Participation not markets

Issue 9 of Jacobin has an article theorizing about the economic feasibility of a planned rather than a market economy:
There is a discussion of ‘Participatory Economics’ as an alternative to market prices as the guiding signals in an economy. The basic idea is an iterative annual process whereby everyone in a society anticipates their annual consumption of all goods, and this is matched to the society’s productive capacities to generate a set of prices. Based on these prices people go through the consumption projections again, after a few iterations, it is possible to know how to direct economic activity pretty well.

Zara and Public Participation

The NYTimes recently had an article about the clothing company Zara ( It turns out that what’s distinctive about Zara is it’s operations. By having a distinctive supply chain and innovation model–definitely a post-Fordist flexible specialization type thing–they’ve managed to grow into this huge company.

So what’s interesting from the PartLab pov is how they crowdsource fashion trends. Basically they use the stores and sales people as information gatherers. Shoppers are giving Zara information about fashion trends when they ask sales people for clothing with particular features. Sales people note these requests and tell them to store managers. In weekly phone conversations with higher ups, store managers pass on the kinds of things their customers have been asking for. When those requests seem to be popping up regularly, they are passed on to designers who instantly start designing clothes that reflect them. Zara’s tight operations make and distribute those clothes rapidly and those fashions can appear in stores like 3 weeks after the trend is first spotted.

This is an FSE that uses its store network to produce a non-self-aware OP and harvest ideas from it. Then it sells the ideas back to the OP in the form of clothes. Also, it cultivates the OP in particular ways: Zara’s distinctive operations put new clothes in stores very quickly and relatively few numbers of each item are produced, things are sold quickly and they rarely go on sale. Thus shoppers that care know there will always be new stuff at Zara, that if they see something they like they have to buy it then (b/c it will sell out and never go on sale), and the small production numbers mean they’re buying something relatively unique that they’re unlikely to see someone else wearing at a party.

A professor I know at Anderson is an operations consultant with the company. He might be someone to interview if we start getting interested in how these kinds of innovation happen off the web, or about how the web’s culture of innovation extends elsewhere. It seems that the information gathering process is barely organized, which is interesting. I’ll have to ask him more about it.

Some recent articles on participation in science

The center for the advancement of informal science education has a report on three cases of participatory science from 2009, which I only just discovered.

A workshop on “Volunteered Geographic Information” took place in april of last year. UCL Professor Muki Haklay wrote three posts that are relevant. He is also apparently director of something called “the UCL Extreme Citizen Science group” (1 | 2 | 3).

Disaster Relief 2.0, publisher march of last year. When will the whole 2.0 thing stop?

Digital Money, Mobile Media, and the Consequences of Granularity

Nicholas Negroponte famously insisted that the dotcom boomers, “Move bits, not atoms.” Ignorant of the atom heavy human bodies, neuron dense brains, and physical hardware needed to make and move those little bits, Negroponte’s ideal did become true in industrial sectors dependent upon communication and economic transaction. In the communication sector, atomic newspapers have been replaced by bitly news stories. In the transactional sector, coins are a nuisance, few carry dollars, and I just paid for a haircut with a credit card adaptor on the scissor-wielder’s Droid phone.

The human consequences of the bitification of atoms go far beyond my bourgeois consumption. This shift or what is could simply be called digitalization, when paired with their very material transportation systems or networked communication technologies, combines to form a powerful force that impacts local and global democracies and economies.

What are the local and political economics of granularity in the space shared between the fiduciary and the communicative? To understand the emergent political economy of the practices and discourses unifying around mobile media and digital money we need a shared language around the issue of granularity.


Granularity is the reduction of symbols to binary-type simplicity such as lines of computer code or small economic integers. Granularity means to break down money or media into symbolic and quantitative units for digital delivery and reconstitution. Granularity and networks are what gives bit-based media and money its mobile advantage over its cousins–film stock that needs to be “bicycled” to theaters and precious metals that need to be stored in fortified treasuries. Granularity is the physical principle that allows the discourses of money and media to meet. With granularity come two conflicting social worlds –the financialization as well as the democratization of media and money.

