Decrease of distance in the digital age
I mentioned that I’d been to the Truth and Beauty series, and it all started with Pat Kane. (Full disclosure: late 80s / early 90s, I bought every huge Hue and Cry album, so at least part of my motivation for attending Pat’s talk was fanboy.) Pat was floating a discussion around an admittedly vague idea of the Constitute, “an answer to [his] anxiety about being drowned in rich and meaningful connections in the social-media age, and not being able to turn even a small percentage of them into resources for action or enterprise”. I enjoyed the talk, although I always struggle to clear a path through the mental jungle that is continental philosophy.
My only comment at the talk was that the web tools that we have available to us are mainly and increasingly curatorial, and curation is an act of management rather than an act of creation. Since part of Pat’s complaint is that politics has become a managerial exercise, which has taken political processes out of the reach of the citizen and handed it to the technocrat (which I agree with), there seems to be a tension between how much the web can provide a platform for the creativity that’s needed to revitalize those processes. While MyDavidCameron is effing hilarious, it doesn’t add much to the dialogue.
The problem is that communal relationships (of the sort that Pat wants to encourage, document and leverage for action) emerge out of lived experiences: they are praxis. The web tools that we currently use to mediate those experiences create a distance from the relationships themselves, and it’s the distance between experience and relationships that is part of the fundamental problem of politics. The reason why I like TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem is that they seek to decrease that distance a little, at least between citizens and their elected representatives, but they’re not fundamentally creative either.
You might argue that it’s how you use the tools that matters, not the tools themselves – that if Facebook and Twitter aren’t decreasing the distance between experiences and relationships, we only have ourselves to blame. Pat argues that a comment thread on his blog or on Facebook is a Constitute, and that what we need is “to forge a… some guild-like or practice-like behaviours or conventions, that can capture the value of the relentless connecting, conversing and curating we do with our networked devices?” It’s hard to see how to make the leap from connecting, conversing and curating to creating, and that’s inherent to the technology.
As computing becomes increasingly ubiquitous, the distance will diminish until perhaps we won’t even notice it any more. It will always be there, though, and that has implications for the shape we want our politics to be in the future. The answer is surely to focus on developing highly localised politics which revives the local relationships from which our political processes originally developed, and to use web-based tools primarily to network these local polities – aggregating rather than curating. Political action at large scales would then be a question of coordination (the Quaker model, perhaps?) and not just curation – but what sort of web platform would that be?
November 20, 2011