If code is law, then platform is politics, or: the map temporarily becomes the territory

Paul Raven @ 20-06-2011

Pretty simple story, really, and one that says as much about the stupidity of military thinking and the arbitrariness of the concept of national borders in a networked and mediated world than it does about the flaws of technology, but anyway: Nicaraguan military brass invades Costa Rican town and demands lowering of Costa Rican flag because Google Maps inaccurately showed said town as being part of Nicaraguan territory.

It’s a chuckle-worthy little tale on the surface, though there are undercurrents of subterfuge if you’re keen to look for such things – the official maps of both countries display the border correctly, for instance, so why was this guy basing border dispute actions on Google’s offering? A convenient excuse for a political feint, perhaps, or an opportunity to score some sort of bragging points at the officer’s bar? Or just good old fashioned SNAFU?

But the real issue here is that borders are consensual concepts; and when there’s a proliferation of places those concepts can be documented (and a widening of the number of people who might contribute to such), the consensus becomes fuzzier, until it dissolves to a point where it stops mattering to anyone who doesn’t have a serious vested interest in its precision. The people of that town probably identify as Nicaraguan because that’s what they’ve always been told they are, but ultimately the phrase “this town is Nicaraguan” doesn’t have much bearing on the people who live there beyond who they pay their taxes to and which soldiers walk down the high street; the amount of eggs laid by that town’s chickens this morning won’t change if that line on the map moves 3 klicks either way.

The Nicaraguan-ness of the town is of much greater concern to those whose business it is to define and protect (or possibly expand) the concept of Nicaragua. And there, in a microcosmic nutshell, is the main reason that those heavily invested in the concept of the nation-state – be it ideologically, economically or otherwise – are those who are most vocal about the perceived threat of open platforms where contribution to the consensus is not controlled by a strict hierarchy. They lament the loss of a canonical reality, because it is in that canonical reality that their power and privilege is enshrined.

I’m finding that issues of control and hierarchy have become a strong strange attractor for me over the last year, and there’s been an almost vertiginous sense of accretion in the last month or so, thanks in no small point to recent discussions of The Google Threat and similar matters. It interests we that me now talk about the companies we choose to use – and the degree of choice and influence we have over them – in the same language that we talk about politics… to the extent that I’m starting to think that these choices are the politics of a networked world. That explains both the growing disaffection with the “old” politics, and the gravitation toward networks as the place where sociological and geographical identity is enshrined and enacted.

These thoughts are as yet unrefined, but the pattern is becoming clearer, and so I’m staking out my pitch now; who knows, this could be the title of the non-fiction opus that makes me a weblebrity pundit, right? (OK, probably not, but hey, hedging my bets here.)

So: we know Lawrence Lessig’s assertion that “Code is Law”.

Well, here’s Raven’s Corollary: if Code is Law, then Platform is Politics.

You heard it here first. 😉