I: Give the Poor a Helping Hand(set)
For at least the past two thousand years, the traders of Arabia have built small, sturdy sailing ships – known as dhows – and set out across the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean, in search of spices, jewels, and precious metals. The great trading city-states of the Arabian peninsula – such as Bahrain – gained their prominence as the nexus of the routes for these traders. Throughout all of Western Asia, these cities were famed for their souks
– the marketplaces where buyers and sellers from across the known world came together in profitable exchange.
Traders were humanity’s earliest version of a network; the trader carried material – atoms – from one point to another, but, far more significantly, they transmitted information – bits – in their news, rumour, craft techniques and technologies, which were as much their stock-in-trade as any pearls or cinnamon. The earliest packet-switched network was, quite literally, composed of packet ships. Each of the cultures which fronted on these seas and oceans learned something from the traders who came to visit; each of these cultures were influenced, in a “spooky action at a distance”, by each other. The traders took the best of each culture, editing it down to something compact and transportable, and spread that widely. Even the dhow evolved, as traders encountered other seafaring cultures, adapting the best improvements into their own design until the dhow itself became a potent bit of information, something that, due to their ubiquity in the seas of West and South Asia, was widely copied.
Dhows are still in widespread use today, around Arabia, and all of the coastlines touched by those traders so many years ago. It’s a time-tested design that can be hand-built using local materials. As such, dhows well suit the materially disadvantaged cultures of South Asia, and, in particular, the southern Indian state of Kerala. There, fishermen have taken their dhows to sea for countless hundreds of years, dropped their nets, hauled their catch, then set their sails back to shore. The Kerala coastline is dotted with fishing villages, each with its own fish market. On any given day, any number of fishing dhows might dock at a particular village. Should too many pick the same port, the market has too many fish, and, while the buyers get a bargain, the fisherman won’t even earn enough to cover the cost of taking the dhow to sea. Meanwhile, just a few kilometers down the coast, another village has been overlooked by the dhows, and there’s no fish available at any price. This is the way it ever was in Kerala; a chaotic market which never quite meets the needs of buyers and sellers.
Just a decade ago, as India began its meteoric rise into industrialization, several of its wireless telecoms firms strung the Kerala coast with GSM transceivers. Radio signals travel by line-of-sight; this means they reach out over the Indian Ocean to a distance bounded by the curvature of the Earth – around 25 kilometers. While handsets are, in a relative sense, quite expensive for Indians – they cost about a month’s earnings for a fisherman (or the earned equivalent of nearly AUD $3000) – one relatively wealthy fisherman bought a handset and took it to sea. At some point, during one of those trips to sea, he got a call or text from the shore – probably something family related. In the course of that interaction, the fisherman learned that there was a fishing village completely without fish, and ready to pay almost any price for it. That day, the fisherman headed for that port, and made a tidy profit. Perhaps, on the next day, he made a few calls, while still out to sea, to find out which village was wanting for fish. And so on.
This would not have gone unnoticed by the other fishermen in Kerala; they are a community, and while they compete, they also freely share information amongst themselves – that’s what communities do. The news of this innovation would have spread among them very quickly. And, despite the staggering cost, each of the fishermen – even the poorest among them – were soon sporting GSM handsets. Each day, as the fishermen assess their catch, there’s a flurry of communication between these fishermen and the fish markets dotting the coast, as the fishermen learn where their catch will get the best price.
Kerala in 2007 is a different place. The markets always have enough fish; no market goes wanting. But there’s always just enough fish to guarantee a good price – there are only rarely gluts in the market. The fishermen are getting a good price for their fish; buyers and sellers are both satisfied. And the fishermen are earning more money; so much more that a handset – as expensive as it is – will be paid for in just two month’s time.
How did this happen? Using wireless communications, the fishermen and fish sellers created their own market, practicing the time-honored principles of supply & demand – just like any electronic bourse in the industrialized world. But this developed on its own, by itself. It simply emerged, naturally, through the interaction of people and mobiles.
This was not predicted. Nor was it predicted that farmers in Kenya would use mobiles to phone ahead to the various village and regional markets to learn the going prices for their maize and sorghum, so they too could make markets and maximize their profits. Or that the spice traders of India and Arabia would use SMS to create far-flung auction networks, their own emergent eBay. Yet all of these – and much, much more – are now happening. When you add mobile communications to any culture, a now-recognizable pattern comes into play: some person, through their interaction with the handset, improves their economic fitness; this behavior is then widely copied through the culture. It happened a thousand years ago, via the great trading cultures of Araby; it’s happening again today.
