Tribes, cyberspace and the communication society
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #46

Industrialization brought with it many social changes. Concentrating power in cities, it expanded the value of property rights and built a complex formal legal system to enforce them. It gave birth to the powerful police force as the means for keeping law and order in the urban population of gathered strangers, and, while spreading democracy, distanced people from the process of legislation that affected them. All this is going to change as the information revolution engulfs the planet. Perhaps surprisingly, the social changes to come will more closely reflect humans as they interacted millennia ago, rather than as they did in the more recent past.

Before industrialization, cities were much less important. The village (in an idealized history) was the key social unit, as the tribe was in pre-agricultural communities. Economic power, being geographically distributed, resulted in considerable control by people over the informal rules that governed them and their immediate environment, despite the absence of democracy as we now know it. Property rights were lax, especially in tribal society; villages placed great importance on common land. There was correspondingly little emphasis on a police force or formal law. Order was maintained primarily through systems of social punishment - reputation and taboo.

As cities formed, the value of owned property increased, as there was little sense of community or common benefit among strangers. Crime increased, property rights became important to enforce, and taboo was no longer an effective preserver of order primarily because unlike villages, the city is not what I call a communication society. People don't depend on each other in cities as much as in villages, nor does the threat of ostracization work, as social interaction is a far greater component of rural than urban life. Urban society needed, and developed, modern forms of centralized law enforcement.

As mainstream media and the general public discover the relative anarchy of the Internet, they take fright at its apparent disorder and suggest the need for government if cyberspace is to have a future - people fear freedom. At least until they experience it - after all, the Net has been around long before it became front-page news, and has evolved its own, distributed, law. Based on principles of total freedom of expression and a strong dislike of irrelevant content outside clearly defined zones, infractions are met sometimes by the guerrilla action of spontaneous protest, sometimes by ostracization.

This works because cyberspace is also a communication society. While McLuhan's Global Village has become extremely cliched, in this aspect cyberspace does resemble a village. People on the Net may not be dependent on each other for food and clothing, but they are for almost anything else concerned with a cyber life. Cyberspace is full of vibrant communities that do little else but talk, and with social interaction at a higher level than at any time in history, it is well suited to a system of social punishment such as taboo; indeed, this may become the only practical form of wired justice, and could be very effective - in cyberspace, if nobody talks to you, you're dead.

The similarity to pre-industrial communities does not end with modes of governance, but extends to basic issues of economics. Property rights in the infosphere are contentious; they keep getting more impractical to enforce, and will play a diminished role in a post- industrial world as technology and people work around attempts at formal legislation. Without realizing it, the denizens of the Net have already created a vast 'cooking- pot' market in software, news and information, based on the very tribal notion of shared property and benefit. That government and industry will work with such disorganized economies is extremely unlikely, but they are so inherent to the communication society that cyberspace is, that they will survive, though perhaps occasionally going underground.

Technology and society go hand in hand, but sometimes history repeats itself, if not without variation. Though the realm of information forms but part of our lives, that part will increase, and affect the rest. If we are a communication society while in the ocean of information, what might we be outside?

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