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Being Near the Heart of Things - Political Authority on the Internet
  Cultural Politics of Technology, Workshop organized by Centre for Technology and Society, NTNU, Trondheim, June 15-16, 1998

Jeanette Hofmann , 6/98

  jump-off point
1  Being Near the Heart of Things - Political Authority on the Internet


1 Being Near the Heart of Things - Political Authority on the Internet
  The following presentation draws on a more extensive paper about political authority on the Internet. This paper deals with two questions: Does interaction on the Internet generate its own political dimension? And if so, how is it constituted, what could be defined as political on the Internet?

One of the obvious problems of these questions pertains to the concept of politics. In political science, there is strong tendency towards restricting politics to those events that take place in the capitals, castles and White Houses of the world. Such a definition of politics, however, doesn't work for cyberspace.

On my search for a broader, more suitable understanding of politics, I came across Clifford Geertz's remarks regarding political charisma. This is where my paper starts.

Charisma, according to Clifford Geertz "is a sign, not of popular appeal or inventive craziness, but of being near the heart of things". Charisma develops by way of "involvement" with what Geertz calls "active centers of social order". Such active centers of social order have "nothing to do with geometry and little with geography", they are "essentially concentrated loci of serious acts; they consist in the point or points of a society where its leading ideas come together with its leading institutions to create an arena in which the events that most vitally affect its members' lives take place." (Geertz 1983, 122f).

Are there active centers of social order on the decentralized Internet? Are there places where leading ideas come together with leading institutions to become serious acts? Do things happen on this far reaching, global Net which are seen to be relevant to all members and, therefore of fundamental importance to cyberspace? And if the digital space possesses a heart, how is it constituted?

Geertz is interested in the heart of things because he wants to save Max Webers concept of charisma from decay. I will take the opposite route: I use this poetic image to show that the organization of the digital space generates forms of authority that have a political dimension.

And indeed, there is a place on the Internet which has the reputation of being a locus of serious acts. The ideas, rituals, institutions and events that meet there are said to be not only of great influence to the further development of the Internet, but even constitutive to its existence.

What sort of serious acts happen there? An official self-description portrays them as being the following:

Its mission includes:

· Identifying, and proposing solutions to, pressing operational and technical problems in the Internet;

· Specifying the development or usage of protocols and the near-term architecture to solve such technical problems for the Internet; (...)

· Providing a forum for the exchange of information within the Internet community between vendors, users, researchers, agency contractors and network managers." (The Tao of the IETF, RFC 1718)

Serious acts on the Internet then obviously take place in the form of technical action. Really pressing problems are seen as being those concerning operation and further development of the net's infrastructure.

Who are these people who meet at this significant place on the net, to solve the net's important infrastructural and operational problems?

Usually they call themselves the "Internet community" - presumably the most general name one can imagine for a community on the Net. Their official name is Internet Engineering Task Force, or IETF. Here is how the IETF describes itself for outsiders:

The Internet Engineering Task Force is a loosely self-organized group of people who make technical and other contributions to the engineering and evolution of the Internet and its technologies. It is the principal body engaged in the development of new Internet standard specifications.

The IETF is not a traditional standards organization, although many specifications are produced that become standards. The IETF is made up of volunteers who meet three times a year to fulfill the IETF mission. (...)

There is no membership in the IETF. Anyone may register for and attend any meeting. The closest thing there is to being an IETF member is being on the IETF or working group mailing lists. (The Tao of the IETF, RFC 1718)

For newbies, the IETF portrays itself as an informal union open to anyone interested in the Internet. Interestingly, the community neither has formal organizational boundaries, nor any kind of membership rule. It has no legal status and is not bound to any public commissions. The IETF is under nobody's orders and is not controlled by anyone but the community itself.

The activities going on there appear to be more or less transparent to outsiders. Pressing problems are solved and future solutions are discussed on mailing lists which can be subscribed to by anyone. Likewise, the mailing lists electronic archives, which conserve years of heated debates are easily accessible. Thus, serious acts on the Internet are open to view, and anyone can intervene or protest.

Isn't it a weird form of organization for an active center of social order - one may ask? Aren't we used to the political elite meeting behind closed doors, surrounded by an aura of secretiveness? And are politically important places not characterized by their being closed off to us - the general public?

