How local networks can breed grassroots internets
This series began with a puzzle. How can we govern a global internet in a manner consistent with democratic values? My initial intent was to dispatch this question and be done with it. But the question had other plans for me.
I do give an answer to this question. I propose a design for an internet that a democracy could govern. At this point, I expected my job to be done. Another paper published. But the insights that led me to this design in turn led me to another conclusion, one that ultimately motivated me to write this series: that governable internets are not only possible, they can themselves be used to govern. The governments these internets enable may be more loosely geographic in their territory than nation-states while having as much potential to shape the life chances of the people who find themselves ensconced in them. This series sketches the technical dimensions of how these “states of knowing” might emerge and the social dimensions of why—that is, who might benefit from their emergence.
This is no neutral analysis. As I believe internets should be democratic, so I believe governments should be democratic. Grassroots internets could lay the groundwork for a popular democratic politics. In the mold of democratic theorists like Murray Bookchin, I imagine democratic governments that are neither nations nor states. I envision them rising up from social and political practice, coexisting and even strategically cooperating with the states in which they are nested. This is the vision I share in this series.
I am not proposing that we substitute technical practice for political struggle. There is a dangerous attitude, common among some technologists, that the former will yield the latter. This attitude has surfaced most recently and viscerally among proponents of blockchains and related web3 technologies. To paraphrase Amir Taaki, these technologists want to do a revolution, but they think they can party while they do it because their technology will do the revolution for them. That’s never how it works. It did not work for the techno-utopian designers of the early internet, and if this community—even its best members—aren’t careful, they will deliver their technologies to the same state and capital interests as their predecessors, a dynamic we have seen in recent web3 hype cycles.
Indeed, the vision I share has a dark mirror. While I intend to coach a new generation of theorist-activists, both nations and corporations are also likely to create the sort of governments I describe. They will fashion these governments after their own interests—profit and power. As this dark mirror illustrates, the problems facing our institutions are not technological nor even economic, but political.
My proposal is a method for fermenting a new politics from the grassroots—a method for political struggle. This method embraces certain aspects of ongoing technical practice, both due to their technical affordances and to their situatedness in ongoing economic struggles. But the end is a politically activated citizenry and a meaningfully democratic society. Technical practice is part of the means. Call it a tactic.
All works have a particular moment of inevitability. This one’s came in the fall of 2019. At that time, people were concerned about “the splinternet.” According to TechCrunch, the splinternet was “already here.” According to Fortune, it was growing.
What was the splinternet? Effectively, the term represented a growing sense that the internet was becoming increasingly different in different places—that a once-global internet was fragmenting along national lines. Awareness of domestic internet regulation was on the rise at that time; were one to extrapolate the trend of data-locality laws and the like, the thinking went, these internet splinters would eventually become so different as to hardly be interoperable at all. Imagine: people in China using a completely different internet from people in the United States! In the midst of this general panic from the internet-policy punditry, my postdoctoral adviser, Steven Weber, came to me with a question. : What’s actually going on here? Is the internet actually fragmenting, and if so, where and how?
I was, at this time, a relative novice to the internet. I had been using the internet since I was five, but in my academic career to that point, I had thought more about wearable sensors than about the internet as a technological infrastructure. I dove into it as agnostically as I could. Without worrying about how the internet should work, how does the internet vary as a function of space?
What I discovered was that what we call “the internet” has never been as singular or as cohesive as it’s generally imagined to be. The world contains many internets, all negotiating their own unique compromise between the benefits of a globally shared communications network on the one hand and, on the other, sovereignty—the ability to say how your network works (Mueller, 2017). In fact, as I’ll show in Chapter 2, the greatest threat to any notion of a global or “free” internet is the United States. The key control points (Clark, 2012) that dictate the global internet’s functioning are overwhelmingly based in US jurisdiction. Through court orders or unilateral actions of US-based corporations, the US federal government or various US tech companies could make the internet inaccessible, partially accessible, or perfectly surveilled domestically and, to a degree, worldwide.
The problem is not that these control points over the global internet exist; the problem is that there is no popular control over them. You, whoever you are, have very little say over how the internet you experience works. This internet is undemocratic. How can we govern a global internet in a manner consistent with democratic values? That question led me to a design for an internet and also a realization: that a governable internet can serve as a platform for governance—indeed, for a revolutionary politics. This work is, in the end, about how to achieve democratic confederalism in the West. Democratic confederalism was most eloquently and famously formulated by theorist Murray Bookchin, whose notion of communalism centered on directly democratic popular assemblies.
