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.