Friday, April 6, 2012

Commanding Heights

[The name of this post was inspired by the Commanding Heights documentary.]

Four years ago we launched the Multitude Project with the aim of understanding the effects of the new digital technology on our socio-economic institutions. We convinced ourselves that humanity was fast approaching a transition point, and that a new social order was about to emerge. But, unfortunately, we now realize that the future doesn’t look as unidirectional as we would like it to be.

Three possible worlds

One possibility, the one we would like to see materializing, is another step of emancipation of the multitude. It is a world in which individuals have greater control over what they want to become, over the value they produce, in all dimensions of value and, as a matter of fact, a world in which individuals have greater control over their own lives. It is a continuation of an undeniable historical trend of emancipation, as the multitude became more cohesive with the advance of communication and coordination technologies. We have finally reached the era of real-time peer-to-peer coordination, with practically no spatial barriers. The multitude is now more coherent than ever. It is able to generate very powerful large-scale effects, surpassing the containing forces of any social system previously designed to constrain it. The will of the people can now be expressed in massive global waves. The #occupy movement is one recent example of such manifestations.

Another possibility is justified by our new capacity to destroy our planet many times over, or at least to plunge the entire world into another dark age. This can become a reality if those in control of our societies are not capable of understanding the normal course of history and instead decide to desperately hang on to their assets. Picture a few individuals like Muammar Gaddafi, willing to fight for their ego until the end. At least for the moment, it seams that the global power structure is shifting towards the multitude. The same kind of shift happened before in our history, but this is the first time it happens after we developed the potential to almost instantly destroy ourselves, a dangerous power to have when “shift happens” (thanks Seb for this catchy expression).

But this doomsday scenario can be offset by yet another alternative of the future, which preserves an elite layer on top of the multitude. The fact that this possibility exists can split the actual elite into a progressive-conservative dipole. The progressive camp is made of those individuals who already have power and understand the transformations we are undergoing, and are flexible enough to adapt. They simply save themselves by changing the way they operate. This progressive camp can block to the doomsday scenario, which is nothing but destruction, egoistic and rooted in ignorance.

We already see this progressive camp forming among the world elites. They are actively designing and setting up a system in which they would occupy new commanding heights. The goal of this essay is to analyze this possible future and to incite collective action in order to avoid this trajectory.    

Not everything that shines is gold. Not all ideas about openness, transparency and decentralization are good.

Michel Bauwens traces a parallel between the transition from the slave-based society to the feudal society, within the Roman Empire, and the transition from capitalism to p2p. [see video bellow]. He is obviously talking about this possible future we would like to avoid, in which an elite provides the infrastructure and the multitude uses it to create value, although in a more open and decentralized fashion. This is what Google is actually going for.

From natural assets, to capital, to systems of value exchange, to data and information

Ancient socio-economic systems were structured around natural capital. The most important was agricultural land, but we should also consider access to water for irrigation and transportation, etc. Power was synonymous with ownership of natural assets. The mechanic and electromagnetic technological revolution introduced new means of production and built capital [tools, ...] became the most important structuring factor of society. During those times, power rhymed with control over means of production. Later, the advance of the information technology made possible large-scale consolidation of value exchange systems. Suddenly, the elites realized that in order to extend their power/control it was sufficient to take hold of value exchange systems, i.e. markets and monetary systems.

Today we are at the end of this last era, and at the beginning a new one. The world can go in either one of the three ways described above.

What are the new commanding heights?

It is very clear what those in control of Google aim at: the control of data and information.
Controlling data and information at the global scale gives one more power than controlling value exchange systems. Monetary systems can become open, transparent, decentralized, based on distributed trust mechanisms. Markets can become freer, more open. The multitude can be allowed to play freely in those spaces. Production can become more distributed with the advance of CNC machining and 3D printing. But WE will still not be free if we will not have control over our data and information!

The control of data and information is the new commanding height that the new elite wants to create and occupy. Think about it! This idea should guide all our future actions. We need to avoid the formation of this new leverage of power. We need to prevent it reaching a critical mass, to become an attractor from which it will be very hard to escape.

