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:
- Up until about the year 1984, the vision of George Orwell's novel
1984 was probably dominant, namely that technology would
empower state tyranny to forever squash freedom.
- From the year 1984 until near the end of the twentieth century, the other
extreme grew in popularity (eg, Tim May's "Crypto Anarchist Manifesto").
In this view, computer networks would raise the power of individuals above
that of the State.
- Since the late 1990s, there are those who see "How big brother and
big media can put the Internet genie back in the bottle"
(John Walker, "The Digital Imprimatur").
Of course, the future is probably "none of the above".
In particular, I think it's possible that some form of populism will
Current and near-future technologies make possible a number of variations on
populism, some surprisingly different, all much more powerful, than in the
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:
- Embedded systems, becoming:
- Networked embedded systems, becoming:
- Fine-grained distribution
- Most physical objects know where they are, what they are, and can
(in principle) network with any other object. Those objects with
effectors can modify their surroundings.
- Warneke, Last, and Pister, IEEE Computer, January
"We will program the walls and the furniture, and some day
even the insects and the dust."
- Ultimately, the greatest hardware problems may be similar
to problems faced in biology:
- Power for high duty-cycle nodes
- Cleaning up node guano (dead communication infrastructure nodes)
Wearables are to the embedded networks as PCs are to the Internet
- Wearable computers: the closest system outside ourselves
- Act as communication endpoint
- Provide trustability (we hope, since serious failures here
render the rest of security a charade).
- Importance of wearable I/O devices
- Augmented Reality, especially once we have head-up displays
with positional registration and fast slew rates.
- Multiple consensual virtual enironments are
possible, each oriented to the information needs of its constituency.
Cyberspace leaks into the real world
- Reality becomes its own database
- Most physical world outcomes are the product of software running
on top of the uniform (network/localizer/sensor/effector) substrate.
- Most inventions and new capabilities become the common property of
all players -- and very quickly.
- A heuristic for invention in the new age: In the 20th century, we often
used real world metaphors in our programming. Now turn that around: Almost
every aspect of computer science will have a concrete analog in the real
world (and where this doesn't appear to be true, that may be evidence of
- Most physical failures (and physical attacks) are -- at least at the
beginning -- software and computer and communication failures.
- "Our flight wouldn't take off; the software balked." This could
be a bug in the software -- or it could be a rather mellow
alternative to the airplane really going down in flames.
- Identity theft instead of muggings.
- Software stabilized systems replace intrinsically stable systems.
- http://xkcd.com/c149.html and beyond.
- % kill -9 -u user ...
- Physical reality becomes as volatile as financial markets.
There are many more threat vectors, from many more directions, and threats
can interact more than ever before. This does not augur well for world that
never even saw spam coming.
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:
- These new social groups may be bottom-up, using peer-to-peer free
- These new social groups are not so much for talking as for doing,
that is, having physical effects (at all scales) in the real world.
(See for instance, Bruce Sterling's short story "Maneki Neko")
In both belief circles and life style cults, we have some special
interest uniting the members:
- A game or fantasy world (but that's so 2010)
- An age cohort
- A consumer cooperative
If the coop was based on p2p infrastructure, then there could be true
bottom-up marketing, with the coop aggregating demand that is then passed
on to the cloud.
- A service guild (from repairpersons to inventors)
- A philosophical (or religious or sexual or political) orientation
- A gang
- Al Qaeda and bad actors in general
- Guardian angels
- Vigilante groups
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:
- official purpose (perhaps the least important attribute!)
- Number of members
- Distribution of members
- Physical resources of members
- longevity (from seconds to forever (10 years, say :-) )
- How fast can goals, policies, tactics be changed?
- Response time (microseconds to days)
- Spatial resolution of attention and response
This could range from "No sparrow shall fall" all the way
down to organizations that don't track anything smaller than
continental weather patterns.
- Classic democratic forms
- Charismatic leader (an extreme top-down case)
- Commercial service (the most common form in 2010)
- Puppetry (run by another group)
- Unknown (an appropriate designation for cell-structured secret societies!)
- weaknesses. This list will be very long, with new possibilities
being unhappily discovered all the time. But surely it would include
- legal attack
- denial of service attack
(In this regard, see the crowdsourcing exploit outlined at the
end of MacGregor Campbell's recent article in the New Scientist.)
- infectiousness (how fast is the group acquiring new members and/or
- malignancy (is the group griefing, stealing, killing, blowing things up?)
- cloud based
- cell-structured (anonymous membership)
- supporting hardware and software
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
- Except perhaps as guardian angels, analyst pools are not really
populisms. However, analyst pools use much of the same technology
as belief circles in order to provide real-time guidance to a user
or a small team of users. The service would normally be provided
for fee or as part of organizational support (eg, for nuclear power
- Effective analyst pools would also depend on:
- A twenty-first century version of "Robert's Rules of Order"
to coordinate contending analysts,
- Procedures for quickly swapping in and out specialist
subpools, and (at the largest scale),
- Procedures for allocating the superpool of transiently
available specialists to the current set of user teams.
(These technologies were introduced with vague handwaving in Rainbows End).
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:
- make it possible for the new populism to be much more inclusive
than those of the past. If network partitions (both physical
and virtual) can be avoided, the big picture will always be
available to everyone.
- often provide immediate positive feedback (problems solved, questions
answered, deals made) to those who participate constructively.
- create communities of interest that bridge what are otherwise
unrelated or even antagonistic groups.
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
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!