Is the Wikileaks conflict leading us towards a better and more open future or can it result in the opposite?

The Wikileaks phenomenon in itself is nothing but the natural consequence of Moore's Law and the emergence of omnipresent and ubiquitous communication and data gathering technologies. It is an effect that is one interpretation of the concept of radical transparency , a situation when there doesn't exist any barriers for information anymore and where everything is potentially known by everyone.

What Wikileaks really is doing is showing the world a small and relatively isolated (!) glimpse of what radical transparency might mean for governments.

One thing to note is that in the not too distant future we can expect that radical transparency will spread to companies, corporations and basically all other organizations as well.

The bigger picture - towards a completely new society

But what does this mean in the long run?

To understand the bigger picture and where this might lead we also need to add another underlying driving force to the puzzle. The driving force is the result of two distinct human capabilities: our ability to communicate and our capacity to innovate and create tools and structures. When looking back in history with these glasses we can identify this key driving force behind almost all major reorganizations of human society.

With the innovation of many-to-many communication on an individual level it is very likely that we are at a stage of radically transforming human societies once more. If this is the case we are actually part of a shift that will transform our society in a much more fundamental way than the relatively recent change from a farming society into an industrial society. Maybe the shift from an oral society to a text based society will be a more adequate comparison. If we are going to judge from previous reorganizations of humanity we can conclude that the majority of today's institutions will become obsolete or at least altered in a fundamental way. Including the corporations, nation states and even our cherished model of democracy.

Wikileaks, together with other P2P-related effects, are then just the weak signals lightening the murky path towards a very different future.

How do we get to the future?

The reason for a fundamental shift lies in the conflict of three seemingly incompatible concepts

  • Static hierarchic structures
  • Democratic models of power organization
  • Radical transparency

Democracy and static hierarchies have been working together for the reason that communication have been organized according to a broadcasting model where you have a few dominant broadcasters and accordingly can contain the discussions and the perspectives to a certain degree within a community. If you add radical transparency this isn't possible anymore and a conflict between these three takes place. The core of the conflict has not so much to do with democracy as has with the other two because the nature of the conflict lies in the fundamental incompatibility between radical transparency and static hierarchic structures and it is quite possible that democracy will be the victim in this conflict (placing nuanced comments by e g Clay Shirky in the naïve and idealistic corner).

A couple of years ago I wrote a quick post about how this upcoming conflict between new ways of organizing driven by the Internet and many-to-many communications on one side, and the traditional static and mechanically based institutions (e g governments) built on a broadcasting communications model on the other.

This conflict could be played out in one of four scenarios describing the different structures of conflict this could result in.

The scenarios were:

  1. A smooth sail - governments will just fade away with very little conflict in order for new governing structures built on new communications technologies to take their place
  2. Back in line - governments around the world will see and understand the coming dangers and will together succeed in restricting the Internet so that all threats to the traditional institutions are controlled and contained - resulting in a drastically more restricted Internet than we have today
  3. Full scale war - the world will be divided between countries who have too much to lose from letting the power move down to the Internet grassroots and others who actually have become reliant on the existence of a free and open Internet - since communication is now as crucial for survival as food and water an armed conflict of gigantic scale will follow
  4. Many small wars in different areas at different times - the conflict will be prolonged and played out in arena by arena, and not fuel a full scale global conflict, but will result in slow but steady changes in area by area

Which scenario do Wikileaks indicate?

The scale of the current conflict around Wikileaks suggest that scenario 1 is already out of the question. Then we have the other three left.

The rapid escalation of the conflict and the direct involvement of so many actors due to the choice of diplomatic arena, could suggest that Wikileaks is the first step in the chain of events that will lead to scenario 3 - Full scale war.

The force and fury by which mainly the US Government is acting might suggest that we are heading towards scenario 2 - Back in line. Will the other governments across the globe also realize who the real enemy to their position of power is and close their ranks in order to succeed in defending the current power structures – regardless of the consequences for the Internet and sacrificing the fundamental constitutional rights on which the modern democracies are built?

Or maybe this current conflict will be contained and slowly fade out? It could the then lead us towards scenario 4 - Many small wars in different areas at different times...

Any comments on this?

It is a bit weird that it is much more easy to write things in the unstructured and undemanding link stream i e my Tumblr feed, than to write things here. I will try to change that...

For some time I have been thinking about the role of destruction in change processes. That lead me e g to reread Asimov's Foundation, which I referred to some time ago in this blog.

One of the "natural laws" of civilizational collapse is that there seems to be a causal relation between a civilizational collapse and knowledge destruction. For example when Rome or the Mayan civilization fell, the whole people (which of course didn't die off and disappear) rather quickly also lost much of their knowledge and skills. Everything from mathematical, engineering and astronomical knowledge to a long row of artistic skills and more advanced farming skills seems to have quickly deteriorated and disappeared as a direct consequence of the fall a common organization.

It is obvious that there is a causal explanation that knowledge destruction could lead to societal collapse, but I am not asking that. My question concern the opposite direction of that causal link: why knowledge destruction follows societal collapse.

