Information, Embodiment, Articulation, Authority: An Epiphany

So I was reviewing this Elinor Ostrom, trying to figure out how to fit my ideas into the larger conversation about the commons, when I had this kind of epiphany about information, embodiment, articulation, and authority. It's a half-formed idea, but it feels powerful and I want to share it here right away as a way to make a note for myself, and to see if others immediately recognize it as something well established (or perhaps refuted) elsewhere.

There is a tendency, when dealing with digital information, to treat it as sort of fungible. An arbitrarily embodied mass of ones and zeroes that is, by virtue of its near-infinite replicability, both non-scarce and non-rival. Digital information “wants to be free” in the sense that it wants to spread, it wants everyone to have their own copy.

This tends to lead to a discussion of digital information as a unique realm of abundance. Authority, which is seen as a sort of arbitrary move to limit the abundance of information, is seen as critically weakened in this environment.

The above has already been criticized, as I'm sure we're all well aware. Authorities, especially institutions like search engines, do in fact exist in the contemporary digital information environment. This is well established. Wikipedia, too, serves as a sort of authority. Wikipedians are well aware of this, sometimes even discussing the need for Wikipedia to do right by “posterity” or record information accurately for “history.”

And yet, the formation of these authorities has not been without significant resistance. Where ever centralized authorities have emerged, de-centralized schemes to combat them have also. Take, for example, the many attempts to decentralize Wikipedia, “federating” it across multiple platforms/wikis. Or the attempt to escape the singular Facebook via the decentralized Diaspora.

The conundrum, for me, is this: the attempts always seem well-grounded in the theory of digital information, and the experience of the skilled coders who propose them. After all, copying and transferring data really is fairly easy and cheap. And yet, they almost always fail. Why?

Maybe part of the answer has to do with how we treat information differently depending on what we intend to articulate it with and our embodied experience with the topic at hand.

Imagine a coder writing a project solely for his or her own personal use. Coders, of course, have a great deal of experience with code. Thus, when they encounter new code-type information, they are able to readily evaluate it for themselves, with very little need for authority. In the case of personal use, only the non-human actor of the machine will be articulated with the code, so authority is also not needed to establish trust with other human actors.

Another example of the same basic scenario would be a skilled cook making a meal for him or herself. Who cares what the source is, evaluation is easy.

Since coders are the ones who propose new digital systems, the decentralized, anti-authoritarian approach that works for code seems like it might just work for everything else. Set the information free, let everyone get it from everywhere and let them evaluate it for themselves. Why not?

However, this overlooks cases in which either embodied experience is lacking, or information must be articulated with human as well as non-human actors.

Imagine the case of the novice chef (or coder!), how can they evaluate information they encounter for themselves? In the absence of embodied experience, we may well want to rely on authority (or at least reputation) on the part of information sources.

Imagine the case of the bar bet (which, I posit, is the most frequent use for Wikipedia 🙂 ), in this case, we must articulate information with another human actor who also lacks embodied experience with the question at hand. The only answer with any value in this case is one that comes from a source that both parties trust. A source with authority.

And in this case especially, authority is rivalrous not everyone can have it at the same time. A trusted source builds an audience, a shared reputation, at the expense of others attempted to become trusted sources as well. (This is perhaps not perfectly true, there can be communities of shared trust and reliability, but these would seem to grow at the expense of other possible networks).

Thus, the need for scarce, rivalrous authority hems in the possibilities of non-scarce, non-rivalrous information. But perhaps this tendency is overlooked by those closest to the heart of our new digital systems, the coder elite, because the form of information they are most familiar with (code) is one they both have deep embodied experience with, and one that powerfully articulates with non-human actors that don't care if the source is trusted, so long as the code works (hence the IETF slogan reference to “rough consensus and running code” and the old adage about the ultimate test of code in an open source community being “whether it compiles.”)