Phronesis and the Internet: the Process Revolution

I learned about the Aristotelean intellectual virtue of phronesis along with the related term episteme a few years back from Kathryn Montgomery in discussions about her book How Doctors Think. Episteme is the scientific rationality we are all quite familiar with. Phronesis is usually translated “practical wisdom” and is the kind of rational skill doctors and entrepreneurs have that is based on experiential knowledge and provides the ability to take the best action in particular circumstances. We are much less likely to have thought of this as a separate kind of rational capacity.
These terms came up again recently for me in the context of a collective intelligence discussion, which really set my mind going and has led me to some propositions and a conjecture:

Proposition: Whereas the printing press was an episteme engine, the Internet is a phronesis engine.
Alternative long phrasing: The printing press and the Internet are cognitive technologies that provide people and cultures with “mechanical advantage” or leverage for the development of the Aristotelean intellectual virtues of epistome and phronesis respectively.

It’s pretty easy to see how the printing press is responsible for the massive scaling of epistome into the general culture. It’s a bit harder to see how what the Internet is doing is the same for phronesis because our first viewing of the Internet (the web at least) has been that it’s just one giant sales brochure/advertising billboard/encyclopedia/etc, i.e. that it is a global source of knowledge. My proposition is that the key thing going on with the Internet is not access to knowledge, but rather access participation in knowledge processes. Three examples:

  1. Wikipedia. What really matters about it is not that we have access to a massive knowledge font, but rather that each of us can become encyclopedists and have to face the questions of ontological classification, neutral voice, objective/subjective reality, etc, that that entails.
  2. Blogs. A word perhaps for at least three information processes moved out mass culture: journalism, publishing, political analysis. Again the key shift is not that there is all this reporting/publishing/political analysis available for our consumption, but that that each of us can become journalists/publishers/political analysts.
  3. My own online-writing workshop. People come to the site thinking that they will get reviews of their writing which will improve it. They invariably discover that reviewing the work of others is how they end up learning to improve their own writing.

In each of these cases the key thing is the shift from access to static information, to active participation in an information process. The Internet is providing a “mechanical advantage” for putting people together in a place where they can jointly engage in the kind of information processes and processing that I think leads to the developing of phronesis.

Proposition: Economic revolutions occur when aspects of production are sufficiently amplified by cognitive technologies that new economic patterns of production come into being. Example: the printing press provided the intellectual infrastructure (a culture of epistome) for the expansion of the simple tools of production during the industrial revolution into what is called Capital in the classical economic sense.

Proposition: There is a new economic revolution under way, the Process Revolution, that is the result of the amplification of information and information processing by the cognitive technology of the Internet, and which is similarly bringing new economic patterns of production into being. These patterns are a new economic factor that can be called Information (capital I), which is defined (analogously to Capital) as the data plus the patterns and processes that use that data to organize production.

Proposition: New economic factors produce competing political systems that are answers to the question: who should own the new economic factor. Example: In the industrial revolution the question was: who should own Capital and the products produced by Capital. Communism proposes common ownership in the form of the State, and Capitalism proposes ownership by individuals.

Proposition: The new economic factor of Information is likewise producing competing approaches to answer who should own it. “Ownerism” which proposes the same answer as Capitalism (ownership by individuals, natural or corporate), and “Commonism” which proposes that its ownership be held in the commons (not by the State).

Proposition: Capitalism won out against Communism for three fundamental philosophical and systemic reasons:

  1. Capitalism was better at recognizing and building on individual dignity and potential.
  2. Capitalism is essentially decentralist because it pushes the intelligence out to the edges (see David Reed & Andrew Lippman’s paper on Viral Communication for details on this idea) where local information can be used to maximum advantage in decision making.
  3. Capitalism works with, not against people’s natural self-interest.

Conjecture: Commonism will win out over Ownersim because it shares with Capitalism the same first two properties as well as another property which is analogous to the third, namely that Commonism works with Information’s natural abundance and it’s tendency to flow everywhere, whereas Ownerism has to fight tooth and nail to keep it scarce and from getting out.

I’ve put together a more detailed presentation of these ideas (including their relation to money) in the form of a paper.

5 thoughts on “Phronesis and the Internet: the Process Revolution

  1. Hi Eric- Thanks for the heads up on this. A few quick, first glance observations –
    “Economic revolutions occur when aspects of production are sufficiently amplified by cognitive technologies that new economic patterns of production come into being.”
    This statement recognizes the need to articulate the “stories” behind making. This includes marketing, a communication device.
    “…the data plus the patterns and processes that use that data to organize production.”
    This seems to me, especially today (literally, July 12th), that software, like Excel, can rapidify processes which make cost vs. pricing a rational practice which can create the viability of a business transaction. This access is available to anyone who owns Excel or a like spreadsheet software app.
    The 3rd proposition is less conclusive. It articulates the way things have been.
    The last 2 propositions are more diffficult for me to comment on here- i agree with most of what you have outlinedd here, although further discussion on the transformation of “ownerism” to “commonism” is much in need. As in all things, a balance is necessary. i have toyed with the phrase “social capitalism” for years. A balance between who owns an idea or resource, the capitol extracted from that idea/resource based on fairly recognizing the essential collaboration invloved in all ventures, this is the point in the conversation we are rapidly apprroaching or may be in.
    I would argue in your conjecture that commonism winning out over ownerism may be a bit one sided. Some level of ownerism is essential, today, for inspiration and motivation to be factors in production. A rational approach to acknowledgeing shared commons is essential, but I do feel an original concept serves the originator, at least for a time. A simple approach is to phisically produce an object, based on skill, own that and sell it. Shared knowledge and abstract resources are more difficult to codify.

  2. Administrator

    Marry Anne, great comments. With respect to “commonism winning out over ownerism,” of course you are right. In our current “capitalist” world there are plenty of cases where Capital (the means of production) is owned in common by various different mechanisms. The question is: which is the underlying default assumption? A question that is answered very definitively in capitalism re Captial toward the individual (natural or corporate). Also note that even now we are very interested in re-considering ownership patterns for other economic factors, for example with Land in the community land trust movement.

  3. francois

    I just discovered a book that might just be about this process revolution you are talking about: The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets And Freedom, see
    It’s available as a PDF.
    I still h

  4. francois

    oops, somehow I submitted the comment.
    Was going to say I have yet to read this book but critics are clear. Lessig’s point about being serious about this issue without having read that book is taken.
    And it’s Yale pal of yours that wrote it…

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