The Dictator and the Anarchist

This essay is excerpted from my talk at Law 2.0 on Talk at Law 2.0?: Openness, Web 2.0 and the Ethic of Sharing.

These examples also conveniently brings me to the second point I would like to make about he benefits of openness, which I have put under the slightly provocative heading of ‘The Dictator and the Anarchist’.

I am often struck that discussions of open knowledge production be that Wikipedia or Linux often proceed on the assumption that because a project produces open information it must itself be “open” in its governance. What “open” governance would mean is not always spelled out but rough sense would that participation is open to all and that all are represented with a roughly equal voice – certainly decision-making is democratic and it may even verge on the communitarian.

This could hardly be farther from the truth. While it is certainly easy to participate in “open knowledge” projects the basic social structure of many open knowledge projects resembles a dictatorship more than a democracy. In most cases there is one person with ultimate control, and the group of committers limited to a select few (committers are those with the ability to make actual changes “commits” direct to the core code or database).

Now there are various advantages to dictatorship compared to a democracy. First, its potential for more efficient and rapid decision-making – after all there are many fewer checks and balances. Second, in a democracy the quality of decision-making must tend to the average but in a dictatorship quality is constrained only by the dictator – and so can be much better than the average.

Needless to say there are also disadvantages, disadvantages that arise from the very same factors. For though true a dictator could be much much better than democracy it can also be much much worse. And I think it would be fair to say that there is nowadays a fair consensus that democracy is probably the better option at least when we are talking about human societies.

But here we are talking about the organization of knowledge creation and development. And it is here that the anarchy aspect kicks in. By anarchy we normally mean a situation where there is no ruler, no sovereign, who can compel us to act in a particular way. Here I would like to expand this to the situation where there is perfect outside option. That is should the sovereign act in a way you don’t like it is perfectly possible for you at zero (or very low cost) to up sticks and head over the nearest border and set up your own state.

Consider the behaviour of a sovereign in this ‘state of anarchy’. Within his or her borders he or she may be a dictator, however the fact that any ‘subject’ who is unhappy may easily leave greatly limits the ability of the sovereign to abuse such power. At the same time, it does not limit their ability to do good for then ‘subjects’ will be happy to stay. In this case, we need have little to fear from dictatorship and by combining it with ‘anarchy’ we obtain the best of both worlds.

Of course in the political world such a combination is, in practice, impossible. The outside option is usually inferior to the current situation, and if not the dictator may well be able to take steps to limit my ability to avail myself of it – think of the Berlin wall!

But fortunately we are not talking of politics but of technology and the development of digital information in the form of software, music, films, databases etc. And the wonderful, special aspect of thse digital goods is that they are practically costless to reproduce. Thus, if you are working on a knowledge development project, as long as the knowledge is open – and so without any special legal restrictions on such reproduction such as copyright, patents etc – it really is possible to just leave. It truly is the case that should you become unhappy with the current ‘dictator’ that you can just take the code or the content or the database and start your own project.

This has profound implications. In particular it means that the most significant benefit of open knowledge for production may not be a direct one but instead arises from the organizational structures and the types of development process that open knowledge makes possible. Open knowledge allow us to obtain the best of both worlds: to combine the anarchist and the dictator simultaneously in such a way as to leave us with all their advantages and none of their faults.