Have you noticed how our debates about the future of anthropology assume that the academic institutions in which anthropologists seek employment will continue to exist in something like their current form. Consider the following observations by marketing guru Seth Godin. What if he's right? What will we do?

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Hey John,

Very great points! I appreciate this well-thought out critique. I guess this raises to mind a few things at first... It's a lot of thoughts popping up, so I tried to (hopefully) break it down to make it easier to write out...

You mentioned that voters who use the internet as a means for activism tend to be a minority. I agree. It's still small, we're still in the process of "going online." I think folks growing up now will have a generation that is significantly different than previous generations. Most of us will probably be online, and use it for more and more purposes. But here are some other thoughts/reflections on what you've said...

1) If there are some mathematical principles at work here, in how the internet will be distributed (Powerful nodes, with perhaps millions of smaller ones), then it seems that there won't be "flatland" decentralization, or rather a society where each node has an equal distribution of power. There will be super-powerful nodes, and much smaller ones. I would agree with you here, for sure... Because decentralization is occurring... it's just not reaching some "total" point of complete equality. That would be nice, but certainly idealistic to say the least! This makes sense... Particularly in light of the idea that evolution, whether biological or social, or both, tends to get more complex over time. Usually the previous traits remain in the newer, emerging ones. If this is true, then more people will have participatory power, but they will make up larger "wholes," which power will still centralize. Nevertheless, I'd rather live in a civilization where we can do more about our problems more pliably and efficiently than today. I guess the way to summarize this is I agree with you very much. Decentralization won't flatten or equalize power, it will give more to the masses, but power structures will be created in higher orders.

2) As you said... There will be very big nodes with a multitude of smaller ones, the "masses who struggle to survive in a dog-eat-dog world of outsourced services." I'd just like to make two points... The first is, in a more virtualized society, where location matters less in the physical world than the digital, this may set up society to have some very interesting "hubs." For instance, take cloud computing. It won't be long before servers are cloud computing, making major website hubs spread out physically across the world, but if they are popular, extremely dense "locations" in cyber space. So I think this raises some interesting possibilities as to how the future could play out. It's not that these major hubs won't exist, but they may not exist in the same way we see the Earth from space: dense population centers, with flickering darkness amongst many of the "undeveloped" nations.

This is really just playing with possible outcomes. But I think the more interesting point is the second part... "outsourced" economies. I think we might assume this will always exist, but there are emerging more localized and "energy independent" ways of living. This includes solar, agricultural, and even new technological "virtual" markets from home. For instance, printers that literally print out 3D objects. You don't need cheap labor for that. You just design the product and sell it in a digital market. This idea is based on the emergence of "micro-economies" and sustainable, self-sufficient energy. I am hoping this is a trend that will continue...

If more and more citizens of countries become capable of being energy independent, and selling their electricity back to the grid, how might this affect even the "smaller hubs?" I'm basically making a case for localized economies, localized markets, localized energy. If this eventually becomes a cheaper and more affordable than business "giants," of today, outsourcing labor to third world nations, how might this affect the power structure of the future? Outsourcing itself may be a relic of the 20th and mid 21st century. I say this with hope.

3) Phew, my third point is the following... The power structure of this "network" society (which may be more appropriate than decentralized, as you're implying I think?), will be much more pliable and adaptable, so that more people are capable of doing something about their problems. Even if there are massive nodes, the smaller ones might also bind together if opportunity arises. The power relationship in this sort of society appears, to me at least, to be much more flexible and adaptable than our current setup, where there is little participatory power that can truly alter and change the way a nation, or the world at large, is going.

In short, the future isn't grim! There is so much potential that already exists, so many little seeds that, if we cultivate and band together (as you have been saying too), the future is looking brighter. It's not a utopia, but as an adaptation, it could be a little more inclusive, a little more universal and embracing. There have been theorists speaking of this before (for instance, the Jesuit Teilhard and his concept of the Noosphere), in which human civilization evolves into a sort of collective membrane, or intelligence, adapting and integrating human needs and life like a forest or ecosystem. That might be getting into science fiction, but as we begin to understand the necessity of inter-dependence, collective action, and universality (we're all human, after all)... At any rate, this discussion has been great. Thankyou for sharing your knowledge with me.


