The Trias Internetica, three different roles in the society of the network age

A contribution from Jaap van Till on the balance between the state, the private sector, and civil society.

Graphic via

Trias Internetica Graphic


Recently the political wind direction, under the influence of the (financials) failures of the economic crisis, has changed from [the belief in the invisible hand of The Market, Chicago School economists] to [belief in the State: Gov’ts must govern again inspect and control to protect the public from greedy casino bankers]. But is history just a swinging pendulum between these two?? Are the issues we together all face so simple that we can solve them by either LEFTwing (Labour / Democrats) or RIGHTwing (Conservative/ Republican) deputèes in democraticaly chosen governments??

In 1988 I first published a schematic that showed a third force : the public (citizens versus the state and users/demand side versus the market supply side) and which was appearing and was empowered by what was then called ‘telematics’. That is why I named it the Trias Telematica. The public is no longer just passively being led by the nation state hierarchy. Neither is it any longer just passively buying the goods and services provided by the big company factories. The assumption that the two poles of State and Market do always know in advance and by planning what’s best for the citizens/consumers is over. They start to talk back, demand choice and together demand certain things to be done. In other words they are a power in their own right.

Sure the public is not a homogenuous / average / middle class group anymore either, with a few types of interchangeable factory/office workers. They have very diverse skills, abilities, interests and cultural backgrounds, all over the globe visible in modern school classes. So how can we talk about “the public” any more. Well groups of people can flock together around certain issues of problems to be solved, with the help of mobile smartphones and internet social media. They can volunteer in several groups without money (mrkt) or power (state) being a topic in those groups. And such group can grow into a Commons which P2P shares (non combat zone non-competitive) a certain issue which nobody can solve on its own and has also clearly defined what things or functions are NOT shares, but are each for themselves to do or competitive. Such sharing is typical as a basis for a number of Internet services too. And it shows often to be a “Triumph of the Commons” if what is contributed is in total more than the value which is taken out by the participants or platform owners.

I must stress that not everything is or must be a P2P civil society commons. Nor that this form of organization will solve anything. Sure, if you just found a hammer everything looks like a nail. The three “poles” of the Trias Internetica each are necessary to have a society functioning well.

And if one is overpowering the other two we get very unhealthy and even lethal situations as shown in the diagram.

• People (civil society) individuals and groups that cooperate in a number of tribes. You can be a member of many such digital tribes at the same time during the day irrespective of place or time. Core is: Freedom of Choice.

• Planet (the State and its institutions) which have to aim for the best long term general interest. That is where public servants and politicians are for: to serve the public. Core is: Equality of all civilians with respect to the laws and regulations. As soon as the state starts to distinguish citizens for whatever reasons of fairness or otherwise (shoe size? income?) things get complex and go wrong. They should also stay out of commons like the Red Cross, IETF, Twitter, Google etc. which already function trans-national, thank you.

• Profit (companies and ventures large and small in continusous new efforts to take risks and chances, can reap the rewards if things they do are a success.

It is new in the network age that these things now can be organized, scaled and continuously renewed by transparency and communication; learning from experience all over the world, very flexible and fast.

The interesting thing is that in the political theaters you can very easily map all different national political parties on the respective stages, relevant or not, on these three poles. Try it !!

Which shows that in my opinion a country should have at least three political parties.

And it is a sobering thought that we as individuals sometimes play these three roles too, even within one day sometimes: You can volunteer at school in the morning, work for your company in the afternoon and function in the city council in the evening, right?!

And my message for democracies, in name or real, is that in order to create a huge amount of value and have a great future:

1. These three functions must be defined and clearly explicitly recognized by tasks and limitations, yes including the division of state powers *).

2. Let everybody understand and respect these roles and keep them divided/ separated in their mind *)

3. Interconnect the three and see how well they enforce each other.

If 1. and 2. are done wrong and one or more poles try to do each others function

(Like introducing market-functioning in healthcare or universities or courtrooms) things go seriously wrong. The different groups in society then start to block each other and very very much energy is wasted.

If 1,2,3 is done well we create a virtuous circle where everything will bloom by applying the slogan of the French Revolution again “Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood” (for each of the respective poles of the triangle).”


* ) : “The full name of the French traveler, filosopher and judge Charles de Montesquieu (1689 -1755), who introduced the Trias Politica years before the French Revolution, which forms an important ingredient of many national constitutions and law texts, is

“Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu”.

Mine is

Prof. Ir. Jan Willem Jacobus (Jaap) baron van Till,

but in this day and age many commercial letters are adressed to me thinking ‘baron’ is my first or my last name. And in the phonebook my title is abrieviated to ‘bar’ which is also confusing. Maybe my Trias Internetica will produce a new group of exeptionaly useful and responsible citoyens who can rightfully call themselves ‘baron’ because of their contribution to a P2P commons where they are really uncommonly common.”

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