Nathan Schneider on Democratic Design for Online Life

Justin Hendrix / Apr 6, 2024

Audio of this conversation is available via your favorite podcast service.

On this show, when we talk about technology and democracy, guests are often talking about the relationship between technology and existing democratic systems. Today's guest wants us to think more expansively about what doing democracy means and the role the technology can play in it. Nathan Schneider, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, is the author of Governable Spaces: Democratic Design for Online Life.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.

Speaker 1:

Your film is now ready to be shown.

Justin Hendrix:

Good morning. I'm Justin Hendrix, editor of Tech Policy Press, a nonprofit media venture intended to provoke new ideas, debate and discussion at the intersection of technology and democracy. On this show, when we talk about technology and democracy, my guest and I are often talking about the relationship between technology and existing democratic systems. Today's guest wants us to think more expansively about what doing democracy means and the role the technology can play in it. He's written a new book on the subject.

Nathan Schneider:

I'm Nathan Schneider. I'm a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, and I'm the author most recently of Governable Spaces, Democratic Design for Online Life.

Justin Hendrix:

Can you tell us just a little more about the Media Economies Design Lab and what you get up there at Boulder on a regular basis?

Nathan Schneider:

It's a group of students and friends who are working on experiments around democratic ownership and governance in the online economy and in the media economy. We meet every week at a wonderful place called the Media Archeology Lab, which is a basement on campus full of old machines that still work, that holds artists residencies and enables us to think about the future of our relationships with technology in the presence of the many kind of past paths that we've taken to get to where we are today.

And we mostly focus on collaboration and experiment. So we've developed a series of software projects that enable experiments with online governance. We've run cohorts of artists, of activists, of entrepreneurs. We have helped support the development of the Colorado Sun, which is a local regional news organization that's governed by its journalists. We really just follow the interests of our collaborators and of the students and help launch things into the world when we can.

Justin Hendrix:

I get the sense that this book in some ways is putting a little intellectual scaffolding perhaps around all that activity.

Nathan Schneider:

Yeah, the book is in many respects, an attempt to write a love letter to some communities that I've been part of and to explain why I think they matter and certainly the work we've been doing in MedLab is part of that. Another is a network that I've been grateful to have been part of over the last few years called MediGo. It's a network of researchers and designers and builders who are exploring the possibilities of online governance. I got swept into this in 2019 just before the pandemic, and this was the thing that kind of got me through those months of lockdown, this very online community, and continues to be a source of really driving inspiration.

And it started actually with a German game company approaching Lawrence Lessig, the founder of Creative Commons and so much else, about the question of what would it look like to enable players of a game to have different kinds of governance structures and to play them out and compete with them? And this question of gameplay ended up just opening up this huge can of worms that hundreds of us have been trying to sort through ever since. And that game-focused question has poured out into the real world, especially as questions of governance have come to the fore with social media moderation, with blockchain networks, with many other questions that keep surfacing in the online economy. Like so many good things, a question that began in a space of play has exploded everywhere else.

Justin Hendrix:

So this book contains within it a diagnosis of what's wrong with the kind of current internet that we experience today, for the most part. You reference a lot of things that listeners of tech policy press podcasts will be well familiar with. They'll probably agree with you and your diagnoses, your argument that we're experiencing a kind of implicit feudalism when it comes to most of our interactions, certainly on social media.

But I'm interested in maybe just to go back to what you were just saying about those different communities you've engaged with, which do show you alternatives. How thriving do you think that quotient of imagination is out there at the moment? One of the things that I keep coming back to in conversations on this podcast is this thought that very clearly the Silicon Valley imagination of the future is perhaps the most salient imagination of the future. You might argue that a sort of Chinese alternative is another exceedingly salient version of the future that's on offer. What do you make of that world of alternative imagination? Is it growing? Is it embattled? Is it shrinking? What would you say?

