We hear it every day: the future is here. If you didn’t think so last month — if you somehow thought we had more time before the Wired became real — take a look outside. Somewhere between 10 and 50 million humans have casually submerged themselves in augmented reality. We blinked and missed it. The individual pieces of tech had only just emerged when suddenly, they fused in a blinding instant. It has happened before. It will happen again. It is only a matter of time before the next Big Shift blurs the boundary of the real even further. Meatspace and bitspace are converging, but you don’t need me to tell you that.
You need me to tell you that you have been deceived.
History and technology have an uneasy relationship. Each one likes to change their partner, seemingly on a whim. Better minds than I have noticed this phenomenon:
Major technological possibilities, once uncovered, are invariably exploited in ways that maximally unleash their potential.
With major technologies, it becomes clear early on that the global impact is going to be of a certain magnitude and cause a corresponding amount of disruptive societal change.
In the broadest sense, tech enables history to change faster, or forces change to happen. But don’t take my word for it: just ask Martin Luther. The printing press ignited the Protestant Reformation and laid the foundations for the Renaissance by disrupting the Catholic Church’s stranglehold on culture and power. Ask the anonymous leaker of the Panama Papers, or Ed████ Sno████. The world will feel the ripples of their legacy forever. After all, the new PR stunt in Silicon Valley is to make efforts to eliminate unnecessary data collection on people who use your apps. (Unless, of course, you’re Big Zuck. But then again, does opium need PR? And do Facebook users count as people?)
Define the status quo of any time period as (a) the organization of power structures and (b) the dominant culture of that period, i.e. the zeitgeist. The Catholic Church, in medieval Europe, served both purposes. Today, the American government also plays both roles: starting with the world’s largest military, it co-opted public schools and media to attain near-complete dominance of both hearts and minds.
Organizations of this kind all but dictate their contemporary history. However, as we learned throughout the 20th century, stability is an equilibrium: if either the power structure or the zeitgeist of a nation experiences radical change, the other must change in turn, or be replaced — reformatted — by a superior equilibrium of power and culture.
You may ask: in the current year, isn’t it true we have more tech than ever? We should expect governments to adopt and enhance tech to efficiently maintain their power. Doesn’t that mean we would see fewer disruptions? Good question. After all, in Luther’s time, the power-to-culture ratio was weak. The Church could not send a cloud of drones to the Middle East. The Pope did not have eyes on every street, nor ears in every pocket. The priests had to rely on charisma and group cohesion to maintain the Pontifex. Small wonder Martin only needed a newspaper to unseat the old coot. The Panama leak, on the other hand, challenged a far more powerful tessellation of organizations, as did Mr. S██████. How did these two nail their ninety-five theses?
The answer: scalable tech is unimaginably powerful — yes, even more so than any modern government. You can set fire to a book and erase the work of a lifetime. You can duplicate a .pdf scan of a textbook in less than a minute. You can torrent an ebook in less than a second. The internet is the next best thing to limitless information, and by proxy, limitless power — or, more precisely, limitless culture. Today, the internet is the door on the community church. Everyone attends, and everyone sees the signs nailed thereupon. Yet if a billion signs upon a billion doors cannot disrupt today’s ruling power, today’s ruling power must be powerful indeed. Something is out of balance.
But where do you come into this?
You are a programmer. (If you’re not, you can be.) You pilot the machines that control the most complex system ever constructed by humankind. If you are employed, you use this power to do what a company tells you for around $30 an hour. This is a pretty safe bet. It pays the bills, and you sleep in your own bed. No one can blame you for following this path.
But if you think this is the only path, you have been deceived.
I am not from the Bay Area, although I have witnessed it. “Change the world,” the Bay choir sings, “by increasing advertising impressions.” Where I come from, that is what’s known as false advertising. Don’t wait up for Yelp to build factories that build factories.
If you want to change the world, study those who actually have.
|Martin Luther||95 Theses||printing press|
|John D. Rockefeller||Standard Oil||industrial capitalism|
|Gavrilo Princip||Assassinate Franz Ferdinand||premodern geopolitics|
|￼Bill Gates, Steve Jobs||Microsoft & Apple||personal computing|
|Satoshi Nakamoto||Bitcoin||cryptocurrency * internet|
|Peter Thiel, Elon Musk||Paypal, Founders Fund, Tesla, SpaceX, et al||venture capital * internet|
|Mark Zuckerberg||social media * internet|
Each of these impactors catalyzed change with scalable technology. Martin Luther spread free thinking with the printing press, and killed the authority of the Church. Rockefeller saw the industrial Matrix, and simply bent the spoon. Princip believed he was fighting for his country, when in fact he and his friends just removed the a card at the base of the house. Gates and Jobs brought computers into every home and hand. Satoshi made money 100x faster and available everywhere. Thiel and Musk are geniuses at creating and capitalizing on massive opportunities. Zucky struck lucky, and made big friends.
