Architecture is Politics (and Politics is Architecture)

Somehow, a few posts back, I managed to omit the central item of three entries on politics.  This was really too bad, because it introduced the main idea.   I am now including it here and repeating a part which appeared previously.
I am more hopeful than I would otherwise be about the prospects for a healthy movement for fundamental political change because I believe using technology in innovative ways can make a difference – not by itself in some techno-deterministic way, but in service to a greater purpose.
When I was first thinking fifteen years ago about the challenge of protecting and fostering freedom and openness on computer networks, I originated the phrase “architecture is politics”.  The structure of a network itself, more than the regulations which govern its use, significantly determines what people can and cannot do.

The decentralized architecture of the Internet minimizes the role of central authorities and maximizes the ability of any participant to offer or receive any information or service and to develop new capabilities and services.  What keeps the Internet from descending into chaos and anarchy is not centralized authority, but that its activities, while decentralized, are highly coordinated through adherence to collectively developed open standards.

As long as the fundamental architecture of the internet remains open in the deepest sense, it offers the promise and challenges of of a system that is free to evolve through innovation.  When anyone attempts to or succeeds in controling key interfaces of the internet, whether by governmental restriction of access to certain web sites, telecommuinicaiton carriers threats to favor certain traffic over others, or email providers charging for mail in discrininatory ways, that promise is deeply threatened.

I used the term Jeffersonian in an approving way to describe the decentralized yet coordinated architecture of the internet in the cover story of the Wired managine (issue #3) in 1993.  In hindsight,  it was premature (if not naïve) to espouse that the Internet would by itself herald a revival of Jeffersonian democracy.  Yet, the basic insight that freedom, participation, creativity, and openness are better fostered by a decentralized but coordinated architecture, than by a centralized, hierarchical one, remains correct, and is there to be taken advantage of.
Politics is Architecture

When it comes to building a new movement, the converse proposition, “politics is architecture” holds true as well.  The architecture (structure and design) of political processes, not their content, is determinative of what can be accomplished.  Just as you can’t build a skyscraper out of bamboo, you can’t have a participatory democracy if power is centralized, processes are opaque, and accountability is limited.  Politics needs a new architecture, not just a new coat of paint.  We need to renovate the house (and Senate). The architecture team needs to reflect the future, not the present—who is sitting at the table, and the experiences and perspectives they represent matter enormously.

The internet, if kept open and accessible to all, is a tool we can use to reform our politics and create new democratic processes and institutions. By using the internet and building upon its open decentralized architecture, we can help give every person a voice and offer them a forum to participate in creating a healthy politics. The internet provides the tools to build bottom-up systems that are both globally interconnected and locally controlled. As the printing press was the technology that helped birth modern self-government, so the internet can be the tool to build a new democratically controlled participatory politics.

34 Responses to “Architecture is Politics (and Politics is Architecture)”

  1. Henry Farrell Says:

    Curious to know if you’ve read Yochai Benkler’s new “The Wealth of Networks” (available here which does the best job that I’ve seen of distilling the various ideas in the air about how decentralized architectures can facilitate new forms of politics.

  2. mkapor Says:

    I have it on my bookshelf and am looking forward to diving into it. Benkler’s “Coase’s Penguin” was seminal.

  3. Cat Says:

    Much of what your suggesting is to me the wave of the future, and a future that may be a bit closer than we think. The simple process of changing the enviroment of discussion, negotiation, or diplomacy to an online (public) environment (not unsimilar to a bbs) dramatically changes the ‘politics’, i.e. the hidden human element of hierarchy and status.

    Imagine a press conference given by the Bush (or any political) administration online? Imagine if every answer could be deconstructed objectivly and in the open like a public online discussion is. Online discussion isolates how we respond to ideas.

    This changes the ‘dialectic’, discusion occuring online this way.

    You might find this interesting

    http://www.highintelligence.com

    Change the dialectic and the environment of administration online, and we can change the standard of politics for the first time in history from zero sum to non zero sum. Designing and creating a global online network that can ‘run’ civilization in this fashion is a lot simpler than most would suspect to build, and we don’t need anyone’s permission to do it either….

    So a few of us already are.

    Keep up your interesting search!

