Desktop Regulatory State, Chapter Four — Fictional Examples of Networked Economic Platforms

[This is the eighth installment in my serialization of my book-in-progress, tentatively titled Desktop Regulatory State] , and the second of two installments of Chapter Four. Since this is a draft manuscript, it contains placeholders for additional material. This chapter describes a large number of realworld examples or serious proposals, like the Las Indias Cooperative Group and John Robb’s Economies as Social Software Services, but they are far too lengthy to adequately condense for our purposes here. So I have instead focused on fictional examples of networked economic platforms]

III. Phyles: Neal Stephenson

The term “phyles,” as far as I know, itself comes from Neal Stephenson’s novelThe Diamond Age. The Diamond Age is set in a fictional world where encrypted Internet commerce destroyed most of the tax base of conventional territorial states (“as soon as the media grid was up and running, financial transactions could no longer be monitored by governments, and the tax collection systems got fubared”),1 most states became hollowed out or collapsed altogether and the world shifted instead (after a chaotic Interregnum) to organization based on localized city-states, and on transnational distributed networks (the phyles). A phyle, in the novel, was a non-territorial global network. Most phyles were national or ethnic—the neo-Victorians and Nipponese were the two most important, but there were many dozens more including Zulu, Boers, Israelis, Mormons, Ashanti, Sendero (Shining Path, a Colombian Maoist-Gonzaloist phyle)—and others were “synthetic” (of which the largest and most important was the First Distributed Republic, a hacker phyle that created and maintained nodes for the global CryptNet). The larger phyles commonly maintained territorial enclaves in major cities around the world (much as the Venetians, as described by de Ugarte, rented enclaves for the habitation of their merchants in major cities on the Mediterranean coast). The neo-Victorian (“Vickies”) enclaves tended to predominate in former countries of the Anglosphere; the Nipponese demographic base for recruitment was the territory of the former state of Japan, and Nipponese enclaves tended to cluster in areas of former Japanese economic influence on the Pacific Rim. But there were Vicky and Nipponese “quarters” in most of the major cities of the world. Although the novel is vague on the nature of the support platforms provided by the phyles, it’s clear from the specific case of the neo-Victorian phyle that it supports an ecosystem of Vicky member enterprises.

V. Bruce Sterling: The Caryatids

The Caryatids is set in the world of the 2060s, in which most nation-states have collapsed from the ecological catastrophes—desertification, droughts, crop failures, rising sea levels, monster storms, and multi-million refugee Volkswanderungs as entire countries became uninhabitable—of the previous decades.


The world is dominated by two networked global civil societies, the Dispensation and the Acquis. The two civil societies coexist uneasily, engaging in constant worldwide competition and sending teams to monitor each other’s activities under the terms of a negotiated accord (something like the system of meta-law that regulates relations between the phyles in The Diamond Age). Both are engaged in the reclamation of devastated areas and oversee networks of refugee camps housing millions of displaced persons. Both have ideologies strongly centered on sustainable technology. The Acquis is largely green, open-source and p2p in orientation. The Dispensation is commercial and proprietary, oriented toward what we would call the Progressive/Green/Cognitive Capitalism of Bill Gates, Bono and Warren Buffett.

The two networked societies are articulated into local enclaves much like Stephenson’s, although the Dispensation is more geographically centered than the Acquis. Its cultural and geographical heartland is southern California and the Greater Los Angeles region, and there are vague references to a surviving legislature and governor in Sacramento. The Acquis, on the other hand, is more purely networked, with its claves widely distributed around the world and no one geographical base. The major urban centers of Europe appear to be Acquis, and there are large Acquis claves in Seattle, Madison, Austin, San Francisco and Boston.

The Acquis, and in particular its experimental reclamation project on the Adriatic island of Mljet, is most relevant to our consideration here of networked platforms. The Acquis team there is linked by the “sensorweb,” a neural network, with brain-computer interfaces. Individuals can maintain constant realtime communications with the rest of the team, or surf the Net by cerebral cortex. The neural net enables anyone connected to it to view the physical world, with the help of uplink spex, with a virtual overlay superimposed on it. Members of the team are able to semantically tag real-world objects with information; the whole visual world is like a graffitoed wall, with its individual parts labeled for significance, linked to relevant sources online, and indexed to each other.

VI. Daniel Suarez

In the fictional world of Daniel Suarez’s novels Daemon and Freedom(TM),1 local mixed-use economies (holons) are built on common Darknet platforms much as Stephenson’s claves are built on the platforms of the phyles—in Suarez’s terminology, the holons are local nodes in the Darknet economy. The virtual layer superimposed on the physical world, and the individual interface with it, are much the same as Sterling’s Sensorweb in The Caryatids. Members of the Daemon’s society use heads-up display (HUD) glasses kind of like a grandchild of Google Glass to see into an augmented reality or virtual dimension called “D-Space,” which is “overlaid on the GPS grid.” D-Space is built from the mapping architectures of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), but tied to to the physical world as an overlay via GPS coordinates and to physical objects via RFID chips. Like Sterling’s Sensorweb, the virtual layer visible through Suarez’s HUD glasses shows information tags attached to physical objects (including identification and reputational metrics appearing above other people’s heads). Micromanufacturing operations between shops full of CNC tools using digital design files are coordinated in D-Space via an open-source version of the “Internet of Things.”

