Oh, you folk are going to hate me for this. If you want to skip ahead, I summarize this entire article in one line at the end. Those of you willing to slog through this with me, thank you. I had initially planned to pepper this with pictures of boobs and cute puppies as motivators, but decided to trust the reader instead. Those who cannot keep up, can jump to the “TL;DR” summary at the end, the rest, I thank you for taking the time to read it since I took the time to write it. There’s a murmur going around right now. The mood is changing, nothing is the same, and the future has begun. The buzz words are giving me a headache. There has never been a time like this nor has there ever been a more serendipitous series of inventions and events as there are now, leading to world wide revolution. The enemy of a totalitarian government is knowledge, and in the age of the internet, we see everything, we know everything, and nothing will be the same again…
Let’s see if I can say this with a straight face. Facebook and Twitter are the two greatest social revolutionary tools ever created… Excuse me while I wipe the tears from my face. That was a much appreciated laugh. Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock, and likely half of those who have been, probably knows what’s going on in Egypt right now. Some will tell you that Tunisia lit the fire with its success. Others will tell you that it began with the earlier Iranian incident – and I’m safe in calling it an incident and not a revolution at this point – with twitter at its core. So dangerous, so frightening has the internet become to tyrants around the world that the first thing Egypt did to tamp down the noise was shut off access to the internet, the way Iran created a blackout for its citizens. Even China, in order to resist the memories of Tiananmen Square, began filtering all mention of Egypt from their internet surfing masses with their great firewall.
It would seem the internet has arrived; it’s all up in your tubes, exorcizing your demons. These incidents speak to a basic belief about the internet, that it is more revolution than gradual technological advancement. In fact we refer to it as “The Internet Revolution”. It changed everything didn’t it, changed commerce, gave birth to global business and now is proving its earliest proponents right and toppling governments in the inevitable path to making government unnecessary. There’s a word I use for claims like this and the claims of the proponents of a coming singularity. I call it ‘Anarchomanticism’. Allow me to explain. It’s just a marriage of the words anarchy and romanticism. There’s this romantic notion about the internet, this belief that it will or has changed everything and will usher a new age of personal freedoms. You hear phrases like “democratize information,” “you can’t stop the signal,” heck let’s throw in “hack the planet” for good measure. This whole attitude exposes two major conceits about human nature.
The first conceit is that we human beings think of ourselves, individually, as the blueprint of thought and behavior. We conflate what we want with what we think should or would happen. Every human being has a series of beliefs that they assign high valence to. In its simplest form, you can separate people as liberal and conservative, but it gets more complex than that. It goes beyond politics and into economics, religion, culture, and personality. Rationally, we understand that everyone around us is different, but it’s human nature to interact with the world as though everything believes and behaves as we do. This makes something different both jarring and, against all logic, unexpected. But what this means on a macro scale is humanity, no matter how visionary, tend to be terribly myopic creatures, rarely able to see beyond its own narrative in its particular time period. This leads to the second great conceit.
Humanity, no matter how forward looking and hopeful of the future of advancement, always feels or at least acts like it’s living at the end of history. We are good at visualizing the future but are rarely ever correct in our projections. The reason for this is that at our core, we all feel like this, right now, is the most advanced we can get. To us, innovation is a past tense conversation and we only pay lip service to what comes after. In simple terms, as far as we’re concerned, the future changes everything, nothing will be the same again, but it doesn’t cross anyone’s mind that tomorrow morning something new could disrupt the internet and make it a quaint idea. I bet you have a hard time imagining what technology could disrupt the internet without resorting to quasi-technological magic. The internet is the result of a technological evolutionary march, one that was by no means inevitable but may only be just another step and not the destination.