  4. Andrew Lehman Says:

    In Illinois, on April 1st, 76 peace and justice organizations founded a coalition based on a new web application that allows these organizations to work closely with one another supporting and participating in each others actions.

    Visit http://www.ilcpj.org/actions/ to view the primary interface. Transparency with a horizonal 2 tiered structure underlies the tool. Check it out.

  5. nerdler Says:

    All this talk about how the internet is going to change the world is completely missing the fact that 39 million households in the U.S. don’t have internet access. What about them? Guess they’ll just have to be left behind, eh?

  6. al-JoJoLaMaKeeDo Says:

    I think you are all living in an illusion. The internet is the most centralized deception ever known to man. It just seems decentralized- and I believe to a certain extent the content is. But there is always the gatekeeper: google or yahoo or NSA. Same situation in all cases is that those in power can always achieve more. Money, yes money, and the entire industrial system must be reformed for your new government: an international government.

    Some would argue technology must be destroyed. (see Unabomber manifesto: http://www.thecourier.com/manifest.htm )]

    De-centralization is an illusion because everything needs a road to run on. The internet was made by Al Gore. (seriously, ARPANET). So in essence, you support a decentralized government on a technology which is inherently centralized. The processor in your computer, the OS, this blog, all run on the same roads. (hardware/software)

    And the more internet access and computers you provide, the more rivers in China will go to shit. So there is always a cost, and more importantly, an unforeseeable circumstance. So although some American’s are “left behind” , we always manage to replace our computers every 18 months to satisfy Mr. Moore. So you see, there are costs, we could slow down technology so everyone could have it, or we can keep industrializing other nations till who knows what happens.

    “The internet, if kept open and accessible to all, is a tool we can use to reform our politics and create new democratic processes and institutions.”
    I completely agree with your statement here. But it is, indeed, a fallacy. The internet enslaves us more than anything: think about all the things you do online and how it is all logged– they are running human psychology tests as we speak so they can come out with great news stories that are believable so that we are stupefied into war. But you know how it can be remedied? Complete transparency: all decisions about the internal calendar of work and everything else for all government institutions must be made public and accessible at all times. Corruption in government has always been the scourge. It must be destroyed through complete transparency.

  7. rich estrada Says:

    Hello Mitch!
    Just like you I am a newbies in this area, blogging. So you believed that Architecture is Politics and Politics is Architecture. Here in our country, Philippines we have gone through a lot of Political Architecture. Each President has his/her own Architectural Designed. I attended the 2nd Philippine iBlog summit held in the University of the Philippines, College of Law and at the end of the blogging summit past UP Dean Froilan Bacungan and Dean Jorge Bacungan and myself have talked about the different political architectural designed of Pres. Marcos, Aquino, FVR, Estrada,GMA
    see my topic about my father, Antonio Estrada, Sr. and you understand more about our political arena at http://rich.pinoyforum.net

  8. gary demos Says:

    Hello,
    someone, in one of the comments above, left a weblink that tries to consolidate people who go to various websites or blogs. After having read “Hive Mind” by Kevin Kelly I have to say that decentralization seems to have certain advantages. Maybe consolidating people who have knowledge and interest on specific issues would facilitate more direct pressure on our representatives to actually represent us. Actually, I see a shift in consciousness to really being conscious as the ultimate fulcrum for a change on this planet. Our preconceived notions have to be open to change, which is a very difficult proposition as most of humanity has ego investment in their currently held opinions. We’re all in this together and that idea doesn’t generally permeate most of society………. yet

  9. cityzenjane Says:

    First – I’d like to point you here: http://phalano.com/

    Nepalese are battling their junta government right now and blogging about it.

    Apparently – the revolution is being photoblogged!

    And I suppose I post that to remind you of two major challenges to the status quo last month – the French students and the Immigration marches in the US – that had very large victories – and remind you all that there is more to politics than getting the network apps right.

    That said – the right architecture can empower everyone – open distributed non proprietary extensible architecture that it…. Are you ready for your relative priveledge to be challenged?

    Really interesting piece, Mitch – Thanks – lots to think about.