Maybe it is obvious to you, but to me this is really a riddle. Why does this happen and what mechanisms are in play here? Why can't e g a small group of people harbor key pieces of the knowledge and continue to develop it?

When watching a video of a recent and very interesting and insightful talk by Dr Anders Sandberg about Cloud Superintelligence, one possible piece of that puzzle suddenly fell into place. He showed in a clear way why many average people, connected to each other, can create extraordinary results even if there is quite a lot of noise in the system. He basically states that there is a direct relation between the number of individuals communicating to each other and collective group intelligence.

The purpose of his talk is to explain why the cloud is actually creating superintelligence, which we can see in e g wikipedia, but by going that path he also explains how and why communicating groups is achieving better results. And that there is a knee on the curve when the communicating groups are too small and don't achieve the same level of result.

To me this suggests that the major, and perhaps only, important factor for explaining the loss of knowledge due to societal collapse is that larger groups of people is being scattered into many smaller communicating groups, which, just because they consists of a smaller number of communicating individuals, is losing a lot of their collaborative group intelligence. As a consequence they probably take much worse collaborative decisions when it e g comes to electing leaders, who to collaborate with or how to use the available resources in the best way.

Watch Anders' talk for yourself and listen to his explanation:

Another consequence of this concerns, if it is true, not the past, but the future and not just that we are on our way to create a Collaborative Superintelligence: modern communication technology (read "the Internet") might for the first time in history provide us with a capacity to, even if our societies are structurally collapsing, continue communication in sufficiently large groups, which in turn most likely will let us maintain our knowledge and collaborative IQ.

I e IF we succeed in protecting our global communication infrastructure from the defenders of national security (which most often mean their own position of power)...

If anyone is interested in the theories why civilizations fall I can recommend the book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond and of course the important book about group intelligence: Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

Don Tapscott, is stating the paradigmatic effect of Internet on the whole society in this short and radical movie. He states that:

  • The web is creating a global infrastructure for collaboration (which leads to disruption and confusion)
  • As a result, all of our institutions have come to the end of their life-cycle
  • The current recession is a crucial punctuation point in human history - the point where we said that we need to reset, the point where the industrial economy has finally run out of gas
  • This paradigm shift is creating a crisis of leadership
  • The Digital Natives are inheriting this situation - and they think very differently
  • Kids are now the authority on many issues
  • We have 40 years to re-industrialize the planet

[From MediaFuturist: Don Tapscott: Anybody that thinks we come out of this recession and get back to business as usual is deeply mistaken]

I think he is sort of right and I basically argue something similar, but I try to avoid his mistake of attribute everything to just the Internet. Internet is a really important driving force that shapes a lot of things right now, but both the end of the industrial era and the new challenges we see today is a result of many other important driving forces as well.

But it is a brilliantly short and crispy video with a message:

200810152232.jpgIn July this year HBS published a working paper by the name: Communication (and Coordination?) in a Modern, Complex Organization where the authors analyzed e-mails from 30.000 employees in a large company over a 3-month period. It is really interesting that this has been done, even if I wonder why it wasn't done before (or am I wrong?).Their conclusions are really interesting, especially in present times of the social networks, where horizontal communication is growing rapidly.

Communication patterns were extremely hierarchical: Executives, middle managers, and rank-and-file employees communicated extensively within their own levels, but there were far fewer cross-pay-grade interactions in the firm.

Junior executives, women, and members of the salesforce were the key actors in bridging the silos.

[From the executive summary: The Silo Lives! Analyzing Coordination and Communication in Multiunit Companies — HBS Working Knowledge]

To those people who believe in the strong transformative power of technology this may sound surprising or even depressing. Because it basically means that in spite if all this wonderful technology that creates transparency and breaks down borders people are still communicating within silos.

To me this just underlines one of the important lessons from the research area of diffusion of innovations: it is our social connections that are the vehicles for the spread of innovations, and first in the next step technology changes social patterns. Social patterns doesn't change over night, because they are based on human behavior which follows much longer cycles.

Another way to put it is that the people as both employees and as company culture members embodies values and mental structures that in practice regulates e g who is invited to which project or who to contact to get a problem solved. In 1990 Paul A. David published an article called The Dynamo and the Computer: An Historical Perspective on the Modern Productivity Paradox where he tried to explain why the productivity gain of computers didn't showed up in the balance sheet. His point is that productivity doesn't rise until the whole system is redesigned in a new way, a process that may take decades because of the built in inertia in a working systems consisting of both people, machines and information structures in complex interrelation with each other.

What I think lacks in this research is how these social communication patterns changes with age, education and the individuals earlier experience of e g social software. I don't doubt that physical, geographical or organizational barriers creates this effect, but I am curious what is happening what is happing to people which are heavy users of communication and have a wide reach before they enter a large organization. Are they changing their behavior? And how much??

It would also be very interesting to compare companies of different age and maturity to understand how and how fast these silo patterns are emerging.

My comment as a futurist about this is (as usual): think s-curves! A lot of communication patterns on this planet haven't changed a bit yet, but they are about to. We are just inflating our expectations about this horizontal and social communications.