The parallel worlds of publishing

The book publishing industry is a parallel world in its own right. How fitting to publish a book about Parallelwelten.

For NEXT, the year 2019 was dedicated to the topic of Parallelwelten. We’ve written a lot about various parallel worlds, exploring them from different angles. Some of these texts now end up in a real, printed book that’s going to appear in December. It might be something you want to consider as a Christmas present.

The book publishing industry is a parallel world in its own right. It has a history dating back to the times of Gutenberg, and you can smell the odor of the past at every corner. Over the last couple of years, we’ve accidentally walked into the book publishing business. Our books are printed by Kösel, a company that has been in business for more than 425 years.

Compared to that, the parallel worlds we explore in the new book are quite recent phenomena. Book publishing itself led to the formation of the modern age. The economies of scale introduced by Gutenberg’s movable type printing helped to unify language for the masses, beyond the reach of ancient Latin and Greek.

The mass societies of the 20th century needed mass communications as well as other scalable institutions. Today, we see the world of the modern age crumble into different parallel worlds. The unifying forces are fighting with differentiating and separating forces, and the outcome is uncertain.

Divide and rule

In this epic fight about the hegemony of late modernity, digital technology plays an ambiguous role. On the one hand, tech enables a global village, where new connections are feasible beyond every border or limitation. On the other hand, tech leads to a new round of differentiation, polarisation, and tribalism.

Not only are nation states weakened, with the GAFA companies we also see new multinational powers arising. The big digital players dominate the digital world, which in turn also increasingly dominates the old analogue world and its traditional power structures. The maxim divide et impera (lat. divide and conquer, or divide and rule) comes to mind.

It’s easier to rule a multitude of parallel worlds, which lose touch with each other, than larger concentrations of power. Viewed this way, the call to break up the GAFA giants is the reverse of the medal. It is the attempt to restore either a balance of power or the supremacy of the old power structures.

I keep coming back to the plea to democratise digital, not to be confused with digitising democracy. Democracy is a power arrangement that allows for different parallel worlds to peacefully coexist and balance their interests. It is a compromise engine. Democracy leaves no room for a single dictatorship like Facebook’s governance structure does.

One of the key strengths of democracy is that is forces different people, cultures, groups, opinions and world views to meet on a democratic agora. This is the public sphere, and to thrive, it should be as free as possible. This freedom needs some rules, to save it from toppling into anarchy. Democracy also requires democratic institutions, with delegates and leaders elected for limited terms.

A Congress of Vienna for the 21st century

Just this week, Tim Berners-Lee released the Contract for the Web, an ambitious rulebook for internet governance. Since it tries to bring governments, companies and citizens to the same table, it could possibly serve as a Congress of Vienna for the 21st century. Of the digital powerhouses, Microsoft, Google and Facebook already support the initiative. The governments of Germany, France and Ghana are also on board.

The Contract for the Web works with nine principles, three for each group of stakeholders (governments, companies and citizens), from which it derives 76 clauses. It remains to be seen whether this agenda will be implemented or not. Commentators are sceptic:

The same governments and companies that have allowed the bad practices to proliferate now will behave differently, Twitter’s howling mobs will be shamed into silence and Facebook’s fake-news-targeting machine will grind to a halt. Not going to happen.

Three years after the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, the fight for digital freedom and democracy still is in its infancy. Ironically, it is a sign of hope that Angela Merkel, who famously called the internet “Neuland”, i.e. “new land” or “uncharted territory” in 2013, now calls for a free internet as a global public good.

Publishing a book about Parallelwelten is itself an act of contribution to a larger debate that’s going on in the public sphere. A book is a physical item (and as e-book, a digital one as well) standing in the long tradition of publishing that helped to create the public sphere in the first place. This public sphere is now in danger.

And this makes the act of publishing itself a statement.