The highlight of every Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference is the closing speech of novelist Bruce Sterling, and this year's was no exception. Sterling, a respected science fiction writer who lives in Austin (and who is a friend of mine), is becoming the Jonathan Swift of the digital era. The speech he delivered at the conference here two weeks ago was simultaneously hilarious and thought-provoking.
He started by scoring off the earlier keynote speech by Brian Kahin, a former Harvard University researcher who now heads the information technology program of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Kahin delivered the administration's viewpoint on the role of government in shaping the Internet.
Kahin said, "The private sector should take the lead, and the government should play a modest, minimalist role." This has become the mantra of the Clinton White House whenever the Internet is the subject. "I have confidence in self-regulation," Kahin said.
Sterling called the presentation "a very congenial and gentle speech: 'Modest' was a word he used a lot. I don't think I've ever, ever heard an administration science and technology expert describe the aims of American government as 'modest.' This was a remarkable confession this gentleman was making. In so many words, he said that policy development is cyberspace is just plain too hard to do. . . . So they'll simply, modestly step back and let the mighty forces of technology and private enterprise thrash the situation out on their own."
This, Sterling said provocatively, is "the giant sucking sound of abdicated responsibility. So what fills the power vacuum? I would argue that it is already being filled by a different and more modern political arrangement: not bureaucracy, but ad-hocracy."
He called the audience's attention to the way Silicon Valley technology companies are starting to take on the form--or rather, formlessness--of Hollywood production teams.
Instead of the conventional model of a corporation that plots its longevity into eternity, the new model of high-tech business is a collection of talented people who come together for the ephemeral goal of modeling a "concept," and then selling it off. The team then evaporates, leaving no trace, like quarks in a linear accelerator.
The only persistent quality is the "talent" of individuals--a model Hollywood has pioneered and refined to an art.
This phenomenon has developed in part because of the omnipresent shadow of Microsoft. Smart people try to create and then cash in on ideas before Microsoft appropriates them for the next release of Windows and puts them out of business.
Sterling believes that this model, which has overtaken the mind-set of entrepreneurs in high tech, is now creeping into politics--particularly as we think about the future of the Internet or new media in general.
Deregulation, the buzz word of the past decade, is giving way to no regulation (or self-regulation, which amounts to the same thing).
"You don't have to stretch too far to perceive this as a menace to democracy," Sterling said. Ad-hocracy is "certainly a real and visible menace to the established order, because it can throw sand in the works at any of a hundred different points. When the established order hits back, it hits back with another, rival ad-hocracy."
"Ad-hocracy" is becoming gospel in high-tech centers around the country and in Washington. The problem, however, is not simply that this idea produces friction with democracy. The new high-tech ideologists don't really believe in democracy or in "public values."
They are bent on convincing the public that interest group politics, "ad-hocratic" atomization, and a kind of digital update of Social Darwinism are equivalent to democracy.
Thus the public is presented with a false choice about the future of the Internet: a choice between either ham-handed bureaucratic regulation or a Hobbesian world of raw market power. The alternative of a truly democratic communications sphere dominated neither by government nor commerce does not seem to be on the table or part of the debate.
After his discouraging description of our predicament, Sterling rallied everyone at the conference with a call to party: "There's one important thing about ad-hocracies, a charming quality they have. If you just get them outside of the video surveillance, and away from their podiums and microphones, and add a little social lubricant in the form of a couple of beers, they spontaneously disintegrate into parties."
So party we did, at Sterling's house in Austin, setting aside for a brief time the troubling thoughts he had lodged in our minds.
Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org