Four Metaphors for the Internet (and Politics)

Does the internet have a political disposition? Or is it inert, providing a tabula rasa for political ambitions already familiar to the offline world? Likely the truth lies somewhere between these two poles. Building on an earlier post, here I discuss four possible metaphors for understanding the politics of the internet: biology, institutionalism, the commons, and geography.


A Darwinian biological metaphor of the internet carries a certain appeal, resembling as it does the dominant paradigm of a “harder” science. With the advent of the internet so recent in our past, it is easy to apply the term “evolution” to its growth from a few interconnected government computers to a global communications system.

A strong interpretation of the biological theory views the internet as a sentient creature. Author Kevin Kelly adopts this perspective in his book What Technology Wants.

This approach has its weaknesses. First, the evolutionary metaphor glosses over how little we understand about the emergence of technological communications systems. It treats technological development as exogenous to politics, whereas there were clear political motivations for early computers (WWII) and computer networks (Cold War). Second, biological evolution has a clear theoretical mechanism–natural selection–that technological evolution lacks. The actions of numerous conscientious designers contributed to the internet and its structure, whereas theories of biological evolution generally lack designers.


The institutional approach helps address both weaknesses of the biological metaphor. The main premise of “internet institutionalism” is that the structure of the internet can help to understand its political uses. Mike Barthel, building on ideas developed by Alexander Galloway argues that the physical structure of the internet–decentralized, as yet ungoverned–lends itself to a form of libertarianism. However, Barthel’s thesis generally concerns politics on the internet (e.g. comments on political news sites and blogs) rather than a politics of the internet (the general behavior of online communities).


The metaphor of the commons has been a powerful one for understanding political behavior since it was first introduced. A commons is a shared resource from which individuals desiring entrance cannot be denied access. Centralized governance of a commons is extremely difficult, if not impossible. However, decentralized governance mechanisms have been shown to emerge in many varied settings (see in particular the work of Elinor Ostrom).

The best picture of the commons for understanding the internet is the ocean. The sea is accessible from every continent, free to anyone who can afford the cost of the technology necessary to navigate it. Like the ocean, the internet remains largely ungoverned outside of a few limited areas. Coincidentally, one type of “outlaw” behavior on the internet also uses a familiar maritime image: piracy.

The main weakness of the commons metaphor is its strong tie–deservedly–in the minds of many scholars to Hardin’s “tragedy.” The internet is generally not at risk of overuse. Quite the opposite: through the power of network effects, the more people use the internet, the greater its value to other users. The primary strength of this approach may be more accessible through the fourth and final analogy.


The final metaphor, geography, leverages political scientists’ familiarity with the way that borders and land formations can affect political behavior.

Specifically, this metaphor draws on an understanding of geography introduced by James C. Scott. Like the physical geography of Southeast Asia that Scott describes, the internet has places that are more or less accessible to governance. The United States has some of the most advanced internet governance policies, so it is like the lowlands that were easily controlled by governors. Western Europe is somewhat less governed, like the highlands to which tribes would flee to avoid central control.

The main difference between the internet and physical geography is that changing a domain name or using an alias IP address, unlike migrating from one place to another, is virtually costless.

The geographical metaphor of the internet encompasses the stronger aspects of all three earlier theories. Like a biological creature, geography can shift over time due to exogenous effects. As with the institutional approach, the physical structure of the internet has important connections to the way that people conduct their politics. And as with the ocean, physical geography can have areas under varying degrees of governance. Geography cannot be privileged above the other explanations yet, but it could be useful as political scientists start to think more deeply about internet politics.

Voter Loyalty in Two Countries

Preliminary graphs from an ongoing project with Pablo Beramendi (apologies for the very plain presentation):

For both plots, the loyalty rate is calculated as the probability that an individual votes for party x in election t given that they voted for party x in election t-1. These probabilities are frequencies taken from electoral surveys in each country.

In the UK there is no clear trend, but in Portugal it appears that loyalty is declining. However, notice that the two x-axes are different lengths (due to data availability), so it is difficult to say whether the trend in Portugal would hold up over a longer period.

Germany’s Open Source Political Party

From Josh Kron at The Atlantic:

With Germany’s 2013 federal elections swift approaching, the Pirates have become the protest party of the moment. The Party is not limited to Germany. It didn’t even begin there. Sister Pirate Parties have won elected seats in Austria, Czech Republic, Spain, and Switzerland. Chapters have opened in, among others, Estonia, Taiwan, Bosnia, Nepal, New Zealand, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Russia, Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Of course, not all are officially registered as political parties, much less winning elections, but their appeal clearly crosses borders.

