Sunday, July 8, 2012

New Society Manifesto

Welcoming the advent of the Wiki Wiki World.

Without any significant strain, anyone endowed with a reasonable amount of sense can see the problems that have infested the developed world. Employment is not readily accessible by all who wish to work, parliamentarians and congressmen exclusively represent the interests of moneyed entities including corrupt corporations, and supposed solutions to major social and economic problems drive the populace to tribalism. The current track of Western and other developed societies is unsustainable—but an alternative is arising. This new society should be supported by everyone who wants a better life for themselves and their posterity.

A partial enumeration of the failures and impending failures of the existing system

  • Systems that ostensibly reward intelligence, hard work, and other values are becoming oligarchies run by “those who got there first”. (Christopher Hayes)
  • Representatives and other officials are increasingly beholden to campaign funders, not to their constituents. (Lawrence Lessig)
  • The job is dying.
  • The corporation is also dying. (Venkatesh Rao)
  • Employers increasingly disrespect the 40-hour workweek, expecting and requiring excessive work hours. (Bob Sutton)
  • Viable goods, attention, time, and ideas are increasingly left to waste.
  • The populace is becoming politically tribalized, preventing collaborative political effort.
  • Prices are often unfair, and packaged quantities are being reduced in a deceptive manner. (The Consumerist)
  • Information disseminated by the media is increasingly untrustworthy.
  • Privacy, both off- and online, is eroding. (Rebecca MacKinnon)
  • The economic problems that began in 2008 are not subsiding, no matter what national and international economic policies are implemented.
  • The gap between rich and poor is widening, and the situation for the poor is not improving. (Ezra Klein)

Note that issues like police brutality and civil rights failures are big problems, but are not unique to Western or developed societies. Other problems, like overcrowded, private prisons and healthcare crises, tend to be spotty and focused on few specific places in the developed world (cough cough), but are largely subsets of other large problems listed.

Why popular resistance and social trends will fail to bring change in the developed world

Traditional social movements seem to have sprung out of major concerns (lack of food, oppression by leaders, unsafe conditions, unequal rights) that could be summed up in one statement (Mubarak must go, Votes for women, No taxation without representation). Unfortunately, the problems with the old society are too numerous to attack in one movement. Occupy Wall Street tried this, and did lots of things, none of which actually spurred significant legislative or regime change.

Taking the broken system head on is bound to cause conflicts between people who would otherwise be able to work together, as we all focus on our hobby horse issues at the expense of other important concerns. The protection provided by pitting these conflicting forces against each other may not be an intentional aspect of the monolithic old culture, but it sure confers a devilish evolutionary advantage to this particularly mutated parasite.

The heart of old society is the idea that resources are scarce, traditional hierarchies are inevitable, and the ability to compete with other humans for resources is “merit”. It is the home of Glengarry Glen Ross, Gordon Gekko’s Wall Street, and the Godfather. It is Darwinism writ large, where pincers and scales are replaced by schemes, prestige, and privilege. It is inevitable that such a system will degrade into a great-ape-style hierarchy, where alphas enforce class distinctions by force, regardless of their actual abilities.

The task of defeating primate behavior in order to provide human groups safety and progression opportunities has traditionally been handled by governments. The development of large governments appears to have been instrumental in the formation of modern technologies (formerly things like aqueducts; in our era, the space program and the Internet), but such governments have been prone to catastrophic failure, or at the very least, wide-scale corruption.

Governments are represented by people: presidents, judges, legislators, etc. When a government becomes systemically corrupt, revolution is the only solution, because removing the figurehead does not effect real change. Revolutions are hard; they require conditions to be very unpleasant for a very large group of people, because making a transition often involves a risk to one’s life, and a risk that the new system will be worse than the old. The corporate version of revolution—restructuring—is far more common, but often fails to bring real change to business cultures and practices.

It is unlikely that any government or corporation in the West will make life too difficult for a significant group of its citizens or clients, but that does not mean that Western style governance is optimal. It is the foundational principle of a New Collaborative Society that there are better ways to do nearly everything that governments and corporations do—finding them just requires a bit of experimentation.

The role of networked electronic communication in forming a Collaborative Society

Until humans had a way of communicating, society was impossible. Language was a necessary (and perhaps sufficient) condition for banding together, building together, and protecting each other in new ways that ultimately led to human domination of Earth. Each new advance in communication has brought with it massive changes to society in general—there’s a reason we call that time before the development of writing “prehistory”. The printing press led to multiple societal revolutions, and certainly there could be no modern corporation without the telephone.

The internet has been so revolutionary—more so, perhaps, than the telephone or even the printing press—that we still do not know what the end result of its development will be. We have seen some strange and scattered effects: the rise of social media, the Arab Spring, online commerce, and distributed work and communities. We do not know what will come next, but it is wise not to ignore the strong possibility that nearly all of our existing ways of life will have changed completely by 2100. It is important that we guide that change as well as we can.

Cory Doctorow identified the “disorganized but effective” nature of online movements (they obviously can’t be called “organizations”, but “movement” or “adhocracy” works), and posited that as the cost of human transaction drops, the wiki approach might be used to plan cities, perform scientific inquiry, and explore space. This would constitute a massive human revolution, as the tasks normally reserved for governments or large corporations could be performed by people en masse, without commitment to a permanent hierarchy.

A warning about thinking on this line: it is likely to disappoint in the near future, as much of the Western world is divided between those who trust in governments and those who trust in corporations, a false choice of epic proportions. As long as those institutions have the most fans, they have power. (One can see in the world of Indiegogo, Twitter, and YouTube that having fans is essentially equivalent to having power.)

