October 29th, 2006

intelligence, smarter than you, ravenclaw

The nature of the network

I've been working on Mom's site for the last couple days. She's got a new book coming out, so the style's changing again, and while I'm doing that she's having me add a few new pages. One of the new things is a page where she talks about a number of topics she's interested in, including libertarianism. (Most of the others are safe-ish, like TV and shopping. Really, the whole page exists so she can talk about a couple of fairly controversial topics without looking preachy.)

This got me thinking about the Internet and the nature of libertarianism.

Most political stances say that the average person is incompetent to manage some portion of his life. In general, the Democrats think this is the economic portion—the poor will make choices that leave them poor and the rich will make choices that don't make others richer, so those choices should be made by third parties instead. The Republicans think this is the social portion—the immoral will make choices that make them more immoral and the moral will make choices that don't make others more moral, so those choices should be made by third parties instead. (These are gross generalizations, but they're not too far off.) Authoritarian philosophies, like communism and fascism, think people aren't competent to make either category of decision on their own.

Basically, these people think that some portion of our lives should be handed over to a President, a Congress, and a Supreme Court who are more competent to decide them than we are. (I'm using US-centric terms here, but this applies to all systems of government, really.)

If any of these positions are correct, the Internet shouldn't exist. There is no e-President. There's no Congress.net with five hundred politicians logging in to modify internet-code.txt to better reflect PayPal campaign contributions from lobbyists. There's no Internet Court with Internet Lawyers submitting Internet Motions to get Internet Judges to dismiss Internet Cases.

Instead of an e-President, we have a bunch of commercial backbone providers who all voluntarily interconnect with each other. Instead of Congress.net, we have rough consensus and running code. Instead of Internet Court, we have network administrators who will block misbehaving hosts.

In essence, instead of the hierarchical order everybody thinks we should need, we have anarchy. How could this possibly work?

Basically, the Internet works on two principles:
  1. You're on the Internet because you want to talk to other people.
  2. If you don't play nice, nobody will want to talk to you.
But how is this different from the principles of surviving in reality?
  1. You interact with other people because you want stuff that'll help you be happy.
  2. If you don't play nice, nobody will want to give you that stuff.
Of course, sometimes people try to force you to give them the stuff they want to be happy. And on the Internet, sometimes people try to force you to tell them things you don't want to tell them—like your credit card number. In the real world, we need self-defense (guns) for the short term and courts for the long term. On the Internet, we need self-defense (anti-virus) too, and we can use the real-world courts.

So if it works for the Internet, why do people think it won't work for the real world?