Joe Brewer, at Chaotic Ripple, wrote a brilliant article on virtual reality and gaming architectures as platforms for the alternative economy—“a virtual world that encompasses the real one”:

Imagine it’s the year 2050 and a vibrant, high-tech global economy is thriving. We made the transition away from fossil fuels. Our cities are designed around regional security and multi-layered resilience. Prosperity is widespread and capitalism has taken a new form that promotes human well-being as its modus operandi. In other words, we’ve transitioned to a configuration of sustainability and relative stability on a planetary scale.

How did we get here? It took a revolution.

But how did a movement comprised of rogue thinkers displace the existing powers that be? I’d like to suggest that the great 20th Century futurist, Buckminster Fuller, captured it in his assertion that “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

What if we were to take him literally and envision a parallel universe of global collaboration, one that has its own monetary currency, systems of governance, rules and agendas. Could such a system be built on a planetary scale to syphon economic productivity away from the existing model?

I want to suggest that this sci-fi future may be closer than we think. We’ve already got SEVERAL parallel universes of global collaboration. Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, and the Linux Operating System are all global platforms for collaboration with their own social order. Online games like World of Warcraft and the Gears of War series invite people to explore an alternate reality with hundreds of thousands of other people in real time. And we’re just scratching the surface of what these social technologies are capable of.

So what if the revolution takes place in a parallel universe?…

Systems of virtual reality have been built on new capabilities from mobile technologies, distributed computing, and online gaming. This makes it possible for large numbers of people to operate in a virtual world that encompasses the real one. Alternate currencies and new management tools allow for the emergence of a new social order that syphons resources away from the old economy.

Writers like Cory Doctorow and Daniel Suarez have written several books that explore how weaknesses in cyber security enable entirely new forms of guerilla warfare and economic production…. They offer a new way forward as technology outpaces the authoritarian systems of control that held democracies in check throughout history.

The futurist, Jane McGonigal, offers a vision for deploying alternate reality games to solve real-world problems. We are entering a new era of possibilities.

Meanwhile, new smartphone applications make it possible to correlate a particular GPS location with publicly available data about that location:

Today the Sunlight Foundation unveils our latest app to reinforce the power of the data around you. It’s called Sitegeist, a simple iPhone and Android app that presents a huge amount of information from disparate sources in straight-forward infographics. Just scroll and swipe your way through rich statistics about your location from demographics to popular local venues.

Sitegeist is a mobile application that helps you to learn more about your surroundings in seconds. Drawing on publicly available information, the app presents solid data in a simple at-a-glance format to help you tap into the pulse of your location. From statistical data on the people and housing to the latest popular spots or weather, Sitegeist presents localized information visually so you can get back to enjoying the neighborhood.

The app is intuitively designed such that location-specific information that would be normally difficult to track down is now all together in one place on your smartphone. As you user, just launch the app, plug in your location or a spot you’re curious about and then swipe between the categories of data. Age distributions, political contributions, median home values, record temperatures and much more will appear instantly….

Behind the scenes we dug up publicly available data and brought thousands of records together just to display one fact about your location. For example, when you drop a pin on the map and see the age distributions, we are pulling age data from the 2010 U.S. census based on the specific census tract the pin you dropped on the map is in. You don’t need to know where to find the census data or even know what census tract you’re in, just drop the pin and learn. Sitegeist presents a fresh perspective on a location and lets you consume complex information immediately taking on Herbert Simon’s famous observation, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” If you happen to have a wealth of attention, tap on much of data to get more information from the source. Find a contaminated site nearby? Tap to be taken to the EPA’s site with a longer description of the issue.

According to Clay Shirky [Here Comes Everybody], early conceptions of “cyberspace,” whether that of William Gibson or that of John Perry Barlow, were shaped in a world where those connected to the Internet were a tiny minority of the total population and hence unlikely to know each other in “meatspace.” Cyberspace was “a kind of alternate reality mediated by the world’s communications networks,” “a world separate and apart from the real world.” Back then, Shirky argues, the concept of cyberspace made sense, because there was little overlap between one’s social relations online and offline: “the people you would meet online were different from the people you would meet offline, and these worlds would rarely overlap.”

But that separation was an accident of partial adoption. Though the internet began to function in its earliest form in 1969, it was not until 1999 that any country had a majority of its citizens online…. In the developed world, the experience of the average twenty-five-year-old is one of substantial overlap between online and offline friends and colleagues…. The internet augments real-world social life rather than providing an alternative to it. Instead of becoming a separate cyberspace, our electronic networks are becoming deeply embedded in real life.

If d-space is overlaid on the physical world, rather than constituting a separate “cyberspace” dissociated from the physical world, then it reinforces physical community and becomes a tool for facilitating it. Such a platform promotes relocalization, and builds social capital.


Desktop Regulatory State. Excerpts to Date:

Chapter One — First. Second.

Chapter Two — First. Second.

Chapter Three — First. Second.

Chapter Four — First.

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