3 ways to look at the world, past, present and futurePosted: April 28, 2014
I’ve read this essay twice now, some months apart. On both occasions it has irritated and enthralled me at the same time. It is an odd experience to be enthralled by something (the ideas in the essay) that simultaneously causes feelings of extreme discomfort. There are some great ideas here, but I can’t help feel that the solutions suggested are overly influenced by the very young world view of the American model of governance and administration.
Venkat lays out 2 eye opening concepts for understanding the way a state seeks to govern a population.
Firstly a reduction of the state’s requirements (in order to exist), to counting the population, conscripting the population and taxing the population. Obvious once you think about it maybe, but one of those ideas that is huge once you do.
Secondly, that technologies are always the medium by which government’s gain the consent of a population to be governed. To be fair consent is not necessarily the right word, as the first such technology that Venkat mentions is the sword, but the idea (semantics apart) is still a powerful filter for looking at the relationship between a state and its population (even if at times the picture is ugly).
The broad argument is that a population that is inherently gaining mobility (virtual and geographic), causes problems for the current model of governance which is significantly based on knowing that most people in a population don’t move in and out of administrative boundaries on a regular basis. As this mobility increases, goes the argument, then if we accept that a government will have to govern (counting, conscripting, taxing) then with increased mobility must come increased surveillance. Hence the consent of the surveilled.
It’s a long essay, and you will have to stop and think along the way to follow every idea presented (as usual with Venkat the piece is very dense), but it is worth it.
Upfront I suggested that I had a concern with the piece, and I do, but it does not diminish what is a very rich piece of writing that can spark much involved thinking of your own. I do feel that much of what is written is informed by an immature model of American governance, based on the history of that country. The 50 states of the USA have always struck me as a slightly odd model built by a young country still obsessed in strange measures with the idea of a wild west. As a child even, I remember feeling a peculiar dissonance watching the movie Porkies, where to evade the police the high schoolers merely needed to cross county lines.
If, however, you consider these ideas as factors affecting the global stage, we can start to think about how political globalisation will inevitably be influenced. Maybe that’s a 30 year horizon, maybe it’s a 300 year horizon, either way there is lots to get your teeth into here.
Crypto-currencies are really nothing new, they’ve been around as concepts for a long long while and as real available commercially exchangeable entities since 2009 when the Bitcoin code was released. Nonetheless we are this year starting to see a significant maturation of how Bitcoin is being reported. More specifically we are seeing the emergence of stories about the blockchain, the idea at the core of the Bitcoin protocol. Particularly there is significant activity in the VC sector driving much of this interest.
Bitcoin is often misconstrued as an anonymous currency, which simply isn’t true. In fact the whole secret sauce is that in the absence of a central banking authority your transactions are actually made very public indeed. It is possible to obfuscate your link to any particular bitcoin transaction but this is not an inherent part of the protocol at all.
The excitement is around the idea of distributed consensus systems. The heart of a distributed consensus system, in this reading, is the idea known as the blockchain. Essentially a public ledger of transactions, the blockchain cleverly solves many of the problems that are commonly dealt with by centralised authority.
Distributed consensus as an idea potentially impacts many more sectors than just currency. Any societal entity that depends on a centralised authority could be in the cross hairs, one example is Namecoin, an alternative to the DNS, which can allocate .bit domain names on a decentralised basis.
This article does a superb job of explaining the blockchain itself and how it solves the problems of centralisation. If you have any interest in technology, and emergent trends therein, then this is something you need to read.
In contrast to Venkat’s pragmatic reading of the oblique structures that inform modern governance models, this essay from Yanis Varoufakis of the University of Athens (currently resident at University of Texas at Austin), explores the question of what the internet can do to ‘repair’ democracy.
The hunch underpinning this paper is that, behind voter apathy and the low participation in politics, lays a powerful social force, buried deeply in the institutions of our liberal democracies and working inexorably toward undermining democratic politics. If this hunch is right, it will take a great deal more to re-vitalise democracy than a brilliant Internet-based network linking legislators, executive and voters.
His approach is informed by an examination of the original democracy of Athens, paying attention to both its structures and its hypocrisies (Athens was a state built on slavery), and how that differs from the underpinning historic influences that structured modern western liberal democracies.
His aim is not to discourage those that seek to use modern technologies to reinvigorate democracy, but to point their innovations in the right direction. Thus he explores the perceived issues with direct democracy, the idea that we can all vote on all the issues, and the subsequent conclusion that voter apathy is not a bug of a governance model built on the needs of a mercantilist ruling class, but a feature.
In contrast to the Athenian model, whereby the poor but free labourer was empowered equally alongside the richest man, in a system that has evolved to devalue citizenship while massively extending its reach (no slaves in liberal democracies, at least not mandated by law) whilst simultaneously transferring real power from the political sphere to the economic, solutions that simply make political connection between our governing institutions and the people more efficient, will likely make little difference.
In this reading the changes required are economic, not political, with subsequent change in the political sphere only plausible once such changes within the economy are in place.
This may not be the most optimistic reading of today’s political landscape, but it is a well constructed and researched argument worthy of your time. Must read reading.