Anything But Subtle

Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.
Marshall McLuhan

One of the most important movements in human history is happening right now, and it will reshape society.

It is the shift from a world of centralized knowledge to distributed knowledge.

But because of its behind-the-scenes nature and shallow media appearances, it is easy to make the mistake of assuming that this shift will create, if anything, only a subtle effect in your day-to-day experience.

The effect will be anything but subtle.

Note: The term ‘knowledge’ is used to represent the important bits; things that should be persisted through time.

Our Invisible Limits

When I want to create a web client, I write in JavaScript. But in order write as such, I must translate my thoughts into JavaScript’s domain. In a sense, the very second I’ve made that decision I am automatically bound by JavaScript’s constraints.

You see, the very act of communicating forces your thoughts into the box offered by a particular medium — spoken, written, printed, digital, or otherwise. Because by choosing to use a particular medium, you must translate your ideas into the format offered by your selection (something I’m currently experiencing by choosing to publish through Medium as opposed to directly on my own site).

The result is that the very same media used to share your thoughts also exact a tax in the form of some very real, yet (paradoxically) almost imperceptible, bounds. Moreover, when you step back from the individual result and apply it to a society, we can roughly see that the bounds of societal thought are the aggregate sum of each person’s media-bound thinking.

So what do these bounds of societal thought have to do with the move towards distributed knowledge? Let’s explore.

Expanding Our Limits

Alan Kay’s insight that, “what is most important about a communications medium is what we have to become in order to use it fluently,” prompts a question:

What must our society become in order to use a centralized, censorable, advertising-driven communications medium fluently?

I do not like the various answers.

Over the last 30 years, and a bit unknowingly, we became fluent in “technology-media” endowed with the above attributes, without first becoming fluent in “technology-thinking”. And it is precisely our fluency in such centralized, limited media that is both shaping and reinforcing today’s societal limits.

For a quick example, look no further than the front page of your favorite media watering hole. How many people will encounter or truly engage with important ideas, many of which are complex or subtle, through your selected channel?

Do not mistake this point as an indictment of our populace. As Bret Victor puts it, “the technical properties of a medium shape social practice, and if the resulting social practice is harmful, it’s the medium that is at fault.”

Our medium is at fault. And we can do better.

And I’m not claiming that the move from centralized to distributed knowledge is the be-all-end-all; “The Shift to End All Shifts”. But it is a necessary one. Recall the tale of Napster. The introduction of a distributed, peer-to-peer music sharing tool precipitates massive changes across multiple contexts: social (people shared music freely), industrial (music companies had to react), and legal (new precedents). And as a result we learn that a movement within music can inspire countless new ideas and conversations in both music and non-music domains (many impacts of which are still reflected in culture).

Today’s movement reaches beyond music and into every knowledge domain. Thoroughly soak in that thought and you get a sense of the potential.

For where there is less control of knowledge distribution, less ability to tamper with important facts, and more people interacting with important ideas, there exists an increased societal potential—a kind of activation energy needed for societal advancement. An advancement only possible when the environment encourages enough collisions among new concepts to yield an explosion of valuable new ideas that, in turn, expand the limits of societal thought. With that said, here’s the question I like a bit more:

What must a society become in order to use a distributed, uncensorable communications medium fluently?

I like the possibilities here much more. Because as we build towards a more distributed knowledge infrastructure, I believe we jointly move closer to a more thought-inspiring, thought-nurturing society.

New Foundations

Today, resulting from the synthesis of key learning from across several fields, we are witnessing the emergence of this new ecosystem — designed to solve many of the problems which lead to, and are created by, centralization.

The ecosystem is young and imperfect, and it does not address all problems associated with the web, but it is powerful. Already shaping social dialogue, it is forcing governments and perennial institutions to engage with questions they could easily sidestep only several years prior.

One major enabler in this growing landscape is IPFS, the InterPlanetary File System. In a short description that belies its depth, IPFS endeavors to be a new information backbone; connecting every device to a unified, global file system. It will dissolve the borders between data on your computer, and data on the internet, and in doing so, attempt to solve some of the major problems associated with today’s web (please see link rot).

It does not hold every answer, no single technology will, but it is an important catalyst. A living attempt to improve our foundations.

An Invitation to Create

I now realize that technologies like BitTorrent and Bitcoin, which prompted conversation in the public sphere around the benefits of distributed knowledge, have become a part of this broader movement—now represented by technologies and ideas more general in nature (e.g.: IPFS).

As these new tools and technologies continue to emerge, now is the time for us to design, experiment with, and implement improved knowledge sharing networks.

To understand the pieces in play, I’m diving in (most recently through work with IPFS). My contributions will grow in time, but it is my beginning; my way of learning by doing. And when it comes to making space for this type of learning, I sincerely appreciate being part of the IDEO coLAB: a small group exploring questions at the edge of possibility, then setting out to design and build better futures based on the discoveries.

What shape these new tools and platforms take, and exactly what we do with them, is yet to be seen. It is completely up to us. There is so much potential in this moment. So I’m celebrating it by contributing, in whatever way I can, to the people and projects I align with and believe in.

You are hereby invited to do the same.

Now is the time. Go!

Imagine! Create!