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The Lost Dao

By E. Glen Weyl, Audrey Tang and ⿻ Community

The Lost Dao

Industry and inventions in technology, for example, create means which alter the modes of associated behavior and which radically change the quantity, character and place of impact of their indirect consequences. These changes are extrinsic to political forms which, once established, persist of their own momentum. The new public which is generated remains long inchoate, unorganized, because it cannot use inherited political agencies. The latter, if elaborate and well institutionalized, obstruct the organization of the new public. They prevent that development of new forms of the state which might grow up rapidly were social life more fluid, less precipitated into set political and legal molds. To form itself, the public has to break existing political forms. This is hard to do because these forms are themselves the regular means of instituting change. The public which generated political forms is passing away, but the power and lust of possession remains in the hands of the officers and agencies which the dying public instituted. This is why the change of the form of states is so often effected only by revolution. — John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, 1927

     Just as we saw the natural sciences see a massive transformation in the 20th century, discovering the plural and multi-scale nature of the world, we can see similar advances in the social sciences. Henry George, author of the best-selling and most influential book on economics in American and perhaps world history, made his career as a searing critic of private property. Georg Simmel, one of the founders of sociology, originated the idea of the "web" as a critique of the individualist concept of identity. John Dewey, widely considered the greatest philosopher of American democracy, argued that the standard national and state institutions that instantiated hardly scratched the surface of what democracy required. Norbert Wiener coined the term "cybernetics" to the field of studying such rich interactive systems. By perceiving the limits of the box they highlighted even as they helped construct it, we can learn to imagine a social world outside it.

Henry George and the networked value

     We remember Karl Marx and Adam Smith more sharply, but the social thinker that may have had the greatest influence during and immediately following his lifetime was Henry George. Author of the for-years best-selling book in English other than the Bible, Progress and Poverty, George inspired or arguably founded many of the most successful political movements and even cultural artifacts of the early twentieth century including:

  • the American center-left, as a nearly-successful United Labor candidate for Mayor of New York City;
  • the Progressive and social gospel movements, which both traced their names to his work;
  • the Chinese Nationalist movement, whose founder Sun Yat-Sen drew his "Three Principles of the People" from George much as Lenin and Mao drew on Marx, leading to the continuing reverence for George in today's Taiwan;
  • and the game Monopoly, which originated as an educational device "The Landlord's Game", to illustrate how an alternate set of rules could avoid monopoly and enable common prosperity.

     George wrote on many topics helping originate, for example, the idea of a secret ballot. But he became most famous for advocating a "single tax" on land, whose value he argued could never properly belong to an individual owner. His most famous illustration asked readers to imagine an open savannah full of beautiful but homogeneous land on which a settler arrives, claiming some arbitrarily chosen large plot for her family. When future settlers arrive, they choose to settle close to the first, so as to enjoy company, divide labor and enjoy shared facilities like schools and wells. As more settlers arrive, they continue to choose to cluster and the value of land rises. In a few generations, the descendants of the first settler find themselves landlords of much of the center of a bustling metropolis, rich beyond imagining, through little effort of their own, simply because a great city was built around them.

     The value of their land, George insisted, could not justly belong to that family: it was a collective product that should be taxed away. Such a tax was not only just, it was crucial for economic development, as highlighted especially by later economists including one of the authors of this book. Taxes of this sort, especially when carefully designed as they were in in Taiwan, ensure property owners must use their land productively or allow others to do so. The revenue they raise can support shared infrastructure (like those schools and wells) that gives value to the land, an idea called the "Henry George Theorem".

     Yet, as attractive as this argument has proven to politicians and intellectuals from Leo Tolstoy to Albert Einstein, in practice it has raised many more questions than it has answered. Simply saying that land does not belong to an individual owner says nothing about who or what it does belong to. The city? The nation state? The world?

     Given this is a book about technology, an elegant illustration is the San Francisco Bay Area, where both authors and George himself lived parts of their lives and which has some of the most expensive land in the world. To whom does the enormous value of this land belong?

