t work.”

    You can quibble that network society and network culture are two different things, or that republican democracy isn’t the same thing as representative democracy. I chose network culture for the headline because I think it’s the more widely used term, and representative democracy instead of republican democracy because I wanted to make it clear he wasn’t talking about the Republican Party.

    I don’t think pointing out that hacktivism trends towards (though he doesn’t use this term) mob-rule is reactionary. And remember, hacktivism swings both ways on the political scale. Look at Jester as an example of a right-wing hacktivist. Hacktivism is a form of direct action, and the right is perfectly capable of engaging in direct action as well (the anti-choice movement, for example).

    I don’t get the impression that Sterling thinks that network society is worse than what he calls republican democracy, but that there’s an unresolved friction between the two and democracy is not prepared to deal with the implications of networks.

    For my part, I think representative democracy was already broken before network culture came along. But I certainly don’t see network culture and hacktivism as inherently a good thing.

  4. i reject your characterization of hacktivism as “mob-rule” outright; it’s rather like saying a group of people who agree to go and do a sit-in in front of a military recruiting office is engaging in “mob-rule.” (i can hear a conservative saying such a thing, though!)…

    and i still maintain that sterling’s commentary is ultimately reactionary when it comes to new anarchistic responses to old paradigm politics as usual; by definition, if he’s expressing concern about the structural integrity of the status quo, charade called the u.s. political system, he’s being conservative; instead of at least remaining agnostic about such shifts, he comes off like an information age archie bunker…

  5. How would you describe a group of people blockading an abortion clinic? Or a group shouting down pro-health care reform speakers at a town hall? Mob rule is mob rule regardless of whether you agree with the mob’s politics. Sometimes it can be a good thing – a response to a failure of democracy or a hi-jacking of democracy. But it certainly isn’t democracy.

    Likewise, hacktivism can have positive outcomes but it is in no sense democratic and it’s not inherently good. Hacktivism, at its worst, encourages a sort of social darwinianism: whoever can impose their will through brute force hacking wins. And like I said, it’s not all idealistic left anarcho-types.

    Also, consider the fact that Anonymous and The Jester aren’t accountable to anyone. WikiLeaks is essentially an autocracy run by Julian Assange. Assange is accountable, at best, to WikiLeaks donors, but that’s sort of like saying that at least U.S. politicians are accountable to lobbyists.

    In short, hacktivism is a tactic. There’s nothing inherently good about it, and it has some negative implications. That said, it can have positive outcomes. I’d Wikileaks has, on the whole, been a positive thing that has grown in response to a series of institutional failures. But destabalization of these institutions has its negative effects as well and it’s unwise to glorify hacktivism and network culture without considering the consequences.

  6. i advocate hacktivism and anarachy after having considered the consequences and the alternatives; and you’re fooling yourself if you think that just because people go and cast a vote in a given community or nation at large that there isn’t a sort of mob rule going on, anyway; it’s just that it has the appearance of being more “orderly.”

    and social darwinism is certainly going on regardless — whether it’s at the ballot box or in anarchistic responses to a bourgeois (read: detached facade) political system in the u.s…

  7. bubba – you’re putting words into my mouth.

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