Mimesis is the essential human condition; we have recently learned that the one thing that separates us from the chimpanzees is not our ability to use tools, but rather, our ability, from our very youngest years, to imitate behavior. Behaviors which increase our economic fitness are strongly selected for; we adopt them quickly and pass them along to our peers and children.
We now know, beyond any argument, that mobile communications inherently increase our economic fitness. A paper published last month in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, titled The Digital Provide: Information (Technology), Market Performance and Welfare in the South Indian Fisheries Sector takes a look at the Kerala phenomenon in detail, and determines, through an elegant analysis:
The adoption of mobile phones by fishermen and wholesalers was associated with a dramatic reduction in price dispersion, the complete elimination of waste, and near-perfect adherence to the Law of One Price. Both consumer and producer welfare increased.
The lesson of Kerala is not specific; there is a general economic principle at work. It is known that the lifeblood of any market is information; when you improve the ability of participants in a market to communicate, you remove many of the inequities which plague markets everywhere. It has now been demonstrated that such inequities are a major part of the reason why poor populations remain poor. Simply by improving their ability to communicate, you can improve a person’s economic fitness. This assertion doesn’t strain credulity: imagine trying to trade at a market in a foreign land; without access to the common language, you’d fail to trade, or, worse, be taken advantage of. The development of ‘pigins’ – simplified languages – go hand-in-hand with the spread of trading cultures. Savvy?
The phenomenon officially recognized in Kerala had already been de facto recognized by organizations which participate in microfinance. Microfinance allows the poorest of the poor access to the minimal amounts of investment funds needed to dramatically improve their economic fitness. These loans – which can be for as little as the equivalent of ten or twenty dollars – allow the applicant to purchase something which dramatically improves their ability to earn a living – a sewing machine, a milk cow, or – more and more – a mobile handset. The oldest of these microfinance institutions, Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, found itself lending out so much of its funds for mobiles that it recently started its own telecoms firm, Grameen Phone. In the first days of microfinance, a loan for a mobile handset would allow that individual to rent time on the handset to the other villages within that community, creating a pervasive, low-cost mobile phone service. But, as we now know, interaction with the mobile handset produces a rapidly-reinforcing series of feedbacks which end, inevitably, with individuals owning their own handset. Today, Grameen and other microfinance lenders make loans to individuals who sell new and used mobile handsets, repair broken handsets, and vend prepaid phone cards.
Sometime within the next few days, there will be three billion mobile phone subscribers. Perhaps 10% of those are subscribers who have multiple accounts, so there are roughly 2.7 billion individual mobile subscribers at present. It took about ten years to get to the first billion mobile subscribers; about 3 1/2 half years to get to the second billion, and about eighteen months to get to the third billion. This process is accelerating along the all-too-familiar curve popularized in Crossing the Chasm. We’re in the midst of an accelerating adoption of mobile communication, and soon – sometime around the middle of next year – half of humanity will own a mobile handset. In a decade’s time we’ll have gone from half the world never having made a telephone call to half the world owning their own phone.
This is shocking on two grounds: first, there is a deeply-held belief that mobile handsets are the extraneous accessories of a consumption-oriented Western lifestyle, that they are, in short, “bling.” The hyperbole surrounding the June launch of Apple’s iPhone makes this case convincingly. For us, here in the West, mobiles are status symbols. How could the expensive and unnecessary status symbols of the West be of any utility to the two thirds of the world who are, by OECD standards, poor? Yet, against this, consider the Nokia 1100, introduced in 2003, and designed to be both very inexpensive and – with its entirely sealed case – durable: dirt, dust, and water-resistant. Last year Nokia had sold its two hundred millionth 1100. To put that in context, compare it to the iPod – Nokia has sold twice as many 1100s as Apple has sold iPods – in half the time. It is, by far, the most successful consumer electronics gadget in human history. Yet, because it is not sexy, because it doesn’t have bling, because it is aimed precisely at those emerging markets in the poor corners of the world, Nokia’s unprecedented milestone went mostly unnoticed. In the West we are guilty of a willful ignorance; we’ve made our mind up about the value of pervasive wireless communication – that it is a toy to the rich, but worthless to the poor. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Pervasive wireless communication is of far, far more value to the poor than the rich.
Second, and what I will focus on through the rest of this paper, this rapid deployment of pervasive wireless communication will have unprecedented and largely unpredictable effects on human culture. We already have some sense of how little we know: we have the example of Kerala – absolutely unpredicted, though, in retrospect, it seems perfectly obvious. It is not that we are blind to the human capacity for self-organization and emergent behavior – indeed, we practice these behaviors every day – rather, it is that we have never made a study of them, and we certainly don’t understand what happens when this capacity is amplified nearly infinitely by pervasive wireless communication. We’re going to have to learn all of this, and learn it quickly, because along with the improvement in human economic fitness, another part of the same package, comes a new capacity for chaos, as innate human capacities for both good and bad are amplified almost beyond recognition.
