Digital Darwinism: Perspectives for Industry and Government

A few days ago I spoke on a panel at PICTFOR - the Parliamentary ICT Forum - some writeups of which have been posted elsewhere; but a few days prior in preparation myself and some friends had the opportunity to speak with PICTFOR Vice-Chair Eric...


A few days ago I spoke on a panel at PICTFOR - the Parliamentary ICT Forum - some writeups of which have been posted elsewhere; but a few days prior in preparation myself and some friends had the opportunity to speak with PICTFOR Vice-Chair Eric Joyce MP over a pint, and on that occasion we touched upon the SOPA/PIPA Blackout.

His exact words elude me, but Eric questioned whether the blackout was due to corporate interests, a question which shocked me because a) I felt that I knew the true answer - i.e.: "no" - but also b) because I had assumed that that answer was obvious to everyone... but apparently not.

I must be spending too much time inside the echo-chamber; so let's spell it out.

In a sense the SOPA/PIPA Blackout was the world's biggest-ever flashmob; I am hoping this metaphor still works because flashmobs have been adopted as cute corporate advertising gimmicks, but in the good old days flashmobs were as simple as texting a bunch of friends:

When's the last time you had a pillowfight? Be in Trafalgar Square at 3pm. Bring your own pillow (soft!) and invite your friends.

...and that's all that was necessary. A fun idea, a shared goal, and a cheap and scalable means to contact a network of people who might also share that goal.

No corporate interests required.

I am certain that this idea challenges politicians just as much as it challenges the police - that hundreds if not thousands of people are learning to consensus/self-organise around a goal without an actual leader whom can be held to account; but these skills are endemic to internet communities and forums - the successful amongst which rise to prominence, and the unsuccessful of which break apart and fade.

This too quickly brings us to Darwinian perspectives, so I'll finish the story first:

  • The SOPA/PIPA Blackout happened because Reddit decided to black itself out; for those unfamiliar, Reddit is a social news website hosting forums discussing many topics, and although it is funded as a subsidiary of Condé Nast it has a strong reputation for community self-management and for listening to its readership - whom therefore also comprise its writership.

  • Once Reddit decided to blackout (with its Yoda byline and a totally cute graphic of the site's alien mascot), once blackout was mooted it was almost inevitable that Wikipedia would follow suit; Wikipedia runs a different form of community democracy[1] but likewise (in this case, by charter) it must listen to its readwritership. Wikipedia put the idea to a vote, and it passed.

  • Wikipedia's announcement of an english-language blackout guaranteed extensive media coverage of SOPA/PIPA in the entire anglosphere. This put Google in a bind - the company motto is still don't be evil, and where the considerable weight of Wikipedia had declared SOPA/PIPA to be evil, if Google did nothing then they would be thoroughly castigated in their grass-roots community; on the other hand if Google did something too radical (eg: full blackout) then they would risk accusation of politicising at cost of profit. Hence the informative half-blackout that they pursued.

This cascade of cause-and-effect was quite obvious from the early stages and if anything Google were semi-unwilling victims dragged along in the wake of thundering hordes of Redditors and Wikipedians descending upon SOPA/PIPA lobbyists for a media pillow-fight.

So when a member of parliament asks me about the industry's (subtext: Google's) motivation for organising the blackout I physically cringe at the misapprehension.

The above exemplifies a phenomenon which governments must both understand and embrace; the internet and its technologies are petri-dishes for breeding decentralised communities, and as these communities comprise tomorrow's voters there will eventually be no choice in whether or not to accept the validity of their opinion.

Combine this shared political understanding with the direct access to politicians afforded by Twitter and - at the risk of sounding utopian - you start having something a lot closer to direct democracy with all of its perils.

So what of Darwinism?

Each time the body politic reacts against these (I believe) inevitable changes by trying to ban or regulate technology, censor communication or fruitlessly prosecute "ringleaders", the result is that the technology improves in its resistance to attack, reifying ever more unblockable and distributed implementations.

This leads to an arms-race and as a clever computer once remarked the only winning move is not to play.

So Darwin is driving the development of distributed technologies and he is also building the decentralised communities which thrive around them.

Politicians beware, he's coming for you, next.

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[1] that there is significant crossover between the Reddit and Wikipedia communities is obvious but not relevant; these communities are not sectarian