  10. scalefree Says:

    Mitch,

    Here’s an idea for you. Host a summit of the world’s leading experts in the following subjects:

    complexity theory
    network theory
    social network analysis
    organizational network analysis
    self-organizing systems
    swarm intelligence
    collective intelligence
    information theory
    open source intelligence
    open source software
    the semantic web
    information security
    peer-to-peer networking
    wireless networking
    reputation systems
    voting systems
    crisis management

    Add in some venture capitalists, philanthropists, political activists, digerati & plain old computer hackers for good measure & you’ve got the makings of a real humdinger on your hands. YMMV but here’s a partial list of people I’d put on the shortlist (in no particular order):

    Steven Strogatz
    Richard Hunter
    Fritjof Capra
    Howard Rheingold
    Robert Steele
    Clay Shirky
    Yochai Benkler
    Peter “mudge” Zatko
    Valdis Krebs
    Pierre Omidyar
    George P. Lakoff
    Murray Gell-Mann
    the entire faculty & staff of the Santa Fe Institute
    the entire faculty & staff of the MIT Media Lab
    Duncan Watts
    David Brin
    Joe Trippi
    George Soros
    Bruce Sterling
    Jon Lebkowsky
    Mitch Ratcliffe
    Michel Bauwens
    Adam Greenfield
    Rob Stuart
    Marty Kearns
    Allison Fine
    Dave Pollard
    Lawrence Lessig
    Lawrence Tribe
    Ross Mayfield
    Jack Vinson
    Scott Allen
    Shannon Clark
    Karen Stephenson
    Lada Adamic
    Albert Barabasi
    Malcom Gladwell
    Joe Stiglitz
    Eric Bonabeau
    Bruce Schneier
    Matt Blaze
    Raph Levien

    And if you’re feeling especially gracious, you’ll find a space in the corner for me. :)

    Tim

  11. votebyphone Says:

    Legislators duties will some day be limited to writing legislation while technology will enable the legislation to be voted on by individual citizens rather than by elected representives. You don’t need the internet for this, automated telephone technology can do it today. This can be experimented with by local governments and the successful systems can be adoped state wide and eventually nation wide. This will clean up a lot of the corruption in government because legislators will lose much of their power.

  12. mediageek » Political Economy by Any Other Name Is Apparently a Fresh, New Idea Says:

    [...] Kapor follows up with his analysis that “Politics is Architecture:” When it comes to building a new movement, the converse proposition, “politics is architecture” holds true as well. The architecture (structure and design) of political processes, not their content, is determinative of what can be accomplished. [...]

  13. Henry Farrell Says:

    We’ll be running an online seminar with Yochai and various other academics in a week or two, discussing the book and its implications for politics.

  14. Flyer Says:

    Personally – I’m very pessimistic. – No way politicians, established media and the content industry will give up control. Already they’re combining their forces in an attack on the internet and internet users using terrorism, child abuse – and infringing as excuses.

  15. Bernie Quigley Says:

    Thoughtful essay on Jefferson and architecture. I’ve published a few articles on Jefferson and the shape of politics this past year which are on my blogs; Note Washington ordered the capital of colonial America as a benign center between binary power forces, North and South. Victoria did the same in placing Ottawa between French Quebec and English Ontario (binaries again). The UN should never have been placed in NY, the top of power, it should also be a benign center between North, South East and West (Detroit or Windsor, ONtario). Binary relations of states come from nature: essay on “Particles and Waves” at http://quigleyinexile.blogspot.com/2005/12/particles-and-waves-countries-divide.html
    The key to this thinking in US history is Hamilton vs. Jefferson. Jefferson at: http://quigleyblog.blogspot.com/2005/10/federalists-and-unitarians-return-of.html
    UN essay at http://quigleyblog.blogspot.com/2005/11/un-should-move-to-toronto-by-bernie.html

    Cheers, Quigley

  16. Elin Whitney-Smith Says:

    The discussion is if information architecture is politics or if politics controls information architecture. I would suggest that they are co-producing and co-evolving.

    The Chinese invented the press with movable type before Gutenberg but it was in a ver different political context. The inventor in China was rewarded by giving his invention to the emperor and the emperor used it as he saw fit.

    Gutenberg’s invention was in a context where the Church (because was a monopoly and had the right of direct taxation – the tithe) encouraged innovation so that ordinary people could use the invention for their own profit out of which the church would claim 10%. (This is the first and perhaps only time in history that an elite encouraged the economic development of common people).

