Thursday, May 19, 2005


Mark Pesce, futurist creator of VRML, has recently published an essay entitled Piracy Is Good? Mr. Pesce's article points out the folly of the current media empires that are under siege by technologies that rout around their ability to control and distribute media. His article extends beyond big media's present challenges to where human evolution is headed.

Everywhere centralized, managed systems appear to be at odds with the most innovative, pervasive and viral trends of this era. As Mr. Pesce points out, news media is being supplanted by blogs; VOIP is overcoming fixed-line telephony; social networks are changing marketing and relationships. Shrink-wrapped, retail distribution of software, music, movies and everything else captured with bits is being supplanted by Gnutella, Limewire, Acquisition and BitTorrent. If an idea is loosened into this robust hive of interconnections, it can take flight if it has merit; it can be amplified, improved-upon, and refined if a swarm develops around it and makes it into a meme.

I can't quite put my finger on it, but something about patriotic Neoconservativsm seems to be at odds with swarming's cultural and political affects. Mr. Pesce made reference to Kevin Kelly's seminal work, Out of Control.

Mr. Kelly's book discusses the move away from mechanized industry to one based on organic models that mirror nature's productivity and patterns of growth. In a nutshell, Mr. Kelly says it will be better to grow things than to build them. His book concludes with The Nine Laws of God on how to make something from nothing. His First Law is intriguing:
Distribute being. The spirit of a beehive, the behavior of an economy, the thinking of a supercomputer, and the life in me are distributed over a multitude of smaller units (which themselves may be distributed). When the sum of the parts can add up to more than the parts, then that extra being (that something from nothing) is distributed among the parts. Whenever we find something from nothing, we find it arising from a field of many interacting smaller pieces. All the mysteries we find most interesting-life, intelligence, evolution-are found in the soil of large distributed systems.
The organic structuring of industry, business and society has the potential to erode the meaning and viability of the borders that define present-day cultures. I am not proposing that we can or should curtail human evolution away from mechanical societies to biological ones -- that would be impossible. But I do recognize that the idea of distributed being on a global scale will defy our notions of what binds societies in ways that are, for now, quite incomprehensible. Distributed being will challenge identies of caste, clan, class, patriotism, creed, even family.

I can't be certain, but nationhood quite possibly is in the breech, no matter how high we hoist our flags. I'm as skeptical as many of you are about EU-style transnationalism, which is largely a top-down organization that promises the dull thudding of the human spirit -- deeply centralized systems excel at that. The organicization of the human experience will make our current politics irrelevant over time, if Mr. Pesce and Mr. Kelly are correct. Transnationalism still only conceptualizes nationhood, albeit on a grand scale. Nationhood might very well be in the descendent and give way to organic, post-national social identites.

Like nationalism and transnationalism, the UN, which has a self image of global nationhood, might be made irrelevant by globalized, robust hives comprised of swarms that have so much inertia that they can affect greater change without the lumbering top-down structures of an institution invented in the 1920s, starting with the League of Nations. Any system that is centralized is facing irrelevance to the organic changes that beset them, much like the RIAA is today, or Newsweek and CBS.

Ironically, Islamofascists have grafted their religion somewhat successfully to organic swarming by extending Islam beyond nationhood to a kind of virtual ummah, utilizing the Internet:
The Internet provides confused young Muslims in Europe with a virtual community. Those who cannot adapt to their new homes discover on the Internet a responsive and compassionate forum. “The Internet stands in for the idea of the ummah, the mythologized Muslim community,” Marc Sageman, the psychiatrist and former C.I.A. officer, said. “The Internet makes this ideal community concrete, because one can interact with it.” He compares this virtual ummah to romantic conceptions of nationhood, which inspire people not only to love their country but to die for it.
The Internet is the key issue -- it erases the frontiers between the dar al-Islam and the dar al-Kufr. It allows the propagation of a universal norm, with an Internet Sharia and fatwa system, administered by the clergy. Now one doesn’t have to be in Saudi Arabia or Egypt to live under the rule of Islamic law. Anyone can seek a ruling from his favorite sheikh in Mecca. In the old days, one sought a fatwa from the sheikh who had the best knowledge. Now it is sought from the one with the best Web site.
So, in respectful deference to Mr. Pesce and Kelly, who bravely proffer a largely positive future resulting from swarming and organic evolution, we can see that there are negative alternatives as well. Radical Islam dovetails very effectively with an organic, hive-based organizational structure, in spite of it's medieval creed. Many obscure manifestos will find legs, wings and stingers when empowered as swarms. And with such sweeping change on the human landscape, the cynic in me figures that many millions will be swept aside in the process.

There are a lot of positive aspects to the topics that Mr. Pesce and Mr. Kelly touch upon; they point at how evolution can spawn a revolution that can transform humanity to a higher place. Revolutions are a part of human history. For me, they're also troubling, since I know that many of the rules that govern life as I know it will be changed. It has me wondering if I will be groping to understand the fundamentals of a world that has passed me by.