Part Two: The Triumph of Netocracy
In the wake of the May 1968 riots in France, two philosophers stepped back to do an meta-analysis of the cultural processes which led to such a crisis. France was not under threat; the previous twenty years had seen the longest and strongest sustained growth French history. Yet the well-educated university-attending children of the bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie were out on the streets, fighting the police, burning cars, striking and shutting down these same universities which freely offered them an education. Why? How had this happened?
Over the next decade, these philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guartari published a two-volume work, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which argued that the riots and youthful revolt were a reaction to a model of authority and hierarchy which the soixante-huitards rejected as inimical to their humanity. In the first volume, Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari looked at how all structures of authority descend from ancient forms of patriarchy, and that the natural reaction to this authority is the Oedipal desire to kill the father – the archetypal authority figure. Anti-Oedipus presented a diagnosis of the cultural illness, but it was the second volume, A Thousand Plateaus, which attempted to be prescriptive, outlining a methodology which might cure the patient. In opposition to hierarchy and authority, which Anti-Oedipus asserted produced a “schizimogenesis”, a rift in the fabric of human being, A Thousand Plateaus asserted the value of the rhizome, the horizontal stem which sends its shoots out laterally. The rhizome is the antithesis of hierarchy, not because it contradicts it (which is in itself an authoritative position), but rather, because the rhizome presents an alternative to it. In a collection of rhizomes – that is, a network – there is no top, and no bottom, no master and no slave.
Everything and everyone exists within what Deleuze and Guattari identified as the milieu, the middle:
The middle is by no means an average; on the contrary, it is where things pick up speed. Between things does not designate a localizable relation going from one thing to another and back again, but a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle.
When A Thousand Plateaus was published, a quarter-century ago, it shook the foundations of philosophy. Much of the “postmodernism” which cultural conservatives sneer at comes from the pages of the that text. (This reaction is perfectly in keeping with the recognized conservative tendency to bow to authority, and demonize anything that represents a threat to that authority.) Yet, although the text presented a sort of “map” of a territory free from the schizimogenic qualities of authority and hierarchy, Deleuze and Guattari were philosophers, not revolutionaries: they did not present a battle plan to manage the transition from hierarchy to milieu. As it turns out, that roadmap proved unnecessary. It’s not that the ideas within A Thousand Plateaus were fruitless, but rather, at just the time both philosophers passed from the world, the rhizome rose and subsumed us all into its milieu. Where is this rhizome? All around us, now: pervasively, wirelessly, instantly accessible to nearly half the planet. The rhizome is the network.
This is not an original idea; it has been explored by many philosophers, though, in the earliest flourish of the network era, fifteen years ago, it received more attention than it does today. At that time, when the frontiers of network culture were first glimpsed, anything seemed possible, including something as profound the end of authority. But as the network was colonized by hierarchical forces – which had, in themselves, absorbed some of the lessons of the network – it seemed that, for all of its power, the network would simply recapitulate the forms of authority on an even more pervasive basis. This assessment was premature.
Although the network provides instantaneous connectivity, network effects are not in themselves instantaneous. These network effects are non-deterministic, and depend on the evolving interactive relationships between the individuals connected through the networks. It takes time for people, as the loci of agency within the network, to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the network, and translate those experiential lessons into ontological frameworks which guide behavior. Furthermore, the network is not one thing; it is a collection of things, and it is a growing collection of things. The network of 2007 is not the same thing as the network of 1993. This is in some small part due to the evolution of the technology of the network. It is, more significantly, due to the development of new human behaviors and techniques for using the network. These techniques, where proven successful, are then rapidly disseminated by the network, and which act as the catalyst for the development of other behaviors and techniques, which, when proven successful, are disseminated by the network. This is a self-reinforcing process, which had led, in fairly short order, to an enormous and entirely real sense of acceleration around both the network and the idea of the network.
This acceleration, like the acceleration of bodies in space, produces its own inertial effects – “gravity,” if you will. As acceleration increases, gravity increases, weighing down the objects which possess mass. In this case, and in this context, the massive objects are hierarchies. Hierarchies are being dragged down by this pseudo-gravitational force, and the life is slowly being crushed out of them. This is not a political statement: it is a diagnosis of the present.