The rise of the Pirate Party — the spillover of online dissent into a political party — was perhaps inevitable. “Cyberspace is not so much a distinct realm as it is the very environment we inhabit,” write the authors of Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace. Private and public attempts to manipulate cyberspace leave what they call “a chilling effect” with “profound consequences on freedom of speech,” raising “important and sometimes troubling public policy issues — particularly for the relationship between citizens and states.”

The broad appeal of the Pirate Party is noteworthy, as is their “hacking” of the political system in order to better understand how it works. However, this is not an endorsement of the party itself, which according to Kron is akin to the Communist Party both in its origin and its attitudes toward (intellectual) property. The next two planned posts will involve political parties and the internet in two different ways.

How Should We Measure Military Power?

We have been on a kick of government and power questions lately. In the field of international relations, power is often the cause or effect that we are most interested in. This makes measuring it appropriately very important, but the task is notoriously difficult.

Phil Arena recently suggested a new measure of military power:


M= ln(milper_{i,t}) ({ ln(qual_{i,t} \over \delta_t }),

where milper_{i,t} is country i’s total military personnel in year t, qual_{i,t} is i’s quality ratio (military expenditures per personnel) in year t, and δt is a time-varying discount factor that I constructed to adjust for changes in military technology.


\delta_t = 2.2^{(year-1700)/100},

which ensures that δ takes on a value fairly close to the average quality ratio among the major powers in any given year, without exhibiting the fluctuations found in the actual average.

It is nice to see people thinking about how to resolve this issue. I recently replicated Benjamin Fordham’s paper “Who Wants to be a Major Power?” and would be interested to see how the analysis changes (or stays the same) using Arena’s M measure rather than the canonical Correlates of War index. Here is a plot (shamelessly stolen from Arena’s blog) showing the European powers from 1816-1910 using M:

And of more contemporary interest:

Writing Advice Round-Up

Rembrandt’s Young Man Reading by Candle Light

Novelist Colson Whitehead has 11 rules for writing. Number 10 is, “Revise, revise, revise.”

Andrew Gelman suggests writing your research paper in reverse. (The original link appears to be broken, but Alex Tabarrok reblogged the whole thing.)

Jim Stinson of UNC has more detailed (and opinionated) advice for professional writing in political science.

Tim Buthe of Duke makes 10 recommendations–a quick read.

Much of this wisdom is also distilled in Mike Munger’s 10 tips on “How to Write Less Badly.”

How Do Leaders Emerge in Open-Source Software?

Ola Bini recently gave a talk entitled, “Anarchy, Cooperation, and the Bazaar” that caught my attention and relates to our discussions last week. I was particularly interested in Bini’s views on the emergence of leadership in open source development. In open source projects, he says, leaders are only necessary when the group size exceeds ten. Leaders can emerge from “anarchy” (a group without a leader), they can be founders who led from the start (in projects that grew rapidly, early), they can be individuals whose participation made them vital to agenda-setting for the project (someone who contributes code and makes useful recommendations for where the project should go next).

These three processes are immediately analogous to conventional politics. Last week we considered how leaders might emerge from anarchy in the views of Robert Nozick and Mancur Olson. Examples of founders-as-leaders abound, from Romulus to George Washington. Leaders as agenda-setters do not rise as readily to mind, but political scientists dating back to Robert Dahl have been interested in the way that engaged citizens shape what is on the table for discussion.

It seems that leadership within online communities, particularly open source software development, is a ripe area for research.

Are States Like Firms?

Artist’s depiction of Ronald Coase

We have been looking at analogies for government this week (first the stationary bandit, then an internet platform). Today, I want to offer one more: the state as a firm. In this idealized view, conflict in political life is akin to transaction costs in economic life. Firms work to minimize internal transaction costs (and thus maximize revenue), whereas governments work to minimize internal conflict.

This idea is closely related to Ronald Coase’s “The Nature of the Firm” (wiki, pdf). Coase argues, as I understand it, that entrepreneurs who can do things more efficiently than the market in some small sphere (by avoiding transaction costs) create a competitive advantage for themselves. Activities that they can organize efficiently without using the price mechanism are included within their firm, while everything else is contracted out on the open market.

Applying this to government, a state could be defined as a group that can solve its internal conflicts more efficiently than external conflicts. By designing mechanisms that deal with conflict peacefully, government provides a service to its citizens (i.e. bullets versus ballots). Sometimes internal divisions or external difficulties arise that make it more difficult for the state to do its job, and war results. Other times, the government becomes corrupt or its interests diverge from those of its citizens. Once the state is unable to provide conflict resolution mechanisms, it has “failed,” in the same way that companies go bankrupt.*

This is a rough comparison, but it is a start. What say you?


