If I told you that the emergence of blogs, Twitter and Facebook have changed our societies in more profound ways than we imagine, you’d be justified in telling me that I’m being neither original nor very pertinent. There is certainly something to be said about the amplification effect those services have on self-centeredness and gossip, and how those are sometimes more powerful than the few examples we have of new media spreading freedom, truth and democracy. Still, I think we are seeing the first signs of a profound revolution, one that is remodeling society in a way that is more in tune with our evolutionary origins. One where the notion of tribe makes a comeback, but with a couple of twists.
We all belong to many tribes.
I belong to a small tribe of French people living in the Pacific Northwest. That tribe is defined by geography, friendship and a shared cultural heritage.
I belong to a tribe of godless liberals. This one is also circumscribed by geographical proximity. It values debate, evidence and a certain willingness to show the finger to bigots and conservatives. It is brought closer together by what we perceive to be the radicalization of the USA towards religious conservatism.
I belong to the tribe of my family. This one is defined by genetics, not at all by geography. Common values are almost non-existent in this tribe, but still it exists.
I belong to the tribe that is building an open-source content management platform with Microsoft. Work, a commitment to open software and some ideas around software design are what keeps us together.
I belong to the tribe of people I follow and people who follow me on Twitter. The only thing these people have in common is... me.
This last example is troubling: the borders of this community are well-defined but still it seems fuzzy, because it is just one in a cloud of many millions of others like it. Nothing about it is particularly extraordinary or interesting: it is only valuable as a part of a complex network of similar entities.
To understand why this is new and worth noticing, we need to take ourselves back in time to the society of our parents or grandparents, the society of nations, the centralized hierarchical society. Every aspect of public life was then structured as a tree, with a supreme authority on top. Government is most obviously an example of that. Whether our ancestors lived in a theocracy, a monarchy or a democracy, there was an authority on top, and everybody else spread in a pyramid of authority beneath it. Democracy’s saving grace is that it allows people on the bottom to choose who’s on top, but the structure remains essentially unchanged.
Hierarchical models are being challenged today by the idea that a network is more efficient that a pyramid. By the idea that talent, ideas and leadership can emerge from any point in the network and maybe also the thought that no authority should be permanent.
Beyond this, what interests me in blogs, Twitter and Facebook is that they leverage a powerful instinct of our kind: tribalism. Instead of bringing a small group of primates together around a dominant male and against neighboring tribes, like tribes of old were doing, they make us all the patriarchs and matriarchs of our own local tribe. In such a model, there are no frontiers, no wars to wage: the limits of your personal kingdom overlap those of everyone else’s around you. There is a continuum of tribes that now covers the world (or at least, the industrialized world).
That brings us to the second fundamental change: connectedness. Bacon’s six degrees of separation have become a cliché, but they are also outdated. They have very much become no degrees of separation. I can now have a direct connection –if one-directional– to all the living people that I admire. That rich connectedness is far from meaningless. In the same way that our brains use local and global connections to function, there is a fundamentally new society that can emerge from social networks that feature both local and global connections. It takes only a few hours for a brilliant idea to conquer the world today.
Think about that: a few centuries ago, when no global communication existed, an idea had to spread organically in concentric circles, and was often stopped by geographical constraints (seas, mountains), or political ones (frontiers, confessions). That’s a most inefficient system.
Then with the sort of global hierarchical societies that were characteristic of our more recent history, ideas had to make their way to the top from the branch where they emerged, before trickling down from there to the other branches. In this configuration the reach of your idea is determined by how far up you can take it. This model gives a disproportional amount of power to authorities, as they can whimsically stop anything in its tracks.
In a networked society, ideas start locally and spread globally. They seduce nearest neighbors first, then get picked up by more distant nodes that start spreading them in their own neighborhoods, and this repeats until it dies down or it has covered the whole world, which happens with exponential acceleration instead of a linear pace.
There is a selection mechanism at play here, that amplifies some signals and dampens down others. It’s not just dumb transmission of a signal, unchanged. The signal is modified and reformulated as it moves. When it’s factual news being communicated, that’s a problem (a.k.a. the grapevine). But when it’s a concept, a pure idea, something marvelous happens: the concept can be enriched by each person it transits through. It can adapt to new environments. That is an essential difference with, say, genetic information, for which the substrate is purely mechanical. Because the substrate of ideas is brains, they can get smarter as they gather the thinking power of hundreds along its path, instead of having to wait for random mutations.
This is why I don’t believe in the old concept of intellectual property anymore. What ideas we have we should share freely with our tribe. Think local. Don’t attempt to bastardize your thoughts by attempting to make them universal. Know you can count on the rest of the network to adopt the good ones, massage them and adapt them to their needs. For that to work, we need to let go of ownership and accept to give and receive. Open Source software and hardware is of course in perfect tune with this worldview. As is scientific thought.
Today you need to think locally if you are going to have global reach. Centralized, feudal systems are but the remnants of old societies that should lose pertinence over the next few decades.
Even democracy should reinvent itself to adapt to these lighter-weight and decentralized networks. Rules and decisions could one day be made within diffuse entities that bear little resemblance to the political structures of today that were determined in a large part by the arbitrary rules of geography.
That’s what I hope for.