Institutions, as the embodiment of hierarchies within human culture, are at this moment facing the growing threat of the network while, at the same time, their ability to move, to adapt, to maintain their self-integrity, is increasingly constrained by a force which makes them slower, heavier, and weaker. They are more focused on breathing than doing. This will not change. There is no magic cure which will revivify hierarchy. The network is too pervasive, too important, too laden with ever-increasing utility to be overcome, or forgotten. The cultural incorporation of network ontology was the fatal crisis for hierarchy. And that point has already passed.
Although I may have overstretched a my metaphors in the preceding paragraphs, it is easy enough to give a few of examples which illustrate my argument:
- Wikipeida vs Britannica: the “crowdsourced” encyclopedia is now, on average, at least as accurate as the hierarchically produced, peer-reviewed production, and covers a far greater breadth of subject material than Britannica.
- Television and film distribution: since the advent of Napster in 1999, all attempts to control the distribution of media have met with increasing resistance. The audience now moves to circumvent any copy-restrictions as soon as they are introduced by copyright holders.
- Politics: The Attorney General of the United States of America resigned last week, because of the efforts of a few, very dedicated bloggers.
There has never been an interaction between the network and the hierarchy which the hierarchy has won. Not a single example. Even the “Great Firewall of China”, which, until last month, was the sterling example for the fans of authority, has now been revealed as a failed technical and cultural project. Wang Guoqing, the Chinese Vice-Minister for Information was quoted by Reuters, saying: “It has been repeatedly proved that information blocking is like walking into a dead end.”
All of this flows from Gilmore’s Law, which states, “The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” In light of what we now understand about the network’s relationship to hierarchy, it should now be reframed as, “The net interprets hierarchy as damage and routes around it.“
Though it long dominated the organization of human affairs, hierarchy has had its day in the sun, and is passing from the scene. The pervasive presence of the network killed it. We now need to focus on the forms which are rising to replace it.
III: The Dictatorship of the Wikitariat
Wikipedia is the poster child for the age of Netocracy. Its peer-produced, user-generated, freely-editable, open-source collective intelligence hits so many of the tick boxes of the network era that it seems very nearly a miracle suddenly appeared in our midst. In its first years, Wikipedia was more an act of faith than a useful reference tool. The continuous efforts of a dedicated community of believers translated a vision for a commonweal of knowledge into reality. Once it acquired sufficient content – again, best conceptualized as gravity – it began to attract readers, who, in turn, became editors and creators, adding more weight, which in turn attracted more readers, more editors and creators, more content, in a virtuous cycle of positive feedback which seemed to have no where to go but up, up, up.
I have some shocking news to report: it hasn’t turned out that way. Yes, Wikipedia is still growing, but – for at least the last year – the rate of growth has dramatically slowed down. The acceleration is actually negative. Wikipedia’s growth is slowing down. Why did this happen? Just a few weeks ago Wikipedia passed two million articles in English (all these figures concern the English-language version of Wikipedia), and yes, it will grow for some time into the future. But the growth of articles in Wikipedia should be steadily accelerating; it should be growing faster as it grows bigger. It was certainly doing that for several years. What’s changed? Is it possible that there are only two million topics of interest to the English-language users of Wikipedia? That seems unlikely, if only because Wikipedia is the outstanding example of the power and beauty of the miscellaneous. Yes, all the major topics have been covered, but there’s absolutely no way that two million entries can begin to explore the depth of human experience. It’s inconceivable that this is all there is to say about Life, Culture, the Universe and Everything. Nor do I believe it likely that we have “crossed the chasm” into the downward slope – which would imply that four million article entries would pretty much represent the sum total of the English-language experience.
The true answer is far simpler, and, in its own way, far more dire: it is getting harder to create a new article in Wikipedia. One can still type in a topic, and be presented with an opportunity to create a page if nothing exists under that heading. It is technically as easy as ever to create a new article in Wikipedia. It’s what happens after that article is created that has become the sticking point, the sclerotic plaque which is afflicting Wikipedia. Wikipedia, newly powerful, has engendered the production of its own elites, its own hierarchies – individuals and networks of individuals who have proven, through time, dedication and contribution, that their opinion matters. These individuals – the Wikipedians – have taken on the task of keeping Wikipedia concise, correct and pure. While each of these definitions is highly provisional and contestable, it is the last of these, purity, which is causing Wikipedia the greatest problems. The Wikipedians themselves don’t use that term – in fact, they would object to its usage – but their increasingly dogmatic application of self-derived guidelines for the determination of the “value” or “worth” of knowledge has a nearly religious dimension. Wikipedians, in this context, are fighting a battle between the forces of chaos, on one hand, who seek to drown the meaningful information in a sea of miscellany and meaninglessness; while on another front, Wikipedians wage a constant war against special interests who seek to shape meaning to their own ideological ends. This continuing and ever-increasing stress has made the Wikipedians increasingly conservative. Wikipedians are coming to rely upon themselves more and more; the networked milieu which gave them vitality is rapidly fossilizing into a hierarchy, where certain individuals and groups of individuals assert control over specific topics and articles. These are the gatekeepers who must be appeased before an article can be approved, or an edit retained.
