It is widely documented and recognised that the internet partly owes its origins to a west coast American political ethos: libertarian psychadelic hippy capitalism. I've no doubt that this is disputed in some quarters, but lets suppose there is something in this. Manuel Castells argues as much in The Internet Galaxy, for example, and Peka Himanen's Hacker Ethic is an interesting journey through the ideology and ethos of collaborative software coding. This ethos stresses networks over hierarchies, information sharing as the default option, a utilitarian version of meritocracy, and so on. It permeated the New Economy boom, and, according to Anna Lee Saxenian, accounted for the comparative rise of Silicon Valley over Route 128.
What is then sociologically interesting about the internet is how an architecture emerging from one ethos becomes inhabited by groups and communities with another ethos all together. This is analogous to the problem of Corbusian housing: such architecture was never intended as a cheap, badly-governed option for the worst off, but as a luxury. The ill-adaptation of such designs still blights British cities.
We're subject to a form of soft Californian colonialism, in which we take the technology of the libertarian hippy capitalists, and adapt it to our own ends. I quite agree that there are manifold benefits attached to this (I wouldn't otherwise be publishing these thoughts...), especially in areas of political and civic mobilisation. I have some good friends working in such projects. But what about those arriving late?
Firstly, over the last five years, we've seen the rise of many websites which act as brokers between individuals, so as to let them share information. Where this has some purpose or function, as with eBay, pledgebank or a campaign, then this seems fine. I'm minded of Clay Shirky's argument in Here Comes Everybody that online groups need a bargain: what is expected of each individual, if the group is going to actually get anything done?
And yet this is evidently not the default mode of online behaviour, and nor was it ever. The hacker ethic, in which information must be shared as a principle, has been imported into our own social lives, in order that every thought, image, action, event or experience must be shared simply for the sake of it. There is a golden thread linking the free software movement ('free as in speech') and the banality of social networking sites: thou shalt not restrict the information that you are at home having a cup of tea.
Secondly, the political right is only just beginning to grasp the possibilities offered to them by this technological child of the 1960s. I wonder if we have even seen the half of it. Actually, I wonder if we've seen the whole tip of the iceberg. A somewhat flippant example was given to me by a friend who has advised The Daily Mail on how to set up an online dating site.* The semi-humourous implication is that they're missing an inverted-eugenicist trick by allowing all those liberals to reproduce their numbers via Guardian Soulmates. But what really got me thinking about this was the news this morning that Jacqui Smith is to put the identities of criminals on a website, searchable by locality. The 'power of information' indeed. This isn't quite criminaljustice2.0, but it's not far off. One wonders if the old criticism, that government squashes existing 'intermediaries' through duplicating existing online services, could be levelled here. Maybe they should have just built a facebook app, that performed the service? Or made it operate via fixmystreet.com?
Because the question this then poses is how individuals are to use this information, and how it might be better organised. All it takes is a right-wing or vigilante version of mySociety, with a less attractive civic vision, and this criminal geo-data can become scraped, distributed, then offered with a Shirky-esque 'bargain': 'I will be outside this crim's house with a plank of wood at 3am if 10 other people will do the same'. That would be the extreme case, but milder responses are surely inevitable and, to some degree intended. As some proto-Richard Stallman within the Home Office must have put it "information about local criminals wants to be free!"
I know I'm not the first to raise these fears. The viability of mobilising angry people online has been recognised for some time. Niche interests and small factions are 'early adopters' in this regard, not far behind the more liberally-minded geeks. What's interesting today is the arrival of the very late adopters - those large bastions of the establishment who are habitually conservative, with the potential to become more so. The Daily Mail and the Home Office are good examples. How these bodies take to compulsive information-sharing and flat organisational structures - given that they oppose these phenomena everywhere else - is still quite difficult to fathom. It's one thing for left-wing liberals and right-wing pressure groups to adopt a libertarian architecture; it's quite another for traditional, illiberal conservatives to do so.
* The potential for satire here is endless. Can someone please set up a spoof Daily Mail dating site? You could call it myracistfriend.com Imagine...
Dislikes: Romanians, paedophiles, Labour, Polly Toynbee, modern society.
Must have: GSOA (good sense of anger)
Dream date: a countryside march down to Dover to hurl insults at the channel tunnel.