In case there was further need for symbolic distinctions, the community's clothing strongly differs from traditional governance rituals too. As informal as it may be, the IETF has its own dress code. And just like other elites it wishes this dress code to be adhered to:

Dress Code

Since attendees must wear their name tags, they must also wear shirts or blouses. Pants or skirts are also highly recommended. Seriously though, many newcomers are often embarrassed when they show up Monday morning in suits, to discover that everybody else is wearing t- shirts, jeans (shorts, if weather permits) and sandals. There are those in the IETF who refuse to wear anything other than suits. Fortunately, they are well known (for other reasons) so they are forgiven this particular idiosyncrasy. The general rule is "dress for the weather" (unless you plan to work so hard that you won't go outside, in which case, "dress for comfort" is the rule!). (The Tao of the IETF, RFC 1718)

In opposition to the "crowns und coronations, limousines and conferences" that Clifford Geertz uses to caricature symbols of political power, the Internet community flirts with reversing the rules. Their standard of dress is not defined by pomp and exclusiveness but rather by the subtle humor of mass-produced clothing. Cartoons and absurd advertisements are among the most popular T-shirts that can be seen at IETF conventions.

Where does the IETF get its power, where its authority to establish data transmission and clothing standards? After all, there is no definable constituency on the Internet to formulate its will and appoint a government to execute it. How then, can consensus be achieved under the conditions of extensive decentrality and autonomy on the Internet?

One of the sources for the Internet community's authority is its candor. Because everyone who is interested can join in and raise objections, the IETF's standard-setting power is seen as being legitimized.

A second source of the community's authority is the history of the Net and the IETF. As soon as one looks for the Net's origins on the Internet, one encounters an ever-increasing collection of myths, anecdotes and even poems, that tell of its "birth":

Barry Boehm

Paul Baran came out of the wood
With a message first misunderstood
But despite dangers lurking
The IMP's were soon working
And ARPA did see it was good.

So in place of our early myopia
We now have a net cornucopia
With IMP's, TIP's, and LAN's
Wideband VAN's, MAN's, and WAN's
And prospects of World Net Utopia.

But though we must wind up the clock
With thoughts of downstream feature shock
We all be can mollified
For there's no one more qualified
To discuss this than Leonard Kleinrock.

If there is a message central to all the forefathers' stories, it is the unity of the Internet and the Internet community. The birth of the Internet is the birth of packet-switching technology is the birth of the Internet community. The net and its community evolved at the same time; intrinsically bound to one another and following the same language ever since: decentrality and connectivity, openness and voluntariness are their common design principles.

The further back the Net's "humble beginnings" and those of its community lie, the more solemn the tone becomes in which the various founding myths are told. The congeniality of the Net and the Net community makes the Internet's success the success of its producers as well. Both sides are cloaked in an aura of something special, extraordinary and incomparable.

"We say", it is written by the community in a text about the Net, "the Internet is the Internet, not the same as anything else" (RFC 1935).

Founding myths not only regulate the past, they also empower strategies and principles which are meant to regulate the present and the future. Indeed, there is an obvious claim to power intertwined with the stories about the Internet's history.

This claim to power directs us to the "leading ideas and institutions" which come together at the center of the Net. Their political nature becomes visible when one looks at the Internet community's relationship with "its" technology and - paradoxically - their relationship with politics.

Recently, the Internet community published sort of a "technical manifesto" called "Architectural Principles of the Internet". The 'architectural principles' deal with the question as to what a digital data network should be like. The answer opens with a catechism:

The community believes that the goal is connectivity, the tool is the Internet Protocol, and the intelligence is end to end rather than hidden in the network."

[...] An immediate consequence of this is that datagrams are better than classical virtual curcuits. The network's job is to transmit as efficiently and flexibly as possible. (RFC 1958)

A small set of properties is emphasized as being characteristic of the Internet. Remarkably, all such properties distinguish the Internet from its rival model, the telephone networks. Datagrams constitute the antithesis of the "classical virtual circuits" of the telephone world. And the so-called "intelligence" upon which the Internet community insists is stored in the end points of a network which itself is put in the network by the telco world.

