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Re: <nettime> Zittrain's Foundational Myth of the Open Internet
Brian Holmes on Thu, 16 Oct 2008 04:15:34 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> Zittrain's Foundational Myth of the Open Internet


Felix Stalder wrote:

> I doubt it makes much sense to see Popper as crypto-cybernetic        
> nor does there seem to be any substantive connection between          
> Popper's notion of an "open society" and current notions of "open     
> technology/open media", except in one aspect which I will come back   
> to.                                                                   

Mmm, I could hardly disagree more, where cybernetics is concerned, and 
this time I am very happy to be on the side of Florian Cramer! The 
cybernetic project originated during the Second World War, under 
definite military imperatives. But this war was explicitly and 
consistently conceived by the Americans as a war for liberalism. The 
technological notion of "open systems" is directly related to the 
philosophies of liberalism, centered around the motifs of tansparency, 
rationality and the rule of law. The clearest case in point would be the 
liberal humanist Norber Weiner, who coined the word cybernetics. And the 
association only grows stronger with time. Check out a classic 
cybernetic book called "Nerves of Government" (1961) by the American 
political scientist Karl Deutsch, you will see what I mean.

Having said this, the specific parallel that Felix draws between 
Popper's notion of falsifiability and the publication of bugs in free 
software projects is very elegant and precise. But the ethic of 
publicness permeates the early years of the Internet and has been a 
major American ideology even in the military. And so there is little 
surprise, in this era of degraded ideologies, to see "openness" being 
invoked by every predatory corporation on the block. If Web 2.0 products 
are advertised as "open" it is because they are trying to draw on the 
real historical prestige of open systems, and even more precisely, on 
the well established association between the open system of the Internet 
and liberal democracy.

> For Popper the central question of political theory is a negative     
> one: How to get rid of a bad government. And this, and this reason    
> alone, is why he favours democracy because it has an inbuilt          
> mechanism to get rid of a bad government. You simply elect another    
> one. 

Now this is where the question of liberalism and its "open systems" 
becomes very knotty. Because sure, we can elect another government. In 
the US we're gonna, and I am going to vote for Mr. Obama and it looks 
like he is going to win. But who governs the US? Can we really vote them 
out? In recent weeks we have seen the amazing spectacle of financial 
interests (which, by the way, legitimate themselves by transparency and 
the rule of law) just taking over the government and dictating 
everything. Now, it would take pages and probably an entire book to 
justify all that would need to be said here, but look: if there is one 
sector in society which has flourished on the kind of communication made 
possible by cybernetic systems, it is certainly the financial sector. 
And if there is another one, it is certainly the military sector. And 
these are the two sectors that so far, we cannot "vote out." Clinton 
came into office, and as is well known, Rubin and Greenspan told him 
what he would have to do. Two weeks ago Paulson - the financial sector 
embodied within the government - managed to get his 700 billion bailout 
passed under intense scrutiny, and meanwhile the military managed to get 
their usual 680 billion passed without anybody batting an eye. Surely 
Popper is rolling over in his grave. But all of this is still done under 
the banners of the "open society" and of "open systems," for the two are 
inseparable in the democratic engineering culture of the USA. This is 
where the problem raised by Matze Schmidt in another post - the problem 
of systemic change - becomes at once so difficult and so urgent. How can 
you eject liberal governments which are legitimate by all the criteria 
established both historically and scientifically - and yet still are the 
source of clear injustice and oppression in the world? Adam Curtis has 
asked this question with great intensity about the legacy of Tony Blair, 
in his film "The Trap." But he is not alone. This is an old and in some 
circles, well-known dilemma.

The connections between classical liberalism, Popperian science, and 
contemporary political economy - or I would prefer to say, contemporary 
technopolitical economy - are too deep and problematic to be brushed 
aside. Even though I realize that so far, I have said nothing so elegant 
and rational as the connection between falsifiability and the 
publication of bugs!!!!

best, Brian


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