LCA 2013: distributed democracy, speaking stacks, links

Thursday was my final day at Linux Conference, sadly, as I needed to get back to other work. It’s a pity, as there were quite a few talks on Friday that I would have liked to see, including the keynote by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Denise Paolucci’s talk on accessibility, Asheesh Laroia on quantitative community management, and Joh Pirie-Clark on what scans of the .au and .nz domains have turned up. Quite a few of the lightning talks also looked good.

On Thursday I went to a few of the more technical talks, including Bunnie Huang’s keynote: while much of this went over my head, there were some interesting points about the model of startup development and the difficulties involved in hacking hardware.

Distributed democracy

The most relevant talk for me was, of course, Pia Waugh’s, distributed democracy: geeks rule over king [edit: now available on the LCA talks site, here]  Pia began by arguing that the Internet has facilitated the decentralisation of many previously-centralised power structures, including publishing, communication, and monitoring. As we share more on the Internet, we’re going to have to finally accept that noone is normal, and revelations of (for example) drug use or other common-but-socially-risky behaviour will be more widely accepted. Similarly, the wide availability of 3D printing devices is likely to challenge our current system of property, eradicating poverty.

Two stormtrooper figurines putting up a sign reading 'In protest against SOPA and PIPA'
By Flickr user Kristina Alexanderson

While the Internet has enabled these shifts, Pia argued, we’re also seeing problems emerging from the attempts to use geographically-bounded entities (states) to regulate a system which crosses borders. While there’s still a role for states today, Pia suggested that perhaps we need to think about an organisation which will more effectively represent the interests of Internet users. This needs to go beyond the existing organisations which engage in lobbying (like the Electronic Frontiers Foundation and Electronic Frontiers Australia): perhaps we need something more like a government for, and composed of, Internet users.

While I have a lot of respect for the work Pia’s doing and think her talk was very thought-provoking, I disagree with much of her argument. While the Internet has certainly helped to change many of the structures mentioned (and will do so further), existing power structures have responded to the challenge and acted to further consolidate power where possible. For example, although it’s theoretically possible for people to get news from a wide range of sources, we’ve seen a massive concentration of media ownership over recent decades, and a look through the top sites visited in Australia shows that the most-visited sites are still predominantly controlled by large corporations. The idea that technology will solve poverty is also quite problematic, given that poverty is mostly an issue of distribution rather than limited resources: we have enough food to feed everyone, but we don’t.

My disagreement with the second part of Pia’s argument largely centres on the issue of where we put the focus of our political struggle. There are issues with how we regulate the Internet, and it’s worth thinking about how to resist attempts by elites (including economic elites) to control it (I’ve addressed this further in much of my academic writing). However, I think we need to put this in the perspective of other struggles. That means acknowledging that while the digital divide is lessening, Internet access is still linked to privilege, and a “government for the Internet” is likely to disproportionately represent the interests of those who are already relatively empowered. Instead, we need to think about Internet regulation in a way which centres the needs of those who are most marginalised, locally, nationally, and globally.

Making links and further reading

Brianna's moo cards with links to the Geek Feminism wiki and blog
Brianna’s moo cards with links to the Geek Feminism wiki and blog

I’ve had some great conversations throughout LCA, and I’m happy to see that in addition to having learned a lot myself and plenty of directions for further reading, some of the ideas I’ve suggested are already being built on and expanded. During the Free Software Activism BoF on Wednesday, I raised the possibility of using a simplified version of a progressive speaking stack: Brianna Laugher’s mocked-up an implementation in Python, and Russell Coker has a longer discussion suggesting how a progressive speaking list might be implemented at LCA and other events. Brianna also has some reflections on my talk from Wednesday, and plenty of other posts worth reading. I particularly like her ‘RTFM’ cards for feminism. Mary’s site is also worth looking through: I had somehow managed to miss it previously, possibly because I tend to by quite bad at visiting blogs (I really need to work out a RSS reader that I can feel enthusiastic about).

Did you write something about either of my talks, critical or otherwise? Do you have some recommended reading? Let me know! I’m really hoping that the excellent conversations I had at LCA can continue, and that I’ll stay in touch with people, particularly as I never get enough time to talk to everyone I want to in all the excitement of conferences.

9 thoughts on “LCA 2013: distributed democracy, speaking stacks, links

  1. That’s the first I’ve heard of “Rusty Coker”; I’m not sure if he’d consider it an upgrade or a downgrade!


  2. I’ll have to check out Pia’s talk – from reading this blog post, it sounds as if there are some of your criticisms I agree with, but some where I would probably back her point of view.

    Thought provoking, but from my limited involvement in Internet governance that attempts to remove government from the central role in government, even in the narrow domain of internet infrastructure, governments put up extraordinary resistance. That may, of course, be a sign it is worth doing.

  3. Re Pia Waugh’s talk – I was expecting more coherence, especially given her commendable involvement in open government work over many years. She mentioned the decentralization of publishing; this could have been a segway into comparing the disruptive nature of the internet with the disruptive nature of the first printing presses, and would have highlighted both the possibilities and the limitations of new technologies. Instead, what came across was an naive optimism that open technology would solve all our problems. Her proposal of an ‘internet government’ is an interesting idea to explore (I would have liked to have heard more detail), but her passing comment “we don’t have a lot of control about what corporates do” felt like a cop out.

    There is a place for intelligent critique of technocracy, and of the internet. As Bruce Schneier wrote the same day in his blog “The standard story is that it empowers the powerless, but that’s only half the story…” (

    1. Thanks for the comments!

      To be fair to Pia, I think it’s sometimes better to give an interesting and thought-provoking talk which may not be quite as structurally coherent, and to leave more rigorous and coherent argument for the written form. A good talk can get people thinking (and reading, and discussing), while a drier (but more rigorous) talk can fail to inspire.

      While Schneier’s piece is useful, I think there are still some problems with the way in which he frames his discussion. His ultimate solution is very similar to Pia’s: “Either we fight for a seat at the table, or the future of the Internet becomes something that is done to us.” My argument here (which is not fully fleshed out, obviously) is that we should be less concerned about “our” representation and what happens to “us”, and more concerned about those who have far less political clout and privilege than we do.

    1. Thanks! There doesn’t seem to be a way to reply to her without signing up, but I’ll look at the sources she linked to when I get some time.

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