In my previous column, I argued that the best way to combat the state was not to work within the system to change the laws, but to make the state irrelevant by our own stigmergic efforts outside of it: by reminding people that they don’t need permission to be free, by developing new means of circumventing the state and living outside its authority, and by undermining the legitimacy of the state in popular consciousness.
I want to deal specifically, in this column, with the development of new ways of circumventing the state’s surveillance and enforcement mechanisms and making it irrelevant to the way we choose to live our lives.
States claim all sorts of powers that they are utterly unable to enforce. It doesn’t matter what tax laws are on the books if most commerce is in encrypted currency of some kind and invisible to the
state. Without the ability to enforce their claimed powers, the claimed powers themselves are about as relevant as the edicts of the Emperor Norton.
A good example is the effect of torrent sites, proxy servers and encryption on copyright law. Virtually every musical work or movie will be available for free download as soon as the proprietary version appears on the market, and anyone who cares enough to learn the proper technique can download it for free at no risk whatever. The more the state cracks down on the unwary, the more of the mainstream population is driven to using web anonymizers and darknet, and accepting their use as a normal matter of course.
The concept of stigmergy, which I referred to earlier, is again relevant here: the emergence of order through the efforts of autonomous individuals and small groups, each coordinating their efforts with the larger whole as they perceive it, without any central coordinating authority.
It’s the form of organization that governs the open-source software movement, particularly the Linux design community described in Eric Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.” Discrete innovations are developed, severally, by the self-selected individuals most interested in the problem and best suited to tackle it, and then made available to everyone through network culture. As Michel Bauwens put it, in corporate hierarchies probably 80% of the people working on a specific problem couldn’t care less about it, whereas in a peer network 100% of the people working on any given problem are doing so because they’re passionately committed to it. And the best solutions are then adopted severally, by individuals and small groups, through a similar stigmergic process. Stigmergic organization brings individual talent to bear on problems, and universalizes adoption of the best solutions as quickly as possible, without the transaction costs of conventional collective action.
John Robb, at Global Guerrillas blog, applies Raymond’s model to “open-source insurgency” and Fourth Generation Warfare. With networked resistance, separate cells independently use their own judgment in making maximum effective use of the tools and information that are out there in the public domain. Al Qaeda Iraq doesn’t undertake all sorts of centralized organizational effort to make sure nobody moves without a “Simon says” from the CEO. One little group figures out a more cheap and effective way of building IEDs, posts it to the network, and within a week all the little disconnected cells have adopted it for themselves and figured out the best way of applying it.
And according to Cory Doctorow, that’s exactly the way the file-sharing movement works. The geniuses at the record companies, in coming up with their DRM, thought it only had to be good enough to thwart the average person. The losses to the handful of geeks who could figure out how to crack it would be negligible, so long as the average person couldn’t get around it. But in fact the geeks, by figuring out a hack, provide the demonstration effect for everyone else.
Such independent efforts using the network form are pretty damned effective in distributing tools and info to where they’re most effective. And they do it without the need to get everybody on the same page before anybody puts one foot in front of the other. That’s the whole point of network culture: it removes all the incredible transaction costs and bureaucratic inefficiencies that used to be required for getting anything done.
The best way to weaken any unjust authority is by showing others, severally, how to resist it: discovering the best means of nullifying its power over you so you can make it irrelevant to your life, and then propagating the knowledge of that technique far and wide.
Painstakingly getting everyone on the same page, before permitting anyone to take the first step, is the path to irrelevance. The central benefit of network culture is that it has eliminated the enormous transaction costs of coordinating efforts through giant, bureaucratic organizations.