Why, Context & Legitimacy in the Web

Posted in Philosophy by AST on Monday, March 13th, 2006

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This post was inspired by background reading that came out of an interesting discussion from last week on the XML-DEV mailing list. One of the things which was discussed was the concept of legitimacy. This post discusses some thoughts on legitimacy and suggests that it is, in fact, the most important consideration for the future evolution of the World Wide Web.

According to Brian Whitworth and Aldo de Moor [WHIT03], legitimacy is essentially the principle that interactions between people are conducted “fairly” within a common environment. However, what is “fair” within an environment depends entirely on an understanding of the environment in question. It is not sufficient to define “fair” in terms of any individual observer, because an individual’s perspective is controlled by their explicit and implicit assumptions about how that environment should be. The observer may be from a different culture, a different sex or a different religion than the members of the environment they observe, meaning that their sense of fairness, along with some of their underlying assumptions, may not be applicable in this environment. This set of assumptions was defined by Senge as an individual’s mental models [SENG90]. Instead, the individual must establish the context in which the environment exists in order to establish its governing principles and ethics. Only then can any individual action be evaluated to determine its legitimacy with any accuracy. One of the best ways to establish the boundaries of a given context is to ask the question Why? [SENG94].

The question of Why? is the fundamental foundation of both philosophy and science. At some point, someone wanted to know why something was the way it was. Since then, humanity has come up with a multitude of answers to this question, but each time an answer is given, it is ultimately limited by a context. Bohm eloquently states the problem as “all theories are insights, which are neither true nor false but, rather, clear in certain domains, and unclear when extended beyond these domains.” He later continues, “we have to be careful here not to identify truth as nothing more than ‘that which works’ [given a particular context]” [BOHM02]. Feynman echoes this thinking in a personal letter from 1963, “the only principle [of the scientific method] is that experience and observation is the sole and ultimate truth of an idea” [FEYN05]. Experience and observation allow the determination of “that which works”, but only through continued questioning relating to why it works can the extent of the context be determined. Therefore, context is the key to understanding, because understanding is the result of establishing this context.

The understanding gained by definition of a context is absolutely critical for effective action within that context. Bohm again explains the reason for this relationship quite clearly [BOHM02]. He says “the persistent holding to a truth beyond its proper limits, has evidently been one of the major sources of illusion and delusion throughout the whole of history and in every phase of life.” If you don’t understand at least some of the limits of your environment, you cannot possibly exert any influence over it. These limits provide the context, and within that context your understanding of it determines the legitimacy of your actions. Legitimacy is only meaningful in social interactions, because it is “a social adaptation to a group problem (conflict)” [WHIT03].

OK. So, what’s this got to do with the Web?

You see, the Web is fundamentally a social system. It was designed to enable more effective collaboration and communication between scientists and researchers whose background was the early Internet and previous ARPANET. It was a vaguely Utopian, but certainly closed, system of people living Bill & Ted’s “Be excellent to each other” philosophy. This worked because there was a shared set of assumptions about what was “right” (ethics) that were a by-product of their environment. While there have always been unethical researchers, the majority of them played by the same unwritten rules of legitimacy.

Whitworth and de Moor point out that in software systems, the creators of the software are responsible for the definition of legitimacy within the system. Like the real world’s legal system, the system constraints define what is and is not allowed. The main difference is that, since it’s a virtual environment, the degree to which someone (or a process acting on their behalf) can “break the law” is more easily controlled than in the real world. Since the Web grew out of the Internet’s essentially lawless environment, it inherited this lack of laws. For the early participants (mostly ethical people with a common background), this was not particularly a problem. However, as the Web has became more and more accessible to the masses, it is experiencing conflicts between legitimacy contexts. Whitworth and de Moor quote Meyrowitz [MEYR85] to imply that we are “hunter-gathers in an information age”, but I think we’re more like Billy the Kid, Jessie James, Doc Holliday & Wyatt Erp in the American West of the 1890’s.

The period of American history between 1870-1890 was characterized by a clash of contexts. There was an established culture and ideas of legitimacy “out West” and “back East” which caused problems as the settlers looking to make their fortune either through homesteading or adventure entered the “Wild West” culture predominately defined by a “might makes right” sense of ethics. Most of the people entering the environment had their concepts of legitimacy established in the “Civilized East”, and so were unprepared for any difference they encountered. This eventually led to lots of conflict and loss of life before the situation was reversed by enough people realizing that something needed to be done to establish a “civil” society. These people banded together, made or recognized laws, and hired powerful men to enforce them. Eventually, through example and conditioning, order was more-or-less restored.