More philosophically, the media/money verisimilitude reveals the already tenuous analytical separation of thought and action, discourse and practice, and rationalities and tactics.

Financialization and Democratization of Money/Media

Digital money and mobile media, in a state of fine granularity, are symbolically opened for innovative as well as manipulative financialization and potentially wide democratization. Granularity, by refining things into ever-smaller units, increases the opportunities for access to previously closed systems. On the one hand, this can be empowering as peer-to-peer media and financial transactions can increase and, for a time, transpire under the radar of regulators and speculators. On the other hand, media/money granularity can also result in “flexible accumulation,” the post-nation manufacturing of information/financial/mathematical tools such as seen in the derivatives market that is increasingly difficult to regulate, litigate, or access if you are a citizen.

Digital Money as Democratizing

The granularity of digital money can create opportunities for access by materially poor people to small investment-able capital. This form of capital democratization is dependent upon new technologies and networks. Digital money, largely a numerical system within ornate cultural contexts, is easily made granular and digitally shared via phone or internet from person to person, micro-lender to person, and employer to person. Such transactions on unregulated communication networks has democratized new forms of money sharing, saving, and transfer.

While it isn’t popular in the United States, mobile granular financing has exploded in Kenya. For instance, Vodaphone affiliate Safaricom started m-Pesa, a mobile money transfer in Kenya in 2003. M-Pesa has 12 million users out of 17 million mobile phone users representing 70% of the mobile market in Kenya and 21% of the Kenyan GDP flows through the system, wrote mPay Connect founder Menekse Gencer in 2011. It works and it’s profitable for Vodaphone shareholders. And yet its commercialization balances any breathless optimism about m-Pesa’s democratizing impact.

This democratization of capital provides an opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with the overbearing symbology that is money. It also invites us to reconsider basic issues of financial autonomy and agency. How will mobile money challenge, magnify, or articulate with local customs? As digital currencies evolve will they be pegged to national or international banks? How will they be regulated and by whom? How are they insured and what backs their legitimacy? As these pragmatic questions are answered and applied digital money will likely move further from democratization and nearer to financialization.

Financialization of Digital Money

Few have bank accounts but the 1.7 billion materially poor people will have a cell phone in 2012. This phone can be used to make calls, many can take photos and videos, upload them to the internet, and, increasingly, receive and give money. Even before this form of digital money there were banks micro-lending. Following CK Prahalad’s claim that the collective material wealth at the bottom of pyramid can make development profitable, a number of microfinance organizations went into non-profit “business.” Kiva, who started in 2005, the same year as YouTube, is the most recognizable microlender for Westerners. Kiva founders were inspired by a talk by Muhammad Yunus at Stanford. Yunus, of course, started Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, the first microfinance organization. Kiva, Grameen, Yunus and the following, Banco Compartamos, are all vigorously successful and have all claimed to alleviate poverty. Such philanthrocapitalism is rich with contradictions. The World Bank, for instance, is the largest micro-lender in the world. The problematic financialization of granular money is evident in Banco Compartamos that started as a non-profit micro-lending bank to materially poor Oaxacans, took a shot at becoming private in an IPO, raised a billion dollars, and made its shareholders wealthy. Yunus was outraged by the high interest rates and simple bald privatization of the now profitable banco.

While the granularity of digital money can create capital access and capital democratization, it can also create access for corporate financialization. By financialization I refer basically to commercial or market tactics and discourses; of tacking profit generating financial instruments onto each grain of digital money and a charge onto each node it its circuitous pathway through the technological and social network. This is an important facet of “flexible accumulation” which refers both to the global mobility of capital as well as the instrumentalization of social life.