    Once the reformation began to take off the church completely changed its position. The inquisition suppressed the press and economic dominance moved away from the Catholic countries of the Mediterranean to the Protestant countries of the north – Holland and England

    Once the press was established people began to see their world as standardized, replicable. The enlightenment was an expression of people trying to find the regularities in nature and society.

    The same dynamic was true of the telegraph and telephone. In England, the dominant economic power of the day, the attitude toward modern information technology was expressed by Sir William Preece who was the chief engineer of the British Postal Service:

    “…there are conditions in America which necessitate the use of such instruments more than here. Here we have a superabundance of messengers, errand boys and things of that kind. The absence of servants has completed Americans to adopt communication systems for domestic purposes. Few have worked at the telephone much more than I have. I have one in my office, but more for show. If I want to send a message – I use a sounder or employ a boy to take it.” (Ithial Sola de Pool (ed) “The social impact of the telephone” 1977, p128)

    The same was true of the French:

    “A society built on order and hierarchy – such was the French society in which the telephone appeared… Communication, as understood by the French centralized state, was primarily a lecture which the State, with professorial wisdom, delivered to society.” (Jaques Attali and Yves Stourdze “The birth of the telephone and economic crisis: the slow death of monologue in French society” in “The social impact of the telephone” 1977, p. 97)

    As a consequence economic dominance shifted to the United States and away from the powers of Europe.

    That said, the first organizational hierarchy was invented by Daniel C. McCallum, general superintendent of the New York and Erie Railroad. He patterned it on the telegraph switching network. Despite our perceptions of the org. chart today, it was a liberating development.

    Before its introduction organizations were run by class all managers could give orders to all employees regardless of efficiency or cost effectiveness. With McCallum’s organizational chart people were only answerable to their own managers and they had assigned responsibilities and concomitant power. Thus a conductor could, by virtue of his role, tell the president of the railroad to get on board which could not have been thought of in earlier – pre-telegraph times. (See: Alfred Chandler, “The visible hand: the managerial revolution in American business” 1977.)

    Therefore, I would conclude that once a technology needs a political structure that will allow it to gain its footing then the architecture of the information technology changes the way people perceive their world and they begin to see all the world in terms of standardization (the press) or hierarchy (the telegraph and telephone) or networks/ecologies (internet).

  17. Evan Ravitz Says:

    I’d bet my mother (who said “If you want something done right, do it yourself”) that nobody will “architect” anything better than real democracy (”government by the people). There is only ONE country, Switzerland, which has this on the national, via citizens’ ballot initiatives.

    Former US Senator Mike Gravel (who read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record, and filibustered until the Vietnam draft was ended) has the most refined proposal for the US, best described at http://vote.org

    Mike is now running for president, with this foremost on his agenda: http://Gravel2008.us

    Next January, the University of Colorado law school’s Byron White Conference will be about “direct” democracy and ballot initiatives and how to improve them. They hope to hold it at the Capitol in Denver so it won’t be just academic.

    There will be more big news coming out of Colorado following this.

    Evan

  18. chris Says:

    Mitch — thanks for updating your blog with this longer post. The context is very helpful, and I think we clearly agree. I have a bit more to say, but I’ll do that on my own time. ;-)

  19. john Says:

    “Open” can be hijacked with enough effort and power. VRML got hijacked by Silicon Graphics and their OpenGL. That process was “open” and all that, but, the real deals were made secretly.

    The Situationists had something to say about architecture and politics. So did Christopher Alexander. It’s not just about open standards, but also about who creates them.

  20. mkapor Says:

    John,

    Can you say more about the Situationists? It does matter who creates them.

  21. five plus one » Blog Archive » Wordstrings: Mitch Kapor on Architecture as Politics Says:

    [...] From Architecture is Politics (and Politics is Architecture): [...]

  22. Brian Hayes Says:

    After we have achieved our new government, yes, all of you, our evenings will become more certain, more clear and more able. We will become, a feature of our technology, less confused. Thus our evenings bearable, ney, worthy, yay!, enjoyable with you: Along the lines of trust and joy a trillion lives have known you’ve lost. We should know our cowardice is recorded, not by cheap cheeping bits, er, soaring eagle crapping, but by the first evidence children already know is forever.

    r.rr.rrr.rrrant spur.rrr.ed by Mitch Kapor and a campfire under stars with my laptop, er, lap dog.

