“The reason written laws were such a breakthrough is that they permitted lossless digital replay over distance . . . Orally communicated laws were limited by the travel radius and the memory of the speaker. Subject to a game of telephone when repeated. [Now we can] communicate what we see/hear – digitally, losslessly, over great distance . . . for photo/video, not just characters.”
This notion started a long chain of thought…
The earliest forms of government appeared when societies began to use writing to create laws and decrees for mass distribution.
To monopolize this knowledge was to claim the authority that came with it. One of history’s first major disruptions of this status quo came with the invention of the printing press. (See: Breaking The Fourth Monopoly)
The 20th Century saw the extension of reliable communications to many new mediums – including picture and sound. The coverage areas grew from local radio and TV stations to the nationwide and global networks we know today.
The power of these is waning, as history turns to undermine the existing institutions yet again – empowering a new generation of formats and content creators… (See: Alternative Media – Piranhas Loose In The Shark Tank)
Beneath the surface, we find an even more fundamental change – to the nature of communication itself…
Let’s explore this.
Please note the use of these terms outside of their strict technical sense.
The top-level-nature of communications is a more relevant in this context than exhaustive details about protocols. Under the hood, many formats can use more than one of these. Yet, higher structures are often isomorphic to those that lie beneath. (See: Anthem Of Equivalence)
Unicast: One-To-One. A single sender, and its receiver.
This mirrors a normal face-to-face conversation.
Broadcast: One-To-All. A single sender addresses all receivers.
This is the favorite communication method of classic hierarchies. Most technologies developed in the 20th Century – and prior – are based on a broadcast format. These originate from a central source and require lots of overhead. Historically, this has been the best available choice for mass communication.
Traditional entities have struggled to understand and predict the impact of social media, because it differs so sharply from this standard that they know so well…
Multicast: Many-To-Many. Many senders and receivers join a selective stream where everyone can speak to the group. (This illustration shows only a single source – but the tree is always multidirectional.)
Multicast was originally created to address issues of scalability, since the cost of a full mesh scales exponentially. Without solving this problem, multi-user applications such as voice and video conference, streaming content, and many games would be impossible.
Perhaps most importantly – modern social media applications exist by these rules. When you comment on a post, thread or video, or send out a #hashtag – you are joining your conversation to a stream along with others. In the past, finding others with your interests was extremely time-consuming; Now, it’s virtually free… (See: The Rise Of Emergent Networks)
Multicast offers fundamental changes to the way we find and conduct discussions, form associations, and make decisions.
This takes us from a world with single points of origin, to one where conversations can form dynamically, in a multitude of streams – ranging from general to specialized. And why should anyone limit themselves to just one at a time?
It doesn’t take much imagination to see the enormity of the implications…
Anycast: One-To-The-Nearest. A sender requests a service or response, but only from the nearest available (or fastest responding) provider.
Let’s illustrate this with a simple analogy. If you’re in New York City, and you shout for a cab, which would you prefer?
A) Every cab in the city responds, creating a traffic jam and wasting the time of all but the first to arrive.
B) The nearest cab accepts the request, picks you up – and the rest never hear it.
It becomes possible to save the costs of Scenario A (in communication terms) potentially billions of times per second in large scale applications. A vast range of technologies, from search results to smartphone apps, are beginning to revolve around this model. (See: Zipf’s Law And The Internet)
When you search for something, your requests almost never go to the search provider – they redirect to a local node at your company or ISP’s data center. Most of the time, you don’t need Google – you just need the nearest cache of results.
Of course, this can be applied to far more than just data services…
Of The People, By The People…
In the 20th Century, broadcast became so ubiquitous (especially through TV, radio, and print) that society seemed to forget that anything else was possible. Organizationally, there were few other means for policy distribution and command-and-control.
And yet, in less than a decade, we’ve been brought massive, low-cost access to its alternatives.
Technology is usually quick to embrace new ideas and platforms – but culture at-large is much slower. Societies often continue to pay the opportunity costs of cultural lag for decades – until those costs catch up with them.
So, all of this begs an important question:
When old forms of communication fall out of use, what happens to the institutions that were based on them?
Leadership Without Center
Whether you’re governed by King or by Legislature – and the latter is certainly preferable – your government relies on central points for making, interpreting, and enforcing laws. In short – broadcast points for public policy.
But, what if there’s another way?
What if a large coalition of interested parties joined a stream, thoroughly explored a range of solutions, and formed a consensus without a central authority? How much more specialized expertise and public review could a multicast decision include?
What if it became easier to build solutions with the nearest group of qualified citizens, rather than waiting for the state’s best attempt? How much time and energy could be saved by addressing an issue as locally as possible? (using an anycast approach)
This is already being done with virtual services – with enormous efficiency gains. Why not with physical ones?
At this point, electing a traditional government to solve your problems, makes about as much sense as going back to reading the newspaper as your only source of information.
This is not to say that neither has their uses – or should disappear completely – simply that everything has its time in the sun, and the glory days of both of these appear to be long past…
Of course, some will insist that it can’t be done, and others will prefer the safety of the familiar…
If billion year old organisms with no brains can figure this out… (See: Evolving By Network)
What are we waiting for?
The First Wave
Pieces of that answer are already on their way…
Though few have used the term governance to describe what is being done here, a new generation of thinkers are tackling this problem – whether they realize it or not.
In the past year, it has become cliche among enthusiasts to discuss the disruptive nature of Bitcoin – but mainstream technologists, financiers, and media are now beginning to acknowledge this. The real world implications of this are on their way – whether the rest of the world is prepared for them or not.
Recently, the 51% attack problem has taken center stage in the network’s attention – and not for the first time. In response to their concerns, some users have voluntarily withdrawn their support from Ghash.io, currently the largest mining pool.
How can such a problem be solved without central authority? Of course, voluntary withdrawal of users may work, but other solutions have been suggested, including:
While this is an important problem for Bitcoin itself, more important precedents are likely being set here. Parts of the solution (whatever it ends up being) will eventually apply to other distributed services and utilities.
Some such technologies are still in their infancy, but new entries will almost certainly join the existing ones…
Cryptocurrency – and other blockchain technologies.
Smart Contracts – and other forms of Decentralized Automation.
Smart Grids – and other adaptable power distribution systems.
Meshnets – and other forms of Peer-To-Peer routing.
Decentralized Voting Systems – and other forms of distributed politics.
Alternative Media – and other forms of journalism.
Collaborative Commons – and other forms of intellectual property sharing.
Crowdsourcing – and other forms of distributed funding.
…and this is by no means an exhaustive list.
More important than the list of growing technologies, is the culture that is embracing them.
What happens when an entire generation stops relying on central authorities, and starts relying on each other?
A new generation of thinkers – native to this paradigm – are showing us the answer to that question…
At the far end of all this, when all cards have been played – could collaboration replace authority as the dominant force in society?
If so, we are witnessing a pivotal moment in our history…