A connected world is a better world. Right?

Yes. And no.

We are more connected now than ever:

  • You can chat with your kids when you’re on the road, so can a pedophile.
  • You can access your bank account in your pajamas, so can the RBN.
  • Your healthcare data is always readily at hand, but not just to your hands.
  • You can tell your political representatives what you think; they can whip the “base” into a frenzy with what they want them to think.
  • You can talk to people all over the world and share ideas with people with different points of view, but you probably don’t.
  • You can easily organize against an unjust government (not just yours!), and they can watch you do it.
  • You can stay in touch with friends no matter where they live, and companies can co-opt you into influencing their purchases.
  • You can find information on any possible disease you suspect you might have, and your network and search provider will cheer for your recovery with pharmaceutical ads.
  • You can live a rich, fulfilling expanded life experience outside of the constraints of physical space, without fourth amendment protections (or even locks on your doors).
  • Everything is democratized, except for, it seems, our democracy.

Recently I was in New York City for our Strata conference and had the opportunity to host an Oxford-style debate. We debated the proposition that “A connected world is a better world.” In our preparations leading up to the debate, I asked our debaters not to hold back. I told them they could really help crystalize an understanding of the arguments by leaving nuance and subtlety at the door. I encouraged them to dive in, elbows out. I needn’t have. They would have anyway. These were real, not dramatic, passions on display. Take a look:

** Update We had a problem with the video and will put it back up as soon as we can!

A spirited debate in a conference meeting room is a lot of fun, but I think this is a question of deadly importance. As the moderator, it wasn’t my role to take a position, but I can’t help but think about this question a lot. And I’m not a natural optimist.

Maybe it’s just that the magic of a connected world quickly becomes the new normal, an unremarkable part of our everyday experience. While I’m unthinkingly enjoying the connection with family and the access to knowledge afforded by connection, the pitfalls of connection loom large in my mind. They are the scaffolding of a dystopian future yet to be realized but terrifying in its possibility. It could be that our risk / utility curve for connectivity is bent, just like it is for money.

Or, maybe I just think too much about historical analogies. We live in a time of increasingly extremist politics that maybe aren’t caused by the filter bubbles we cocoon in, but they are most definitely amplified by them.

The last time our politics changed at scale was about 150 years ago at the nexus of migratory patterns and the rise of mass media. The industrial revolution moved agrarian workers into factories at massive scale. For the first time in history, large numbers of people were densely packed together in cities, and our “social graph” changed overnight. This newly concentrated network supported a different kind of politics — the mass movement — and all of the “isms” we talk about today were born in those new networks.

The arrival of mass media right on the heels of that concentration further amplified the signals projected into those connected webs, while effectively connecting them together into something even bigger: a national people. This was demonstrated convincingly by Speer’s Roman imagery, masterfully presented by Riefenstahl while the Führer’s speeches radiated from radio towers in real time across a continent.

I’m not suggesting that any new technology automatically spawns evil; I’m arguing that by changing the reach of our connections and the dynamics of our interactions, new technologies change our social physics. Imagine if the relative strengths of the strong nuclear force and electromagnetic forces suddenly changed throughout the universe. Material science would be turned on its head as matter rearranged itself in an instant.

Fundamental changes in how we communicate and connect do that to us. They rearrange the matter of society in fundamental and unpredictable ways. Things once held together fly apart, or new things clump into new forms. We can be sure only of change, and change of that sort is disruptive regardless of what form it takes.

Coming back to the question for a moment: our panel argued hard (technically the cons won the debate), but the answer is most likely “there is no answer.”

Because, of course, a connected world is a better world — and, of course, it’s also worse. And the ways it’s better and worse aren’t the same kind of thing. They can’t be easily summed into a neatly netted out answer. It’s better and worse at the same time, in different ways.

Thomas Jefferson struggled with this conundrum while considering America’s entry into the industrial age. He valued the independence and “virtue” of our previously agrarian existence, but he recognized the value of England’s mechanization to both quality of life and national economic positioning. (See Doug Hill’s new book for a deeper discussion of Jefferson and industrialization).

And, anyway, are choices like this even choices? Or does game theory make techno determinism a certainty? That which can be done, will be?

Where the pessimist in me raises its ugly head is in considering the trade-off between benefit and harm. What if the benefits are incremental but the harm is ultimately existential? We face something like that now with industrialization, as it runs its course and anthropomorphic climate change becomes harder and harder to ignore. Industrialization makes life better for a lot of people, right up until it doesn’t? And then it kills them?

As I write this, the biggest typhoon ever to make landfall is coming ashore on the Philippines, and it’s not likely to be the last of its size.

What is the “global warming” of connection?

The connected world is a world that is both more democratic and more concentrated, at the same time. Which of these forces “wins” — and under what circumstances? Perhaps Iran’s Green Revolution couldn’t have happened without the network, but in the end, the State used the network even more effectively than the revolution.

Like our universe, does the connected world keep expanding with forces of democratization? Or does it collapse into concentrated plutocracy under those who have privileged positions on the network? We don’t even know what dark matter to weigh to answer the question.