Why revolutionary politics? There are varying degrees of pessimism about incumbent institutions, particularly in the United States, where well-published prognostications range from a terrible civil war to a manageable civil war (Marche, 2022; Walter, 2022; Martin & Burns, 2022). A pessimist would tell you that these institutions are irredeemable and unreformable—colonial to their core, such that corruption and capture will reproduce dynamics of domination in any version of these institutions. Optimists believe that reforming these incumbent systems through the tools those institutions provide will end our crises completely.
I find myself somewhere in between. Some institutions cannot be sufficiently reformed through the mechanisms they make available. In those cases, experimentation could create institutions to succeed them. Other incumbent systems need to be taught radical lessons through small-scale practice. For those institutions, no democratic experiment will be at their expense. Quite the opposite.
Bookchin’s lasting contribution was a practical left politics: not just a theory, but a path to a life that is lived in common. Bookchin theorized a nonviolent revolution, one in which municipalities—free cities—were the locus of institutional change, the natural home to direct democratic practice. It is this path that I refine. Local internets, made governable by grassroots identity bureaus, are a complement to scaffolding popular assemblies at the local level. These internets, like Bookchin’s popular assemblies, can form complex and emergent confederations, providing infrastructure that serves flourishing democracies.
This series is not a blueprint to a global, democratic revolution. At best, it is an invitation to produce new internets, and to tie that work to inclusive political practice. Perhaps from those experimentations, such a blueprint will come.
I wrote this series for a new generation of activist-theorist-engineers—a generation who may inherit fewer and worse institutions than mine did. To that generation: your experimentation can bring to life the vision of the citizen in the sense of the enfranchised and engaged political actor. If your successes are large enough, you stand to produce pockets of liberation—small, local, and inclusive communities in which people have control over their day-to-day lives. If your experiments result in reforms for incumbent institutions, that’s wonderful for those institutions and for us. But our work continues regardless.
The blog series
This Internet, on the Ground is about the internet—this internet, the one we experience in our daily lives. I begin with a brief history of this internet, which goes like this: In the Cold War, the US military built a communications network. It turned out to be more valuable than anyone imagined. In the 1990s, a small but influential band of techno-utopians planted a liberatory flag in this network. Businesspeople, influenced by the libertarian aspects of these utopians’ ideology, built private companies in it. These companies helped the US achieve its domestic and international goals for decades. But, somewhere along the way, the US’s deference to private enterprise got the better of it. Today, “tech” companies—the fiefdoms an American internet minted—compete for power and influence with the state that birthed them.
Governable internets. The result is an internet without popular governance. Competition and cooperation over this internet are ad hoc and power based. Surveillance, the most salient and global form of control exerted over this network, is driven by corporations and states alike. It’s no wonder that, in the hearts and minds of many civil libertarian groups, John Perry Barlow’s independent cyberspace lives on. “Internets should be ungovernable, at least to a degree.” This thesis mobilizes the civil libertarian movement in cyberspace. But I argue that the thesis overfits the historical failures of existing governments to balance civil liberties and public safety on this internet. What’s needed is a government we can trust and an internet it can govern. There is, in other words, an institutions problem and an internet design problem.
How governance could be, What are DAOs?, and An internet of DAOs approaches the internet design problem. It reimagines popular assemblies through the internet design of autonomous systems, the small subnetworks of which today’s internet is composed. Through institutions I call identity bureaus, citizens become the owners of the internet as they experience it, holding binding voting power over the way their local slice of the global internet operates. Local internet service providers could employ this design today, interoperating with the wider internet on their own terms (that is, on the terms of their constituents).
Identity bureaus. If persons are the political actors in a democracy, personhood is how institutions confer the status of being a person. By representing natural-born persons—the actors who participate in a democracy—in the architecture of the internet itself, that internet could be made bindingly democratic. In fact, I’ll argue, this general design not just makes possible governable internets, but also internets that can serve as a platform for governance—one that can allow the governed to verify that institutions work in the way they are said to work. I
But can it govern? describes how such an internet could be built around a capacity for secure elections, sketching a proposal for an internet that could administer elections, welfare, medical care, court systems, taxation, community safety, and beyond.
Pockets of liberation. These new internets could also lay the groundwork for a meaningfully democratic politics. By entrenching popular control over systems of identity at local levels—a community-owned monopoly on data “about the local”—identity bureaus can scaffold popular assemblies and engage in flexible intelligence sharing and data trade within and across emergent blocs. What I envision in Chapter 5 is not a global revolution, but rather pockets of liberation: small and localized communities in which people have control over their everyday lives.