  23. Nick Winslow Says:

    A great point, but a bit abstract in that it lacks examples involving actual architecture (and not really network design patterns) or politics. Without reference, it seems these words can encompass more but in fact they seem imprecise. That infrastructure enables and thwarts collaboration hardly seems to be the major insight here.

    Also to echo a prior commenter’s point, Situationists believed that they had to transcend art by making it less a separate highly-specialized activity and more a part of everyday situations. They also believed capitalist society was inherently a society of spectacles which replace real experience. Guy Debord divided these spectacles into three categories in relation to political systems: the concentrated spectacle, where the bureaucratic class controls all civic life; the diffuse spectacle, where a lack of market controls causes conflicting interests to each seek hegemony at the expense of the consumer; and the integrated spectacle, which Debord claims is another name for liberal democracy, where permanent general secrecy is combined with the need for terrorism to exist as its defining polar opposite.

    Of course, all of these simplistic ideas are written in a obscurantist nonsensical patois, while your statement is much more clear. I think I see where this might be going with a connection to Chandler: a major complaint about elected officials is that they are impossible to reach and there positions on the upcoming legislation is not clear. If there were a way to not only email, but figure out when you were both available, this would make the architecture more open to participation.

  24. Positive Sharing » Let’s reboot democracy Says:

    [...] Mitch Kapor has apparently been thinking the same: The internet, if kept open and accessible to all, is a tool we can use to reform our politics and create new democratic processes and institutions. By using the internet and building upon its open decentralized architecture, we can help give every person a voice and offer them a forum to participate in creating a healthy politics. The internet provides the tools to build bottom-up systems that are both globally interconnected and locally controlled. [...]

  25. CTL Weblog » Blog Archive » Architecture is politics Says:

    [...] Mitch Kapor wrote this earlier this year, but recent controversies about net neutrality are keeping it relevant.   And it’s such a catchy phrase. [...]

  26. Kalivo - Show Says:

    [...] Enterprise IT like ERP reduced the ability of middle managers to control the flow of structured transactional information (how much inventory do we have?, how many orders did we ship last month?, how long did it take us to get paid?, etc.).  Enterprise 2.0 technologies threaten to do the same for unstructured knowledge-based information.  These technologies bring new architectures of participation.  As Mitch Kapor brilliantly said, "Architecture is politics."  And Ross Mayfield pointed out that Enterprise 2.0 overturns previously encoded political bargains. [...]

  27. six » Blog Archive » Computation and civilization 02: Technopolitics of spimedom Says:

    [...] I have not really said anything here that anybody didn’t already know. In a way, I have merely reiterated what Kapor (2006) has already pointed out: architecture is politics. But in this case we are talking about a very specific architecture: I make the further claim here that usability is politics. [...]

  28. De usuário a co-criador » Webinsider Says:

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  29. Garimpar Blog » Archive du blog » De usuário a co-criador Says:

    [...] A política da arquitetura, se tornou tema de questionamento porque estamos vivenciando um ponto de mudança nas relações de poder entre homens e artefatos. Pessoas que não possuem cargos poderosos – como administradores e legisladores, que não possuem credenciais de poder – como jornalistas e engenheiros – e que não possuem nenhuma forma de favorecimento junto a estruturas de poder estão podendo recriar alguns artefatos de acordo com a sua vontade. [...]

  30. Politics is Architecture » Ohio 2nd Blog Says:

    [...] Architecture is Politics (and Politics is Architecture) [...]

  31. GotzeBlogged » Canonicalization of Democracy? Says:

    [...] Web 2.0: With Tim O’Reilly’s The Architecture of Participation, and Mitch Kapor’s Architecture is Politics (and Politics is Architecture). With Cluetrain Manifesto we learned that markets are conversations, and at RSDC2007, I heard IBMs [...]

  32. Mitch Kapor at A Commonplace Book Says:

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  33. Politics is Architecture | The Open House Project Says:

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  34. Michael Nielsen » Architecture is politics: community building and the success of Wikipedia Says:

    [...] in a particularly nice way this morning in the form of two fantastic slogans, Mitch Kapor’s “architecture is politics” and Lawrence Lessig’s “code is law” (book, free [...]