Mobile Media Democratization

The democratization of digital money is spiritually linked to the tactical and discursive interventions of local entrepreneurs who “hacked” into public systems –satellite television, electricity, water– that had been privatized. My research into the history of cable and satellite “guerrilla television” producers reveals how techniques and rationalities are mobilized by marginalized producers to gain access to systems of media power closed by economic or political power. The process goes something like this. A disruptive network communication technology evolves out of tinkerer communities (radio, cable television) or large-scale federal investment (satellite, internet). The indigenous or local innovators are either responsible for the technology, as in the case of radio and cable television, or adapt to exploit it like early internet hackers, public access television producers, and phone phreaks. Examples include TVTV, a psychedelic television producer community who created an opening on cable television in the 1970s and Deep Dish TV, a progressive producer collective who exploited inexpensive satellite rents to distribute their anti-war message. They used their policy discourse and interventionary practices to exploit an opening in an otherwise closed system. These opening can provide the context for the democratization of (capital) production. These examples of media democratization are from the pre-digital phase, how does granularity impact media democracy as well as the financialization of media?

Mobile Media Financialization

Granularity impacts two forms of media financialization: personalization and fragmentation. The obsession the Google founders Page and Brin have with artificial intelligence is dutifully documented by Nick Carr in The Big Switch. They hope to know enough about each of us through recording our search records to be able to recommend consumer solutions to life. This they call personalization, the individualization of search. This ‘give-them-what-they-appear-to-like’ mentality includes searches we do on politics as Eli Pariser explains, keeping us in homogenous “filter bubbles.” Just yesterday it was reported that Google’s personalization ambition has been branded as “Search,  Plus Your World” to honor how they merge their search data with the person data we freely give them on their fledgling social network Google+. The point is that every granular piece of personal data has a price. It is on these grains of identity that Google and Facebook hang their future business plans.

Google is financializing another stream of granular data, the video clip. Beginning back in 2007, I began documenting the transformation of amateur to professional YouTubers. By the end of 2011, this transformation is now complete and YouTube is fully prepared for the convergence of broadband home entertainment by creating the Partner program, buying Next New Networks, and recently enshrining 100 top video producers. Many of the professionalized channels are vloggers whose work is not granular in the traditional sense of the term (micro-payments or lines of code) but it is granular in reference to the lengthy documentaries, over-cooked television talk shows, and studio call in shows of the past. They are short and often include ever more granular clips. Ray William Johnson, the most subscribed and viewed YouTube celebrity built his business around making fun of little clips. Kind of like America’s Funniest Home Videos for tweens. Taken as a whole, from the semi-famous vloggers making almost a million dollars a year from revenue sharing with Google to the one-hit wonder who uploads an addictively watchable cat video and who make a few thousand dollars for Google and herself, granularity is part of the financialization as well as democratization of visual media.

Possible Social Consequences

What are the possible global and local impacts of the theory that granularity is turning money and media into objects easily interchangeable, financialized, and democratized? In essence I am concerned with the manufacturing and exploitation of desire, the commercialization of bio-politics, and the death of democracy. I worry about the emergence of a corporation capable of exploiting the verisimilitude of money/media and developing financial/media instruments that can control and monetized the smallest units of both symbolic systems. I worry about the capacities of these money/media corporations to manufacture ubiquitous entertainment environments that can extract financial rewards based on phenomenologically inconsequential but altogether quantifiable granular units of sensual attention. I worry about the media, which includes journalism, being colonized by financial interests to such a degree that there is no media (and no journalism) without a financial product immediately inscribed in its metadata. That would negate any democratization granularity would produce.

And yet, I have faith in the rationalities and techniques of the indigenous innovators, phone phreakers, “guerrilla television” producers, and hacktivists to intervene in this worrisome future.

This post is largely inspired by Anke Schwitty’s excellent 2011 article, “The financial inclusion assemblages: Subjects, technics, rationalities” in Critique of Anthropology 31[4]:381-401.

