Technology and New Populisms

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This page last updated Mon Jan 25 22:07:30 US/Pacific 2010


Here are the notes for my talk at C5 2010
At the moment, this file is also at

Power to the people!

There has been an interesting evolution of opinion about the impact of technology on human freedom:

Of course, the future is probably "none of the above".
In particular, I think it's possible that some form of populism will dominate.

Current and near-future technologies make possible a number of variations on populism, some surprisingly different, all much more powerful, than in the past.

The technological infrastructure

(This is essentially the scenario in my novel Rainbows End, Tor Books, 2006, and novelet, "Fast Times at Fairmont High", 2001.)

Starting way back in the 1980s:

Wearables are to the embedded networks as PCs are to the Internet

Cyberspace leaks into the real world

Belief circles and life style cults

A special interest group within a 2010 social network would qualify as a kind of "narrow populism", but in most cases, there are significant differences from our 2010 experience with social networks:

In both belief circles and life style cults, we have some special interest uniting the members:

A new zoology

We might almost consider these narrow populisms as new kinds of animals, creatures that swim in the sea of modern society and computers and networks. Each might be classified according to its:

For outsiders, an important distinguishing feature would be the degree of secrecy associated with group membership. P2p infrastructure could transparently implement a secret-society cell structure, wherein no one knows the True Name of more than two or three members. The co-evolution of infiltration and counter-infiltration measures would be very interesting.

An aside: analyst pools

Broad populisms

Here I mean not only a large number of seriously participating members (tens of millions to billions), but also membership that includes a broad range of humanity. More than simple numbers, this second point differentiates the broad populisms from the narrow (focused, special interest, small-scale) ones. (Note, however, that narrow populisms could exist as part of of the broad variety.)

There is a very dangerous possibility located between narrow and broad: nationalistic populism in a large country. Such could arise as a kind of enormous virtual network partition, encouraged perhaps by government(s) that install physical network barriers. A modern nationalistic populism could be much more of the bad thing it has been in the past, dominating whatever were the original policies of the government(s) that encouraged it.

How is this broad populism different from populisms of the past?

Ubiquitous communication and computation on very large data bases:

On the largest scale, such populism is a kind of "over-creature" in the zoology proposed above. (Eg, see Gregory Stock's nonfiction book Metaman.)

The vast majority of people are good-hearted, most interested in "cultivating their own gardens". Broad populism directly benefits those individual interests, but also connects self-interest with the farthest horizons. This connection has often been claimed in the past. With the technology we have now, the connection may become self-evident.

Breakers versus Makers

Is the previous page just wishful thinking?

Over the last fifty years, there has emerged a fundamental peril of technological progress: In principle, tech progress can do miraculous good, but in almost every case it puts even more power in the hands of bad actors. Technology is a scary race between the Breakers and the Makers. The Breakers may be a small minority, but that is balanced by the fact that it's always easier to break things than to make things.

In addition to more-or-less rational motives for wrecking the constructive behavior of broad populism, there is a certain kind of Breaker who likes to destroy good works simply because such destruction is possible!

Ten years ago, I would have been fairly skeptical that broad populism could prevail against the Breakers of the world. In particular, I probably would have said that Breaker friction would cripple inventions like Wikipedia.

Now? Well, Wikipedia is still a story in progress; there may be abuse that could still cause it terrible damage. On the other hand, the success it has had so far is remarkable.

Going forward, the Internet is a perfect platform to experiment with infrastructure and to observe what is actually working. A broad and good-natured populism may be the only thing that has both the grand outlook and the attention to detail to give the Makers an edge.

C5 as part of a long long tradition

"Late pleistocene demography and the appearance of modern human behavior", A. Powell et al., Science, 5June2009, pages 1298-1301.

The optimist (and the science-fiction writer) in me says that our use of networks and computers can create a step upwards for us as great as the long ago collaborations that created the modern human mind. And hopefully, unlike in the Pleistocene, our first try will not be a failure!