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Last Updated: Friday, 24 November 2006, 14:46 GMT
Forward the online revolution
We all have the power to shape the networked world, argues regular commentator Bill Thompson.

Amazon warehouse
The Amazon warehouse illustrates how the networked economy works

Over the last 20 years the global economy has been shaped and reshaped by computers and the growing reach of the internet as a public communications network.

Businesses now rely on the net in the way they relied on the telephone back in the 1950s or the railway back in Victorian days, and new ways of doing business are constantly emerging based around the capabilities of the network.

This has happened at the same time as manufacturing technology and processes have undergone their own revolution.

In The World is Flat economist Thomas Friedman describes how companies like Dell manage their supply lines and how the way products are designed and built has been transformed, a model that many other companies emulate.

Last week's UK papers featured a dramatic panoramic photograph of the Amazon warehouse in Milton Keynes, with millions of parcels waiting to be dispatched for Christmas in a graphic illustration of how today's networked economy works.

These changes to the economy matter, because the way business works and production is organised affect our daily lives in many different ways, but we rarely consider just how deep the impact goes.

New worlds

Over 150 years ago Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels outlined an economic theory which claimed that the economic base, or infrastructure, of a society shaped what the rest of society would be like.

They believed that politics, culture, family structure, the mass media and everything else - what they term the 'superstructure' - depended on the way the economy works, so that if the economic base changed then daily life would also change.

Bill Thompson
We still have the power to shape the networked world, as long as we realise we can.
Bill Thompson

We don't have to accept the whole political philosophy which Marx built around his economic model to realise that this is happening all around us, and daily life and cultural structures are changing as the underlying economy shifts.

The network, built and designed to permit fast exchange of information between companies, built to facilitate financial transactions both wholesale and retail, has become a conduit for individual self-expression.

As a result, at least in the developed West where access is becoming universal, political processes, media models and the assumptions of everyday life are being changed.

The shape of the US election was partly determined by the blogosphere, especially the election monitoring that is going on and the way it foregrounded political hypocrisy.

In the recent Dutch elections over half of voters consulted an online advice site which may have boosted support for minority parties by raising voter awareness of their positions. And in the UK political bloggers are launching online TV services and being courted by politicians.

We are inventing new forms of artistic and cultural expression, from machinima to mashups via video clips and blogs, and soon we will find ways to curate, present and sell them, as we do with every other form of artistic expression.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto

Participative media, citizen journalism, blogging and social networking mark the point at which the social structures of the second half of the 20th century finally break down and vanish and new relationships emerge.

Companies like Dell feel the fury of their former consumers and try to reinvent themselves in the image of the participative community, even if they sometimes stumble.

And every media outlet is turning to its former audience and trying to find ways to include and embrace people, hoping that they can turn participation into money when previously all they needed were passive viewers.

Some may succeed, though newspapers seem to have passed the point of no return, and many are rather like Macbeth: 'in ink stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er'.

History doesn't end, but eras do, and between 2000 and 2006 we have seen the end of the post-war era and the first flowering of the network world.

So how are we going to deal with the social, political and economic impact of the monster that we have unleashed since the two-way web came back into fashion?

Network laws

If we're going to move forward and do so in a way that will give us a modicum of network and social justice we have to recognise two fundamental principles.

The first was expressed most clearly by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig when he pointed out that "code is law".

Ethernet cable
Networks permit fast exchange of information between companies

We write the code, the underlying software that creates the network and so, within the broad limits of physical and mathematical reality, we can do whatever we want with or to the network.

The second is even more fundamental.

In the big game of scissors, paper, stone that characterises the network's evolution, politics trumps engineering.

The limits on our capabilities, and the breadth of our vision, depend on politics (which includes religious and social concerns) far more than engineering.

This means that technical bodies like the Internet Engineering Task Force will always lose to the political groups like ICANN, the body that the US Government has appointed to look after things like domain names and IP addresses.

It means that when the hard decisions have to be made then the political imperative will come first, even if that means compromising on engineering efficiency.

Yet all is not lost. The revolutionary period is not yet done, and there is still time to shape the technologies and politics to give outcomes which we progressive liberals would approve of, still time for social justice and freedom of expression to be built into the laws and the code.

Not all revolutions are violent or involve storming a nearby prison to release those held there. And not every revolution ends in disaster and the betrayal of the very causes that drove it forward.

We still have the power to shape the networked world, as long as we realise we can.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet




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