  • Certainly not to the homeowners who simply had the good fortune of seeing the computer industry grow up around them. Then perhaps to the cities in the region? Many reformers have argued these cities, which are in any case fragmented and tend to block development, can hardly take credit for the miraculous increase in land values.
  • Perhaps Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, to which various scholars have attributed much of the dynamism of Silicon Valley? Certainly these played some role, but it would be strange to attribute the full value of Bay Area land to two universities, especially when these universities succeeded with the financial support of the US government and the collaboration of other universities across the country.
  • Perhaps the State of California? Arguably the national defense industry, research complex that created the internet (as we discuss below) and political institutions played a far greater role than anything at the state level.
  • Then to the US? But of course the software industry and internet are global phenomena.
  • Then to the world in general? Beyond the essential non-existence of a world government that could meaningfully receive and distribute the value of such land, abstracting all land value to such heights is a bit of an abdication: clearly many of the entities above are more relevant than simply "the entire world" to the value of the software industry; if we followed that path, global government would end up managing everything simply by default.

     To make matters yet more complex, the revenue earned on the property is but one piece of what it means to own. Legal scholars typically describe property as a bundle of rights: of "usus" (to access the land), "abusus" (to build on or dispose of it) and "fructus" (to profit from it). Who should be able to access the land of the Bay Area under what circumstances? Who should be allowed to build what on it, or to sell exclusive rights to do so to others? Most of these questions were hardly even considered in George's writing, much less settled. In this sense, his work is more a helpful invitation to step beyond the easy answers private property offers, which is perhaps why his enormously influential ideas have only been partly implemented in a small number of (admittedly highly successful) places like Estonia and Taiwan.

  •      The world George invites us to reflect on and imagine how to design for is one of networked value, one where a variety of entities, localized at different scales (universities, municipalities, nation states, etc.) all contribute to differing degrees to create value, just as networks of waves and neurons contribute to differing degrees to the probabilities of particles being found in various positions or thoughts occurring in a mind. And for both justice and productivity, property and value should belong, in differing degrees, to these networks. In this sense, George was a founder of plural social science.

Georg Simmel and the intersectional (in)dividual

     But if network thinking was implicit in George's work, it took another thinker, across the Atlantic, to make it explicit and, accidentally, give it a name. Georg Simmel was a German philosopher and sociologist of the turn of the twentieth century who pioneered the idea of social networks. The mistranslation of his work as focused on a “web” eventually went “worldwide”. In his 1955 translation of Simmel’s classic 1908 Soziologie, Reinhard Bendix chose to describe Simmel’s idea as describing a “web of group-affiliations” over what he described as the “almost meaningless” direct translation “intersection of social circles”[1]. While the precise lines of influence are hard to trace, it is possible that, had Bendix made an opposite choice, we might talk of the internet in terms of "intersecting global circles" rather than the "world wide web". [2]

     Simmel’s “intersectional” theory of identity offered an alternative to both the traditional individualist/atomist (characteristic at the time in sociology with the work of Max Weber and deeply influential on Libertarianism) and collectivist/structuralist (characteristic at the time of the sociology of Émile Durkheim and deeply influential on Technocracy) accounts. From a Simmelian point of view, both appear as extreme reductions/projections of a richer underlying theory.

     In his view, humans are deeply social creatures and thus their identities are deeply formed through their social relations. Humans gain crucial aspects of their sense of self, their goals, and their meaning through participation in social, linguistic, and solidaristic groups. In simple societies (e.g., isolated, rural, or tribal), people spend most of their life interacting with the same group of others or, as he called it, the same “social circle”. This circle comes to (primarily) define their identity collectively, which is why most scholars of simple societies (for example, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins) tend to favor methodological collectivism.

     However, in more complex/urban/modern societies, social circles are more diverse. People work with one circle, worship with another, support political causes with a third, recreate with a fourth, cheer for a sports team with a fifth, identify as discriminated against along with a sixth, and so on. These diverse identifications together form a person’s identity. The more numerous and diverse these affiliations become, the less likely it is that anyone else shares precisely the same intersection of affiliations.