This is my assertion: Facebook, Twitter and the internet did not spark this Egyptian or any other revolution. Furthermore, in the history of technological revolutions, the internet barely ranks as that revolutionary. There were others before and it’s a mistake to clump the mass of its adoption with its impact. This essay is a rebuke of the penny philosophers, the above mentioned Digital Anarchomatics. The internet is not the apex of revolutionary tools. Not only does it change nothing on a fundamental level, it has thus far had the smallest effect of other revolution, though in its defense, it hasn’t been around as long. The internet is to the way we operate now, what a pretty UI overlay is to Nokia’s Symbian operating system. It’s a pretty face or a fancy new look on something fairly shitty. That was a purposely bad analogy, I’m kidding around. The internet is a good thing and it is an advancement on something that has been immensely valuable and positive. I’m merely saying that changing the color scheme or appearance does nothing to change the fundamental nature of the thing beneath.
In the words of the brilliantly written Battlestar Galactica, all of this has happened before and will happen again. In fact, the Battlestar Galactica remake, for anyone on top of the premise, is the perfect analogy for what the internet is. I’m sorry my revolutionary brethren, there will always be need for government/governance and the internet will not change that. I’ll even go so far as to say you will demand governance and control and make it happen. In this case the revolutionary is the seed of the revolutions own destruction. The internet will and has changed the way we work, play, and govern, but you are sorely mistaken if you think it will undermine the power of existing authority and push governance out of the hands of governments. My final assertion is that the idea that nowadays every revolution is a social one is poppycock. Every revolution has always been a social one, that’s the nature of such things.
All of This Has Happened Before
Question: What was the single most important invention in the advent of global trade, information exchange and ultimately, the internet? I hear many answers to this question, from computers to the internet itself (recursive value), satellites to fiber optics, in the case of one particularly clever man, radar. The only answer I’ve ever liked comes from Debora L. Spar, in an article called “The Politics of Innovation” and eventually a book called “Ruling the Waves.” Her answer is the compass. Yes, the lowly compass and other tools of maritime navigation, like the astrolabe. The internet is not the first commercial revolution. It’s not even one of just a few. Each “revolution” followed the same pattern, engendered the same feelings and fears and hopes and made way to the next revolution the same way, just in a different timescale. If anything, the only unique aspect of the internet is the blinding speed with which it’s been adopted, and it’s still only used by less than 15% of the population.
From the Sea to the Net
So in order to chart the history of modern innovation, we need to go back to the 14th century where global trade and the World Wide Web began. Where information packets were literally packets and load times were measured in months and years, not milliseconds. The 14th century is the time of the Maritime revolution. Before the maritime revolution, a long ocean journey was a trip across the Mediterranean or along the European coast, hugging the nearest land mass. I want to be clear here and not devalue earlier maritime capabilities. I’m well aware of the much celebrated abilities of the Norsemen, but for the revolution moniker to stick, we have to measure the time of large-scale adoption.
In the wake of the maritime revolution, new unspeakable amounts of wealth were acquired, new land masses discovered. It changed trade and business. A whole new world was created (and one eventually discovered). At the time, a new industry rose in its wake. These were young risk-takers, entrepreneurs with vision and many of these men amassed vast amounts of wealth or blazed the trail for those who would. At the time they were called pirates. Today we call them pioneers. The only thing that changed between then and now is time. The parallels to the internet revolution should already be apparent. It was the likes of technologies like Napster that blazed the trail for everyday tools like iTunes and Netflix.
At the time, maritime operations were jealously guarded, except in the case where pirates were used strategically, they were heavily subdued because that amount of freedom was a stability threat to reigning governments and empires. A common refrain was “who can rule the waves?” How can anyone control the seas? Pirate cities were built on new worlds by people trying to escape the old. We call them pilgrims and pioneers today, and I’m not just referring to The United States. This maritime revolution overlapped with a few and occurred over the course of a few centuries. With this unprecedented spread of prosperity came the unprecedented spread of threats. Anyone who doubts the connection between the maritime revolution and the numerous great plagues that tormented Europe and Asia for the next few centuries is guilty of constructing a misguided narrative of history. Let’s not even touch the topic of colonialism and that more human strain of plague called empire.