Participation and governance in new times

In a recent article in New Statesman (Nov 16 2011) social theorist Will Davies reflects on the “new times” that seem to be emerging through the unfolding crisis which began in 2008. One possibility seems to be the end of the period of “neoliberalism”—or at least the end of some of its intellectual foundations, if certainly not all of them. The basic idea of neoliberalism is that government intervention or collective planning is always doomed to produce problems. In all but the rarest cases, unfettering the self-interested, calculative behavior of individuals would produce greater welfare than collectively planned redistribution. Davies notes that this moral vision has been discredited in particular by the group think and panic behavior of bankers and investors that were the most proximate sources of the crisis. But this failure hasn’t produced a return to a paradigm of regulation, collective decision making, and redistributionist social democracy. Rather it is generating a new way of thinking about human actors as constitutively afflicted by all sorts of cognitive limitations, bounded rationality, subconscious irrational drives, rather than seeing these as marginal deviations from the rational actor. Davies argues that what might emerge is a new political economic paradigm with tools of governance that are based on this view of actors:

“By this account, we are simply waiting for the new paradigm to emerge, with a common expectation that it will draw on neuroscience, behavioural economics, complexity theory and data-mining techniques. Already, the assorted crises of neoliberalism are being framed in psychological terms, be it the hedonism of teenagers, herd behaviour of investors, bad nutritional decision-making, and so on. There is an expectation that financial regulators and central banks will take on expert responsibilities similar to weather forecasters, seeking to depict emergent financial and macroeconomic trends in real time, rather than constructing rationalist models of them.”

What does this have to do with participation? Basically, participation is where the data come from. A basic function of these participatory technologies is to build huge sets of correlations between objects. Google uses our inputs to identify the most useful searches, but it can also help identify flu outbreaks. That’s a crude example, heaven knows what else. Data about purchases from “rewards clubs” do more than target coupons to you; at least, it seems that they should allow companies to identify consumption trends, manage inventory, target what products are likely to succeed in the future. What can be done with the rich network and taste data in Facebook or the health data in Google Health or PatientsLikeMe?

Since the 1960s “participation” has become a powerful political discourse and source of institutional legitimacy. Chris and others are working on this genealogy. Participation, from the Port Huron Statement to Total Quality Management, was conceived as a solution to problems of democracy, bureaucracy, management, efficiency, and so forth. But participation was always more than a technical solution that delivers better “results”. It is also a moral discourse that evokes individual capacities and power, but in a communal, civic, responsible mode—not simply the empowerment and unfettering of the self-interested actor. Indeed the “participant” is something of the cooperative, altruistic counterpart to the purely selfish rational actor. This means that “participation” has a strong normative and ideological force.

Today governments, corporations, non profits, all gain authority by introducing participatory processes into their projects. In biomedicine, for example, these range from comment processes and periods in regulatory decisions; bioethics, IRB, and community consultation panels that include non-expert, “community” members; the NIH even offers grants to patient advocacy organizations to foster their participation. The cultivation of participation is crucial to these institutions’ legitimacy. Thus the meaning of participation is changing, and to think of it only in terms of the problem of cracking open closed and powerful institutions and making them more publicly accountable misses the ways that participation has become a stake in broader political struggle with many actors fighting to define it to their advantage.

The ironic twist here is that participation is fueling the intellectual apparatus (i.e., the correlational knowledge of behavioral patterns) of what may be a new paradigm of governance that is deeply technocratic and non-participatory. The vision of the governance paradigm that Davies sketches isn’t one where decisions are made openly in partnership with human subjects conceived as political stakeholders whose will and investment in decisions must be respected. Rather it is one where human subjects are complex and irrational whose behavior (and happiness) must be managed and optimized.

Part of the task of our lab should be to think of participation as something analogous to the population in Foucault’s famous analysis of biopolitics and governmentality. What happens when “participation” becomes an object of knowledge and manipulation, public and private power, pastoral authority, (even ethical self care)?

‘All Books Are Participatory’: Interview with Adam Hyde at FLOSS Manuals.

Adam Hyde is the mastermind behind FLOSS Manuals, a set of wiki-editable collaboratively written how-to textbooks for open source software. I talked to Adam about the next steps for his project, the future of publishing (the one where a book is ‘alive’ and each author can take a cut), and the worldwide spread of the booksprint format, a process enabled by Adam’s Booki software that brings together a group of people to produce a book in 3-5 days.

Morgan Currie: Can you describe the original climate that FLOSS Manuals came out of?

