On power, balance, shifting and disruption

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.

7 comments

  1. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Here are some random notes about this subject… which might be helpful.

    I think the term “digital power” is an interesting thing to hang meaning on for Google, but it’s not the computers that bring power.

    There are a number of theories about it, including Metcalf’s law of network value, The hypermemesis thesis of Mark Pesce, and good old fashioned social networking that is enabled by the increased ability to connect to a geographically distributed tribe of choice.

    John Robb points to the weakness inherent in a hyperconnected supply chain with all of the slack engineered out of it by “just in time” optimizations.

    The capabilities for disruptive power are increasing because of the tight supply lines, which isn’t good if you’re one of the ones being supplied.

    The capabilities for generative power are also increasing because there it’s now easier to find sources for the missing bits to complete something.

    Either way, innovation is increasing. The ability to route around damage ascribed to the internet also helps those who use it to organize.

  2. Alex Bornkessel’s avatar

    I might argue that the power lies within the words and the ideas themselves–not the technology. And that the “digital” aspect, could be what spreads and strengthens that idea and those words.

    Looks like you’ve done some good research, and I love how you take the individual terms and are asking questions about them. Some people read conference titles like that and see buzzwords, others see just words, others read it and feel like it means something if even they aren’t sure what, but accept it anyway…I like how you dissect it and ask questions. Questions are good.

  3. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    > “No, not evenly, but still available, if you want it and are motivated to use it.”

    Umm, Doc, I really shouldn’t do this – but, given that I had a huge amount of research derailed and destroyed by malicious people with more digital power than I have – that I regularly deal with the reality that people with more digital power are free to lie and smear me, and I can’t even *effectively* defend myself – well – should I even continue?

    > “I also believe that each of us is steadily acquiring more power …”

    You can also believe that good will increasingly triumph over evil, but that doesn’t make it true.

  4. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Seth, I apologize for living under a rock, but what research are you talking about? I looked at your web site, and couldn’t figure it out.

  5. Seth Finkelstein’s avatar

    Forgotten already :-) . My research into decrypting censorware, discovering what’s on the secret blacklists. See the page http://sethf.com/anticensorware/censored/ for a list of what never saw the light of day. Also read:

    DMCA Exemptions Diary, a.k.a. more Why I Quit Censorware Research
    Or, as a subtitle, “I tried it that way, and it didn’t work”
    http://sethf.com/infothought/blog/archives/000456.html

    Most of the story is in, drumroll, obscure blog posts. The main point is one major reason I started blogging was to have a route-around channel against, e.g. the power of a hostile Slashdot editor (that’s power). It was essentially a total failure, a huge waste of time. While I realize that in terms of strictly realpolitik calculations, I shouldn’t write these critical comments, sometimes, due to practical debacles like the above, my irritation gets the better of me.

    Roughly, there is vast inequality, e.g. the exponential, “power law”, distribution. In fact, there’s a pretty good argument that inequality has gotten worse, because of removal of even very weak attempts to structurally mitigate it. Wishful thinking does not change this.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Seth, bad actors are always going to screw things up. Most cups are less than half full and leaking. Life is a terminal disease.

    FWIW, I’m doing wishful working as well as thinking. We’ll see what works out. Could be something. Could be nothing. Meanwhile, I’ll remain my optimistic, doomed self.

  7. Mike Warot’s avatar

    Wow… I have been living under a rock. And here I thought I was tuned into everything internet. 8(

    I think we can secure our computers, if it helps… by getting the capability security model into as many hearts and minds as possible, then onward into code. If we can trust our own PCs to actually follow OUR intentions, we can build towards an infrastructure we can trust.

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