Value Judgements on two kinds of networks…

I don’t have the expertise or the discipline to dive into this as fully as I would like, so I’m just going to sketch out a few thoughts which maybe someone else would like to pick up and run with.

There are two articles currently doing the rounds that both talk about the value and utility of being part of the networked world, and what it means to participate within it. The first is about the internet – it’s called World of Ends and it’s by the inspired Doc Searls and David Weinberger. The second is about international politics and it’s called The Pentagon’s New Map and it’s by Thomas PM Barnett.

The first article – Doc Searls and David Weinberger’s – was immediately something I felt a desire to rally behind. It’s states what we have come to perceive as the obvious facts about the internet: that it can’t be controlled, that it should exist without governance, without regulation, that it routes around ‘damage’, that the internet consists of an agreement, that no one owns it, that everyone can use it, that everyone can add to it, that trying to deform the network lessens its power – lessens its democratising utility. I agree with all of this stuff.

The second article filled me with immediate distrust and discomfort. It’s about countries which are disconnected from the ‘network’ of globalisation. Here’s a quote:

“That is why the public debate about this war has been so important: It forces Americans to come to terms with I believe is the new security paradigm that shapes this age, namely, Disconnectedness defines danger. Saddam Hussein’s outlaw regime is dangerously disconnected from the globalizing world, from its rule sets, its norms, and all the ties that bind countries together in mutually assured dependence.”

This is a paean to the power and value of globalisation as a force for good. He continues:

Show me where globalization is thick with network connectivity, financial transactions, liberal media flows, and collective security, and I will show you regions featuring stable governments, rising standards of living, and more deaths by suicide than murder. These parts of the world I call the Functioning Core, or Core. But show me where globalization is thinning or just plain absent, and I will show you regions plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty and disease, routine mass murder, and—most important—the chronic conflicts that incubate the next generation of global terrorists.

There seem to be some significant parallels that could be drawn between these two models of global scale-free networks that call into question the appropriateness of our (my) judgements about both globalisation as a democratic / capitalist process and the internet as a communications / publishing process. There’s a collision here that I feel the need to investigate.

For me, the freedom and lack of regulation of the internet was an obvious goal – inevitably positive – while the spread of globalisation represented something tremendously powerful, but also threatening, difficult and dangerous. While the internet seemed to dismantle hegemony, globalisation also seemed to support it – promote it. But by seeing them in parallel, depicted simply as analogous networks that operate on protocols, some of my value judgements about each of them seem to be spreading to infect the other.

My anxiety about globalisation as a hegemonising power is now spreading into my feelings about the internet – could the power-law aspect of the internet that I’ve not previously had issue with actually not be analogous with multinational corporations doing terrible soulless inhuman things across the world. Rather than being analogous, could they in fact be the same thing? Could the infiltration of globalisation’s spread through the world be the same ‘liberating’, equalising, opportunity-producing phenomenon that I’ve believed the internet to be?

There are other weird connections or analogies that can be drawn between the two articles / systems – some of which seem to collide with my argument or rephrase it or push it in a different direction. But each one of them seems to be to point towards something out of my reach at the moment. One analogy seems weirdly to be between disconnected states that constitute a threat to the network and to the very organisations that seem to be behind globalisation – large corporations who push for proprietorial behaviours in an interconnected space. Compare and contrast:

Think about it: Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are pure products of the Gap—in effect, its most violent feedback to the Core. They tell us how we are doing in exporting security to these lawless areas (not very well) and which states they would like to take “off line” from globalization and return to some seventh-century definition of the good life (any Gap state with a sizable Muslim population, especially Saudi Arabia). If you take this message from Osama and combine it with our military-intervention record of the last decade, a simple security rule set emerges: A country’s potential to warrant a U.S. military response is inversely related to its globalization connectivity.

“Remember, though, that if you come up with a new agreement, for it to generate value as quickly as the Internet itself did, it needs to be open, unowned, and for everyone. That’s exactly why Instant Messaging has failed to achieve its potential: The leading IM systems of today — AOL’s AIM and ICQ and Microsoft’s MSN Messenger — are private territories that may run on the Net, but they are not part of the Net. When AOL and Microsoft decide they should run their IM systems using a stupid protocol that nobody owns and everybody can use, they will have improved the Net enormously. Until then, they’re just being stupid, and not in the good sense.”

In this model, a fundamentalist state is kind of like a Microsoft or an AOL trying to spread propriety in the interconnected, protocol-based space. In trying to defy or censor or ‘improve’ the architecture to fulfil their needs they simply threaten the existence of the network in the first place. Except that the network is too huge and too integral to everything to be threatened. Terrifyingly / wonderfully / confusingly the network routes around it. Or does it? Am I losing my mind?

I’m far too close to my own mental collision at the moment to know if I’m hallucinating connections that don’t exist or if I’m merely stating the obvious. It seems to me that I’m not – it seems to me that there has been clear lines drawn between them and us through books like Naomi Klein’s No Logo that I think are probably at least more problematic now. If only to me. Anyone got any thoughts? Can anyone shoot me down? Or push it further?