Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Democratic Justice

Sorry for the lateness, I got sucked into my JP draft on black hole cosmology… Just kidding. I’m actually writing about bacterial population genetics in an experiment called the “death galaxy.” No joke.

Also I guess I should put up this SPOILER WARNING for Portal 2 because of the “revenge” link.

There is an ancient Greek formulation of popular justice as what benefits your friends and harms your enemies. Various versions of justice are discussed and refuted in the Republic, but it is in the “Apology,” the retelling of Socrates’ capital trial for his dubious crime of blasphemy (I think? I haven’t read it in a while), where we can see the greasy machinery of democratic justice fully at work. Socrates’ defends his own commitment to Athens while deconstructing his accusers’ arguments. But the most interesting part (at least, the one least characteristic of “Socrates” as I imagine) is Socrates’ not-so-subtle call for revenge at the hands of his young supporters.

Whereas the Athenian jury easily sentences Socrates to death, the netizens of LambdaMOO (λμ) fail to decide on anything during their protracted meeting. It takes one of the victims to even suggest the option of the Permanent Ban (or “toading” as they called it), and although up to around 50 players to concur with both the informal and the formal petitions to ban Bungle/Jest, neither go through. The topic changed from the simple “thumbs up or down on Bungle’s virtual existence” to a serious consideration of the community’s future political direction. The accused, Mr. Bungle, even stopped by the discussion and may have evoked some sense of pity or regret. The equality of users as citizens allows this kind of democratic participation in LambdaMOO, even if its proceedings are totally ineffective.

On the other hand, even with the addition of the petition system, the enforcement of the public will, of the “tyranny of the majority,” continued to be problematic. One problem is that of numbers: in a virtual community where an elite few are very active, and most are only somewhat active, what good does it do to define a total democracy? In Athens, the small participating part of public men were really only left with a choice among the most vocal and skilled orators. The idea of an online petition among a potentially fleeting user base, as opposed to some privileged group of senior members, amplifies the apathy of choice presented to the average person behind the screen, who may easily move on from LambdaMOO to a MUD of their preference. In other words, for any user who is not seriously socially involved in the online world, there is little commitment to its development so there is no rational incentive to participate in its politics. Users may easily come and go (as shown by Bungle’s easy reincarnation as Jest), so that pure democracy is ineffectual online.

Apart from the systemic problem of the dynamic user base, its constituency of “anarchists [and] libertarians” doesn’t help the maintenance of effective democracy. The technolibertarian solution of simply muting the offending user seems not to carry the same publicly, socially, democratically satisfying thump of the banhammer. These are the competing urges between democratic justice and the political independence afforded by participation within the Internet. Conversely, we also see the power wielded by the Internet technocracy—forum moderators, torrent seeders, PHP and SQL coders—those many who are technically competent and able to implement a vast change with a simple command or just a few lines of code. The technocracy is democratic in the Athenian sense though, but instead of the τεχνη of oration which the participating public admires, it is computer wizardry (edit: and also I should link to this post).


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