Hey Prof Ferguson, Welcome to the Panarchy
Several days back, Niall Ferguson, a distinguished Scottish Professor of History who first came to my knowledge when he did an outstanding and passionate presentation for the prestigious BBC Reith lectures in 2012 titled “The Rule of Law and its Enemies”, wrote a short post for the Boston Globe where he talked about the Global Network and how it’s becoming increasingly unstable.
He refers to this global network in an abstract fashion, not necessarily pertaining to just the Internet, but also international trade, relations and so on. He declares in the article that networks are “cutting across” the traditional power hierarchies and that this present battle between networks threatens to create a world completely divorced from the promises of a connected world; instead of freedom and equality, we are experiencing a wave of populism and dramatic inequality, presumably despite or as a result of this networking.
He mentions Zuckerberg’s recent letter envisioning Facebook as an attempt to create a more perfect form of community governance and how this vision seems to fail to take into account the reality of networking; that is its ability to “spread lies and hate” just as fast or faster than it can do the opposite.
Well, all I can say is this: what did you expect?
The Web’s only natural form of governance is Panarchy. That’s it. It is chaos made art. Its unpredictability and chronic inability to conform is something to behold and celebrate, even if it sometimes produces seemingly unfathomable results. This is raw humanity at work and here is the best part: we are free to participate in it if we want, with the same amplifying power it affords to everyone else. If ISIS can use it to propagate propaganda, you can participate to oppose or mitigate their propaganda, and even study them to discern ways to ultimately defeat them.
The Panarchy of the Internet is our Althing. It is the antithesis of humanity’s formal structures of (Western) governance that Professor Niall Ferguson knows and loves (I included). The Panarchy is there to provide Balance of Power to the world, for better or worse.
Take a look at the EU for example; without the Internet, people would not be able to appreciate the gross bullying that takes place in it between Eurosceptics and the establishment. The Eurosceptic movement owes much to the Internet. Grassroots movements owe much to the chaos of networking. And yes, opponents of these movements are well within their rights to grumble and complain or even, well, oppose. BUT NO ONE HAS ANY RIGHT TO DESTROY THE PLAYING FIELD CREATED BY THIS PANARCHY, even if it is done with the best intentions (the road to Serfdom/Hell is paved with such sentiments). That might qualify as a crime against Humanity because you are completely removing the ability of human beings to express themselves without fear or prejudice. And I am not naively referring to the drama of being banned from say Twitter or Facebook (T&C much?).
Professor Ferguson points out that the network has a“flawed design”. Here’s the thing though, the design flaw might very well be a FEATURE, not a flaw. Superhubs are inevitable in a system where people are free to produce goods and services and associate. If a pair of Stanford doctorate students can come up with a way to create a system of search that’s better than the competition, who’s to say they can’t become a monopoly, if only for a short time? One may scream “No, you must level the playing field” but this assumes that being successful online is morally wrong. Likewise, some ideologies will appeal to people more than others. The problem is not the network. The problem is the lack of a viable alternative for people.
The EU can never be an alternative for people if it doesn’t address its key weaknesses. Hillary Clinton could never be an alternative for the same reason. And you may wail about bots and whatnot, but in the Panarchy, people are looking for affirmative signals in much the same way as a prospective customer is looking for a good deal versus a SJW manifesto. Amplifying those signals to attract readership is part of the game.
The Formal Structures of the “real world” and the Panarchy can work together if we allow ourselves the mentality required to make it so. The Panarchy is already producing useful code and hardware to build or rebuild the internet’s architecture with equality in mind, literally and philosophically. If the Panarchy can teach you one thing, it is this: Code speaks louder than mere Talk.
The network may be flawed but it lends itself to self correction. The real world’s structures do not.
Produce your viable alternative and people will come flocking to your side. Otherwise, do not complain if your alternative flops in the Market of Ideas.
Finally, one might reasonably argue that all this about Panarchy and what not will not matter if the formal structures of governance that help support it are wiped out by Trump. Frankly, I don’t think Trump can single-handedly destroy a nation the size of the United States. If he can then that speaks volumes about the fragility of America compared to the anti-fragility of networked systems. The Panarchy may even help to rebuild America should that happen, perhaps with a more robust, new system of governance.
Secondly, we are too dependent on the Internet to simply scupper it because the nation that birthed it is no more. That would be like de-funding the World Health Organisation for the same reason. It’s too important. Also, given the Panarchy’s role as the crucible for culture, America as a Nation may very well continue to exist on the Internet just as Ancient Rome continues to live on in many of our modern day forms of government and culture.
A rather poetic death befitting of an Empire.