Thus, the role of the conscientious believer in a New Collaborative Society must become that of an evangelist, but a smart one. We all know auto-shills, trying to push their own blogs, music, or books onto others. The new society must preach by practicing: show the world that eschewing the hidebound universe of the old is both easy and effective. Even if the portion of the New Collaborative Society being practiced is something of a “minimal viable product”. Baby steps are better than no steps, and in the information age, those strides can increase in length exponentially.

The current state of the New Collaborative Society and its characteristics

The early effects of the Internet, meaning those that are visible now and those that are peeking around the corner at us, are sparse and sometimes inscrutable. Innovations seem to crawl in some areas and leap in others, and culture appears and disappears without much notice. (Anyone here remember Homestar Runner?) This porousness and sporadic growth translates to inconsistencies in the current iteration of the New Collaborative Society: a loose but expanding collection of practices that replace traditional institutions by disruption. As an alpha release, there’s not enough here to convince the masses to abandon decaying lifestyles for these ones.

That’s not to say that nothing has been done, however. While New Collaborative Society may be in the infant stage, it’s a whale calf, not a puppy. Early adopters have propped up projects as varied as Wikipedia and the Arab Spring, from Occupy to the Open Source movement. Deciding what forms part of the New Collaborative Society can be a little tricky—do farmers’ co-ops count or not?

By definition, any component of New Collaborative Society should be a replacement for a part of Old Society that is headed toward, or already experiencing, systemic failure. This seems fairly limited and specific, but when one examines the long term, much of Old Society appears to be balancing at the edge of a frighteningly precipitous drop, and thus open for New Collaborative Society replacements. The following are trends I believe to be parts of this change, but note that one does not have to buy into each New Collaborative Society institution in order to be supportive of New Collaborative Society as a whole:

Table A - some trends that appear to form part of the New Collaborative Society

It’s clear that the drive of the current trends tends toward direct action on the market to shift small pieces away from scarcity-driven models to post-scarcity, abundance-driven ones. Beyond that, existing New Collaborative Society trends also show a movement away from complex bureaucratic administration, toward more spontaneously-organized and disorganized administration.

Missing components of a New Collaborative Society and possible solutions

The most powerful elements of society, central governments and large corporations, have few competitors in any sphere, much less rivals that actually threaten their dominance on more than one front. New Collaborative Society solutions generally work in terms of disruption and replacement rather than stepwise progression and slow change. It will be difficult to disrupt technologies like federal governments and multinational corporations because of their powerbases and pocketbooks.

Education is another area in which New Collaborative Society solutions have as yet failed to resolve some concerns. Post-secondary education is still inappropriately expensive, and degrees are not insurance policies on unemployment.

Further, there are areas with some New Collaborative Society solutions which are incomplete or incompletely applied (e.g. transportation, staple foods, child care). These areas still stand to be disrupted or replaced. Problems in these areas are real, and action must be taken to resolve them. We should be grateful that there are ideas in motion to resolve these issues, and join with the people engaged in solving them if we feel the need, but it seems very likely that solutions to even large problems of distribution are forthcoming.

The problems in education are more complex. While there are groups in existence leveraging the surplus in educational content, the issue lies in the matter of accreditation and degree-granting. Like money, educational certificates only have value based on the approval of an institution, and the system bases its awards on an educational facility’s ability to approximate an Old Society model. This will be difficult to overthrow, as it will require a New Collaborative Society organization to prove itself to Old Society institutions (either accreditation groups or employers themselves).

Governments and corporations are very unlikely to see the benefits of current New Collaborative Society organizations with regard to their operational tasks. Currently, however, governments are finding the costs of performing certain tasks, like operating prisons (in the US) and managing security, much too high. Private contractors are hired to do these jobs, but these in turn exacerbate ethical problems—monetizing human suffering seems unlikely to yield any good results.

Relief from sub-national entities as the state, Home Nation, county, province, départment, or canton seems very unlikely. Some of these (US State, Home Nation) have “nation envy” and tend toward the same entrenchment of Old Society’s scarcity-obsessed norms as their parents. Other sub-nationals lack autonomy or authority to do any sort of governing whatsoever. Converting a sub-national to the New Collaborative Society cause is unlikely at best.

It may be possible to convince a small national or sub-national entity to contract some of its responsibilities to New Collaborative Society organizations, but it’s quite likely that governance is something that will have to be endured rather than embraced by the New Collaborative Society for the time being. Engagement is the key—voting always for those laws that will allow for the disruption and replacement of failing institutions, and against laws that further expand and entrench said institutions.

A call to action

The task for anyone interested in effecting Carnegie’s “real and permanent good” in the digital age will be to embrace, live, and spread the New Collaborative Society. This means to engage not only in collaborative projects that immediately interest and concern you, but to identify others that could interest and concern you, to create new collaborative projects and movements, and to connect those seeking solutions to collaborative projects that meet their needs, especially if they’re currently frustrated with the scarcity-based institutions that are failing them.

Interested parties can consistently strive to solve problems by creating collaborative projects that disrupt and replace old institutions. If collaboration supporters use demonstration, protest, and other forms of reactive behavior only when absolutely necessary, possible opponents to New Society norms will find no legitimate grounds for their opposition.

With very very few exceptions, all collaborative projects should be open to any and all parties who have the skills and desire to help. Inasmuch as collaborative projects avoid seeking to ally themselves with a political, religious, cultural, or ethnic group, party, or sect exclusively, they can avoid harmful labeling and other damages that frequently arise in the tribalized world.

The New Collaborative Society should, and will, succeed at creating a new human universe full of peace, opportunity, and abundance.

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