Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dealing with scale

Moving from individual communities, where decision-making is based on consensus, to governance of a single global village is a daunting undertaking. But a single, globally connected information ecosystem is inevitable, and therefore it will have some form of governance (which could be anywhere on the spectrum from American wild west to Stalinist five year plan).

I think governments will try to assert control within national boundaries (such as 绿坝-花季护航 Green Dam Youth Escort),, but they will inevitably be circumvented (three days after the first news reports there were further reports that it had been hacked).

It reminds me of the early growth of the eurocurrency market in London in the 1970s, where I was working. Eurodollars were the way in which banks created money outside of the control of individual central banks. A US dollar was only under the jurisdiction of the Federal Reserve when it was held by a bank in the US. Dollars held elsewhere avoided domestic interest rate regulations, reserve requirements and other barriers to the free flow of capital. Untethered to any fixed reference point (the Gold Standard was abandoned in 1971), money moved without constraint; we are now seeing an endgame being played out.

Walter Wriston, Chairman of Citibank, wrote about the diminishing power of governments to operate in isolation; check out the speech he delivered in 1992 on the topic of his book The Twilight of Sovereignty. The question put to him "The information revolution appears to call for new political as well as economic institutions. What are these new political institutions likely to be?" remains unanswered, and the need for an answer has increased.

Information distribution is similarly immune to actions by individual governments, even those with massive financial and technical resources; as in the financial industry, the genie is not able to be re-bottled.

So the community (yes, all 6 billion of us that live in the global village) will eventually reach a point where there a no nationally imposed controls on the creation, flow, reuse, and distribution of information. Anyone in the information business (that includes newspapers, books, music, and governments) knows that there is going to be comprehensive restructuring of the information supply chain. No-one has a clue what the new governance will be – as Clay Shirky comments, we are like the printing industry in 1500.


But, having proposed the Marae model in my previous post, I would like to suggest three principles that will help answer the question “can it scale?”

  • The system will be self regulating – that is it cannot rely on external intervention to arbitrate routinely occurring competing interests
  • The system will be recursive – the design to move from the community to the next level of aggregation is repeated as we move through the layers of scale, and there is no need for those outside to understand how an individual community operates
  • The system will be adaptive – able to respond to changes in the external environment, and supportive of innovation

We can look to the internet infrastructure itself to see how these principles can be put into action - can they apply to the content domain, for true global village governance?

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