Nathan Schneider:

I'm probably the worst person to ask about this because I spend so much of my time in odd spaces that are probably not representative of the mainstream places, like the rare socially oriented blockchain projects, the Mastodon servers and other kinds of alternative social networks, cooperative tech platforms that are small and struggling. And I bend over backwards in my own practice to spend time in these spaces of experimentation.

But at the same time, I think it's important to recognize what's been happening in the mainstream. After 2016, a weird thing happened among the most power hungry people in the world and in Silicon Valley in particular, which is that they started realizing and acting on this recognition that there's something profoundly untenable about how these platforms are being governed and the kinds of responsibilities that have been centralized in them.

For instance, after that 2016 election, the years following, Jack Dorsey of Twitter started making these assertions that maybe this platform should never have been a company and started taking steps toward building out a decentralized social media protocol that Twitter would just become one part of. His belief was that holding the responsibility of say, deciding whether the President of the United States should be on the network was just not appropriate for a single company or CEO, that there was something kind of a category error here.

And of course, by the way, that protocol became what's now Bluesky. Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg in Facebook turning toward Meta land did a different approach. He's much less of a kind of decentralized network person, more of a kind of liberal Democrat. He at the time started quoting Abraham Lincoln and people were suspecting that he was going to run for president, but what he ended up doing was carving out this oversight board and quasi independent nonprofit that would be a kind of supreme court around Facebook and Meta's moderation decisions.

In both of these cases, these people are recognizing, despite being such incredibly power hungry people, recognizing that we need a different approach. We need a kind of governance for these online networks that has accountability beyond just a single company. And in some respects, this book is a call for radicalizing that impulse, pushing it further, actually turning upside down how we think about moderating or regulating our online lives and how we think about the relationship with democracy, thinking about democracy not just as a cudgel that should impose solutions upon tech or impose solutions on the CEOs who then distribute the solutions down to everybody else, but instead to cultivate more bottom up responses to the problems that we're facing in online life. Rather than seeing democracy as the thing the internet is ruining, instead to see democracy as actually a tool for problem-solving, something that we should inject more fully into our online lives rather than seeing the two as separate.

Justin Hendrix:

You write that the book adds the accusation to the pile that the design of online social spaces has contributed to the atrophy of everyday democratic skills, but that diagnosis also bears remedies that the future of democracy can begin at the level of ordinary community. Why do you start there?

Nathan Schneider:

I've been spending so much the last decade, for instance, focused on political economy, these big questions like so many of us on the massive companies, the policy and this sort of thing. And in this book I start with actually more of our everyday life. And the reason is this long-standing tradition in political thought going back to say Alexis de Tocqueville and then Robert Putnam and then CLR James, that anti-colonial tradition, W.E.B. Du Bois. And then I also focus a lot on a contemporary writer and activist Adrienne Marie Brown. This tradition identifies this sense that democracy at the large scale is really only possible if we're able to practice it every day, the level of our communities. This is why de Tocqueville talked about civic associations as schools of democracy. These are places where people are practicing it every day and it works its way up to the larger scale. And this is an insight that has been reaffirmed through empirical research over many decades.

And if that's the case, I think we really need to worry about the lack of democratic practice in our everyday communities, the kind of political imagination we're being taught in spaces like Facebook groups and subreddits and group chats where this implicit feudalism reigns, where the admin has all control over the space, where the way of addressing conflict is censorship and exile where the texture of our everyday lives, we're not feeling that direct accountability. We're not feeling the way that a member of a union or a member of a neighborhood association would have the ability to choose their leaders and address conflicts collaboratively.

Instead, we're taught to trust in and rely on people who have essentially absolute power and our systems are designed around this pattern. It's become so widespread and so universal, and I think it's really seeping into our political imaginations in ways that are deepening the appeal of an authoritarian politics.

Justin Hendrix:

Give me an example of that. How do you see that playing out in today's politics?

