Power in a Centerless World

“All roads lead to Rome”: in antiquity centrality was a measure of power. The power of Rome, the global empire of its time, was both revealed and reinforced by its ability to make itself the center of that world. But the new infrastructure of the digital age flouts centrality. On the Internet, which has no center, all roads do not lead to a single destination, all roads lead everywhere.

Yet power still exists. What will be the basis for power in a centerless world? Power will come from sensemaking, from transmitting, enhancing, or blocking information. To continue the metaphor of the road, we can define the sources of power in the networked age as sign posts, other travelers, and road blocks.

Sign Posts – The Credibility of Institutions: American highways are marked out in ubiquitous white-lettered green signs. We don’t know exactly what individual put them up, but we know the individual was a representative of a governmental institution. We trust the government – at least so far as road signs go – so we trust the sign.

There are relatively few examples kinds of this kind of traditional, institutional power on the Internet, and the ones that exist are simply digital manifestations of offline institutions. You probably trust the visa information on the State Department web site and headlines at NYTimes.com, but there is little that is networked about these sites. Like GPS-enabled cars they are nominally part of the digital age, but are really vestiges of an earlier time.

Other Travelers – The Credibility of Peers: When I was living in India, my boyfriend and I made a three-hour journey exclusively by asking directions of people along the side of the road. We reached our destination, but this is an extremely unusual way of navigating the physical world. On the Internet it is common. We seek our facts from peers on Wikipedia, recommendations from peers on Yelp. Even the system of sign posts on the Internet – called the Domain Name System, is maintained by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit corporation based in Marina del Rey, California, which defines online protocols through a consensus process. Systems that grant power to peers are inherently consensual and negotiable since peers do not have uncontested power over one another. They are democratic.

Road Blocks – The Use of Force: Yet the networked world will not be a utopia. There are those who will still wish to impose their will on others. In many countries policemen, misusing the power that the state has granted them, set up road blocks to extort money from motorists. Yet on the Internet this power is not limited to traditional institutions of power. Yes, China has a very sophisticated system of online censorship and surveillance, but roving bandits from 4chan can also attack and block information. The use of digital force has been democratized, but this does not mean it is more just.

Power in a centerless world will be distributed more democratically, but also more chaotically. New rules will need to be created, but it is the users who will need to create and enforce them.

3 thoughts on “Power in a Centerless World

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Power in a Centerless World | meta-activism project -- Topsy.com

  2. Hi Mary,

    While reading your post I was struck by the thought (though it may be no more than an accident of terminology) that the property Google measures when ranking pages is called centrality – and the way it’s calculated is by taking random walks on the web and seeing where they end up.

    Maybe it would be true to say that on the web, all roads lead everywhere – but to some places more often than others?


  3. … and the center is now determined by the interest of the masses, not by hierarchy. Thanks for your comment, Michael.

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