Read and Revolt
The next great revolution happened around the same time as the maritime revolution, perhaps a little after. It was the printing press. Like the maritime revolution, it took centuries to take hold, but a very convincing argument can be made that it was far more revolutionary than the internet will turn out to be. Before the printing press, the church controlled the written word. The subject and knowledge within books had to be taken on faith… It was a revolution in information, the first true step in IT. It erased entire professions and created new ones. The spread of information has always been an attack on existing central authority. Empires and magisterial authorities have always controlled the narrative by controlling the information. It’s no accident that propaganda is a tool wielded by every authority in human history. Frank Herbert put it best in his novel Dune when Duke Leto Atreides said, “how will the people know what a great ruler I am and how much they love my leadership, if I don’t tell them.”
The printing press was behind one of the largest revolutions in human history: the split from the Catholic Church and the reformation. The rise of Protestantism out of the shadow of the catholic authority did more to shape the face of Europe than any other political, and it was more political than religious, change until the two world wars. It led to a revolution in education, more people could learn to read and do so in their native language, not some archaic language of a bygone empire. To a large extent, the bourgeoisie, the middle class owes its rise to its new found ability to learn the high minded skills that were the exclusive domain of nobility. With this revolution in writing, information still moved slowly, but it now moved with greater fidelity.
Precise military intelligence, strategic planning, detailed contracts and international trade agreements, even money and banking were enabled by the printing press. The fears were the same then. Information was feared to no longer be private, there was wide spread fear, among the learned, of the stealing of printed material with this new ability for anyone to have a copy made. Governments were afraid, information was spreading faster than they could control it and more than a few revolutions were sparked by pamphlets. Perhaps one of the most interesting ones will be intimately familiar to many of my readers. To those who don’t know what I mean, I’m referring to The American Revolution, which I still assert was a rebellion, but that’s for another day.
The next revolution is a big one, the telegraph. The telegraph is quite possibly more important to world trade than the internet will turn out to be. Before the telegraph, messages went by boat, possibly taking weeks or months and may or may not have reached their destination. Before the telegraph there was very little international commerce. This seems to contradict what I said about the maritime revolution. The maritime revolution allowed trade and people between vast distances, but direct commerce between two parties separated by vast distances didn’t normalize until the advent of the telegraph. In modern terms, The United States and China can trade goods between each other in macroeconomic terms but that doesn’t necessarily mean a Chinese company can sell to an American consumer, or the other way around. I’m being nitpicky because trade and commerce technically mean the same thing. My point is that the maritime revolution made it possible, but the telegraph revolution is where it really came into its own.
So after the advent of the telegraph, international commerce proliferated. A common complaint was that the telegraph disrupted business. It allowed real time information and this changed the fundamental methods of transacting. Take for example a business man who needs fruit for his business. He can receive his goods locally, but knows he has the option of getting them from a different nation. The danger is that the crop yield may be poor or, without immediate knowledge of a market, it won’t come. So despite the ability to purchase fruit cheaper from across the border, the risk was too great. With the telegraph, a trader could get real time information or even place the order immediately and receive confirmation soon after.
Common complaints were that the people were too connected, privacy was dead. Private enterprises built lines of communication and authority began to worry that they were losing control over the flow of information and commerce. In some places, telegraph resources were controlled and guarded as national assets for those with sufficient resources or the right connections. Despite this, the telegraph ushered in a new age of an unprecedented spread of information that dwarfed that of the printing press. The modern stock market and thus modern economics, was the creation of the telegraph. Capitalism was a philosophy, a disruptive economic philosophy that didn’t get to truly spread its wings until the telegraph. The Newspaper was another creation of the telegraph. For the first time, A newspaper in New York could print the events of today as they were happening in London. One funny aside about history is that far from adopting the telegraph automatically as an efficient way of communicating in wartime, many militaries, conservative as they tend to be, disliked it because they feared it could give enemies or internal rebellions an advantage. They would of course adopt it and it would go on to revolutionize war and the rapid deployment of tactics with the new access to near real-time war metrics.
