The Web’s distributed Architecture and the New Public Sphere (1998) #Complexity #RiskCulture

Further to their capacity to gradually destroy (dis-intermediate) all the mechanisms of political and/or social mediation, the Interconnected Society and new communication technologies have the power, possibly limitless power, to extend man’s possibilities and communicative opportunities, thereby facilitating the production, elaboration and exchange of information and knowledge between individuals. On the other hand, and despite presenting itself as an extraordinary opportunity for economic, political and social evolution, the risk culture has led to a significant increase in the sense of insecurity and vulnerability within social systems, thus feeding a climate of fear (and/or social alarm) on both a local and global scale. And this climate is radically calling into question the very ‘precautionary principle’ (Sunstein, 2005), which is ever more cut off from the social demand for protection. Within the community there’s no place for conditioning and everyone can (potentially) produce and exchange knowledge in the context of a system in which communication has become totally horizontal and is unhindered by any kind of filter. Out of a complex reality like today’s, which offers a choice between several ethical systems, a ‘new’ and more autonomous Subject emerges, a subject that is free of the ties imposed by the context and/or reference group. This Subject is aware of the fragmentation of the social bond and of religious morality, as well as the dissolution of traditional ethical ties. And it couldn’t have been any other way, given that historic phases of social change have always been accompanied by great insecurity and a general sense of disorientation caused by the absence of a strong cultural model. The problem also involves trying to understand whether, in reality, the network society and interconnected economy, both of which appear to guarantee greater opportunities for equality in social actors’ initial conditions, are concealing a risk. The risk is that the social systems’ connective tissue will be further weakened, that individuals (people/social actors), convinced that the virtual is real, become passive, and that issues are not translated into change and political decisions. But there’s also danger of a cultural uniformity, which would provide fertile terrain for a culture of total social control capable of reducing the citizen’s/consumer’s freedom. Hence, although the Network Society undoubtedly offers an extraordinary chance for the emancipation and liberation of the forces and energies of the social and global fabric, nation-states need to be careful that the Great Network not only increases communicative and cognitive possibilities but also contributes to the creation of a more culturally evolved and open humanity that’s able to contrast what some see as the end of society (Touraine, 2004). Since the origins of pre-complex society, communication has, as is known, been the lifeblood of the social relations’ system, representing the connective tissue of the social systems. But this presupposition doesn’t stop  us observing how the Internet and social media are bringing about an unprecedented leap in quality, specifically in relation to social action and the communicative praxis. In the same way, modifications to social mechanisms connected to trust and cooperation (Coleman, 1990) – which are themselves being boosted by the network of protection and social promotion, the concept of ‘social capital’ (Putnam, 2000) – are following one another much quicker. The links of interdependence and interconnection that innervate the world-system are intensifying, even if some scholars are talking of the end of the social bond, alerting us to the new forms of socialization  and a virtuality of reality and social life  whose multiple implications are yet to be studied and evaluated. But the fundamental question lies in the fact that the knowledge society has all the features of a global risk society, a society that has extended the dynamics of conflict, and spread risks, (real and potential) emergencies, and systemic anomalies over every border or limit. This dimension crosses the equally crucial sphere of trust which continues to emerge as a fundamental social mechanism capable of reducing complexity (Luhmann, 1968) and rendering the acceptance of risk sustainable. This trust – it’s worth reiterating – remains closely linked to the problem of learning and knowledge. Modern social systems, which are often orphans of a strong cultural model, are nowadays characterized by instability and a high degree of unpredictability of their actions and processes. And it’s this that renders the knowledge sharing option even more strategic, not to say urgent. In fact, the ‘virgin territory’ of the current communicative praxis is seemingly characterized, above all, by an extraordinary opportunity for the democratization of knowledge and cultural processes, which could definitively break the old industrial model, as well as  – and as we’ve said before – the consolidated structures, hierarchies, control logics and closure to change. Therefore, what’s in play here is the redefinition of the structure of social power relations and all the implications that that throws up. The complex architectures, which support the network society, undoubtedly confirm and further reinforce the character of ‘common good’ connected to the resource of knowledge. We should reiterate that knowledge is the only strategic resource derived from the processes of intersubjective acquisition that can nourish, even from below, the nerves and tissues that innervate the interconnected economy. Think about the idea, rather the ambitious project – which is no longer utopian – to develop an open source global