Co.Design

How the Internet Creates a New Strain of Democracy

How we can use the power of the Internet to create a new type of democratic power.

Technology is evolving rapidly, with 500 million people spending 700 billion minutes every month on Facebook. That's the equivalent of years, if not decades, of human effort and energy.

But Facebook is just one branch of this new interconnected global network of users. In fact, it's more than a network. It's a series of sparks shimmering around the globe as bold new ideas flicker to life in the minds of individuals that can nurture and amplify them through their embryonic stages.

"E Pluribus Unum" is the dictum on the seal of the United States. It means, 'out of many, one.' The power of networks suggests that there is something bigger than the sum of the parts?perhaps our new motto should be "E Pluribus Magis," or "out of many, more." The potential of E Pluribus Magis is incomprehensible for any one person in it. But collectively, it's a feeling of solidarity, euphoria, and excitement at the revolutionary potential of like-minded people united in the goal of improving the world around them in small as well as big ways.

What exactly does E Pluribus Magis mean? I believe that there are three things that define it:

Purpose

Purpose can't be faked. The individuals in the network recognize authenticity and see straight through hidden motivations. The work that individuals do can be for their local communities, but their work has reverberations that are relevant globally, as well locally. Ideas that succeed in the network are inherently valuable and, for that reason, viable. Recent events in Egypt suggest that a real purpose, in the end, is the catalyst for change.

Self-Sustained

In this model of citizen-driven commerce, capital can be raised directly from the people. Valuable ideas no longer depend on conventional models of funding to come to life. The people can decide as citizen consumers how to vote with their wallets.

Take a look at kickstarter.com?a site where people can raise money for various creative projects?and it's clear that there's an appetite for ideas, products, and services that come from outside of the conventional business models.

Incomprehensibility

E Pluribus Magis is big and beyond any one person, a quality that is its most powerful characteristic. It's a de-centralized control model. It's a meritocracy. Chris Jordan's E Pluribus Unum project shows one million organizations graphically. When seen as a whole, you simply can't see that the image is composed of one million names. As you zoom in, you begin to see what one million of anything looks like.

But E Pluribus Magis is even bigger still, and beyond any one person. And that's its most powerful characteristic. It's a de-centralized control model. It's a meritocracy. E Pluribus Magis is so big that it goes beyond the ability of any one individual to fully comprehend its entirety. Instead, we have to focus on our individual talent and act with the faith that the whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts.

The 700 billion minutes that people spend on Facebook represent the equivalent of 70 million people years of work. Imagine a 70 million person company and what it could accomplish in a single year. And imagine the sheer impossibility of managing such a company from the top down. The network becomes most powerful when we focus on our individual talent and act with the faith that the whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts.

Out of many, more.

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2 Comments

  • Paddy Harrington

    Definitely agree with your comments Andrei.

    The article might benefit from a bit of clarification/postscript.

    I definitely agree that we realize nowhere near the potential represented by a network like that of facebook.

    What I do think, though, is that we’re at the beginning of a new wave of techniques, institutions, and technologies that allow us to harness the latent potential in these networks.

    Freerice.com is an example. Play a word game, and that activity is translated into real world benefit. The problem is that now, that site is stand alone, and so doesn’t really tap into these bigger networks. Imagine an underlying program behind Farmville that translated gameplay into real world donation. Pick a turnip in Farmville, and a sponsor gives a turnip to someone in need.

    Another example is foldit, a program developed by the University of Washington that makes protein folding into a videogame. It turns out that humans are more efficient at finding the most compact ways of folding proteins than computers. So the researchers developed a game that lets humans compete against one another as they try to find the most compact ways of folding proteins. Research disguised as fun.

    Clay Shirky says that it took 1% of the time that Americans watch television every year to build all of Wikipedia. That still means that many many hours are wasted watching TV each year, but we’re beginning to see ways to tap into that vast potential and it appears that people want ways to engage.

    Whether it’s passive engagement, where your regular activity has an underlying layer of technology that captures the energy spent doing that activity (like gyms that are powered by the people using the gym equipment). Or Whether it’s a more direct engagement where people tap into an active community of like-minded supporters, like Kickstarter.

    Kickstarter now generates 1 million dollars of revenue each week for projects that would, otherwise, never have been viable in our current economic model.

    All this stuff is in its nascent stages of development, but there is vast potential.

    We’ll never achieve anything near the full capacity of these online networks, but the emergence of new tools to capture the latent potential shows great great promise that we’re only just starting to see.

  • atimoshenko

    Seems much too utopian to me. Perhaps I am coming too much from the other perspective, but in my experience most people cannot be bothered about most things most of the time. As a result, large networks can only quickly and effectively emerge around issues that are:

    (i) Simple (i.e. I don't need to think too much to understand it and don't need to do anything too complex to take part).
    (ii) Exceptional/noteworthy (i.e. the impact of the collective action must be clearly tangible, and significantly in excess of the hassle of contributing).
    (iii) Severely time-constrained (i.e. interest/effort can be sustained over a couple of weeks, but by then I would be looking to move on to something newer).

    As such, within such networks, out of many less. Way less. The 700 billion monthly minutes on Facebook do not produce the yearly impact of a 70 million person organisation. More likely they produce the yearly impact of a 700 person organisation. And during the occasional few weeks that a large part of the network spontaneously unites about some shared cause, it may well be able to generate the impact of a few month's work of a well organised 7,000 person organisation.

    Actually, the latter is nothing to be laughed up. A motivated 7,000 person team bent on the pursuit of a single goal would have quite a large impact. Furthermore, if (the equivalent of) such an organisation emerges seemingly magically overnight, it's sudden appearance would further amplify the magnitude of the shock it sends to the rest of the system. This is something new, something material, and something that must be considered by other players.

    On the other hand, most of the tasks that keep humanity moving forward require sustained effort... within a complex system... with uncertain outcomes... and promising little glory. I cannot see this as something that 'loose' networks could ever be effective in accomplishing. Networks can act as powerful new actors for shocking the course of events onto a new path, but they are rarely around to do the gruntwork necessary to actually map out that path and follow it.

    On a final note, the combination of the desires for simplicity and low commitment makes networks the ultimate in herd behaviour rather than meritocracy. Now herd behaviour is not entirely unfounded - a flock of birds, say, will not startle and fly without any provocation whatsoever. Nevertheless, neither is herd behaviour usually the most reasoned, considered, and effective choice. Same with networks - the decision to participate within a network is not one of "after careful evaluation of all the alternatives, this seems to be the best available choice" but "this seems kinda cool, and a bunch of my friends seem to be doing too".