Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Spontaneous Order of the Internet and Its Offspring

Prior to the Renaissance, church, state, economy, and culture were deeply intertwined. Government received its power from the Church, anti-usery laws were religious in origin, and the Church actively persecuted anyone whose ideas or art works contradicted established doctrine. In the aftermath of the Renaissance, we saw a variety of spontaneous orders trying to emerge -- free market economies, democratic governments, a wide variety of churchgoing options, and both non-religious and even anti-religious works and ideas emerging. Now we have a variety of spontaneous social orders of this kind in a variety of countries. The religious order in the U.S. creates new religions on a daily basis. The artistic orders create an incredibly wide variety of arts. The economy, to the extent it is allowed to be a spontaneous order, creates a wide variety of products and increasing wealth for everyone. Over the last century or more the U.S. has moved more and more away from democratic spontaneous order and has become more and more a centralized democratic organization.

But it appears we are on the cusp of a second emergence of spontaneous social orders. What do the current revolutions in the Middle East, the Tea Party phenomenon in the U.S., the Netroots movement, and the fact that goods and services are starting to be provided in smaller and smaller units have in common? (Other than being discussed by Max Borders along similar lines.) One is that all of these follow a power law distribution. Self-organizing processes, or spontaneous orders, all follow power law distributions. (Not all things that follow a power law distribution are self-organizing processes, but all self-organizing processes follow power law distributions.) The second is that all of these are based on information technology, particularly the internet. It is no surprise to learn, then, that the internet and World Wide Web both have power law distributions.

Spontaneous orders seem to generate other spontaneous orders. More, the internet and WWW seem to have done something none of the other spontaneous orders were able to do: make people feel comfortable in the spontaneous order. Everyone is familiar with the complaint that capitalism is alienating. Well, there is a certain degree to which this is true of all spontaneous orders. We are used to living in intimate social systems, not in impersonal ones like spontaneous orders. Yet, spontaneous orders can coordinate our activities best, allow us to live well with a very large number of strangers, and create wealth for almost everyone in it (relative to the poverty humans were born into as a species, and live in for most of our species' life). But the internet and WWW are different. They allow us to have the feeling of it being a personal space while at the same time allowing for the impersonality. For example, how many of your Facebook friends are people you have actually met? Yet you interact with them almost every day on Facebook, exchanging ideas or at least pleasantries. They are strangers, yet not strangers. It is a category of people we once encountered in city neighborhoods as described by Jane Jacobs. We reinvented them online, distributed across geography. Now imagine how powerful these connections could be if combined with those city neighborhoods our governments have all but destroyed through their urban planning schemes.

Or do we have to imagine? Have the revolutions in the Middle East shown us?

The result of all of this does not have to be revolution -- though I have little doubt we will see more and more such in the future. The result -- no less revolutionary in a real sense -- could be massive decentralization in the government and economy, creating truly decentralized democratic governments (following power laws such that the small local governments have the most power, the middle-sized state governments have less, and the large national government has almost none at all) and generative, rapidly-growing economies that create a wide variety of goods to suit literally everyone's tastes. We are seeing the latter in products offered online. Shipping and storage costs restricted the variety of goods offered. But Amazon doesn't care what's on its shelves, and how much of it is there, so long as it can sell what it has. A small company can make a small amount of something, sell it to Amazon (or offer it directly on eBay), and be able to sell it to the few hundred people around the country that are interested in buying their product. Such a sales strategy was literally impossible prior to the World Wide Web.

The power of the internet has yet to be truly tapped. We are mostly sticking to what we know. eReaders are finally digitizing books, but for the longest time, the internet simply made more of the old fashioned kind of books available. Not much has come of the theories of hypertext literature. What we have seen is a limited amount of hypertext, acting primarily as reference links rather than bibliography (as I did above), in what are otherwise stardard forms of writing (like the essay -- this being an example of such). Even in politics, we have seen only limited use -- fundraising being an exmaple of a typical thing made more efficient. And perhaps that is all we will ever see. But, as with the advent of the book from the invention of the moveable type printing press, that may be enough. The real revolutions the internet is and will be creating are only in their infancy. Much we cannot imagine waits to be born.
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