In the space of just six years, Wikipedia has managed to recapitulate the entire hierarchical structure which frames Britannica, albeit on a much broader basis, but to the same ends, and, in the long term, with the same results. Individuals and organizations are already forking Wikipedia and MediaWiki to produce their own works: Conservapedia, though laughable in some respects, is at least an honest attempt to right the perceived wrongs of the Wikipedians. Citizendium has taken as its basic premise that hierarchy must be embraced; Citizendium won’t need to grow its own hierarchy, as Wikipedia did – it will have it from the very beginning.
The drive to keep Wikipedia pure is interesting and indicative of a certain vitality, but in the long run it is also entirely pointless. You can not censor Wikipedia; or rather, if do attempt to do so, the net will simply route around you. The chaos and miscellany that Wikipedians reject are, in fact, the lifeblood of a universal encyclopedia. They will find a home, somewhere: if not in Wikipedia, then in something else, which will begin to grow in ways that Wikipedia refuses to, until it becomes a gravitational center in its own right, and this thing-that-follows-Wikipedia will perform a dance on Wikipedia’s desiccated corpse, much as the Wikipedians have done with respect to Britannica. The human desire to create order from chaos – this noble desire which is strangling Wikipedia – seems perfectly natural to us; we believe order is a prerequisite to utility. But we longer have the luxury of thinking in those terms. Our present and our future are all about the newly empowered netocratic forces loosed in the world.
Conclusion: The War of All Against All
An SMS forwarded through a Chinese city can result in an anti-government demonstration – even when the government censors the messages passed through the state-owned telecoms firm. Another SMS can send a crowd of white supremacists out to foment a riot in Cronulla. A ringtone sampled from an illegally taped telephone conversation can bring down a head of state. A meticulously photographed copy of every page of a purloined copy of the last Harry Potter can be distributed around the world in minutes, days before its publication. There is no control anywhere in this, no center, no authority. Things just happen. In all of this, like-minded individuals come together, across the networks, and, through this “spooky action at a distance,” act in a coordinated fashion even while scattered to the four corners of the Earth. It might look like Wikipedia – or it could look like al Qaeda. It matters not: the same forces are at work.
As we bring individuals into the network, we grant them the perfect tool to resist authority, to hack hierarchy, to make their own way as fully empowered individuals within a globally networked body politic. For this reason, the 21st century will look a lot like a continuous, low-level civil war. Imagine the “flame wars” of USENET or even Wikipedia’s discussion pages, amplified and shared, globally and instantaneously. We already live in this world: a student journalist’s encounter with a taser makes its way onto YouTube minutes after the event; a politician’s racist epithet ruins his career – even without any TV cameras to broadcast the slur; a shadowy, fragmentary, Sharia-inspired resistance cell in Iraq films its latest IED attack, and shares the results with its unknown yet equally-well-connected co-conspirators. This is the shape of the 21st century. It is chaotic, and no amount of hand-wringing or wishing for a strong “daddy” of an authority figure will grant any of us any safety whatsoever. All authority has been hacked. The Net killed Daddy.
Finally, the net itself represents the last authority, the last hierarchy. The telecoms firms themselves, and the networks they control, are the last, best hope for hierarchy. The physical implementation of a telecoms network – where all the end nodes flow though a series of concentrators to a central hub – is the word of hierarchy made flesh. Although networks have engendered the collapse of hierarchy, the agents of that collapse – these telecoms firms – have been strangely resistant to these same qualities of those networks. But not for very much longer. With the recent advent of mesh networking, the networks themselves are now becoming as radically restructured, radically decentralized, and will, in themselves, be as chaotic as the culture they engender.
Just as the audience seized control over both the creation and distribution of media, this planetary mob is asserting control over the bandwidth and spectrum which have, until now, been the sole province of telcos and governments. We are gearing up to another fight, hierarchy against network (even now in its opening rounds, in the disguise of “net neutrality”), and once again, if history is any guide, the hierarchy will draw back from the field bloodied and defeated. At that point, networks will be the physical embodiment of the process they engender. The network is already pervasive; soon it will also be entirely rhizomic. The triumph of the network will be complete.