Could Social Networking Save the World?

The idea:
Rob Paterson has penned a long and extraordinary article suggesting that social networking tools, building on a foundation of finding and connecting and relating tools including weblogs, could be used to cut out the corporate and government middlemen everywhere, usurp the existing economy and power authority, and create peer-to-peer networks that would run everything.

Rob says:

I believe that …Social Software tools…will shake our entire society to the core. I believe that our descendants will look back at its arrival the same way that we now look back at the advent of the printing press. I believe that Social Software is a vector a return to an old culture. When I say old culture, I mean the culture that fits the essential nature of humans and that fits nature itself. I imagine a return to the custom of being personally authentic, to a definition of work that serves the needs of our community, and to a society where our institutions serve to enhance all life. I see signs that that we are going home.

Pretty heady stuff. I’ve met Rob, and he is not like me, not an idealist taken to going off on tangents. He sees social networking as the means to achieve all three elements of Dyson’s Dream: Free information, community-based renewable energy self-sufficiency, and peer-to-peer Ag-Bio innovation. He sees it as the means to achieve a media which accepts that its job is to make interesting what is important. He sees it as the mechanism to unleash the Power of Ideas. In his future state scenario he sees virtual communities, formed and connected and collaborating by means of social networking tools that will:

  • allow consumers to connect and transact directly with front-line farmers and makers of clothing and other essentials — on the consumers’ terms
  • allow learners to connect and transact directly with front-line teachers, enablers, demonstrators, and real learning environments — on the learners’ terms
  • allow patients to connect and transact directly with front-line healers, preventative health providers, self-treatment information sources — on the patients’ terms
  • allow readers and viewers to connect and transact directly with front-line journalists, investigative reporters, researchers, analysts, philosophers, interpreters of events, actors, artists, and entertainers — on the readers’ and viewers’ terms

The sense of urgency to make it happen, Rob says, will come when we realize how desperate and hopeless and unsustainable and out of our control our lives have become:

Now we take it for granted that education is a linear process that leads to a credential. Now we expect that healthcare is an intervention by special people who deliver drugs and procedures. We take it for granted in business that we can have an economy or a healthy biosphere but not both. We take it for granted that work, family and education are separate processes that compete for our time. We think that it is normal to have a job and a manager. We believe that having more things will make us happy. We accept that we have no real say in the governance of our work place. Bombarded by millions of messages telling us what to buy, to eat to wear and to do, we have no confidence in our own innate judgment about what is good for us.

In Rob’s brave new world, what each of us has to offer, and at what price, and what each of us needs or wants, and at what price, will all be “out there”, in a perfectly connected and disintermediated market, with no agents skimming most of the money and blocking the way. The access to information about what’s available and what’s needed will allow innovation to flourish, as creative minds rush to fill clearly unmet needs, and will allow prices to crash to nearly zero, as the enormous supply of ideas and more-with-less products and infinitely customized, ‘virtual’ service overwhelms the demand. Commons, community activities and enterprises, collaboration, and free sharing will explode as horrific scarcity and outrageous prices for crap give way to astonishing abundance and affordability. The consequence will not be a rush to buy more but a rush to work less, to take time for important things — a volunteering epidemic will ensue, and people will learn how to make and do things for themselves, and in community with others. GDP will crash and so will stock markets and housing markets while big corporations will slide into colossal bankruptcy and take the banks with them, but everything will get so much better for everyone else that no one will care. Governments will no longer have the revenues to wage war or accumulate debts, but well-being will have risen with abundance so there will be no need for either, people will be looking after each other, voluntarily, free, to the delight of both progressives and conservatives. The people will have taken back the power, the control over their lives, their local resources and their time, and they will know how to use them wisely.

Is this possible? Certainly, but only if :

  • we can prevent the power elite from using their wealth and influence to co-opt, critically disrupt or shut down the Internet and the social networking tools that would underlie this social and economic revolution (as they have every other institution or group or movement that has threatened them);
  • we are willing and able to work together, collaboratively, and give stuff away at a time when it still hurts to do so — for every person willing to prime this pump, to think ahead and wait unselfishly for it to pay off, there will be others trying to exploit it, use it to ‘competitive advantage’; and
  • we are able to drag the 80% of the people on the other side of the digital divide, across it, before the rich elite successfully vilifies us in their eyes the way they have always vilified the middle class in times of class struggle — which is precisely what this is.

The paradox is that there is nothing we can do to ‘lead’ the charge to meet these three conditions. This is the ultimate World of Ends that Rob is describing — there is no centre, no one in charge, and any attempt to impede in any way the free flow of everything from peer to peer will be seen and treated by this World as an undesirable blockage, and the World will work around it, defeating it.

Rob clearly believes that the people, all by themselves, ourselves, can be trusted to recognize and understand the opportunity, to see it as desirable, as a better way to live and work, and to cooperate to meet the three conditions outlined above.

I want to believe. Do you?

Illustration: Network diagram of a TB contagion, from my KM colleague Valdis Krebs’ Inflow site, via Mark Newman at UMich, with a little artistic license taken by yours truly.

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11 Responses to Could Social Networking Save the World?