Can You Hear Me Now?
I hope you’re still hanging in there. We’re almost at the current time period. We have just one more major technological revolution before the internet. I’m referring to the radio. At the time of its inception, it was mind-blowing and incomprehensible. Consumers were confused, it felt like magic. It was wonderful and exciting and maybe a little frightening. Government bodies were spooked. Information could move through the air, outside of any government control. Who could control the air? Really, what defense do you have against what might as well be magic, no matter what the engineers and scientists said. Your enemies could be talking right in the air you breathe, planning your demise. Actually the radio and its era makes for an interesting study in governments, even free democratic ones, that sometimes step in to create state owned or controlled monopolies in order to protect themselves from what they perceive as an uncontrollable threat, or too much freedom.
The government is still shedding or freeing up spectrums for private enterprise nearly a century later. You even need a license to operate ham radios and the FCC sets the rules, the ghosts of a bygone era. It would be easy to add the advent of television as a major tech revolution, but I believe it’s more fair to consider television as part of the radio revolution while at the same time consider fiber optics and laser discs as part of the internet revolution. The reality is that a lot of the views and regulation apparatus around the internet, cable, cellular service, and etc. all began or were put in place in the era of the radio. In some ways, where the internet is concerned, we’re not blinded by the present but still looking through the glasses of the past. Past performance indicates a trend but doesn’t ensure the future is predictable. But one thing should be obvious, each revolution is disrupted by a new revolution and while the amount of time it takes for each revolution to take hold is shortening, so is the amount of time before it is disrupted by the next revolution. By that pattern, it’s almost irresponsible to think of the internet as we know it being relevant in 50 years.
Of course we’ll say nothing about the irony of banking on a trend when a disruptive technology is, by definition, the evidence of impact of the highly improbable. Yes, I’m agreeing with Taleb that we are often fooled by randomness. So we’ve made it to present day, with the internet, the most important advancement and technological revolution in human history. The internet will change everything, how we live, govern and are governed. Like the maritime revolution we’ve had and continue to have a massive influx of pirates, and just like the maritime revolution, the first inkling that we might call them pioneers have started poking out. Like with the printing press, people have access to an unprecedented amount of information and better than the book, they have access to it for much cheaper.
Knowledge belongs to those willing to learn. Like in the telegraph revolution, information travels with unprecedented haste. A woman in Timbuktu is up on the latest news from a friend in Shanghai and both are able to chat face-to-face, so to speak, simultaneously with their friend in New York. Like the telegraph revolution, the internet has created an almost inconceivable increase in global commerce and created immense new wealth. Like the radio revolution, especially now with the advent of mobile broadband, you can reach anyone anywhere and over the air. The very government instability that was feared from radio would seem to be a reality in the age of the internet. It would seem with Facebook and Twitter leading the charge. Nonsense! Political and cultural revolutions happen in spite of the medium. Time for a smoke break. I’ll be right back.
The Medium is Not the Message
The medium helped. The internet helped the spread of the message. I freely admit this, but there were plenty of revolutions before, many of them just as sudden and shocking as what you see in Egypt. The truth is, if people don’t have access to internet tools, they fall back to phones, shouting from rooftops, beating war drums or, perish the thought, good old fashioned word of mouth. If anything, the internet makes it easier for those of us on the outside to stay up to date, but these revolutions happen in spite of the technology available. They spark because people who are angry and justified, get fed up, not because they were playing “Mr. Me too” with Tunisia. The people only got louder and word still spread when internet and phone service was cut off in Egypt and in Iran before that.
If anything, the internet gave people an easy way to remove themselves from direct action. Just “like” these charities in Facebook and your conscience is clear, no need to participate, you’ve spread awareness. So let’s look at these revolutions and see if we can’t divine the pattern they all share.
