Yes, of course, I believe in all of that. I very early touted the citizen-empowering aspects of this new era, in preference over the solipsistic approach taken by cyberpunk tales, which kept portraying the electronic age as filled with bleating (though wired) sheep. If we are about to enter an era of "smart mobs" and rapidly coalescing, agile communities of ad hoc expertise, it will not be too soon. Both Vernor Vinge and I have relentlessly portrayed this possibility in fiction... as I did in nonfiction (e.g. The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?)
Indeed, my own punditry on this matter goes back to 1985 and as recent as last Monday.
Here's a radio interview I gave on NPR this week, about the coming "Age of Amateurs." And a video interview on The Age of Amateurs, as well.
And yet, I have to tell you (in full blown contrarian mode) that sanguine paeans to the wired age - like those tooted this week by Time - are in many ways no better than the growling-snipings of cynics who dislike everything new. Both groups deeply oversimplify. And the enthusiasts are in some ways more harmful! Because they seem to think (and spread the notion) that all of the pieces for utopian cyber-democracy are already in place!
That the benefits of super-empowered citizenship are already before us, on the table, and the feast is ready to begin.
They emerged from processes like democracy and science and law and commerce, that have been refined with countless fine-tuning regulations, in order to maximize benefits and minimize the unpleasant effects of nasty human habits, like mutual repression and cheating.
We need to remember that nearly all previous human societies actively repressed innovation, freedom and individuality, because these traits will always threaten those who are comfortably ensconced on top. Modernity and the Enlightenment did not just happen. If we want them to continue and thrive, we have to understand what earlier generations of passionate and practical people did, in order to get us here.
Some of you have read my extensive essay: Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit - written for the American Bar Association - about the underlying common traits of markets, science, courts and democracy -- the "accountability arenas" that have empowered free individuals to compete and create without tumbling quickly into repression and outrage.... for the first time, ever. Alas, over the years since, I have found that people have trouble perceiving some of what the paper describes... or why today's internet just does not yet have what it takes to empower us with a "fifth arena."
Here is one of the key difficult concepts. I describe how markets, science, courts and democracy each have "centripetal vs centrifugal" social phases.
I see these opposite trends having much the same effect for accountability arenas that INHALING and EXHALING have in living mammals. You need both for the system to thrive.
In science, markets, courts and democracy, the CENTRIFUGAL PHASE is when each individual participant may disperse, find allies/collaborators, and safely organize with others under some degree of protection, in a zone where product can be refined and readied for competitive testing.
In science, this zone is your tenured professorship or lab etc: in markets the safe zone is the company/corporation: in courts it is attorney-client privilege and the power of coerced deposition; and democracy has parties.
That's the centrifugal phase and it took civilization thousands of years to realize how necessary it is, in order for these four arenas to function.
Note that this is the phase that exists now, copiously, in the nascent "fifth arena" of the internet!
ALL OF THE TRAITS THAT TIME MAGAZINE CELEBRATES IN ITS LATEST ISSUE HAVE TO DO WITH THIS PHASE. What could be more “centrfugal” than the creation of a zillion self-expressing blogs. Not one of which is subject to any process of accountability.
What is the centripetal phase? This is where in all of the disparate and dispersed participants in an arena are summoned together by a ritual CALL TO COMBAT. What ensues is a battle - competition - that has transformed ancient human bloody-mindedness into something much more like a game. One in which rules have been laid down to ensure that the outcome of competition correlates at least somewhat with quality of product, and much less with power or influence or other means of cheating.
In science the centripetal competition phase compels researchers to publish papers and present them for criticism. In markets the ritual battleground is retail sales - where customers compare goods and services. In democracy the role is filled by elections, and courts have trials. The STYLE of competition varies wildly among these arenas! So much that (I believe) nobody has ever thought to compare their commonalities as explicitly as I have.
(Take courts. Since the "product" is justice - and possibly life or death - courts cannot afford a high error rate, and hence the centripetal arena phase is costly, meticulous, whereas markets can afford huge inefficiencies in exchange for total fecundity and freedom to innovate.)
Indeed, all of this correlates with the Creative Process inside human minds, where the so-called Preconscious boils up a zillion proto-ideas that are then sifted and culled, till only the "good ones" even rise to consciousness... where the culling process continues. Centrifugal idea-generation, followed by competitive culling. Um... doesn't this ALSO describe the titanic creative process of Darwinian evolution?
You can see where I am going with this.
Presently, on the internet, THERE IS NO EQUIVALENT CENTRIPETAL PHASE that allows us to test ideas, opinions, arguments against each other, using competitive processes to cull wheat from the chaff.
Pearls are said to float upward in shit. But so MUCH of the ranting online today is BS, how can anyone hope for good ideas to actually coalesce and for bad ones to finally die, as they eventually deserve?
For decades I have been trying to come up with innovations that might introduce some competitive power to this new arena. Sometimes, it seems hopeless. As when the clueless editors at Time Magazine blithely announce that we are already in the promised age of empowered citizenship... when half -- fully half of the needed tools are absolutely missing.
Oh, our would-be masters want it this way. Those who would return us to a style of feudalism. They would let us wrangle and spume and EXPRESS ourselves, endlessly online...
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