Internet pioneer Danny Hills has a TED talk about the early days of the Internet. On that talk we see that the Internet, on its early days, was essentially an obscure network based on trust.
Today, the Internet is much bigger, and much more important. Despite its massive importance, governments and corporations are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to mess with it, reducing its usefulness for their own profit and power gain. They get away with this because it is technically feasible to do so, and it is in the reach of their power.
The technical reasons behind this vulnerability are not particularly interesting for this post. The interesting part are the responses the Internet community is deploying to this perceived threat of control. These responses seem to fall into the following three categories:
The first kind of response is to fight in the political space to keep the Internet open. This essentially means that, as members of our societies, we get together and complain to those in power and to each other until they change their minds. This has stopped the progress of bad laws such as “SOPA” and “PIPA” in the U.S. We will call this approach “begging.”
The second kind of response is to start designing an alternative to the Internet that would not be controllable. Designing theoretical alternatives, or prototyping these designs, is not really too difficult. The harder part is seeing how these alternatives would grow beyond isolated localities adopting them and into a global mesh that would, eventually, be easily accessible by anyone, like the current Internet. We will call this approach “forking.” Not really “forking,” as these networks would probably end up talking to each other, but it has to be conceived as to stand on its own, as if it were a fork.
The third kind of response is to build a network that’s better than the Internet in some sense, but on “top” of the Internet, that is, an application using the Internet, as opposed to beside it, as a “physical network” like the Internet. That’s what the “peer-to-peer networks” do. They are not “networks” in the same sense that the Internet is a “network.” In academia, you would say that these peer-to-peer systems, such as BitTorrent, FreeNet, Napster, Bitcoin or GNUNet, are “logical networks” or “overlay networks.” They are networks “overlaid” (built on top of) an existing “physical” network such as the Internet. We will call this approach the “overlay” approach (sounds simpler than “if you can’t beat them, add a layer on top of them that makes it do what you want.”)
So, in the case of transforming the system known as the Internet, what is the correct approach? The answer is, of course, all of them. When a system is as important as the Internet, then it is not a matter of “which is the right way,” but which is the right way for you. All of them are valid, and we’re going with whatever works.
I have a hunch that these paths can be translated to the paths we have available to transforming “The Economy” into a “Resource-Based Economy” or “Love Economy” or “Gift Economy” or whatever it is that we would call it. That problem is, similarly, very important and worthy of all kinds of response we can come up with.
We have many people enacting the first response, of “begging” the current governments and corporations to do things differently.
The second response, of “forking” the current systems, is similarly receiving lots of attention. Simple and small-scale designs, such as designs for specific villages or communities, have been working for decades. Some communities even cut economic ties with the rest of the human world, essentially creating a private “world” where they can claim to exercise a “world-wide” and pure resource-based economy — but you still have to at least negotiate land ownership with some existing country, last time I checked. Larger-scale designs, on the other hand, if not deployed, at least are the focus of much discussion and study.
The third path, I think, is where we would start making some interesting progress.
Consider the following: given any criteria for allocation of the existing money tokens in circulation, which one of the following two entities would be more likely to be capable of capturing more of it?
The first entity is a group of people who each live on their own apartment, and drives each day, on their own car, to the same job site where they work. When these people meet, they pay each other for things, and every transaction is taxed by the local government.
The second entity is the same group of people, but now using a gift economy of some sort between them. They not only share things, being more physically efficient, but they also avoid having their internal economy be implemented using taxed government tokens. Whatever government money they hold in total, it disappears slower from each individual’s bank account simply because they are not taxed for circulating it internally.
Yes, money is a fiction, a convention. But so is any economic game. Even if you have a global network of computer processes monitoring all world’s resources, the representation of these resources is still a model, still a game, still a fiction. An error in modelling of the world’s resources would produce sub-optimal allocation, much like the current government money systems produce sub-optimal allocation. A much better model is still a model.
What this means is, instead of abolishing the fiction of money, why not just satisfy it? Get together with some people, and agree to collectively play the game better than those who won’t build their own gift economies and who will live physically inefficiently. Then just watch the cash pile grow. The government will have no rule it can design to not reward the people who actually want to build something different. And the more “money” you have… well, let’s just say that, in the current system, having money is not exactly a bad thing. Want to build Jacque Fresco’s futuristic town? Amassing a few hundred billion dollars couldn’t hurt. It is all fiction anyway. Gather the fiction, then give it to people who still want it. These people will give you access to the land you need to build a town, as well as deliver all the resources, material and mental, that you need to build it for the first time. Since it is a sustainable town, once it is built, you have one place that doesn’t need money.
The “overlay” path is not without its own difficult challenges, however. When you design an overlay, be it for the Internet or for the human environment sharing problem, you have to keep two worlds in your head instead of one, and constantly remember which kind of thinking goes where. If you are not careful while designing your peer-to-peer system, you may end up recreating its supporting layer without intending to. Having money may cause us to exclusively “buy” our way into simply surviving on the fruits of the global unsustainable production machine, instead of taking whatever first step, even if small and feeble, towards freeing ourselves from depending on these unsustainable (destructive and violent, really) systems. I can “have” a million “dollars,” but that shouldn’t stop me from personally spending part of my day trying to grow some tomatoes.
Final note. Becoming a billionaire solving practical problems and then donating it to charities that also solve practical problems, or funding start-ups that want to “innovate,” is not what I’m talking about here. That’s simply trying to do good within the current economic and financial system, and validating and reinforcing it in the short term. This would be simply using the existing network as it is presented, not using it in a way that makes it emulate what a competing network would be. It is certainly possible that this alone — a “correct” application of business as usual — may bring about sufficient “real” transformation that problems disappear on their own through sheer business, technological and scientific ingenuity. That is, the beautiful communities based on trust and gifting that we envision are actually just around the corner — if only we would let the great Capitalist dance finish its performance on this planet, then we would see how wonderful things could and will be. Then again, it is also possible that trying to grow a new system as a mere “product” of the diligent application of the current system will continue to not work.