Adam Hyde: Well the climate was bad documentation, undernourished documents in free software organizations across the planet, and a feeling that I could do something about it because no one else was.

MC: Why do you think this was the state of things?

AH: Because free software projects are run by backend people, 99% men who talk C+.

MC: Would this imply that they’re not plugged into an institution that can push things along?

AH: No no, many come from large organizations, but they do not understand or give sufficient attention to the ‘end user’ as someone who needs some love and attention. For example I recently did a sprint with a very established free software project. It was their first document in the eight years they had been running. Some organizations do not do manuals because they feel people ‘just get it’.
Of course its also good to remember that using a manual for training people to use our software is only the starting point. Manuals have a bigger role and value.

MC: Can you describe this larger role?
AH: Advocacy, PR, marketing, funding acquittal documents, helping other parts of the organization sell ideas ‘further up’ the chain, funding application materials, internal discussion documents, feedback processes, pre-sale aids, post sale-aids, etc. Docs live outside of ‘how to use the software’. Imagine if you are a developer or a consultant and you work with Drupal. You take along a customised printed manual of drupal to the potential client and that manual has your company’s branding all over it. Like you wrote the doc. Very powerful. Or imagine a funding acquittal – you get some funds, and you give the funder a BOOK as one of the outcomes of that funding. They love you and give you more money. Funders hardly ever get tangibles.
MC: So FLOSS Manuals allows people to personalize the use of the documents to that extent. You could make a fork of it, essentially, and put your own branding on it.
AH: Yes. It’s federated publishing. Take a book, and do with it as you like. We can’t stop people from taking off the attribution stuff, but I don’t expect they do.

MC: Can you describe how these manuals have been taken up by communities?

AH: That’s a biggie. Civicrm is a good case. They talk consistently about the book in their lists and point to it from forums all the time, and they have annual book sprints. They are depreciating the wiki and using the docs as their official docs. They now want to sprint with other humanitarian organizations to do bigger sprints with like-minded software document teams.
MC: Is the entire project then taking on a shape you didn’t foresee from the start? If so how?
AH: FLOSS Manuals is now starting to realise some of the things I hoped for it when I started it. It’s a slow process. You have to create a culture…that takes time. For example, it takes time to break down people’s ideas of publishing. They come with a pre-installed idea. Tell them anyone can take your book and publish it and make money…they feel queasy. Checkout A Webpage is a Book, in the chapter ‘About this book’. It documents how you can make money from this book. You can sell it yourself. We have all the tools so that this would take you two minutes to do. Try to explain that to someone, why they would want to do this?! It is the future, I am sure, but it doesn’t make sense to many people, so you need to build this up in a community culture, to get them used to ways of working, to challenge them, to show them what the advantages are and help them to experience them.
MC: Do you consider participation a part of this process?
AH: Participation is all over this – all books are participatory.
MC: It’s even a participatory way of injecting a never-finished collection of ideas into a market.
AH: I would not say never-finished. I would say ‘alive’.
MC: Do participants have some say in the overall management of the site, the licensing tools, the direction it’s taking?
AH: There are three tiers to this: one, the board of five people, two, the language associations – some separate organizations, and three, the communities. Tiers one and two exist to make three’s job easy.
At first the organization was invisible. Now it has more muscle since we had a meet up in Berlin in October. There is a stronger board that will be separate from the English FLOSS Manuals, so we’ll have all equal language foundations, all on the same tier, with the helping each wherever it can. The Dutch organization is the meta organization. There will be French, Finnish, English, all autonomous. The meta organization is there to fuel the greater picture and help the language organizations when needed.