Nathan Schneider:

So there's a convergence going on between the role of the sysadmin, the person running the server, and the politician. And a couple spaces I look at this emerging. One is far from here in the United States like the Islamic state, a networked entity that is in many respects a kind of convergence of influencer culture and political and military movement where the leadership is really less around building a certain kind of state as we know it today and more around a kind of set of followers of an influencer.

But this is happening more close to home as well. For instance, the QAnon movement, it turns out at least in a large part of the period where these drops were happening from this mysterious figure Q that became this religious political movement leading up to the 2020 election, it turns out that the person probably writing those drops was also the person running the server, 8chan. That the political leader had become the same as the person running the software. And then what is the first thing that Donald Trump does when he leaves the presidency after that election? He becomes a sysadmin. He creates Truth Social and there's that sense that he doesn't start a library, he doesn't start building that resting on the laurels of the presidency. He turns to what has become even the greater form of political power, the greater kind of politician, which is running your own social network.

And we've also seen a turn away from this, at least this kind of performance, of saying that a social network is a platform. Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg had at least this kind of false but attempted performance to say, "This is an open platform for you to be yourself." With Elon Musk taking over Twitter, now X, we see a real turn toward a sense that no, actually I'm going to wield this power unapologetically and the words I don't like and the people I don't like are out, and the words I like of the people I do are going to be broadcast like crazy. So you see this sense of this kind of raw political power converging with the power of the server.

Justin Hendrix:

So I don't want to jump too far ahead in this book, but let's just say you carry on making that diagnosis and explaining that and then offering this alternative, this new software paradigm, this idea of modular politics approach to learning from the breadth of human experience, what you call governance archeology. What is this modular politics that you think can be built?

Nathan Schneider:

It's in contrast to what I argue again is this very rigid design pattern of implicit feudalism, which is that in any online space we find ourselves in, you see a common pattern which is whoever creates the space, whoever starts up a new Facebook group or whatever it is, has essentially absolute power over it and all power derives from them so they can delegate and designate other people to hold that power as well. But it all starts for them. The idea of modular politics is a way of rethinking the design of systems to assume co-governance and to assume a kind of creative palette of designing governance that's actually appropriate to the nature of the space. So maybe a top-down approach makes a lot of sense in the context of an influencer where everything is really about one person, but in the case of an interest-based community, that probably doesn't make sense.

It probably makes more sense to have something that looks more democratic and is more accountable to the people who share that interest. And so you would design the governance of those spaces really differently. This modular politics idea is all about how do we design systems that are more expressive? And governance archeology is about turning to the larger breadth of human history and saying, "Look, there is a huge range of possibilities for how humans can self-govern. Let's enable our technical systems to actually be able to reflect that." So say if I'm from a community that has a legacy of governing in a certain way, why can't I make sure that the Facebook group we form or the mailing lists we form builds in some of those habits?

And right now our systems are really, really bad for whenever I've tried to develop more democratic spaces online. For instance, a cooperatively-governed Macedon instance that I co-founded called Social.CoOp, we had to really bend over backwards in order to set up the tools we would need in order to co-govern this space. So it's an invitation into rethinking what users are presented with when they start a new community and to enable them to more carefully and intentionally craft the mechanisms of how they co-govern.

Justin Hendrix:

I get a little sense of a kind of hint of that David Graber, David Wingrove, Dawn of Everything sense that perhaps we can go back to a much more creative notion of how humanity has governed itself in the past, how we've done democracy. So are there particular styles of governance that we can admire that you think we should be focused on?

Nathan Schneider:

The book The Dawn of Everything really influenced me a lot in developing this governance archeology work along with political scientists Federica Carugati. It's only the beginning of that reclamation, of that recognition that the legacies of how human beings have self-governed are so much more interesting than we give credit for when we just talk about Greek democracy and then the dark ages and this kind of very crass western story that we tend to receive. What excites me is less any particular way of governing than creating the palette in which people can explore possibilities.

