The Big Idea: the death of the center and the new centrifugal trend

Now that it is complete, a clear narrative has emerged from the forthcoming book. The  Internet, like many readers of the book itself, is a child of the industrial era. Long before digital communications, the steam engine, telegraph pole, and coalmine quickened the pace of the world. Industrialized commerce, communications and war spun the globe ever faster, and increasingly to a centripetal beat. Control in the industrialized world was put at the centre. The furthest reaches of the globe came under the sway of centers of power. Massive urbanization and a flight from the land created monstrous cities in the great nations. Training of workmen, the precise measurement of a pistol barrel’s caliber, mass assembly of automobiles, all were a regimented, standardized in conformity with the centripetal imperative. The industrial revolution created a world of centralization and organized hierarchy. Its defining pattern was a single, central dot to which all strands led. The emerging digital age is different.

The defining pattern of the digital age is the absence of the central dot. In its place a mesh of many points is evolving, each linked by webs and networks. This story is about the death of the center and the development of commercial and political life in a networked system. It is a story about the coming power of the networked individual, and how the new smallest unit of effective participation and creativity is one – the single networked individual.

The Internet is so unusual, so profoundly unlikely to have been created that its existence would be a constant marvel were it not a daily fact of life. No treatise or arch plan steered its development from beginning to end. Its success came not from serendipity alone but from the strength of empowered users, networked communities, and openness in the approach its builders took to technologies and standards. The combination of these elements have put power in the hand of the individual, power to challenge even the state, to compete for markets across the globe, to demand and create new types of media, to subvert a society – or to elect a president.

The Internet is a centrifugal force, user driven and open. These three characteristics have asserted themselves throughout its history. Understanding how they emerged and what they mean is the key to adapting to the new global commons, a political and media system in flux, and the future of competitive creativity.

To the reader of the Internet’s history much must appear obvious that was opaque to its participants. The young graduate students working on the protocols through which networked computers would communicate could not have known that they were writing the constitution of a new world. Nor could Ray Tomlinson, who invented E-mail without his superiors’ approval in the early 1970s, have realized that he was building a tool through which political outsiders could become governors. Indeed Jesse Ventura himself, that inimitable bodybuilder-action-hero-politician, could not have known that his Internet campaign for the governorship of Minnesota was the first step toward the first African American’s entry to the White House on a tide of small donations contributed by newly enfranchised Internet activists. The centrifugal trend tying these events together is evident only in hindsight. The future of the Internet and its impact of business, government, and society remains oblique. Peering through the veil with an ear cocked to history one may offer a few predictions, and what is certain is that seismic shifts await as the Internet enters its second decade of popular existence.

More on these themes when the book comes out in August 2010…

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5 thoughts on “The Big Idea: the death of the center and the new centrifugal trend

  1. Hi Johnny,

    Congrats again. It sounds terrific. I’m greatly looking forward to reading it.

    One quick question. Is there are an argument that the old, centralised, hierarchical way of doing things that the Industrial Revolution represented was not perhaps as centralised as we think? I’m thinking of the Northern English mercantile class whose inventiveness drove the initial phase of the revolution, and were (as far as I know) generally operating independently of central control. Similarly while power seemed to inhere to colonial centres, of which the British Empire could be seen as the exemplar. the realities of colonial were invariably messier with local client kings in India (and , as far as I know, in Africa too) doing much of the actual ruling?

    Just some thoughts – I find the overall narrative thrust of the story compelling and am really looking forward to reading it.

    S

  2. Seamus,

    Good point.
    The “centrifugal” language indicates a trend away from the central point.

    Maybe the examples you mention show that there can be a number of gradations toward the center, just as there might be many away from it. As you say, it is not black and white. Example: perhaps an ambitious person in the client kingdoms of India might still have looked toward England for their education, or been impressed by English education in others, even their ambition was to rise the social ladder at home?

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