Desktop Regulatory State, Chapter Four — Introduction

[This is the seventh installment in my serialization of my book-in-progress, tentatively titled Desktop Regulatory State] , and the first of two installments of Chapter Four. Since this is a draft manuscript, it contains placeholders for additional material.]


When it comes to networked economies, it seems to be “steam engine time.” Of course it shouldn’t be surprising that a wide range of thinkers came up with similar ideas for social organization—as is the case with any other innovation—as soon as the building blocks became available and there was a perceived need for it. The building blocks were the digital revolution and the open Web of the 1990s. As for the perceived need, it should be obvious to anyone who’s read James Scott on not being governed or Hakim Bey on pirate utopias that the perceived need is as old as the state and class society. To quote Peter Ludlow:

The reason that anarchy becomes a topic of interest in cyberspace is simply that with the widespread availability of various technologies (such as public key cryptography) it now appears that certain anarchist ideals may be possible, if not inevitable. That is, cryptography and related technologies like anonymous remailers and electronic cash may undermine the concentrations of power that we are currently familiar with (nation states, for example), thus allowing us to take on substantially more individual responsibility. [Peter Ludlow, “Preface,” in Ludlow, ed., Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2001)]

At the root of all the networked platform models examined below is what Timothy May, writing in 1994, called the “virtual community”:

The Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts are both examples of virtual communities that span the globe, transcend national borders, and create a sense of allegiance, of belonging, and a sense of community. Likewise, the Mafia is a virtual community (with its enforcement mechanisms, its own extralegal rules, etc.) Lots of other examples: Masons, Triads, the Red Cross, Interpol, Islam, Judaism, Mormons, Sendero Luminoso, the IRA, drug cartels, terrorist groups, Aryan Nations, Greenpeace, the Animal Liberation Front, and so on. There are undoubtedly many more such virtual communities than there are nation-states, and the ties that bind them are for the most part much stronger than are chauvinist nationalist emotions. Any group in which the common interests of the group, be it a shared ideology or a particular interest is enough to create a cohesive community.

Corporations are another prime example of a virtual community, having scattered sites, private communication channels (generally inaccessible to the outside world, including their authorities), and their own goals and methods. In fact many “cyberpunk” (not cypherpunk) fiction authors make a mistake, I think, in assuming the future world will be dominated by transnational megacorporate “states.” In fact corporations are just one example of many such virtual communities that will be effectively on a par with nation states. (Note especially that any laws designed to limit use of crypto cause immediate and profound problems for corporations and that countries like France and the Philippines, which have attempted to limit the use of crypto, have mostly been ignored by corporations. Any attempts to outlaw crypto will produce a surge of sudden “incorporations,” thus gaining for the new corporate members the aegis of corporate privacy.) In an academic setting, “invisible colleges” are the communities of researchers.

These virtual communities typically are “opaque” to outsiders. Attempts to gain access to the internals of these communities are rarely successful. Law-enforcement and intelligence agencies… may infiltrate such groups and use electronic surveillance (ELINT) to monitor these virtual communities. Not surprisingly, these communities have been early adopters of encryption technology, ranging from scrambled cellphones to full-blown PGP encryption….

The advent of full-featured communications systems for computer-mediated virtual communities will have even more profound implications. MUDs and MOOs (multi-user domains, etc.) and 3D virtual realities are one avenue [as also multi-player online role-playing games—see below under Suarez], and text-centric Net communications are another….

The so-called Internet2 is projected to link tens of thousands of “community anchor institutions” throughout the United States and the world with a much higher capacity fiber optic backbone. Of course, on one level it sounds like a renewed attempt at a high-bandwidth “Information Superhighway” with paid streaming content. But it also offers the potential of increasing the scope and power of networked platforms far beyond their present state. All sorts of collaborative software platforms, serving resilient communities, might piggyback on this infrastructure.

A common theme in the networked platform models discussed below is that they are scalable and modular, with any number of local communities or organizations being able to connect to them on a stigmergic basis. And as we already saw in Chapter two with regard to scalability, one of the advantages of the module/platform architecture is that it makes adoption feasible on a granular basis without any need for society as a whole to reach some “tipping point.” It also achieves economies of scope—and minimizes unit costs of infrastructure—by maximizing shared use of the same infrastructure. If a support platform is digital, the number of replicating modules that can share it at zero marginal cost is infinite.


Desktop Regulatory State. Excerpts to Date:

Chapter One — First. Second.

Chapter Two — First. Second.

Chapter Three — First. Second.

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