What else did these humans have in common? Each of them was only one person. Somehow, the efforts of a single human brain were able to fundamentally restructure a huge part of the world. It follows, then, that at any given time, the world must have one or more human-brain-sized points of extreme sensitivity. For consistency’s sake, let’s call these points nodes. A node can be a city councilmember, a small business, or a community of artists. If it guides people to act in some way — that is, if it has the power to influence individuals — it is a node. If a node is sensitive enough to be affected by the actions of a single human, then it is “human-sized”. Each node can connect to any other node, and the sum of all nodes is the complete set of power forces that act on humankind. Sketching a comprehensive diagram is left as an exercise for the reader.
Certain nodes, by their nature, are exquisitely well-connected. Other nodes are overlooked by everyone around them, simply because of how hard they are to find. The most important nodes are both. Did you know that you can distribute 30,000 copies of whatever you want, wherever you want, with 10 lines of shell script? I didn’t. At least, not before somebody found and poked the node labeled <printer network>. Suddenly, the power flowed from <printers>, to <offices>, and downstream to <the media>, and finally to the minds of millions. Weev’s message notwithstanding, one cannot but acknowledge his efficiency. The <printer network> sat there for years before anyone poked it as hard as he did. The DAO’s access point was a little harder to find, but its bug bounty – a cool $40 million – was certainly worth the wade through Solidity. And <augmented reality> only needed an intellectual property from Nintendo to blast off in a matter of days.
Even the most well-guarded node structures that form the Power half of the status quo can be accessed and influenced in this way. The nodes labeled <state secrets> and <surveillance tyranny> happened to fall within reach of Ed████ Sno████. He didn’t plan to have access to these things, but because he did, he could act upon them. The Agency betrayed the trust of Americans, so Ed simply returned the favor. The resulting revelations shook the world’s foundations.
Hell, <Franz Ferdinand> parked right in front of Gavrilo Princip in an open-roof carriage. Gavrilo thought the assassination would avenge his people, but the fallout he precipitated would slaughter two generations of European children and bring the continent to its knees, while America rose to prominence on the utility bills. In terms of preventing downstream tragedies with a time machine, I would stop Princip before I stopped Hitler.
My point is, you don’t have to be a genius to reformat reality. (It helps, and if you don’t quite know what you’re doing there will be unintended consequences, but it’s not strictly necessary.) You simply need to apply well-directed pressure at a well-connected node. Take a look around. Determine which nodes are important. Determine the best action. Act.
The actors in the table above did not exactly “get away clean”. There are always unintended consequences to reformatting reality. However, it is impossible to blame (or credit) an impactor for the eventual consequences of an immediate action. The node-web is fractal and infinite, and the cascade of power is nigh unpredictable. A small twitch here could spiral out of control in any of a million directions. As such, one cannot fault an insurrectionist for having a poor model of the world. After all, if their model were more accurate, they wouldn’t get to have all the fun that a rioting revolutionary gets to have with other people’s property — they would have to settle for a more “standard” occupation, like sitting at a computer terminal and commanding the most powerful network in human history. You can’t make any money doing boring stuff like reading code. Code monkeys don’t get laid.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
For all of his ideological preoccupations, Sinclair knew what it was like to swim upstream. And although Michael Huemer misses the mark when he advocates passivity (let’s be precise: the world is undeniably better when most people take his advice, but you and I are different), he got the nature of the matter dead-on:
When one lacks a precise and detailed understanding of a complex system, any attempt to radically improve that system is more likely to disrupt the things that are working well than it is to repair the system’s imperfections.
However, there is a silver lining to this unknowable cloud of complexity. The world is shaped every day by advancements in technology. As tech increases in complexity and scale, the importance of tech grows, and so does its influence on the world. When technology defines reality, who understands technology understands reality.
What is a programmer if not an expert with a precise and detailed understanding of the software that runs our world, with its countless pulsing nodes? If we can see the Matrix, nothing can stop us from bending the spoon.