MC: How is FLOSS Manuals sustained?
AH: We don’t have any funding and are now looking for some. We have no employees but want some to help the communities do what they want to do. We just started now looking for money four weeks ago. We have had project funding for Booki development when features were needed, etc, but that’s about it. We have 40k in the back, which will last six months, and in that time we have to make it work and meanwhile find more money to keep that ball rolling.
MC: Can you describe your user population? Where are they mostly, which are most active, what typifies a FLOSS contributor…
AH: Definitely free software people, but maybe ones that can talk to other people. Free software geeks with a human interface (usually).
MC: How critical are the book sprints to the manual’s development?
AH: If you are talking about ‘a’ manual, then there are many ways manuals can come into existence. Book Sprints are one way. But if you are talking about how important sprints are for FLOSS Manuals, that’s different. The community has had massive growth spurs because of book sprints, and this in turn helps the effort at large. So book sprints help specific books and the community in general, and book sprints help the profile of FLOSS Manuals because they are very news worthy.
MC: How many are happening these days?
AH: In the last four weeks…lets see. We did four parallel book sprints at once at the Google Summer of Code event. There was a French arduino sprint in Dakar. There is a “making free fonts with free software” sprint in France next week. There is a one day thunderbird update sprint in Toronto next week. And there is a freedomfone sprint in Zimbabwe next week.
MC: It would be interesting to compare all of these…the differences between European and African sprints, with the differences in technical resources.
AH: Yeah, in Africa there’s power outages and low net bandwidth.

MC: what’s your measure of success for the project?
AH: There is my measure and the one for the goals. I measure success by how much people tell say we are doing magic, and that happens a lot. But I think the real measure is how sustainable we can make this. That’s the real hard measure, and we are not there yet. I worry that I am too much the container for a lot of information others don’t have and also I don’t see anyone as committed as me who would take over as the main whip if I stepped out. There is a lot of cultural stuff that needs to be internalized. That takes time. So we have a lot to do to get there. I want to be expendable. And maybe I am already but I fear that I am not quite.
MC: Do you see FM doing more than manuals on FLOSS, with people taking up the platform to build textbooks on all sorts of topics?
AH: is for books about non free software topics. We push that stuff there. I started this: to push book sprints into this area, and the book i am writing is to try to get people to start their own FLOSS Manuals type organization for their own interests.
MC: We aim to compare different organizations’ approaches to participation to map the ways it can shape the public’s voice and change the value an enterprise creates. Do you have a statement to make about this re FM? Participation for you happens on so many levels, which automatically makes it quite distinct.

AH: I think the book is a powerful tool for building communities and publishing has locked this off from the world for a very long time. One of the principle models for building knowledge online is going to be the book and the fact that it is so valuable a community building device makes it ripe for participatory knowledge building.

Online Community Managers

Every case we investigate has them. Either FSE-housed and salaried individuals doing the work the algorithm can’t–humanly cultivating, curating, and cheerleading participation–or the OP netizen doing it for free, fun, or the Lulzzz–online community managers. Alex Leavitt recently asked the AIR-L list about research on this necessary yet precarious species of knowledge. These were the returns:

The Art of Hosting Good Conversations Online by Howard Rheingold


Misbehavior in cyber places: The regulation of online conduct in virtual communities on the Internet by Janet Lynne Sternberg

The Public Sphere of Occupy Wall Street

I keep returning to the public sphere as Habermas originally described it as I think about progressive political movements of today: Occupy Wall Street and its global dimensions, Anonymous and its more theatrical and political wing LulzSec, and progressive and independent cable television news network Current. Internet activism, television news punditry, and street-based social movement each work together implicitly or explicitly to constitute a larger public sphere. As scholars we need to resist the temptation of excluding one form of resistance as being inconsequential to social justice or to analysis and instead see all three as working together in a media ecology.

It is widely acknowledged that Habermas idealizes the era of 18th century bourgeois Europeans inhabiting markets and coffee houses deliberatively dialoguing on the future of the nation, markets, religion, and the species. Those halcyonic days quickly gave way to our present situation where the public sphere is colonized by corporate media, where our dynamic and eventful two-way chatter about the fate of the planet is replaced by the one-way monologue from the culture industries. This is our present day inheritance, and, according to Habermas, all networked communication technologies are tools of capital propaganda. Yes, the notion of the public sphere is monolithic and universalizing; ignores counter-publics of gender, ethnic, and class minorities; and has little to say about the specific affordances of contemporary networked communication technologies. The ‘political sphere’ should certainly be a plurality of spheres and publics.

