Chapter 3: The River Of Time

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

This post is part of the: 'The Digital Renaissance' thread, a blog sequence that explores the capabilities and history of 'The Power Of Collaboration' and demonstrates how we can solve most if not all major issues of our time by leveraging collaborative and distributed principles on a global scale.

Since our time is valuable and scarce, you can speed-read through the articles in this thread by focussing on the emphasized pieces of text.

To understand the nature of The Digital Renaissance we need to explore how we as humans have evolved and organized ourselves over time. The fundamental question here is: "How did our past lead us to where we are today?" For those who are interested in the full story, we can go all the way back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In particular, I want to highlight two specific works related to their names: Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics.

The 21st Century Cave

The Republic is a Socratic dialogue, authored by Plato around 375 BC, concerning justice, the order and character of the just city-state, and the just man. It is Plato's best-known work, and has proven to be one of the world's most influential works of philosophy and political theory, both intellectually and historically. In the dialogue, Socrates talks with various Athenians and foreigners about the meaning of justice and whether the just man is happier than the unjust man. In one of the ‘books’, a conversation between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glauton finds Socrates talking about 'The Analogy of the Cave'. The analogy describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners' reality.

Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured reality that is the shadows seen by the prisoners. The inmates of this place do not even desire to leave their prison, for they know no better life. The prisoners manage to break their bonds one day, and discover that their reality was not what they thought it was. They discovered the sun, which Plato uses as an analogy for the fire that man cannot see behind.

In a more modern way of speaking, Socrates was actually describing the following: We as human beings live our lives by what we accept as correct and true, that is how we define reality. But what does it mean to be correct and true? These are merely vague concepts and our reality may be an illusion or a reflection of reality. When applying this analogy, modern philosophers, visionaries & innovators have the task of leading the way out of the cave. The have to do this by continuously challenging the status quo, even though this is often not welcomed and appreciated (just as in The Analogy of the Cave). It is therefore in our utmost benefit to keep questioning the society, systems and world we live in so that we can keep improving our standard of life because be honest with me.. exploring the vast world out there sounds more inviting than sitting in a cave, right?

We as humans need to innovate, we need to improve and we need to find our way out of caves. Initially, this will lead to great protest from the vested order since 9/10 times power distribution doesn’t come in favor of the select few that are sitting on top of the mountain of success (I will come back to this later). This is an essential part of this thread: What is and how can we get out of our 21st century cave? Great plan Joey, but how does that work in reality? (pun intended)

Ideal Societies - Dreams Can Become Reality

Actually, we have been trying to get out of our caves for quite some time already. Ever since the ancient times, free thinkers have taken up the task of understanding and improving the world and the systems we live in. Often, this also included criticizing one’s peers, as was the case with Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle disagreed with Plato’s Philosopher King and came up with his own theory about the way in which we should live together. One of his most famous works, Politics, includes Aristotles take on the types of governing that can be used in society. In general, Aristotle divided this in six categories: 

Aristotle arguments that essentially the best form of governance is a Polity since it supports the fairest and most reasonable type of co-existence. Democracy therefore only becomes the least harmful derivative government as regarded by Aristotle. The difference between the two lies at the interest of the governing group namely; Do they govern for their own - or the common good? Even though we've strived towards realizing a polity throughout time, in modern day society, the 99:1 ratio between the poor and the rich has been the result of the capitalistic democracy in which we live. If we want to improve the lives of the 99% of society (common good) we will have to figure out how to organize our society more as a polity, something we have been doing that for quite a while now! We have been trying to figure out the world around us (Plato) and trying to define the best ways to organize ourselves (Aristotle) for the common good. Throughout the entirety of human history, we can find examples of free thinkers continuing the legacy of their predecessors, to name a few: Thomas Aquinas and his concept of a just price, John Locke and his critique on government interferences, David Hume about the balance between supply and demand, Adam Smith with his Wealth of Nations and his system of natural liberty, Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Keynes and many more have all tried to formulate answers/solutions to the issues as introduced by Plato and Aristotle. (Un)fortunately, as we’ve learned from Nooit Af (Martijn Aslander), we’re never done with this process and we actually need to do this faster each time we close a cycle. The reason for this is the digital revolution.  In the past, the realization of the solutions to these issues have always and ever been a watered down version of the actual concept. This was mainly because it was as good as impossible to organize and manage the infrastructures that would be necessary to maintain the suggested solutions. "So what has changed?” I can hear you thinking. Well, the digital revolution! Computers, the internet and disruptive tech have given our generation of philosophers, visionaries & innovators a tool to realize what Plato, Aristotle and the many after them could not even have dreamt of. The Digital Age, the age in which humanity can finally work together towards the common good. In modern tongue, this equals saying “towards becoming richer collectively”. But as Tim Ferris says in his 4-Hour Workweek “People don’t want to be millionaires, they wan’t to experience what they think only millions can buy.” Okay then Joey, let’s try again. We now find ourselves in the Digital Age, the age in which humanity can finally work together on a life where we can all experience life as if we’re the millionaires.