*Kenneth Waltz, in his discussion of the frequency of civil wars on p. 103 of Theory of International Politics asks rhetorically, “Which is more precarious: the life of a state among states, or of a government in relation to its subjects?”

How is Government Like the Internet?

Reid Hoffman thinks we should view government as an internet platform upon which citizens build lives. He isn’t speaking literally, but he isn’t far off the mark either. Hoffman’s background is in philosophy, so it is not surprising that his professional work (he is the founder of LinkedIn) and his political opinions intersect. Taking the view that Hoffman suggests means thinking of government as a service and citizens as customers who have a choice over which services to use and which not to use. I also like that it inverts the usual view by placing government at the bottom, as a foundation, and citizens can rise as high as they want.

Another philosopher/sociologist, Kieran Healy, has an interesting analogy of internet and government. He says

The U.S. system of employer-sponsored healthcare provision is iTunes. It’s complicated and overburdened; it wasn’t originally designed to do most of the things it now does; in fact, at the outset its design wasn’t really thought through at all (there wasn’t time); many of those involved backed it as a distant second-best solution—better than nothing, but not nearly good enough. Over the years, new features were shoehorned into the basic structure. New problems and inconsistencies emerged and were partially patched. And, inevitably, groups who did pretty well out of the system emerged and entrenched themselves, too. In situations like this, some reforms are possible around the edges, but it’s clear to most people that real structural reform is needed.

In development terms, that means it is time for a refactoring or even a complete overhaul. This debugging of government could also incorporate what Eric Raymond calls Linus’s Law (“Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”) by responding to the feedback of informed citizens.

How far can we take this metaphor? Is it too utopian?

Where Do Governments Come From?

A Pair of Horses in Mongolia

Going back to the “big question” theme at the heart of this blog, let us consider two stories about where governments come from. Ideas about this have been around as long as governments have, which is a long time. But great thinkers from antiquity like Aristotle, or Enlightenment philosophes like Rousseau, will be the topic of another post. Today we will consider the accounts of two economists–Mancur Olson and Robert Nozick.*

Nozick’s account is a defensive one: faced with threats from inside or outside their community, individuals form “protective associations” (think tribes). His model implicitly recognizes that individuals have differing abilities to commit violence. By pooling resources–including a comparative advantage in violence–the group as a whole can be safer and more successful. However, Nozick argues for a minimal state that performs only these basic protective functions.

Mancur Olson tells a slightly different story. In Olson’s account, individuals have already divided into tribes, and are either farmers or bandits. The farming tribes stay in their villages, while the bandits roam from place to place ransacking everything in their path. Eventually, a bandit recognizes that he could be more prosperous by staying in one place and protecting the villages from all of the other bandits, in exchange for a fee (tax) that is less than the 100 percent that other bandits take. This innovator becomes the “stationary bandit,” i.e., government.

Both of these stories are compelling, but how will we ever know whether either are true? Last week, I had the treat of reading a paper where social scientists take on this big question. Smith, Skarbek, and Wilson conduct an experimental test of Nozick’s theory.** They use a laboratory experiment in which individuals have differing amounts of a resource and can use it for offense, defense, or economic growth. They found that allowing individuals to form groups led to an “us versus them” mentality, rather than the cooperation Nozick would have expected. Although they do not discuss this in the paper, Olson’s account may be more consistent with their findings.


*Note: As in other posts of this type, I gloss over important details and do injustices to the arguments of brilliant minds in order to focus on a key distinction. If you want to shed further light on the topic, there is a comments section.

**Full disclosure: David Skarbek is a personal friend, and had a visiting professorship at Duke.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: Food Truck Wars

“Following all the regulatory constraints that are currently enforced at this moment, there really is not any place for a food truck to park,” says David Weber. He’s the other owner of the Rickshaw Dumpling, and he just wrote the Food Truck Handbook.

Food vendors avert a full out war through an informal code of conduct. You respect the guy who got there first. If you’re a jerk, the other guy can make your day miserable. A hot dog cart, say, can block your truck window and keep you from doing any business at all.

“We’ve gone to spots before,” Lao says, “where the falafel guys and the shish kebab guys will come up and say, ‘What’s your menu? Do you sell chicken? … You can’t sell chicken on this block. I’m the chicken guy on 52nd St.'”

Source: Planet Money.