network geared not only towards producing/elaborating knowledge but also to controlling information. This knowledge ecosystem, structured in a reticular manner, is destined to significantly facilitate the processes of reducing complexity in a phase of the passage to hypermodernity, itself increasingly marked by an increase in indeterminacy and disorder within the systems. On the other hand, indeterminacy and disorder can trigger off a halt (or, on the contrary, a state of entropy) of all the organizational mechanisms and their relative sub-systems deputised to react/respond to the unforeseen. The emergence of a knowledge ecosystem is always tied to the concrete possibility of accessing and spreading information/knowledge (primary needs). In the so-called Knowledge Society, the criteria of hierarchy in accessing information are tested every day, and culturally weakened by the new spirit of the information age and the multiple forms of mediated interaction that appear to have definitively cancelled the borders between the public sphere and private sphere. However, after a long siege the decisive assault on the ‘ivory tower’ of  knowledge (power), used here in the traditional sense of the term, has arrived with Web 2.0 (and its successive versions). With its participatory architecture, this motor of collective intelligence, amplifier of social cooperation, and authentic global relational network, is capable of making users real ‘proactive subjects’. All the conditions exist for the definition of a platform suitable for a more participatory democracy, even if the affirmation of a non-commercial production of information and culture is destined to create situations of conflict, mainly with businesses structured according to the economic model of
industrial information. The current (global) knowledge ecosystem is de-structuring the basis of the traditional industrial model which accompanied the evolution of the mass media system and, in some way, guaranteed its control by power groups and, more generally, the management class.  In this way the media platform that gave form and meaning to the ‘old’ public sphere – which still exists, and is here taken to mean, as Habermas expressed it, that structure of intermediation between the political system on the one hand and the private spheres of the lifeworld and specialist functional systems on the other – is failing. The Internet’s new distributed architecture is preparing to substitute the centralised and hierarchical architecture of the past. For this reason the Great Network concretises the opportunity to organise and coordinate, even on a global scale, opinions and actions alternative to those ‘more visible’ which dominate the media arena. Above all, they are short-circuiting the old media system. Consequently, the networked public spheres also feature social actors who have no involvement with the market and can create a critical mass in regard to little-known social issues  by exercising pressure on the power and Political system. The networks’ capitalist system therefore reveals itself to be a Knowledge-based economy which is causing an irreversible transformation of knowledge into social knowledge capable of supplying know-how that is constantly re-usable and that overcomes the limits of exclusively owned knowledge, thus introducing numerous discontinuities and asymmetries into the new social complex. Horizontal production has become the absolute protagonist. However, one must always remember that this is just the infrastructure on which the flesh and blood (individual and collective) social actors can define, plan and carry out social change. The hope is that such change is based on collective knowledge and the passage from mass culture to participatory culture. Thus, it appears evident how communication and the social production of knowledge are sinking their roots into the Modernity project. It’s politics – and we reiterate this strongly – that needs to reformulate itself and redefine its priorities in the name of the common good. We need a new humanism – a necessary condition in truly democratic systems – based on widespread knowledge that’s accessible to everyone and capable of involving weak subjects and/or subjects that have been penalised by the mechanisms of the world-economy and growth without rules. In this sense, we should also note some positive signs of a reawakening of the global conscience in the face of the many problems of hypermodernity (identity, gender, precariousness and work, citizenship rights, human rights, the environment etc.), signs which are further evidenced by the extremely interesting phenomenon of new (local and global) social movements for whom the Internet and the opportunity offered by Web 2.0 provide the ideal infrastructure and input for the coordinating and feeding of their projects. The world communication system, although presenting several aspects that are open to criticism and, in some cases, are disturbing (Morozov, 2011), appears to offer an extraordinary opportunity for the development of (scientific and non) ‘world visions’ alternative to the dominant and/or externally-produced ones. The choice to work on strategies aimed at sharing knowledge could have an absolutely decisive role in the reduction of inequality (social asymmetries), the governance of social egoism and, consequently, in the productive mediation/re-composition of conflict. By now this seems to be a given fact. In this sense, communication and the social production of knowledge are increasingly destined to extend social actors’ options and their degree of freedom (on condition that they are increasingly informed and competent), guaranteeing them greater opportunities for emancipation than in the past. And this real emancipation, if achieved, will form the structure for a new ‘social contract’.