One thing Habermas did get absolutely right was that in the context of culture, power, technology, and the public sphere there is transformation from open to closed systems, to borrow a perhaps reductive idea from Tim Wu. I want to discuss three cases in regards to the two stages of the public sphere. I will conclude by attempting to show how future theorization of the public sphere and of social movements need to consider the media ecologies that consist of social media, cable television, hacktivism, and grassroots activists sleeping in solidarity in city parks.

Habermas uses the unfortunate term bourgeois to describe the class of the people in his ideal public sphere.  Occupy and Anonymous both would likely detest this term to describe the methods of their political action, but Habermas saw the bourgeois against the specter of feudalism and monarchism. To him, the bourgeois were a uniquely liberated people, who braved ostracism to speak freely. If we must discuss Occupy and Anonymous in Habermas’s terms we might do well to think of these “bourgeois” activists resisting corporate feudalism. In a fascinating interview ending with him walking off stage right, Occupy activist and journalist Chris Hedges describes the financial “criminal class” as involved in “neofeudalism.” His is such an excellent example of cable television functioning, against Habermas’s dystopic views, as a public sphere that I typed it out for you:

Those who are protesting the rise of the corporate state are in fact on the political spectrum the true conservatives because they are calling for the restoration of the rule of law. The radicals have seized power and they have trashed all regulations and legal impediments to a reconfiguration of American society into a form of neofeudalism.

Habermas use the term “refeudalization” to describe how the public sphere was colonized by corporate propaganda. The point is that Occupy is an attempt to defeudalize what remains of the middle and working classes through modeling a laterally-organized direct democracy in their General Assembly. Here is an excellent video of the General Assembly using its structure to discuss the role of hierarchy in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

An article describes anthropologist David Graeber’s work at Occupy establishing the horizontal General Assembly as opposed to the vertically organized leader-based organization:

A ‘general assembly’ means something specific and special to an anarchist. In a way, it’s the central concept of contemporary anarchist activism, which is premised on the idea that revolutionary movements relying on coercion of any kind only result in repressive societies.

A “GA” is a carefully facilitated group discussion through which decisions are made — not by a few leaders, or even by majority rule, but by consensus. Unresolved questions are referred to working groups within the assembly, but eventually everyone has to agree, even in assemblies that swell into the thousands.

Occupy’s General Assembly is not unlike how Anonymous and LulzSec make their decisions on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) systems. The IRC process is a bit more chaotic but similar to the GA in that both are laterally organized, allowing for leaderless deliberation and action. Direct democracy is a messy practice; one that has confounded mainstream consolidated news media looking for a dominant agenda. But as we shout in the streets: “This is what democracy looks like!” (I am one who believes there is a single issue perfectly described in the included photo above I took at Occupy LA.)

The question on many media pundits’ lips as well as those keyed in to Habermas’s revelation regarding the historical transformation of the public sphere is: when will this open, deliberative public sphere of Occupy’s General Assembly or Anonymous’s IRC space of praxis give in to formalization and consolidation? Perhaps the techno-structure of the GA or the IRC prohibits such integration and institutionalization, or perhaps the power of persuasive culture assists participants in resisting leadership and agenda aggregation. I don’t know but I will provide an example of an open, laterally organized corporate public sphere giving way to a non-participatory, top-down corporate public sphere. Yet, despite this, and in counter-distinction to Habermas, I argue, a public sphere perseveres in this example from Current.

The progressive and independent television news network Current originally was founded on the idea of media democratization which they attempted to achieve through creating a lateral network of documentary video producers (Viewer-created content producers or VC2) working through the central hub of Current as a television network that showcased the work, a social media destination used to discuss the documentaries, and a corporation incentivizing participation through payment. While enmeshed within a for-profit media system, Current saw itself as a formal critique of consolidation and the “refeudalization” of the public sphere. Indeed, the network’s chairman, Al Gore was apt to quote Habermas in his book Assault on Reason.

