Is there any urge more basic than for your life to be of consequence? No matter how we define consequence, most of our instincts and actions seem aimed towards it.
Now consider that we are helping in the birth of a ubiquitous global network, for it’s not the “frozen” Internet Infrastructure that matters, it’s the connecting of most humans who wish to be, using words and gestures that seem natural to them (not yet, but real soon). We all know this is what we’re about, but it’s good to pause and wonder at our good luck to be at this place at this time.
I was reminded of this on the phone this afternoon with Doc. We got off on Infrastructure and what the “A” in NEA really means.
A friend of Doc’s had resisted the A part of the slogan until he realized Doc wasn’t talking about the alphabet soup of established technical standards but the possibilities we’re now building on them that allow us to, literally, fashion any communications environment we want to, among any people we welcome to our party. Like web logs, f’rinstance.
Forging a Confederation
I used to live in Philadelphia and I’d walk around Old Town and I got it that the Founding Brothers were technologists in many ways. They too were dealing with an interesting bandwidth accident exhibiting unintended outcomes. England’s purpose for the Colonies, of course, was to get more stuff as cheaply as possible and to tax the colonists as much as possible. But bandwidth got in the way.
This was such a wild land that, for the better part of a century, the colonies were more isolated from each other than from Mother England. Gradually though, wagon trails were built and it became more convenient for the Carolinas to deal with Pennsylvania than with England. The other virtue was that the colonists, though profoundly different north-to-south, related to each other far better than to the Court of St. James and the East India Company. By the 1770’s, the differences could no longer be ignored. Like any network, the colonies paid closest attention to the highest fidelity signal.
What’s interesting is how few people set the direction for the American Experiment. Only the 56 white guys in Carpenter’s Hall understood what a leap they were taking with the Declaration of Independence. It’s not like they were being closely controlled by their state legislatures which were several days’ ride away. It was never a certainty that Tom Jefferson’s stirring Enlightenment-era declarations of individual freedom would set the stage for their conclusions. He did it because he could and he wanted to be of consequence.
Eleven years later, the 39 signers of the Constitution acted just as independently in setting down the rules of engagement for the people and their rulers. No one paid much attention to their secret work until they were surprised by the many changes the Constitution proposed. The fight over the document was fierce and the debate thoughtful, but they didn’t revise what the standards body had hammered out. So the twig was bent and that was the direction our nation inclined. In October 1788, the old Congress disbanded quietly to make way for an entirely new form of governance.
That was serious standard-setting. Today, under Doc’s Anybody can Change it doctrine, we’re sitting around lobbing ideas and code around, seldom realizing that we’re the delegates setting the standards for the world that will follow us. Relatively speaking, we’re even fewer than the four score or so men who did the real work of putting symbols on parchment. Some of the symbols we’re using are pretty arcane, but they set standards anyway, which will mold society as surely as did the Federalist papers.
As Dave Winer has told us so often, big companies don’t set the important standards. Instead, a physicist fires up his NeXT box and wham! the web is born. He does it by standing on the shoulders of giants whose names are unknown to any but the most devout. Sure, the standards are set by guys working for someone else, but they’re really holding their own congress, asynchronously but still intimate. TCP/IP, FTP, SMTP, POP, HTTP and all the rest were never the provenance of the employers of the originators, because if something’s important enough to make a difference, it will not be understood by management until it’s too late to derail it.
Now that the alphabet soup’s simmered long enough, its broth supports undreamt of flavors. RSS gets baked in (metaphor fart) and revised as necessary to be useful and use decides its fate. Sure, BigCos rattle their sabers at W3C.org, but what matters is only what web designers use and web users respond to. Even Jakob Neilson can’t herd these cats.
Writing the Human Code
Lawrence Lessig is at once the most impressive and human of us, but the laws-as-code he’s a bulwark against may not be the threat they seem up close. We’ll route around constraints and fashion our own definition of fair use. If our behavior is technically illegal, we’ll add these new transgressions to the laundry list of prohibitions we already ignore because we can, since we outnumber the tools in Congress. Eventually the rules we choose to ignore will wither away like last year’s copied tunes.
So a few will debate nuances no one else comprehends. Even fewer will lay down the words that free our progeny. What works will grow and the rest will wither, as it always has. Someday we’ll see that the Toms Jefferson and Robbins were right in seeing that as long as there are willing followers there will be exploitive leaders.
So instead we’ll follow our collective gut, add what we can, use what works and leave something better behind. Maybe this isn’t an apocalypse but a parenthesis and the age of hierarchy is an interruption in organic evolution as it’s always gone on.
Doing sensible things is what makes us consequential.