There are some really exciting things going on. Like for instance, I think citizens assemblies a lot of these experiments and citizens assemblies that governments are doing, particularly in Europe and right now are just a really important exploration in democracy beyond elections, in some ways reclaiming much more traditional practices but for the world we have today. These are assemblies where people are chosen at random, a small number of people to come together, get paid to study an issue that's contentious, that's flummoxing the legislature and think through solutions, find points of consensus.

This is just one of many ways that we can start reimagining what democracy even means. And what really got me motivated in working on this book and in my work with Medigov is when I see these outpourings of experimentation and exploration, when we stopped thinking about democracy as one thing that was set up in the 1700s and instead think about it as a living tradition, as something that we need to continue evolving. And there are a couple of spaces where I've seen this happen. One is around when the city of Barcelona decided to open the door to a much wider range of citizen participation, they supported the development of a platform called Descedent, which is a modular tool that enables you to include different modules, different kinds of techniques for hearing from citizens. And just because that government was willing to entertain the question, entertain a wider set of possibilities of accountability, suddenly people's imaginations went wild. And that list of modules is huge and it's beautiful and it really puts to shame the ballot box every four years.

Another case, for better or worse, is blockchains. There's been so much scammy, nasty stuff that's been in the news about this stuff, around this technology, but one thing this technology force people into is unlike the old server-based internet, these are networks that are co-governing by default. And in order for them to be decentralized as people building them want them to be, they have to be governed by multiple participants. And as a result of this, there's been an outpouring of investment and development of technologies around decision-making, around voting, around courts and dispute resolution, all trying to solve the problem of co-governance among often anonymous people on the internet. And it's those sites of creativity that excite me more than any particular solution.

Justin Hendrix:

You make a number of, as you say, call-outs to people who clearly have inspired you. One of them is Adrienne Maree Brown. What kinds of ideas of an Adrienne Maree Brown, for instance, appeal to you in thinking about internet governance?

Nathan Schneider:

She's become a really important philosopher and activist and someone who's been a guiding light in the Black Lives Matter movement and related subcultures, and I take a lot from her. There are a few points in particular I can highlight. One is she is a facilitator of movement spaces and a facilitator is somebody who has to address conflict, has to help a community move through challenging discussions and this sort of thing. And one thing that she points to as to a number of others in her space is the profound inadequacy of our online spaces for the kinds of conversations that we really need to be having. She has a book called We Will Not Cancel Us, which is a critique of what has come to be called cancel culture and points to the way in which the ways we're behaving in online life are just such an impoverished way of going about solving problems.

And I think it's really important also to recognize that something like cancel culture or the kind of mob mentalities that you see online are really not ... We shouldn't be blaming the participants for them so much as we often do. Rather, we should recognize that the tools they have available are really terrible for addressing conflict. You can't enter into an adjudication process with a community, with a jury of peers or whatever we might think is appropriate or legitimate. And it's I think really damning in some respects to our online networks that people like Brown or Miriam Caba, people who are trying to imagine alternatives to addressing harm and violence without police and prisons, say, "We can't do these processes on the internet." Even though these are very online people who have huge followings on Instagram, but they recognize that our online spaces are not equipped for the most sensitive and important forms of interaction.

And it poses this question to me of what would it take to bring our online spaces there? And she emphasizes also the need for the recognition that democracy is a skill, it's something we have to do. I also turned to Philip Agre on this. He was an engineer who ended up becoming a kind of recluse and saw what was coming in the online economy in some pretty profound ways. They both emphasize this idea of political skills. If we're not practicing our democracy in everyday life, we lose it and we start feeling helpless and we start turning toward authoritarians.

Justin Hendrix:

I think one of the interesting things to me about this book as well is that it ends up thinking about indigenous cultures and probably some of the alternatives that looking at those cultures provide us in terms of thinking about even how we might govern online spaces. I find that interesting. You mentioned of course, your experience living there in Colorado, living at the intersection of three tribes. How has that thinking ended up kind of seeping into your book?

