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Internet, geopolitics & societal organization in light of the reformation

published Nov 05, 2017 06:45   by admin ( last modified Nov 07, 2017 10:46 )

This year it is 500 years since Martin Luther affixed his theses to a church door. The reformation, or rather maybe the printing press, changed society and beget wars. What will happen when the Internet changes how we get and disseminate information?

Let's first look at what similarities and differences exist between the effect of the printing press on society and the Internet's effect on society.

With regards to religion, Protestantism supplanted a hierarchical system of clergy, a body of people with relationships between them, with the "leaf nodes" being the common church goers. People lived in kingdoms, principalities and similar, where power was effectively shared between the king or other leader, and the church.

With Lutheranism the king could get rid of the power of the Roman church, and with the direct relationship between scripture and the believer, there was a new concept of identity and self, which both factors may have facilitated the nation state (see Fukuyama: Political Consequences of the Protestant Reformation, Part I , Part II ).

One may even argue that it influenced Catholic France through among other factors the French revolution, and led to Napoleons' Grande Armée which size dwarfed any other armies in Europe, People where energized to fight not for the church, but for other things such as universal ideas and the nation of France. These ideas later turned into the nation state as a war machine, where a certain loyalty with and fealty to the church and a willingness for sacrifice, had been outcompeted by having the same feelings towards the nation state instead.

The printing press led to a more direct relationship between the reader and a rich selection of standardized, mass-produced messages. Radio and television would later severely limit the selection of messages and hence funnel people's thinking into narrower tracks, and in some ways veer closer to a similar grip as that of the medieval Catholic Church, but in the service of the state. Radio may have been instrumental to totalitarianism.

The printing press made it possible to mass produce a wide variety of messages, still some works prevailed and got a much bigger audience. That is, even though the medium itself allowed a wide diversity of messages, people voluntarily limited themselves to a a more narrow set. Why did they do that? Two possibilities arise:

  • Some works were of much higher quality
  • A network effect existed, i.e. there was value in reading the same thing as others

Let's here exclude texts that were of immediate practical use such as on engineering or agriculture, and in doing so I believe the second factor becomes of most importance. Not so that the first factor, the quality of the work is unimportant, but rather that its quality should be viewed in its normative power for how people interact, which is a combination of the accessibility and the power of its ideas.

A thorough examination of the impact of Protestant ideas is beyond the scope of this text, mainly because I do not have the overview of it, but let's just settle for that the ideas did have an enormous impact and not bother too much about in what ways. Then we are left with the analysis that these ideas shaped the interactions between people in new patterns. In Fukuyama's texts he makes a difference between Lutheranism which tended to convert whole countries and principalities top-down, and Calvinism which spread more inconspicuously throughout the fabric of society.

Let's now look at the Internet. Just as with the printing press, a discourse gets delivered to your very own eyes, and you are required to believe in the text rather than to be commanded or prodded into believing in something, as was more the ways of the Catholic Church. And maybe it is this impossibility of commanding somebody to comply to the tenets of a text, where the concept of predestination is conceived.

Why would one embrace a discourse from a book or from the Internet?

  1. It confirms and completes already held views
  2. It promises success, as can be witnessed by those already holding the views

The Internet provides both reasons. The first one is prevalent in spades, and is what we refer to as the "filter bubble". The second one is seen in crypto currencies, which are creatures wholly dependent on the Internet and impossible to fathom without it, where a coin's success is completely dependent on other people's valuation of it.

The first reason, to confirm and complete already held views, can be a bit dangerous insofar that it may lead people into believing that they are more powerful in the world than they are, and that their peers are people that are actually surrounding them, instead of being spread out on the Internet. And of course it can nurture parochial views that are incompatible with interaction with other people holding different views. Some of these bubble communities — such as the flat earthers — have their fair share of people in them who cannot function in society in a productive way, which implies they are not locii of tremendous world-changing power.

The big effect of the Internet bubbles right now is in disinformation, that people do not know what facts to believe in. Partly this is due to some of the facts previously held as true were merely articles of belief meant to function as a glue in society.

When this glue comes undone, we may veer more towards anarchy or libertarianism. Crypto currencies can here be seen as a part of the new glue to hold society together, but that power also means that they may become brutal forces of change. The danger of disinformation on the other hand lies mainly in having difficulty to respond to nation states less affected by the chaos of the Internet, mainly Russia and to some extent China. However those countries may suffer much more gravely once the effects of the Internet hits them. As the entrepreneur Naval Ravikant said, China's monetary policy (to shut out crypto currencies) now boils down to its firewall policies.

The world completely went off the gold standard in the 1970s, and the flaws of "fiat" currencies (as currencies not backed by gold or similar are called) have been amplified by the super speed of computers, where the life cycle is accelerated by operations and communications close to the speed of light and the speed of logic gates. In fact, the fiat monetary system and its accompanying belief system can be seen as the original computer & network-driven filter bubble.

Fiat currencies are connected to the nation state, since they get their value from being the unit for paying taxes and are defended by the monopoly of violence of the nation state. If we assume the nation state will be weakened by the Internet and by crypto currencies, fiat currencies will also be weakened (directly so by crypto currencies obviously). Incidentally the Euro fiat currency has put itself into a strange predicament by being used in a geographic area without the rigor of the nation state.

Timothy Snyder has warned about the dangers of not having a functioning state. Mortality in such areas tend to go up and sometimes even surpass communist states' death tolls. So it seems we would very much prefer to have:

  • Functioning states, in tune with the new technology
  • An orderly way to get there