     As this occurs, people come to have, on average, less of their full sense of self in common with those around them at any time; they begin to feel “unique” (to put a positive spin on it) and “isolated/misunderstood” (to put a negative spin on it). This creates a sense of what he called “qualitaitive individuality” that helps explain why social scientists focused on complex urban settings (such as economists) tend to favor methodological individualism. However, ironically as Simmel points out, such “individuation” occurs precisely because and to the extent that the “individual” becomes divided among many loyalties and thus dividual. Thus, while methodological individualism (and what he called the "egalitarian individualism" of nation states that went hand-in-hand with it) takes the “(in)dividual” as the irreducible element of social analysis, Simmel instead suggests that individuals become possible as an emergent property of the complexity and dynamism of modern, urban societies.

     Thus the individual that the national identity systems seek to strip away from the shackles of communities thus actually emerges from their growth, proliferation and intersection. Just as a truly just and efficient property regime would recognize and account for such networked interdependence, identity systems that truly empower and support modern life would need to mirror its intersectional, networked structure.

John Dewey's emergent publics

     If (in)dividual identity is so fluid and dynamic, surely so too must be the social circles that intersect to constitute it. As Simmel highlights, new social groups are constantly forming, while older ones decline. Three examples he highlights are the for his time still recent formation of cross-sectoral “working men’s associations” that represented the general interest of labor and the just-then-emerging feminist associations and cross-sectoral employers’ interest groups. The critical pathway to creating such new circles was the establishment of places (e.g. workman’s halls) or publications (e.g. working men’s newspapers) where this new group could come to know one another and understand, and thus to have things in common they do not have with others in the broader society. Such bonds were strengthened by secrecy, as shared secrets allowed for a distinctive identity and culture, as well as the coordination in a common interest in ways unrecognizable by outsiders[3]. Developing these shared, but hidden, knowledge allows the emerging social circle to act as a collective agent.

     In his 1927, The Public and its Problems, John Dewey considered the political implications and dynamics of these “emergent publics” as he called them [4]. Father of "progressive education" and perhaps the most celebrated American philosopher and philosopher of democracy, Dewey was a devoted follower of George. He led the "democratic" wing of progressive politics in his era and engaged in a famous series of debates with leading left-wing technocrat Walter Lippmann, whose 1922 book Public Opinion Dewey considered "the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived". In the debate, Dewey sought to redeem democracy while embracing fully Lippmann's critique of existing institutions as ill-suited to an increasingly complex and dynamic wold.

     While he acknowledged a range of forces for social dynamism, Dewey focused specifically on the role of technology in creating new forms of interdependence that created the necessity for new publics. Railroads connected people commercially and socially who would never have met. Radio created shared political understanding and action across thousands of miles. Pollution from industry was affecting rivers and urban air. All these technologies resulted from research, the benefits of which spread with little regards for local and national boundaries. The social challenges (e.g. governance railway tariffs, safety standards, and disease propagation; fairness in access to scarce radio) arising from these forms of interdependence are poorly managed by both capitalist markets and preexisting “democratic” governance structures.

     Markets fail because these technologies create market power, pervasive externalities, and more generally exhibit “supermodularity” (sometimes called “increasing returns”), where the whole of the (e.g. railroad network) is greater than the sum of its parts. In the technology industry, the most famous example of this is so-called "network effects", where use of a system by some raises its value for others. Capitalist enterprises cannot account for all the relevant “spillovers” and to the extent they do, they accumulate market power, raise prices and exclude participants, undermining the value created by increasing returns. Leaving these interdependencies “to the market” thus exacerbates their risks and harms while failing to leverage their potential.

     Dewey revered democracy as the most fundamental principle of his career; barely a paragraph can pass without him harkening back to it. He firmly believed that democratic action could address the failings of markets. Yet he saw the limits of existing “democratic” institutions just as severely as those of capitalism. The problem is that existing democratic institutions are not, in Dewey’s view, truly democratic with regards to the emergent challenges created by technology.

     In particular, what it means to say an institution is “democratic” is not just that it involves participation and voting. Many oligarchies had these forms, but did not include most citizens and thus were not democratic. Nor would, in Dewey’s mind, a global “democracy” directly managing the affairs of a village count as democratic. Core to true democracy is the idea that the “relevant public”, the set of people whose lives are actually shaped by the phenomenon in question, manage that challenge. Because technology is constantly throwing up new forms of interdependence, which will almost never correspond precisely to existing political boundaries, true democracy requires new publics to constantly emerge and reshape existing jurisdictions.

