Internet as kosmos

Glenn Reynolds takes us back 10 years to when the internet revolution was just beginning to hit mainstream computer owners.

Just try this thought experiment: Imagine that it's 1993. The Web is just appearing. And imagine that you - an unusually prescient type - were to explain to people what they could expect in the summer of 2003. Universal access to practically all information. From all over the place - even in bars. And all for free!

Surely, you would have been called 'utopian'. Or perhaps even a 'madman'.

Actually, that final statement is true. If we had started planning in 1993, we probably wouldn't have gotten here by now. The Web, Wi-Fi, and Google didn't develop and spread because somebody at the Bureau of Central Knowledge Planning planned them. They developed, in large part, from the uncoordinated activities of individuals. Why can you find all sorts of stuff, from information about the Hephthalite huns to recipes for brewing beer and even recipes for cooking squirrel, on the Web? Because people thought it was cool enough (to them) to be worth the effort (on their part) of putting it online. We didn't need a thousand librarians with scanners, because we had a billion non-librarians with computers and divergent interests. Wi-Fi is springing up the same way: not as part of a national plan by the Responsible Authorities, but as part of a ground-up movement composed of millions of people who just want it.

Exactly right. Think about all the different kinds of interaction you can have on the net. For meaningless realtime chat in which sentence fragments and bad punctuation are tolerable, you can go instant messaging. For private time-delayed conversations, you can email. For more structured, public discussion, you can go to the Usenet. For more structured, private discussion, you can go to private message boards and clubs. For an even slower pace and more rigorous analysis, you can go to blogs. These multiple categories of organization and various strata of coordination exist on the web not just for interaction with other people, but also in other arenas such as shopping, information retrieval, finance, personal organization, resource planning, and so on.

There are two lessons here. One is that the skeptics, despite all their reasonable-sounding objections, would have been utterly wrong about the future of the Web, a mere ten years after it first appeared. And the second is why they would have been wrong: because they didn't appreciate what lots of smart people, loosely coordinating their actions with each other, are capable of accomplishing. It's the power of horizontal, as opposed to vertical knowledge.

The internet is quite possibly the most dynamic social entity in the history of civilization. It was not intelligent design that made it flourish. Nobody made a top-down plan to 'coordinate resources.' It was billions of people pursuing their own ends at the very individual level that made it happen. It was the UIUC grad student who thought it would be interesting to create a graphical Web interface, the grad students at Stanford who wanted to better way to organize the 'cool sites' they found on the web, the merchant in Ohio who wanted a secure way for people from California to buy his goods, the programmers who wanted a better, easier way to publish websites, the entrepreneur who saw a new niche for deep discount stock brokers, the amateur chef who wanted to share his recipes with the rest of the world, the Virginia Tech football fan who wanted to share his thoughts about the team with other fans, the law professor who wanted a better way to filter primary sources of news, and so on, that made the internet a living, breathing, growing, and constantly evolving apparatus that serves billions of people worldwide.

The internet is one example of catallaxy, which the Greeks called kosmos - a spontaneous order that evolves from the bottom up and builds layer upon layer to form a complex structure. In the realm of human interaction, order emerges out of voluntary individual actions, in pursuit of their own ends. Power at the periphery creates structure from below. Decentralization of knowledge creates efficiency from elementary forms. The internet is truly a product of human action, not of human design.

If only the rest of human society were allowed to flourish as the internet has...

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