Back in the late ’90s, cyberpunk writer Neal Stephenson introduced the concept of “phyles” in The Diamond Age. Phyles filled the void left after encryped commerce and digital currencies had deprived the Westphalian nation-state of most of its revenues, and most of the world’s states were either substantially hollowed out or had collapsed altogether into Balkanized collections of city-states. The phyle was a distributed, non-geographically-based, global civil society, providing — much like the medieval guilds at the height of their vigor — a range of support platforms for its members: reputational rating systems and quality certification, cooperative buying and marketing, assorted benefits like health and unemployment insurance, legal and security services, encrypted currencies and virtual marketplaces, and so forth.
More recently, Bruce Sterling — in The Caryatids — described a post-state world divided between two distributed global civil societies: the Acquis and the Dispensation. Members of the Acquis were connected via electronic-neural linkages to a “sensorweb,” and were able to view the world with a virtual layer (tied to the physical world via GPS coordinates) superimposed on it, and with semantic tagging of objects to convey information.
David de Ugarte has developed Stephenson’s concept of phyles in terms of what he calls the neo-Venetian model. The Venetians maintained a sort of networked merchants’ guild headquartered in Venice, with Venetian enclaves rented in major Mediterranean port cities for habitation by Venetian merchants who happened to be there at any given time. The Venetians’ distributed society, much like Stephenson’s phyles, provided a range of support and governance services for its members. In Poul Anderson’s Kith stories, the Kith — a starfaring subspecies of homo sapiens which had diverged racially and developed a separate culture as a result of time dilation — maintained Kith enclaves in the spaceports of all the major worlds they visited. Individual Kith, who lived lifetimes of many thousands of years by subjective planetside standards, lived in houses in the Kith quarters leased by their families or tribes on the occasion of their return to a world after several decades or centuries of local time.
John Robb, of Global Guerrillas blog, has proposed something quite close to all these models: local “Resilient Communities” participating, via “Economies as a Software Service,” in global networked platforms.
These software based economies and social structures could allow:
- A plethora of new economic systems within which you can make a living (all you need to do is opt-in to the one that makes sense to you). The ability to build and experiment with new rules that both fix the increasingly dire problems with the current dominant economic system while providing new capabilities and avenues for success (new currencies, new incentive structures, new forms of status, etc.).
- Rapid rates of innovation/improvement. Since the rules of these systems are software based, they can evolve very quickly. Further, some of these new structures have the potential to generate rates of improvement/innovation/wealth creation at rates an order of magnitude greater than the current system.
- Nearly costless scalability. The infrastructure of these systems scales at a nearly costless level and the platforms envisioned can support a huge amount ecosystem diversity without much strain.
Daniel Suarez, who was closely associated with Robb in the process of writing his novels Daemon and Freedom, organized the Daemon’s darknet economy on essentially those lines. Holons, or diversified and largely self-sufficient local economies, were plugged into the darknet’s distributed platforms. But along with Robb’s model, Suarez threw in something that closely resembled Sterling’s sensorweb. “D-space” used the same kind of mapping architecture as massively-multiplayer online role-playing games — but with the D-space map superimposed as a virtual layer atop the real visual landscape. Anyone wearing visual uplink goggles, wired into the darknet, viewed the world with D-space superimposed on it. The D-space layer was tied to the physical world through GPS coordinates, individuals were tagged through their darknet interface. To anyone viewing the world with the D-space layer superimposed, other individuals had their darknet call-out floating over their head, along with their ranking level within the system and their reputational rating.
I write all of this by way of background for Brewer’s article, in which he suggests that social networking, free networked platforms, and gamers’ virtual worlds may lead to something very much like Suarez’s vision. He envisons “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….
The futurist, Jane McGonigal, offers a vision for deploying alternate reality games to solve real-world problems.