Nathan Schneider:

I think there are a number of directions there. One is while through the book I try to be modest in my proposals, recognizing that this is a big shift that we have to turn, that when we start talking about democracy and online life, we start entering into a world where we're rethinking some of the foundational assumptions of citizenship. That we live in a, since World War II and for some of us, well before that, we live in a world that imagines citizenship as being connected to exclusive monopolistic control over land, right? This idea that a country, that any one piece of land on earth, can only belong to one country and those countries have clear borders that you can represent as a clean line on a map.

At the end I turned to this image of a wonderful website called Native-Land.ca and it is a map of indigenous territories around the world, and as you said, the place I live has three overlapping communities, the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples who use the same land in different ways and in an overlapping form different seasons and this sort of thing. And I draw from this language from the Canadian indigenous scholar, Glenn Coulthard, about non-exclusive sovereignty.

If we're part of many online communities and a network, if we're in some sense citizens of those communities, if we have real power over the networks that we inhabit and we're talking to each other and interacting with each other around the world regardless of the physical borders, I think we're entering back into at least we have the possibility of returning to a world in which this kind of hegemonic state is no longer our sole political identity. And we enter into a world in which we can have more complex and interesting kinds of citizenship, and I hope a more inclusive kind of citizenship, a democracy that doesn't depend on just a singular political identity, but enables us to have many overlapping democratic rights and opportunities for participation.

And so what begins is just like a kind of modest exploration into some of the frustrating limitations of running a large email list online swells into this set of questions about, wait, do we have to rethink all the foundations of our politics? And I leave it there. I'm not sure how far we have to take it, but there are some, once you start seeing the network as a site of democratic participation, some pretty tricky consequences start unfolding.

Justin Hendrix:

I want to ask you about a couple of phenomena that are very much in the tech news these days and how you see them through the lens of this work. As someone who has experimented with decentralized social media platforms like Mastodon, you've mentioned Bluesky, we've also more recently seen Mark Zuckerberg suggest that he'd like to go in this direction with threads. Does that give you any pause? Do you think there's a risk that some of these ideas are possibly going to be co-opted by large companies that still more or less think they can control the playing field and may be interested in, I don't know, sloughing off liability? That's part of their motivation?

Nathan Schneider:

Absolutely. And we have to recognize that we cannot lean on technical solutions to solve what are essentially problems of society and power and money. Decentralized protocols have been captured before. The web is the decentralized protocol. In 1999, the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, wrote in his memoir that the design of the web is so decentralized it can never be captured by large companies, and now he's spending his life trying to de-capture his invention. And that's very much an issue with these emerging networks, which I think are very exciting. But they only pose the possibility. They open the door, they don't walk through it, we have to walk through it, and that means being intentional about how we design for these spaces.

One intentional thing that, for instance, the people behind Mastodon have focused on, Mastodon is an activity pub based social network that looks like Twitter. It's now starting to interoperate with threads with Meta's company. And at Mastodon they've decided not to take venture capital, which is a form of financing that's driven a lot of the major tech platforms, because they don't want that drive toward monopolizing, which is what venture capital investors often want. But the problem is Mastodon is running on a tiny fraction of the budget of Meta or threads or any of its even smallest subsidiaries. And so we haven't really figured out how to finance the kinds of public good, nonprofit social networks that I think many people recognize now we need. And so that problem of financing is really critical to address, and that's something I end up focusing on is that yes, we can build these decentralized networks and because of Mastodon, I'm able to co-found a cooperative instance with my friends and we couldn't have done that in another context, so thank goodness for that technology, but the technology won't guarantee that becomes the normal practice.