All This Has Happened… oh never mind, you get the point.
- The process begins with an exogenous shock to the system. This is usually the invention of some groundbreaking device. It’s not always as obvious as you might think. It may be some scientific discovery that leads to a device that changes everything, but a critical piece emerges. e.g. the Astrolabe, the telegraph switch, Gutenberg’s press, whatever.
- When this exogenous shock gets big enough, it creates opportunities for commerce. The creator or originator is rarely the source of the commerce. History is littered with destitute and forgotten inventors. Despite their brilliance, it’s rare that an inventor foresees the true possibilities. This is the domain of hackers.
- Commercial pioneers rush in to make money or create value of some sort for themselves (this can include simple thrill seeking). These pioneers tend to be male, under 25, aggressive risk-takers and sometimes are called pirates or brigands. Just as true in today’s internet as in the maritime revolution 5 centuries ago. Again I direct you to the fact that it was the work of Napster type pirates that made iTunes possible. In the early days of radio, the majority of uses and advancements came from amateurs.
- During this period, there are little to no rules. Anarchy rules and this is wonderful for the pioneers and pirates. It’s a period of creative anarchy and many unforeseen creations come out of this period, some of them changing the direction of the revolution. People tend to presume that it will go on forever. It’s as though, in their minds, “this is where history stops.” This never actually lasts
- Soon, a demand for rules follows. People always assume it is government meddling, but the demands almost always come from the private sector, the pioneers themselves. This is usually either from the pioneers who have secured their space or the pioneers that competed and lost trying to even the playing field against the winners. One very modern example is the Microsoft anti-trust trouble. Microsoft was never independently investigated for antitrust practices. All the investigations stemmed from Netscape kicking up dirt in Europe and the US justice department following suit. On the flip side, Google is an example of the winner, having secured itself, trying to protect its gains. No student of history should have been surprised when Google turned coat and crafted a net neutrality plan with Verizon that essentially betrayed the people they were championing.
- There is then a supply of rules. These rules overwhelmingly come from States/Countries. Occasionally the private sector binds together to regulate itself. An example of the latter would be The Federal Reserve which isn’t actually a government institution. It’s a private bank that supplies the nation’s money…
Basically, every technology revolution has three problems. The first is property rights. Simply, “who owns what?” The next problem is coordination. This is the scale of the market. The value increases as more people use it. The question is, who sets the standard? The government can solve this problem, or the market can make it happen. If the market does it, firms that come together to coordinate tend to start fighting and this causes problems, so another way is when one dominant firm solves the problem. The third problem is competition. If a single firm solves the coordination problem, the losers get the government involved to get their own back. So it comes back full circle and the government gets involved. The bottom line is if it’s commercial, the government will get involved at the behest of the people who claim to be free and untouchable because of it. The revolutionaries, will seek out the help and support of those they would otherwise topple eventually.
Will the Revolution Be Televised Or Not?
That’s sort of a silly question, isn’t it? The revolution is being televised. That’s the point. The technological revolutions make it easy for information about cultural and political revolutions to spread. In some cases, revolutionaries use the latest technology to enable the revolution, but placing responsibility on services like Facebook and Twitter devalues the message in the name of the medium. The internet is just another revolutionary medium in a history full of such things.
Everything you see happening now would have happened by phone or fax or war drums and smoke signals. It’s a conceit that isn’t new to this generation. The internet gives us an extraordinary ability to bear witness. It gives us a new way to organize ourselves and it may, and already does, affect the way we govern and are governed. But it doesn’t change our need to be governed nor does it weaken our ability to be governed. You’re not witnessing something previously unseen. The narrative is still the same; the only thing changed is the time and the tools. I don’t want to or mean to devalue the impact and value of the internet, but someone had to counterbalance the excessive exuberance.
TL;DR: Facebook, Twitter, and the internet are just tools. Nothing has really changed. All of this has happened before. I avoided mentioning Wikileaks, because that would be too easy.