     Furthermore, because new forms of interdependence are not easily perceived by most individuals in their everyday lives, Dewey saw a critical role for what he termed “social science experts” but we might with no more abuse of terminology call “entrepreneurs”, “leaders”, “founders”, “pioneer” or, as we prefer, “mirror”. Just as George Washington's leadership helped the United States both perceive itself as a nation and a nation that had to democratically choose its fate after his term in office, the role of such mirrors is to perceive a new form of interdependence (e.g. solidarity among workers, the carbon-to-global-warming chain), explain it to those involved by both word and deed, and thereby empower a new public to come into existence. Historical examples are union leaders, founders of rural electricity cooperatives, and the leaders who founded the United Nations. Once this emergent public is understood, recognized, and empowered to govern the new interdependence, the role of the mirror fades away, just as Washington returned to Mount Vernon.

     Thus, as the mirror image of Simmel’s philosophy of (in)dividual identity, Dewey’s conception of democracy and emergent publics is at once profoundly democratic and yet challenges and even overturns our usual conception of democracy. Democracy, in this conception, is not the static system of representation of a nation-state with fixed borders. It is a process even more dynamic than in a market of invention led by a diverse range of entrepreneurial mirrors, who draw upon the ways they are themselves intersections of unresolved social tensions to renew and reimagine social institutions. Standard institutions of nation state-based voting are to such a process as pale a shadow as Newtonian mechanics is of the underlying quantum and relativistic reality. True democracy must be networked, plural and constantly evolving.

Norbert Wiener's cybernetic society

     All of these critiques and directions of thought are suggestive, but none seems to offer clear paths to action and further scientific development. Could the understanding of the plural, networked nature of social organization be turned into a scientific engine of new forms of social organization? The hypothesis that was the seed from which Norbert Wiener sprouted the modern field of "cybernetics", from which comes all the uses of "cyber" to describe digital technology and, many would argue, the later name of "computer science" given to similar work. Wiener defined cybernetics as "the science of control and communication in (complex systems like) the animal and machine", but perhaps the most broadly accepted meaning is something like the "science of communication within and governance of, by and for networks". The word was drawn from a Greek analogy of a ship directed by the inputs of its many oarsmen.

  •      Wiener's scientific work focused almost exclusively on physical, biological and information systems, investigating the ways that organs and machines can obtain and preserve homeostasis, quantifying information transmission channels and the role they play in achieving such equilibrium and so on. Personally and politically, he was a pacifist, severe critic of capitalism as failing basic principles of cybernetic stabilization and creation of homeostasis and advocate of radically more responsible use and deployment of technology. He despaired that without profound social reform his scientific work would come to worse than nothing, writing in the introduction to Cybernetics, "there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power (which is always concentrated, by its very conditions of existence, in the hand of the most unscrupulous. I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope." It is thus unsurprising that Wiener befriended many social scientists and reformers who vested "considerable...hopes...for the social efficacy of whatever new ways of thinking this book may contain."

     Yet while he shared the convictions, he believed these hopes to be mostly "false". While he judged such a program as "necessary", he was unable to "believe it possible". He argued that quantum physics had shown the impossibility of precision at the level of particles and therefore that the success of science arose from the fact that we live far above the level of particles, but that our very existence within societies meant that the same principles made social science essentially inherently infeasible. Thus as much as he hoped to offer scientific foundations on which the work of George, Simmel and Dewey could rest, he was skeptical of "exaggerated expectations of their possibilities."

Across all of these authors, we see many common threads. We see appreciation of the intersectional and layered nature of society, which often shows even greater complexity than other phenomena in the natural sciences: while an electron typically orbits a single atom or molecule, a cell is part of one organism, and a planet orbits one star, in human society each person, and even each organization, is part of multiple intersecting larger entities, often with no single of them being fully inside any other. But how might these advancements in the social sciences translate into similarly more advanced social technologies? This is what we will explore in the next chapter.

  1. Simmel,“Soziologie” (1908) ↩︎

  2. Brocic and Silver, "The Influence of Simmel on American Sociology Since 1975" ↩︎

  3. Simmel, “Sociology of Secrets and Secret Societies” ↩︎

  4. John Dewey, The Public and its Problems (1927) ↩︎