Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Should we look forward to the Social Singularity?


The social singularity should not be confused with the technological singularity, which Wikipedia defines as the hypothesis that invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable change to human civilization.


The Social Singularity, as described by Max Borders in his recently published book of that name, relates to the way we (humans) organise ourselves in relation to each other. Max’s hypothesis is that at some point social organisation will be completely transformed as a result of mass adoption of secure networking technologies. When that happens some existing mediating structures will become obsolete, new forms of coordination will emerge and we will collaborate as never before.



What does that mean in terms that you and I can understand? The best place to begin is with the concept of subversive innovation. You might think it is tedious to begin an explanation by introducing another concept, but I promise to provide some concrete examples before long.

These days just about everyone knows what an innovation is. Most readers will be familiar with disruptive innovations that are making many goods more accessible and affordable. Subversive innovations “are those that have the potential to replace long-accepted mediating structures of society”. The mediating structures that Max is writing about include: hierarchical firms; group-think practices among the scientific establishment that have led to widespread acceptance of numerous findings that cannot be replicated; centralised education which views students as having “heads like buckets to be filled with information curated by central elites”; long-standing practices of financial intermediaries; mainstream media that once generated social coherence; and national governments.

Readers will already be familiar with some of the subversive innovations that are occurring. Some firms are replacing hierarchical command and control structures with decentralised systems in which self-directed individuals create order by establishing networks to achieve common purposes. The Internet has enabled informal networks of people, often including amateurs, who question scientific dogma e.g. the paleo-diet movement. Disruptive innovation has begun in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Long-established practices of financial institutions are being challenged by block chain technologies, and cryptocurrencies are enabling people to transact without using national currencies or financial intermediaries. The Internet has disrupted the role of mainstream media in generating social coherence - making it possible for populists to challenge political orthodoxy, but also reducing the potential for views to coalesce around a deeply flawed narrative.

The potential for subversive innovations to displace centralised government is in my view the most interesting idea in the book. We can already see this happening to some extent as innovating firms search out the weak joints in government regulation, particularly the regulatory barriers to competition that have enabled incumbents in various industries to prosper at the expense of the rest of the community. Think of how Uber’s ridesharing innovations circumvented regulations protecting incumbents in the taxi industry.

Max suggests that the potential for subversive innovations to displace centralised government will be enhanced by the advent of smart contracts in which a host of humans can act together to achieve a common goal without middlemen. The coordinating mechanism of smart contracts involves distributed ledgers, programmable incentives and blockchain secured tokens. Tokens can align the interests of producers, consumers and investors in ways that may have potential to enable many types of public goods to be produced privately by profit-seeking entrepreneurs. It doesn’t seem possible at this stage to provide a concrete example of how this might work. Perhaps it can be thought of as crowdsourcing on steroids.

Where might this take us? Max suggests that the potential for people to forge real social contracts - contracts they choose to enter voluntarily rather than the hypothetical social contracts of political theory - “could become the killer app of politics”:

"Communities of tomorrow will form entire systems of mutual aid through digital compacts that have nothing to do with borders or accidents of birth. … Humanity will upload important commitments into social contracts. Cosmopolitan communities of practice will form in the electronic ether. What remains on the ground—goods, services, and the relationships of flesh-and-blood neighbors—will be a far more localized phenomenon. The days of outsourcing our civic responsibilities to distant capitals are numbered."

What Max has in mind is polyarchy – competitive provision of goods that have been provided collectively. The basic idea is that if there is nothing intrinsically territorial about a system that provides goods like health insurance or education, you should be allowed to exit one system and join another without moving to a different system’s territory. You could take resources you were once required to pay in taxation and use them to pay for membership of another community or multiple other communities.

So, what reason do we have to think that governments might one day be willing to recognize the right of exit required to make polyarchy a reality?

Max notes that new constituencies are forming around the benefits of the sharing economy:

"Special interests that once squeaked to get the oil are confronted by battalions bearing smartphones. Citizens, fed up with leaving their prayers in the voting booth, are voting more with their dollars and their devices. Free association is now ensured by design, not by statute."

The Social Singularity mixes the author’s views on how things ought to evolve and how he expects them to evolve. Max acknowledges that he does this. The book offers readers an appealing vision of how the future could evolve and invites them to help make that vision a reality.

The book contains much that I haven’t written about in this short review. I should mention the link between the social singularity and spiral dynamics. Now I have mentioned it, I want to write more about it. Perhaps later!

I should also note before concluding that the title of the book, as presented on the title page, is The Social Singularity: A Decentralist Manifesto. Decentralization is a theme of the book. Max begins his chapter on the future of governance by quoting Vincent Ostrom:

“The fashioning of a truly free world depends on building fundamental infrastructures that enable different peoples to become self-governing”.

 In a post I wrote a few months ago I mused about how Ostrom’s vision of decentralisation of politics could eventually become a reality. If I ever write on that topic again there will be a reference to Max Borders and the concept of subversive innovations will feature prominently.

The Social Singularity deserves to be read widely and thought about deeply.

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