There is a theory that the language you speak affects the way you think – that the structure of language itself affects cognition, the basis of civilized society. Computer languages are believed to exert a similar affect on software – the type of solution that programmers can create is ultimately limited by the tools they choose to use to sculpt their digital golems. Hence, it should come as no surprise that software is having a profound effect on society. That’s not to say it’s limiting the form of solutions our society can create through software – if anything, software is breaking through artificial boundaries created by our system of law that should have died a long time ago.
I have been mulling this for a little while, but a recent post by Jeff Jarvis prompted me to consider how quickly software is making government irrelevant. And you too, Big Media (consider this my obligatory blogger slag against the creaking institute of the fourth estate). People are being empowered by software at light speed. It is providing tools that allow them to quickly and easily route around the self-interested, non-functional chunk of brain damage that is our current political and legal system. Software is rewiring our value systems faster, better, and more fairly than what currently exists – and the changes it is wreaking are only accelerating, incorporating each new advance into the next cycle of innovation.
Remember Napster (the original, not the current bastardized incarnation)? No sooner than Napster got sued by the Recording Industry of America than Gnutella sprung up and increased the magnitude of effort required to stop filesharing. The history of filesharing since then reads like a chapter of the Bible – Napster begat Gnutella who begat Limewire who beget…ad nauseum. Meanwhile, the RIAA continues to fumble along and fall further and further behind the innovation curve, suing filesharers, promoting crappy DRM solutions, and backing flawed legislation, oblivious to the fact that new software has rendered their fight not only futile, but also irrelevant. Copyright protection solutions are being cracked literally hours after their release, legal assaults are being thwarted by software that protects users’ identities from legal assault, and a new generation of file-sharing systems is enabling users to slurp down large files and distribute them in a fashion that encourages everyone to contribute their resources to spreading data as fast as possible. Welcome to the new form of democracy.
What’s amazing is the scale of resistance to this change. Look at what’s happening in the burgeoning voice over IP (VOIP) space: legislators are trying to use antiquated legislation, originally designed to ensure rural access to analog phones service, to impose taxes on the emerging technology. Give it up guys – the jig is up, move on and find a new game. I mean, how can you even enforce this tax? Any device with access to bandwidth and a microphone could effectively be transformed into a VOIP solution – what are they going to do, tax them all?
Which brings up a good question: how is government going to enforce just about any of the rules anymore? In a world of software and bits, a world where a person can work from one country but get paid in another, where intellectual “property” is easily transported and duplicated at zero cost, how is it possible for governments to hold onto power? After all, the law is only the law if you can enforce it – something Arnold needs to figure out before signing any more bogus legislation.
If everything in the world is comprised of either bits or atoms, as Nicholas Negroponte pointed out in his book, then the unmanageable nature of bits leads me to the inevitable conclusion that atoms are the sole possible source of government or corporate power. Come to think of it, is this really a change? Historically, the government’s ability to take your land, your stuff, or restrict your movement by encasing you in a prison made of atoms gave it the power it required to tax citizens and to encourage the formation of a civil society. I guess it’s a case of “meet the new world, same as the old world” – at least until we have the technology to bridge between the world of bits and atoms, to construct and reproduce physical objects in a digital fashion. I shudder to think about the social discontinuity that technology will bring.