Cultivating Civic Life in Cyberspace

We don’t live in a society where everyone is part of a civic association anymore. Without communities who can put their resources together to pursue common goals, neither our civil liberties nor our new technological abilities can fulfill their promise. This has left us dependent on either governments or corporations to wield that power on our behalf.

It’s time to give the civic sector of our society the economic tools it needs to compete with our public sector and our corporate sector, and restore our civic life that has been crowded out of contention.

This year has felt like waking up with an unsettling feeling that something is deeply wrong. Lots of things are wrong, really. Economies in the developed world have been stagnating since the 2008 financial crisis—in some countries, even earlier. For many of us, our governments are functioning much worse than they have in the past. While the signs of stagnation and decline have been popping up for decades, watching societies fail to handle the challenges that 2020 has thrown our way has been the clearest red flag. We have work to do. But what is to be done?

To Marc Andreessen, a prominent venture capitalist, “it’s time to build”: it’s urgent that we reorient our public sector and corporate sector around building things. He says that “we need to demand more of our political leaders, of our CEOs, our entrepreneurs, our investors. We need to demand more of our culture, of our society. And we need to demand more from one another.” And for the public sector in particular, “we need to separate the imperative to build these things from ideology and politics. Both sides need to contribute to building.” If we begin to build again, we can return to consistently feeling like our society is becoming more and more capable.

Ezra Klein of Vox takes issue with the idea that a lack of desire to build is the cause of our stagnation. To him, the root cause is that our institutions have become vetocracies: “The institutions through which Americans build have become biased against action rather than toward it.” And the problem isn’t just in our public sector, it’s in our corporate sector as well. “If the market thinks whatever you’re doing is going to cut quarterly earning for an uncertain payoff, it can punish you severely, and instantly, for trying.” As our institutions get worse and worse at making critical decisions, they fall further out of sync with the problems of our time.

Both of these analyses are accurate, and we will owe a great debt to the citizens who succeed in reforming our public sector and corporate sector so we can build again. But what if they fail? Our public sector is a monopoly by design. In its pursuit of maximizing quarterly profits, our corporate sector often behaves as a monolith in practice. To ensure that we exit this era of stagnation, we need a plan B that doesn’t depend on a strategy with binary outcomes. Reforms might produce well-functioning governments and corporations, but they might fail without any option to opt out of a broken system. To construct a reliable backup plan, we’ll need to learn as many lessons as we can from our predecessors, who had to solve their own problems by necessity.

Civic Life Before Cyberspace

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville visited America from France to study American society, and compiled his observations in Democracy in America. He compared what he saw as a functioning democratic order in America to what he had seen in Europe, and concluded that the prevalence of voluntary associations is a crucial ingredient in a society of equals.

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.

Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States. … The more [government] puts itself in place of associations, the more particular persons, losing the idea of associating with each other, will need it to come to their aid: these are causes and effects that generate each other without rest.

Almost two centuries later, the America Tocqueville saw feels as foreign to me as it must have to him. We don’t live in a society where everyone is part of a civic association anymore. Some say that cultural changes led to the decline in civic associations, others say technology caused the problem. Either way, we’re not going back. But if we can learn how these associations got started, we might be able to rebuild a civic life that’s compatible with modern conditions.

The Rotary Club and Kiwanis were both founded in the early 1900s. Paul Harris founded the Rotary Club in Chicago “so professionals with diverse backgrounds could exchange ideas and form meaningful, lifelong friendships.” Allen S. Browne and Joseph C. Prance founded Kiwanis in Detroit “as a strictly fraternal club that only young professional businessmen could join.” Both quickly transformed into service clubs with a charitable mission, and sprouted chapters in cities across the world. Service clubs were so integral to public life that companies would often pay for their employees dues to provide networking opportunities. Based on the stories of their founding, it may not be possible to build these types of clubs from the ground up to fund external goals. Appealing to the self-interest of early members with events and networking opportunities seems like the best strategy to get things started, followed by a shift to some level of broadly beneficial work.

In most areas of American life, membership in civic associations sounds like an anachronism, especially with subsidized dues. But there’s one major exception: life on college campuses. Every rush week, you’ll see fraternities and sororities trying to get the best new students to commit to join them for their whole college career. Every fall, you’ll see tables lined up at the student activities fair with groups trying to get new students involved. In some cases, students have already been charged a fee to fund those groups, so they’re throwing away money if they don’t find a group to join. It might be difficult to visualize what civic life might have been like a century or two ago, but there are so many active examples of thriving civic life on campuses that we can refer to today. We can take these patterns from our past and our present, and adapt them to the conditions we find ourselves in during the latter days of the Digital Revolution.

Post-Independence Cyberspace

“I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us,” John Perry Barlow wrote in A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, a response to early efforts by the U.S. Government to regulate the internet in 1996. So many pioneers of the early internet considered the freedom to speak privately with anyone on Earth to be so profoundly empowering that it would reshape the world. And it did reshape the world: the internet’s mob-dominated social order has spilled out into real life with terrifying consequences.

If Tocqueville saw the work of the French Revolution as incomplete without a vibrant scene of civic associations, we should see the Digital Revolution in the same way. New liberties and new technological abilities cannot fulfill their promise without communities who can put their resources together to pursue common goals. In their absence, we’re doomed to depend on either governments or corporations to wield that power on our behalf. Barlow wanted the government out of cyberspace, and for good reason. But being left in the hands of unaccountable internet monopolies isn’t quite the revolution we were promised either.

Building a vibrant civic life in cyberspace will complete the vision that was set out at the start of the internet age. But a digital-first civic life isn’t a digital-only civic life. We already meet people in person we were connected to by an app. In the same way, we can begin to restore the civic life that we need to thrive, but adapted for the ways we connect with each other today. Each community you come across on Twitter or Reddit will have an array of clubs for you to choose from if you’d like to start working towards a goal together, or if you just want to be more connected. And as those digital communities grow their numbers while building strong social bonds, they’ll start to spill out into real life as fulfilling face-to-face events.

Since Barlow’s Declaration in 1996, our digital tools have drastically improved. We have the kinds of communication tools that were first used by gamers to form guilds to work closely with a tight-knit group of fellow players, and are now mature enough to have facilitated a boom in remote work. Digitally native civic associations can now be imagined by anyone who has a recurring Zoom call on their calendar.

We also have new economic tools that blockchain technology has provided. The historical pattern is that our society ends up being dominated by the organizations with the best economic tools: currencies powered the domineering industrialized governments that rose in the early 20th century in the same way that startup equity powered the rise of Silicon Valley. If we want the most powerful forces in our society to be based on voluntary association rather than winner-take-all politics or quarterly earnings reports, then we can’t just leave these kinds of economic tools to the public sector or the corporate sector. The civic sector of our society has faded into the background because it hasn’t had the tools to compete. This is the decade when we change that.

Continue to the second essay in this series, New Institutions for Civic Life in Cyberspace.

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