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Saturday, October 08, 2005

Lost in cyberspace....

This blog has been through one of its long silent periods again. In part this is because I have been busy catching up with myself on a number of fronts. But there is also a bit of thinking going on as well as I have become caught up in some interesting readings related to ethical syndromes and the internet.

The "syndromes" part comes from a work I've assigned my ethics seminar -- Jane Jacobs' Systems of Survival. As one student noted in the course discussion board, the writing borders on "horrible", and it is little wonder that this work has not attracted wide attention -- or at least less attention than some of Jacobs' earlier works on cities, urban life, the economy, etc. Systems of Survival is interesting for how it highlights two major moral/ethical syndromes that emerge within cultures -- the commerical and the guardian syndromes that are distinctive and different from each other on a number of points. For Jacobs, these are the two key patterns of ethical norms and standards that emerge throughout the world. Her presentation of these are ethical systems is in contrast to alternative schemes that pose them as ideologies or paradigms, and I think she is right in doing so.

But while generating little attention among students of ethics (as far as I can tell), there is one group that has found Jacobs' syndromes interesting and helpful -- students of information cultures and cyberspace (for example, see the work of Chris Phoenix, esp. here). Ironically, their main point runs counter to one of Jacobs' themes. When she considers the existence of of alternative syndromes, and especially various forms of communal ethics, she regards them as unstable and transitional at best -- marxism (in the form of soviet communism), she notes, turned to guardian syndromes to sustain themselves, and the Israeli kibbutz model survived and thrived by adopting the commercial syndrome.

But the folks who deal with cyberspace has used Jacobs' syndrome framework to highlight (by contrast) a third -- one that emerged from the 'hacker' culture that they label the "information" or 'idealist' syndrome. They make a good case for such a "thrid syndrome", and all this is reinforced (although not explicitly or directly) in the work of Stanford's Lawrence Lessig and NYU's Siva Vaidhyanathan. I played presentations of lectures given by each at the Library of Congress (here and here), and while both stress the negative implications of both commerce (i.e., corporate) and guardian (i.e., regulatory) syndromes on the future of the more anarchistic cyberspace, there is no doubt that this third syndrome has established a firm foothold over the past two decades....

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