  1. mscandide says:

    Wow. This is astounding possibility. Gives Turn on, tune in, drop out a whole new meaning…

  2. Doug Alder says:

    You’re forgetting the technological infrastructure needed to make those tools available and just how fragile that infrastructure is. You’ve been saying that the vast majority of the human race needs to disapear. You’ve also been saying that Gaia will see to it that happens. I do not necessarily disagree with those points. However the process by which Gaia will do this will also ensure that the aforementioned infratructure will be one of the first things to disappear. If the WHO, not really given to exaggeration of the seriousness of a situation, is increasingly raising alarms about the very real possibility an impending lethal flu pandemic arising out of the avian flu pandemic that is storming across Asia and Canada this past year, then we really ought to be concerned. Should this pandemic start it has the capability of wiping out many tens of millions of people throughout the west and many more in the 3rd world countries. The people who are responsible for maintaining the technological infrastruicture that makes all this possible will be just as vulnerable as anyone else. If that pandemic hits the west the Internet will not survive in its current form. Vast areas will disappear as the network techs get sick and die. Social networking will die with them.

  3. Ryan says:

    I love the heady stuff you write. Your blog’s one of those always dependable upon for a good read.

  4. Interesting article indeed, Dave.Hopefully the internet will stay relatively free and won’t turn into a giant mall controlled by microsoft & co (fortunately it seems that MS hasn’t found any effective way to fight Open Source yet).

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Doug: That’s an interesting idea. Has anyone estimated how many people it actually takes to keep the Internet going? I figured with most of the action at the Ends, the need for a big Centre was small.Mikhail: Yes, though I note that MS is now #2 in blogs and growing at a rapid rate; they’ve made a big investment in desktop search as well. If MS ‘owns’ the desktops of the world and Bill Gates is not around to intervene, they could probably do great damage to the revolution.Anonymous tinyurl provider: This is fascinating — the first wave of attacks on the people’s media by the corporatist elite?Sam, Ryan: Thanks. Hope it all comes true.

  6. Doug Alder says:

    ” I figured with most of the action at the Ends, the need for a big Centre was small”Dave – popular misconception of Internet design. The Internet is by design largely, to use David Isenberg’s phrase, a “stupid network”. That is, the intelligence (control)is at the edges of the network, not the core. However, those edges are many thousands of small networks, not you and I. While the actual core of the Internet itself could be said to be the 13 core root servers everything else from there is just someone’s network joining up with someone elses. The Internet is nothing more than many thousands of networks who agree to use a set of agreed upon protocols to communicate (peer) with each other. Those networks meet, or peer, in what are known in the industry as telco hotels or meetup points. Those telco hotels require maintenance on a regular basis. The vast majority of those hundreds of thousands of individual networks are, unfortunately, not “stupid networks” they are networks designed to be managed centrally (intelligent networks) thereby removing control from the network ends (you and me). These networks require many, many, very highly paid engineers to keep them running and expanding. Case in point, call your local ILEC and request a DS3 line between say NY and LA, or Halifax and Vancouver. Best case scenario – 3 to 6 month turn up time as they have to design the circuit from coast to coast and then provision it through a great any switches and routers along the way. Very complex stuff.The Internet is self-healing to a degree. It’s mesh design is intended to ensure that if one node goes down packets can be routed around that node. But a really big pandemic, say 200 – 300 million people will surely take out quite a few of htose engineers and lead to a lot of nodes going down. When that happens you can bet that htere will be lots of packet loss going on. Just over a year ago there was a concerted DDoS attack against the core root servers (which are in effect the core routers of the internet) that temporarily took out 6 of those servers. The Internet was in shambles as a result with many people not able to get anywhere. In theory the remaining 7 servers should have picked up the slack but they couldn’t. It’s not as self-healing as many suppose it to be.

  7. h. says:

    I absolutely believe that Social Software tools have great transformative potential to achieve much of what you have expressed. But let’s be realistic, there ain’t no way in you-know-where that Rob’s brave new world will emerge even if the three conditions are met.It’s a question of scale. The GDP will not crash (at least not because of this), governments will always find the revenues they need to wage war, and “people will never look after each other, voluntarily, freely to the delight of both progressives and conservatives.”Sorry to say, but Rob’s brave new world smacks of the early discussions of communism. It’s a nice theory but it will never work.It’s not either-or, a zero-sum game, black-and-white, win-or-lose. Social networking could absolutely transform education, healthcare, business, how we treat the environment… Social networking is, in the end, about people. It is not about dehumanization, alienation or eloignement as naive early critics of technology would have you believe. It’s about helping people to connect to each other, because in the end, it’s still primarily about people. I mean, afterall, we are a solipsistic life form.

  8. On the likelihood of a pandemic, I would disagree with WHO and in fact, most of the conventional medicine world. Such an epidemic would be largely manufactured by ourselves, and there are means for each one of us to protect ourselves. You might think this a somewhat radical view, as it contradicts conventional (medical) wisdom. But then, if we are allowed to dream of a better future, we might as well dream of a better way to arrange our health care. That would be entirely part of a networked future. Here’s my take on the epicemic question:Biowarfare or a Pandemic of Propaganda?

  9. I wouldn’t go as far as you’re saying. Although I definitely do believe that the internet will diffuse power and help create a much more tailored service economy. GDP won’t crash and big corporations won’t die b/c these corporations know how to adapt to survive. They will adapt themselves to offer these tailored services in this new service economy. However, you’re absolutely right that vested interests want to limit our freedom. This link: provides some details on proposed Canadian legislation that will reduce consumer rights and allow serious privacy violations. It also contains links to sites with more details and to a site with a petition (near the bottom). Please check out the petition( ).

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