With the Web, the situation was nearly the opposite. The essentially quiet little community was invaded by hordes of people who didn’t know the rules, and, unfortunately, on the whole didn’t know enough to know that there should be rules. The Web and the information contained in it are best described as an instance of Hardin’s “commons”, or shared resource amongst a group of people [HARD68]. This idea led to the creation of Senge’s “Tragedy of the Commons” system archetype [SENG90] for use in Organizational Learning.

Briefly, the idea is that there is a commons and people who use it. If the users of the commons do not collectively care for the well-being of the commons over and above themselves, it will eventually be destroyed. The system archetype is used to illustrate this as the convergence of n reinforcing processes resulting in net gains for the individual, leading them to do more of the same behavior. However, these individual activities create a separate activity whose existence creates a delay in feedback to the individuals that their shared resource is in danger. Often, by the time the individual realizes this, it is too late to save the common resource. The example used by Senge is that of overgrazing grasslands in Africa. The larger the herds, the more grass they needed to survive, meaning that the consumption of the grassland exceeded it’s ability to restore itself. Eventually, there was no more grass due to overgrazing and the cattle died, resulting in economic ruin for the herdsmen [SENG90].

If the Web is a social system, then the commons is not only the information contained in it, but also the freedoms provided by it to its users. The influx of the hordes of “greenhorns” to the Web has been not only tolerated, but encouraged, in much the same manner as expansion into the American West. This influx of users was necessary to establish new market opportunities as well as to allow the Web to reach the “critical mass” of users necessary to ensure those markets. Once vendors realized the potential of the Web, the main motivation seems to have been along the lines of, “if nobody comes, there’s no party”.

These are the overriding objectives of the corporations and larger entities who have embraced the Web for economic gain. There is nothing inherently wrong in economic gain if it comes from legitimate actions [WHIT03] except that when the economic gain becomes the goal rather than the by-product of a stable, self-sustaining environment, the “Tragedy of the Commons” archetype kicks in. The reason is stated by Whitworth and de Moor is that when the design of the community is controlled by an entity, then the design is naturally biased towards that entity and not the community [WHIT03]. It is a great thing if people publish content on the Web because it increases its value for everyone, but everyone still needs to respect the ethics of the environment.

The current danger is the backlash against people who have been using the Web (and the Internet) illegitimately to their own advantage. History has shown that while legislation of morality does not immediately change the world, consistent enforcement of ethical laws does eventually create a new context where the desired legitimacy traits exist. Since the Web essentially has no such laws, and has allowed the cultural reinforcement of the “just go get it on the Internet; it’s free” attitude, the net effect is to undermine the original ethics on which the community was established. The current emphasis on Copyright law, DCMA and other similar efforts are a direct result of illegitimate behavior by a few (or in some cases, a large majority) who do not share the same legitimacy context, or that use the apparent anonymity of the Web to avoid accountability for their actions. The effects of this illegitimacy can be found in everything from “copy-protected” CDs to identity theft from successful phishing scams.

The people who define the way the Web should evolve to address these issues cannot afford to only attempt to add new laws (system constraints) without attempting to address the social issue of legitimacy. If the establishment of a common context of legitimacy can be achieved (and we’re a long way from this happening), it will allow the Web to develop into the world-wide, collaborative community it was originally envisioned to be. Without focusing on the laws as a way to reinforce this legitimacy and surface the awareness that the freedoms of the Web and it’s content as the commons is in jeopardy, the Web will never achieve this goal. Whitworth and de Moor’s reference to Fukuyama provides the warning which should guide this future evolution: “Legitimacy is thus a foundation stone of any prosperous and enduring community, and communities that ignore it do so at their peril.”


  • [BOHM02] Bohm, D. (2002). Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London, Routledge Classics.
  • [FEYN05] Feynman, R.P, ed. M. Feynman (2005). Don’t You Have Time to Think?. London. Penguin.
  • [HARD68] Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162, 1243-1248.
  • [MEYR85] Meyrowitz, J. (1985). No Sense of Place: The impact of electronic media on social behavior.. New York. Oxford University Press.
  • [SENG90] Senge, P.M. (1990), The Fifth Discipline. New York, Currency Doubleday.
  • [SENG94] Senge, P.M, et al (1994), The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. New York, Currency Doubleday.
  • [WHIT03] Whitworth, B., A. de Moor (2003).
    Legitimate by Design: Towards Trusted Socio-technical Systems. Behavior and Information Technology, Volume 22, Number 1, 31-51.

The Role of Education?

Posted in Philosophy by AST on Monday, May 16th, 2005


Posted in Philosophy, About the Site by AST on Sunday, March 6th, 2005