The Digital Age

The Digital Revolution (also known as the 3rd Industrial Revolution) is the shift from mechanical and analogue electronic technology to digital electronics which began anywhere from the late 1950s to the late 1970s with the adoption and proliferation of digital computers and digital record keeping that continues to the present day. Implicitly, the term also refers to the sweeping changes brought about by digital computing and communication technology during (and after) the latter half of the 20th century. Analogous to the Agricultural Revolution and Industrial Revolution, the Digital Revolution marked the beginning of the Information and/or Digital Age.

The Digital Age has a profound impact both politically and economically with the latter (as it has always) leading the way. Computing- and Communication technologies opened the door to a wide variety of other innovations which on their turn ignited the already-burning-embers of exponential growth in Technology. In other words, each increase in complexity creates the circumstances for the creation of slightly more complex things and thus complexity builds stage by stage. The ever-increasing speed at which we innovate has respectively also increased the speed at which our economies and markets are being disrupted. The Economic Machine on which society operated during the Agricultural- and Industrial Age has started to malfunction and we’re in need of a much more flexible and agile Economic Machine. For the past couple years, governments, businesses and people have been trying to tweak the old machine without much merit and effect, and this is only logical! Since we’re talking about machines anyways let’s take the following example: If you spend the last hundred years building a car so that you could drive, and now suddenly you need to fly, you’re not going to simply attach some wings to the car and call it a day. Instead, you will design a plane which serves the purpose of flying. Did you already design a solution for i.e. the propulsion (the ‘car' engine) which worked great? Perfect because you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, you just need to repurpose it (airplane propellor). The same reason can be applied to our struggles in what has been dubbed as ‘The Startup Economy’. If we want to create the flexibility and agility necessary for our current pace of innovation, we will need to leverage the same technologies that have created this need for change. We need to build a new machine instead of wasting our energy trying to fix a broken one. The answer lies in a concept which Martijn Aslander calls ‘the swarm’, a distributed way of organizing ourselves.

The Swarm Effect

When we pivot from a hierarchical (or even a decentralized) governance model to a so-called 'distributed network', interesting opportunities will arise. A state-of-the-art example of the potential impact of distribution is the popular messenger application called WhatsApp. Jan Koum, founder of WhatsApp, grew up in the rural areas around Kiev, Ukraine. After quitting his job at Yahoo he took a break during which he realized that it was pretty weird that you could send a complete book via email on the new ‘smartphones’, but sending a 3-character text message costed up to 25 cents. Jan got to work and developed WhatsApp, an alternative messenger service which he released for free. All Jan had to do was to tell his friends that the next time they wanted to text him they could better download his app since it would be free for both of them, and so they did. Jan’s friends quickly went on to tell their own friends the same thing and that’s how WhatsApp became so popular without a single penny spent on advertising. Not only did Jan save 54 billion dollar of revenue from text messages for Whatsapp users in 2016 alone, he also bested the Telecom magnates by providing the same (read; more) value to its clientele while using less resources. Whatsapp’s founding story is a great example of an individual leveraging Computing- and Communication technologies to mobilize a swarm that is able to compete with its hierarchical counterpart. This phenomenon will be a driving force in the distribution of the future.

A Distributed Future

We can only dream about what the world will look like five years from now, but that doesn’t mean that we should’t put some thought on it. As was the case during the European Renaissance, we will have to draft upon past knowledge to innovate a way forward. If we can utilize the knowledge of our predecessors and transform it with the help of the modern technology, we will be able to drive great social and economic change. As I said before, the answers lie in the combination of the two, in the following posts we will therefore explore how we can rebuild our economic machine for the better by the means of distribution technology.

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