The administrator is the boss. He is the ruler of his community. He has the power to alter his site, remove content or ban specific users. Basically one could consider him as the autocrat, the despot of the community. Internet, or more specific Web 2.0 applications, allows each user to create their own digital empire and being the autocratic ruler. Hence soon we all are king of our digital domain.
Of course is this not a realistic point of view. When you look back in history, people have always been struggling for power. Some are dominating, others are being dominated. Rulers of former times were almost always engaged in war with one or more countries, cities or nations. In order to maintain themselves as the ruler, they had to have a well-trained army willing to fight for them. Niccolò Machiavelli, an Italian political philosopher and diplomat of the Renaissance, analysis in his most influential work The Prince (Italian: Il Principe) several kings and rulers that were always struggling for power. Machiavellist is a common word for a politician or manager that subordinates his personal morality to the exercise of power. In The Prince you can read why this is necessary and how to do that. Usually the ruler needs to involve his subjects in a subtle interplay, keeping an eye on the importance of the multitude. The video below explains Machiavelli’s theory a bit more in detail.
The Prince is still a very popular book for a wide range op people, e.g. psychologists, managers, coaches and politicians. However, the book is also seen as a very controversial one. Machiavelli encourages eliminating political opponents in order to manage your power more effectively. After all, it is not about the people and morality, it’s about gaining and keeping power. Yet to maintain your ruling position, you need the sympathy of the crowd.
One remarkable fact is that Machiavelli hardly speaks of money. After the industrial revolution in the 19th century, the money became more important in theories how to organize a certain community. Adam Smith was one of the earliest economic liberal theorists who argued that the role of the government should focus more on maintaining morality while the people should be free to trade. In Smith’s theory, the government is a kind of guard that takes care about the public wealth. The system regulates itself because Smith believed in the ‘invisible hand’; the idea of everyone’s good intensions in making efforts for the highest possible wealth of the nation. Smith describes the idea of power mainly as a matter of the individual and its way of trading.
Nowadays, the ideas of Smith are mostly reduced to the glorification of freedom. The more the multitude is free, the better it is for society. I will come back to that part later. Karl Marx addresses this freedom issue as quite problematic. The capitalistic system described by people like Smith is the established form of economic organization. Marx argues that people are ranked in their mode of production, the way in which one is related to the productive forces like labor, tools, equipment, technology and buildings. The group of people owning productive forces uses the proletarians, which do not have those forces, to make as much profits as they can. Just like Machiavelli’s theory argues, the ruling class keeps their power by taking care of the proletarians. Even though it is done by paying very small wages. One day, Marx predicts, the proletarians will take over the system, creating a socialistic system with a core role for the government. Everyone will be equal. You can see a nice overview of marxism in de video below.
Taking this into account, let’s jump to the modern, digital times and the question of freedom. Isaiah Berlin determined in 1958 two types of freedom: the negative and the positive. Negative freedom is the extent to which a person or a group can do what they want without being hindered by others. Positive freedom is about the extent to which someone can give direction to its life within our society. The first definition is merely about reducing the authority, the second about gaining status and respect, and thus, power. Adam Smith is often misunderstood as a propagator of the right to be left alone. Yet Smith, as well as Machiavelli and Marx, saw a core role for the government to give a certain direction to our lives.
The World Wide Web is often understood as a platform of complete anarchy. On the one hand, everyone is free to speak and publish. Each musician can distribute his music without interference of a producer. Every entrepreneur is able to compete with large multinational companies. Power to the people! But on the other hand companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and so on gaining lots of user information. These commercial players are to a certain extent comparable with the former capitalistic factories Marx described. If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold. For instance, Google makes profit by exploiting our data. We are working for Google, and Google keeps us satisfied by providing some nice, individualized services. We can see another example of power floating to a commercial party by looking to the App Store. The regular way to get new apps on your iPhone is by downloading them from the App Store. Even though everyone can potentially make new applications, you always depend on Apple’s approval.
What I am proposing by this blogpost, is not another research about privacy issues. Rather I am suggesting an understanding of those powerful commercial companies in the social-economic context. What happens to morality if money driven companies gain more and more power? What if digital inequalities lead to serious social problems? What if Google’s Administrator eliminates you from access to their database?
Kroe, A. van der, J. Yntema. “Leevensberigt van Adam Smith”. Digitale Bibliotheek voor Nederlandse Letteren. <http://dbnl.nl/tekst/_vad003179701_01/_vad003179701_01_0338.php>. 1797. Web. 1 Oct 2011.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. De Heerser. Trans. Frans van Dooren. Amsterdam: Athenaeum – Polak & Van Gennep, 1976. Print.