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The Voice of the Individual

In a paper entitled "A declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" written in February 1996, John Perry Barlow spoke out to elected governments from around the world but especially to those gathered at Davos. "We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks..." John Perry Barlow was defending a radical position with respect to the independence of the Internet. As often with his ideas, they were thought provoking. "You have no moral right to rule us, nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear."

At the same time, and probably more importantly, he was letting out a deep cry that reveals the uneasy relationship between the individual and society and the related need of the individual for recognition by society. We are all distinct from each other. Each of us is the centre of our own world. As individuals and consumers, if we give free reign to our desires, they inevitably enter in conflict with those of all others around us. At the same time we are all members of society bound by the common language we speak. In addition, the ways we act are dictated by the need to live together and by the legacy of history and culture.

Shunning affiliation

Some people, out of choice or instinct, shy away from being associated with a company, church, party or whatever. They are free valences, independent experts, lone cowboys, ... John Perry Barlow signs his declaration: "Cognitive Dissident". To be fair, he adds "Co-Founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation". From this independent stance, such people are both vulnerable and forceful. They are vulnerable, because priority and recognition in society are tacitly given to the "voice" of groups, even if it is invariably expressed by an individual. Have you ever been invited to speak in a public meeting when all the other speakers except yourself are employed by or affiliated to an organisation? There is always an embarrassing moment when each of them has introduced themselves as president of this, professor of that or employee of something else, and you want to say that you are you, nothing more or less. You are both within and without. Your relationship to the group is ambiguous and precarious. At the same time, you can't help feeling that their affiliation in some way takes the edge off their vitality and weighs singularly on their vision of the world.

Weakness ...

One of the sources of weakness of the unattached individual in these circumstances is the human need for recognition. There is nothing worse than knowing you have something important to say when you believe that nobody will listen to you. Such was the unbearable curse of Casandra. We are talking here about ideas and words, not acts. With the arrival of the Internet, at last the individual voice has the chance to be "heard" world-wide. However, if the self-appointed outsider is not careful, that need for recognition can produce the very opposite of what it seeks. Those individuals who are not aware of their unquenched thirst for recognition and do not have a feeling for diplomacy, can end up being shunned as the "verbal desperados" I mentioned in another article.

... and stengths

At the same time, there is a great strength in being free of attachments. You can speak your mind and, what's more, if you are demanding with yourself, astute and diplomatic, you can perceive the goings on in a considerably different light from those who are bound by their affiliations. You can contribute greatly to the constructive debate. Breakthroughs are almost invariably the result of individuals. As such an individual, you can earn respect for your outspokenness and vision. However, even if you have taken all the precautions of diplomacy, you still run the risk of waking up one morning with a metaphorical knife in your back: a present from those who can't stand being reminded of their own self-chosen lack of freedom and vision.

Most people do not adopt the stance of standing out from society. Few are called to be David taking on Goliath Ð an inappropriate metaphor, for it is not a question of the individual winning out over society. Most people opt for the easier road of belonging and identifying with that to which they belong. There is nothing reprehensible in that. Even those who see themselves as an unfettered hero ranging across the wilds of Cyberspace, belong somewhere, sometime. For those who chose to belong, there is a trade-off. Behind the evident satisfaction of enhanced identity that comes from adhering to a company, an association or any other body, there is an uneasy feeling that you may have lost something essential in the deal.

Uneasiness with democracy

Such a feeling of uneasiness can also be felt in democracy. We give away part of our power as an individual in the name of convenience. We are relieved that somebody else will do the hard job for us, but we are disappointed, if not alarmed, when we realise they cannot do what is required of them. Talking about cyberspace, John Perry Barlow accuses politicians: "You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions". Here is not the place to discuss Barlow's romantic belief in the auto-regulation of cyberspace nor his tendency to artificially divide the world into "us" and "them". What is pertinent here is that many of those we have given our voice to no longer know what we want to say. The ability of the elected individual to listen to other individuals tends to get lost in their affiliation to corporate party identities. No amount of opinion polls will recuperate that. In their isolation, they turn to experts for help, but experts too have cut themselves off from the others in their shared, technocratic vision of the world.

History has shown that the individual voice has a key place in the evolution of society. As tools for individual, world-wide communication become common-place, we need to avoid the mass generalisation of similar visions that fail to see the diversity that is the richness of our world. We need to find the right balance between the common voice without which our society will not work and the richness of the individual vision.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise

You might also like to read:
Consensus building and verbal desperados and
Open, consultative government, an example from WIPO, an interview of Francis Gurry, Assistant Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).

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Created: July 11th, 1999 - Last up-dated: July 11th, 1999