But by 2011, this specific media democratization project was over at Current, replaced by pundit-based, ratings driven news programming led by the return of Keith Olbermann to cable television news. Now it might be convenient to criticize this transformation of the deliberative bourgeois public sphere of the VC2 model to the for-profit refeudalization of what was once a vibrant public sphere. But a wider look at the role played by Olbermann and progressive media punditry exhibits how various elements work in consort to produce the educative conditions for the public sphere. What remains under-theorized and documented in both Habermas and in regards to the social movements of the present, are the ecological dynamics between various constituencies that produce the conditions for a progressive public sphere. I call upon the General Assembly of Occupy Research to empirically document the Occupy movement within its cultural context that includes hacktivists, television newscasters, as well as boots-on-the-ground Occupiers.

For most of us too busy (in our non-market activities) to be sleeping at the various liberation parks around the nation and globe, we know the Occupy Movement as #occupywallstreet, or #occupyla. It is something we know less through the experience of inhabiting a space in protest but more as something known through sitting at home and engaging with social media. For others, we know the Occupy Movement through cable television news–Fox, MSNBC, CNN, or Current. Cable television is a networked communication technology with specific cultures of consumption. Unlike those reading about Occupy through Twitter and its hashtag #occupywallstreet, cable news viewers have few options of engaging with the material through the media itself. Habermas, who correctly prioritizes two-way, dialogic engagement over top-down listening, thinks this form of political mediation expressed by cable news is part of the problem of democracy—passivity and propaganda.

Again, Habermas misses the point of active cultures of consumption and how information can lead to action. For instance, Cenk Uygar of the Young Turks, and formerly of MSNBC, announced in Zuccotti Park the political action committee (PAC) he is forming, Wolf-PAC, with a sole focus of getting a 28th US Constitutional Amendment limiting personhood to people not corporations. Via YouTube and soon via his up-and-coming cable TV program on Current he will continue to encourage political action. While scholars have wondered if the rich dialogue that occurs in the public sphere ever actually leads to democratic action, mainstream cable television, despite lacking two-way engagement, exhibits the conditions of an attenuated public sphere by encouraging political action.

What is the cause for these emergent horizontal organizations? Yochai Benkler, in his new book, claims that humans are essentially selfless and collaborative; the open architecture of the internet is just helping that gene to express itself. It’s a provocative argument he makes with quite a bit of social, psychological, and biological anthropological data. Perhaps, but the point is that horizontal organizations exist as temporal and transitional boundary objects impacted by technology, power, and culture from all directions. Likewise, power, culture, and technology are mediated by forces within the media ecology, some of these forces are laterally while others are vertically ordered—this is the mediated context for the present social movements.

Some cases to pursue…

Citizen Science
Public laboratory
Galaxy Zoo

Decision Making/Recommendation
all our ideas
google moderator

Consumer production/Prosumption?
open source footware at john fluevog

(open) Hardware Hacking
safecast (Also citizen science)
freedom box
freedom fone

Artwork repository / Artistic Communities

The Internet Archive
Project Gutenberg

Nettime Mailing List

The Station (YouTube)
PCF (Miro)

Fan Culture/Participatory Culture cases?
Original Hip Hop Lyrics Archive
Internet Movie Database

Defunct Projects and/or Projects which failed (in fostering public participation)
GNU Hurd
Corel Linux (and hundreds of other linux distros)
Digital Tipping Point
Symbiam OS
Open Solaris



Fold it participation

Apparently a major discovery of the structure of a key retrovirus protease was made with the help of online gamers playing “Foldit”. Not only are the players helping scientists with the “drudgery” of research (as in distributed computing or people submitting animal sightings), but these game players are “providing answers beyond the capabilities of experts in the field.” Thus good game players have some kind of very specific expertise that scientists don’t have.

Interestingly the scientists offered authorship to the game winners, but they declined and only asked for recognition for their Foldit teams. The sharing of credit is interesting, and uncommon. But also it seems that there might be an interesting OP dynamic here. Competition in the game seems to have been key, also teamwork. An interesting question for us: where did the teams come from? Were they preorganized or did they organize through the game? What makes the team superior to a bunch of individuals working on the game separately?