Measuring the Digital Space

August 31, 2011

I’ve been half-monitoring CPSR’s Internet Governance list since my dissertation writing days. The activity of the conversation seems to be picking up recently. That often signals that something big and relevant is happening in realspace, but I’m not on top of current events in IG enough for intelligent speculation about what that might be.

In any case, Michael Gurstein started a very intriguing thread titled, “Re: [governance] MEASURING the digital space – whose MEASURES apply, and whose do not.” So I chimed in.

Michael Gurstein’s reflection on “what and whose measures apply in the digital space” strikes me as very productive. Having been curious for quite some time about the extent to which the advent of the Internet compares to the advent of the movable type printing technology, I’ll offer this conjecture about the implications.

Key measures of human agency in the pre-Westphalian era in Europe included concerns such as who could get into heaven and who could legitimately be crowned king, queen, prince, etc. The socially accepted chain of authority generally led up through officials of the Holy Roman Empire as the effective gatekeepers of such things. (Keeping in mind that any given Pope and his appointed agents claim to be acting as proxy for a divine gatekeeper.)

The Gutenberg revolution facilitated the emergence of sovereign royals — and ultimately sovereign nation-states — who were, among other things, gatekeepers of national citizenship, contractual regimes, and property rights within bounded territories.

In both cases, given this view of things, gatekeepers played an essential role conferring agency within a social structure. Gatekeeping roles will be no less important in the densely internetworked future. That why there was such a big fight over DNS administration… possessing one’s “name” was once considered essential to having an effective presence on the Web. Now we see battles between Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, other private operators, and also various state-controlled social networks, all vying to be the gatekeeper of one’s authentic presence on line.

In all of these spaces, pre-Westphalian, Westphalian, and post-Westphalian, there’s a consistent concerning with counting who is an agent and measuring the relative powers of those agents.