The "right" network architectural form is the subject of a long-standing battle over "design hegemony" between the Internet and the telephone world - between the so-called "net heads" and "bell heads". Seen from the battle's point of view, the statements made in the "architectural principles" can all be regarded as attacks against the truths of the telephone world.

While the Internet's technical identity is based on its contrast to its rivals, its architectural principles are expected to be subject to transience. As one maxim of the Internet community states, "principles that seem sacred today will be deprecated tomorrow. The principle of constant change is perhaps the only principle of the Internet that should survive indefinitely." (RFC 1958)

The Internet's development centers around tensions between the fundamental precept of distinction from the telephone world on the one hand and the self-set target of permanent change on the other hand. How can decisions be made under such contrary pressures? Defining the "march route" of the Internet has become a problem for the community, as one of the activists states:

"If the Internet stumbles, it will not be because we lack for technology, vision, or motivation. It will be because we cannot set a direction and march collectively into the future." (Leiner et al. 1997)

Determining a direction, i.e. making a choice from among possible architectural options is no typical engineering task. This is one reason why refuge is sought in declaring one's beliefs and "holy principles". The latently religious relationship to the Internet's architecture helps to move something highly unpopular into the background: the insight that questions pertaining to network architecture tend to ignore the carefully constructed barrier between technology and politics. This is true not only for the control and distribution of network resources. The architecture's political flair extends also to the norms and means by which its change is decided upon.

Nobody will be astounded at the fact that the Internet community sees the Internet as a purely technical artifact that obeys to engineering rules only. This idea is summed up very nicely by the community's most important motto. It says:

We reject kings, presidents and voting.

We believe in rough consensus and running code. (Dave Clark)

One wonders, then, at the passion with which everything political is dismissed. Kings, presidents and elections serve as metaphors for forms of decision making or problem-solving processes, which are pathetically refuted by the IETF.

In fact, the community manages to reach consensus without mighty kings or formal votes. The organizational structure of the IETF is one of the reasons for this. Where there are no boundaries between the inside and outside of a community, majorities are definitely hard to quantify. However, the main reason why the Internet community trusts rough consensus and running code more than democratic procedures is of a more substantial nature. It has to do with the quality of the result.

According to the IETF's profound belief, consensus is not to be achieved by the "statistical mechanics of elections" but rather by the "excellence of the technical work". Excellent technology is developed by nothing less than "running code". Running code means fully functional technical specifications. The running code seal of approval is only given if several independent implementations of technical specifications exist. For the Internet community, running code embodies the "hardnosed pragmatic notion of correctness". It and it alone should decide upon the fate of technical ideas. The "architectural principles" put it this way:

Fortunately, nobody owns the Internet, there is no centralized control, and nobody can turn it off. Its evolution depends on rough consensus about technical proposals, and on running code. Engineering feed-back from real implementations is more important than any architectural principles. (RFC 1958)

Running code is more than a badge of quality. It works as a language, in which the initiated communicate about the Net's development - a language, of course, that is only understood by communication technology engineers.

The special aura which surrounds running code in the Internet community stems for a large part from its exclusiveness. Running code excludes from the holiest item of the Net the suits and neckties world of people - especially those involved in politics.

Running code is what the heart of things on the Internet is made of. Those, for example, who compose algorithms of outstanding value, are especially close to it. Those who lack technical competence and still want to decide upon the regulation of the Internet are especially far away.

The open animosities against politics are based on the claim that politicians are guided by a different type of rationality. While the engineer's aim is to build bridges that hold and last or networks that work, the principal aim of politics is assumed to be gaining power. This is why the politician's relationship to the engineer's bridges and networks is perceived as being a merely tactical one. As a well-known member of the IETF put it, "politics is the death of technology." (Rose 1990)

In Clifford Geertz' words, running code serves to marking out the center of the community as the center of the Internet. The engineers proclaim the "primate of technology" and hope non-technicians will agree. Ironically, this expresses the very claim to power which is denied politics so disdainfully.

Does the decentral Internet have central places? Are there serious actions which give rise to a constitutive meaning for the Net's users? If one follows Geertz' suggestion and let oneself be guided by the ceremonies, rituals and symbols surrounding the Internet's development, manifold signs of political authority will be the finding..

  Clifford Geertz 1983: Centers, Kings and Charisma: Reflections on the Symbolics of Power, in: Local Knowledge


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