What is this stuff we call power?
This question came to mind when I read about Digital Power and Its Discontents, a conference coming up on 21 April at Georgetown. In it (says that link) they will be “exploring the ways digital technologies disrupt the balance of power between and among states, their citizens and the private sector.” Rebecca MacKinnon, Micah Sifry, Brendan Greeley and other folks I know and like are listed as panelists and moderators.
The title and description raised a number of questions for me. Is power always a sum of something? Does disruption always subtract power from whatever it disrupts? What is “digital power” and how is it applied? What makes private and public “sectors”? Are they really that separate? Why does the possessive pronoun “their” apply to citizens?
The word balance calls to mind something like the image on the left. You have a sum of X in one place, and it’s balanced by a sum of Y in another. For many subjects involving power the metaphor applies. There is a given sum of gold in the world, for example. But does power always pile up in ways that a scale suggests? Does it pile at all?
Whatever digital power is, it has been growing over the last few decades, and continues to grow. It also serves everybody — regardless of the labels we give it. Some of us use that power better than others, but it’s still available in any case. (No, not evenly, but still available, if you want it and are motivated to use it.)
For that conference, and for the rest of us in the meantime, I invite considering this: The entity with the most power to gain is the individual (or, as they put it in wonky circles, citizens). I believe there is much to be discontented about, in both the public and the private sectors. I also believe that each of us is steadily acquiring more power, as individuals, to influence both government and business — and in ways that are constructive, even when they disrupt whatever the status quos are. Giving individuals more power is the job ProjectVRM and its development communities have taken up. But it will happen anyway.
It’s tempting to focus on what Big Bad Government and Big Bad Companies are doing. They hog spotlights they deserve in any case. But digital technology makes many other places no less deserving of spotlights. Our ability to learn, to inform and to act, will only grow. If we’re busy being discontented with others who have more power at the moment, we’ll get less done. And we’ll miss out on a lot of the fun.