A few words about attractors and why we should do everything in our power to avoid some of them 

What is Facebook? It is a platform on which you develop, groom, and keep your social capital. A lot of individuals hate Facebook and would love to abandon it for another platform, but they can’t do it, because of the powerful network effects it generates, because of very high switching costs. If you quit Facebook your social capital will NOT follow you. It is trapped, locked into Facebook, and YOU are trapped too. Facebook is a well-formed attractor, sucking everyone in to develop and exploit social capital. It generates a stable social pattern (the attractor), at a very large scale, people subscribe massively to Facebook and use the platform in a way which is guided by the platform. There is an alternative to Facebook, Diaspoara, which makes social capital portable, and lets individuals control it. Will Diaspora succeed in defusing Facebook? I hope so, but it will not be so easy. Once an attractor is formed it takes a very good understanding of the complex/dynamic system, of its leverage points, and a lot of energy to engage the system on a different trajectory, towards a better attractor.

What is Google? If you think it is just a search engine and a free email service you’re good for some heavy homework. Google is developing a social platform, like Facebook, AND a collaboration platform on top of that (see Google Apps for business). We are talking about collaboration. Therefore, we are talking about value creation, about the economy. Google is well engaged (deliberately!) in building an infrastructure (the backbone) for a new economy, which is designed so that they can be on top it. This is NOT the new economy that WE are building, NOT a multitude economy. They are very busy building a very powerful attractor to trap everyone on this planet in it. This is NOT “conspiracy” theory!

Furthermore, Google goes into sensing and automation. See Google cloud robotics for example (video below)

In other words, Google uses its computing power in conjunction with its cool web/cloud-based applications, with user-friendly interfaces, to lure us to its platform. Now, we are talking about Google controlling a web of things AND processes for analysis, decision making AND automation of almost anything out there.  Google’s concept of a robot is so generic, it can mean a smart phone, a collection of house appliances, a potato farm (all its sensors and control/automation systems), and even an entire region with ALL its potato farms, and farms of all kinds. In other words, Google is building infrastructure with the idea in mind that one day it can handle data and information and provide analysis and decision making for arbitrarily large systems of production. Now, excuse my expression, but this sounds f**** scary to me…

Google offers a lot of value to individuals, and this is actually part of the game. Nobody forces you to create a Facebook account, but once to go down that path, because you find value in using the platform, you WILL find it increasingly difficult to go back, and Facebook will exploit this weakness. Google will be the equivalent of Facebook in the realm of the economy.

So Google provides all kinds of user-friendly tools that are essential in value creation, keeps us focused on production while taking our worries away from the infrastructure. Their services improve continuously over time in a way that doesn’t interfere with our creative/productive activities. What a dream deal! Google is well positioned to receive all these individuals disillusioned with capitalism and socialism, who want to move to peer-production. The proof is our own use of Google’s platform for Multitude Project and for SENSORICA, which demonstrates how well Google is aligned with our ideas. Google rhymes with OUR new economy, but it’s a trap!

In conclusion 

I am taking it on Google because it is such an easy target, but this idea is very general.

There is a possible world around the corner in which data and information becomes the most important leverage of power. Facebook specializes on social capital, Google enters the realm of economics. We need to think the Diaspora way. SENSORICA it to Google what Diaspora is to Facebook.

I invite Diaspora to collaborate with Multitude Project and with SENSORICA to pump more energy into creating the conditions for a different attractor to form, which is the world we believe in and want to create.

But even before that, we need to have our own network. The Internet MUST belong to the Multitude. Let's help  The Free Network Foundation and other such organizations.

written by t!b!
By AllOfUs


  1. An optimistic view is that there is a continuum of peer-production-ness in corporations and that Facebook and Google are some of the farthest along the path. Tomorrow new corporations will arise that are one step further along.

    I think the next step for software companies is something along the lines of value networks/open companies/open enterprises etc ( ) with a copyright license like . This allows for commercial advantage for individual companies but with a process for the software being produced to move into the public domain. If income is shared via a reputation system, then another open company can attempt to fork the project, but the fork would be obliged to still give a slice of its revenue back to the parent project. This would allow for control to pass more smoothly since it would be in the interest of the members of the parent project to cooperate with the child instead of trying to kill it.

    1. These dynamics would allow for attractors to form but it would limit their force, making it more likely that alternatives could arise.