What I think we need is to develop policy that supports other forms of financing, and this is something we've done before. My last book was on the cooperative tradition. In the 1910s, the US government developed the farm credit system, which now there's $130 billion cooperative bank down the road from me because of that system. We have, in the thirties, there was the rural electric system that solves rural electrification through cooperatives. That system still enables rural co-ops to access essentially limitless capital to develop broadband to the home and all kinds of really important programs. We know how to do large scale cooperative financing and we need to expand those lessons to other areas of the economy, particularly the digital economy, so that it's possible to actually finance things other than the venture capital investment model that's based on growth at all costs and massive scale and essentially monopoly power.

There are other ways that we could build our technology and it takes public policy in order to make that financing available. Venture capital is only possible at the scale it's at now because of changes to the law. For instance, a reform to the prudent man rule in 1979. Without those kinds of changes, we wouldn't have the big tech companies that we have today, and we have to recognize that these are creatures of our invention, results of our choices and that we could make other choices as well.

Justin Hendrix:

That segues into my last question about what's happening in tech today and how you see it through the lens of the ideas here. Of course, this is the year of artificial intelligence, a lot of that concentration of power and capital that you just described. That's what it's focused on, developing AI. How do these ideas that you advance here survive in the age of AI? Is it a sort of threat that's even beyond the kind of hegemony of the current social media ecosystem?

Nathan Schneider:

Again, I think the best defense for democracy is offense. We need to be focused on democratic AI if these systems are really as powerful as a lot of people are claiming, which is again, I think a claim that we need to always be careful about. But nevertheless, there are lots of opportunities where people are starting to explore how to integrate AI systems positively into democratic practice. For instance, exploring how to use them to aid those citizens assemblies I was talking about earlier. There's an experiment right now going on at MIT about using AI systems to streamline and lower the costs and increase the dynamism of a citizen's assembly process. We should be investing not just in how we're going to crack down on the investor-owned profoundly centralized AI systems being built now, but we should be investing in public AI systems, infrastructures that are democratically controlled, both perhaps by governments, but also by open source communities and transnational networks.

In the book I draw on this wonderful story by the sci-fi writer, Cadwell Turnbull called the called Monsters Come Howling in Their Season. It imagines a democratic AI system in the Virgin Islands that helps people deal with the effects of climate change. And it's a really powerful story envisioning this AI system that's actually worthy of trust because when it goes awry, the people who use it are able to intervene and participate in processes to change its policies. And I think we should be much more concerted and whenever we see problems arise, not simply using democracy as a cudgel, as something from the outside that attempts to hit that problem, but instead ask how can we insert democracy into that? And there's some exciting stuff going on. For instance, with this idea of constitutional governance for AI that Anthropic has been doing that's been led by my collaborator, Divya Siddharth.

They've recognized that actually ordinary people have clear, incredibly clear and powerful insights for aligning AI systems even more so than AI experts. And through those kinds of processes of incorporating democratic input and democratic accountability into how these systems are designed, we might actually be able to solve for the risks and the dangers more effectively than simply relying on the so-called experts. It's an approach we could use across the online economy, whether it's around gig economies for enabling workers to have more say in the rules that affect their lives, ensuring that they're able to organize and develop counter power, developing community-owned broadband systems where communities are able to make decisions about how to use their broadband resources. We've seen over and over that community-owned broadband is much cheaper and more effective than monopoly-driven systems. At so many levels of this digital economy, we have the opportunity to insert democracy and produce, I think, more accountable and often more just wonderful outcomes.

And it's ultimately that joy that I think is at the core of my interest in this stuff is I love hanging out around people experimenting with democracy online because it's fun and it's invigorating and it's hopeful, and it's such an antidote to the often kind of futility that we feel when we're just trying to figure out what to do about these big bad monopolies.

Justin Hendrix:

This book leaves us with this idea of coming to a habitable vision of the future, which I think is a really nice way to think about it, and I recommend it to my readers, Governable Spaces, Democratic Design for Online Life. Nathan Schneider, thank you very much.

Nathan Schneider:

Thank you, Justin. It's really a pleasure to be here.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...