John McCreery said:
Jeremy, I like the way you are arguing here and agree (here is our common ground) that the Internet makes a tremendous difference. It has certainly made a tremendous difference in my life and not just through the access to new friends and colleagues that enriches my intellectual life. Thanks to the Internet, I can be in Cambridge MA looking after my grandchildren while continuing to do business (translation and copywriting) with clients in Japan. Dramatically improved access to information is also part of the effect. I couldn't begin to do the translation project in which I am now engaged (a Japanese curator's essay on a group of mid-to-late 19th century Italian painters) without the online dictionaries and search engines that provide the information I need.
I know, too, as a long-time Democratic Party activist that the Internet has transformed politics. Everyone rightly complains about the dominance of wealthy individuals and corporate interests when TV-driven campaigns require vast sums for advertising and major contributors call the tune. But the Howard Dean campaign and Barack Obama's successful run for the presidency mark the start of something new. Candidates can now raise larger sums by aggregating small donations through the Internet than they could by depending on large donors. We are still in a period of transition, but the power of large donors has already been substantially weakened.
That said, the limitation of access to the Internet has emerged as a critically important fact. The Internet turns out to be a superb tool for motivating and organizing activists. Internet-enabled activists remain, however, a minority of voters. That is why political strategists talk about the importance of "the last mile," the feet-on-the-ground, door-to-door, retail level politics that still delivers electoral victories.

That said, I am going to challenge your claim that, "'Decentralization,' is not an ideal. It's an observable phenomenon in society."

It is now one of the best-established results of network analysis that large networks tend to be composed of a few large hubs and far more numerous small ones. In "scale-free" networks the distribution of nodes inevitably follows a power law (of which Pareto's rule is the classic example). These principles have been demonstrated not only for social networks, but also for electrical power grids, transnational corporate networks, protein cascades in cell biology--as well as for the Internet (the physical infrastructure of computers, routers and cables) and the World Wide Web, links connecting Web pages. They appear, moreover, to follow mathematical rules, theorems for which there are solid proofs.

The upshot of all this is that the networked society will most likely wind up looking like David Harvey's "Condition of Postmodernity," in which winner-take-all competition separates the lucky few who wind up in major hub organizations from the the masses who struggle to survive in a dog-eat-dog world of outsourced services. Its class structure is likely to resemble the three-tiered models proposed by Robert Reich in The Work of Nations and Aihwa Ong in Flexible Citizenship. An international elite of knowledge workers, for whom the Internet, air travel, and five-star hotels make the world their oyster will occupy the top tier. A shrinking middle class will retain some importance as the primary constituencies of nation-state political parties. A global lumpenproletariat, lacking access to the Net and other resources, will struggle for survive and barely scrape by.

To alter this grim outlook will require significant political effort, effort that requires serious organization to be effective. Can enough of us be, to borrow the words of Paul Wellstone, "energized, mobilized and organized" to a sufficient degree? That is the test we face.

Jeremy Johnson said:
Hey Philip,

I don't want to say much more but... There appears to be a severe misunderstanding here. "Decentralization," is not an ideal. It's an observable phenomenon in society. I'm actually a little shocked that one could say such a thing while speaking on a collaborative network. If you study the trends and even the changes that have taken place in the past 10 years, the internet has become a much more collaborative and powerful tool in modern society. What about it exactly is an ideology? If I understand you correctly, it's the new wave of enthusiasts who think the internet is going to fix and solve everything, liberate everyone. It certainly won't.. But that doesn't discredit the reality it is going to change the way we organize ourselves within society, significantly. It already has to some degree. That's a reality we are all facing, and utilizing as we speak here... This isn't a prophecy, it's more of a phenomenological observation. Society appears to be on its way to organize itself in far more complex ways. It will have its own laws and rules, and its own limitations. There will be power structures and challenges, just as there are today... But they will be significantly different. The laws that operate and help our society organize are changing. You can call this a sloppy argument, or empty or devoid of evidence... But this is a forum after all. I recommend reading "Flash Mobs," by Rheingold or "Here Comes Everybody" by Clash Shirky for a very in depth analysis and study of modern social and technological trends.

It's no utopia and it's definitely not relatable to marxism. There will be greater "wholes," not just liberation, but evolution of society... This is an entirely different matter than a dialectic or some "end point" in which the evil capitalists will be vanquished, or something to that extent. The evidence is the internet, and yes it has emerged from bureaucratic states, centralized organizations, it's been paved by multi-national businesses and encompasses the globe- where else could it come from? In any kind of evolutionary change, the newer components emerge from the older ones. So the argument is: we've been inadvertently, and ironically paving the way for a major shift in societal organization.

To belittle the significance of the internet is to miss the point... Something new is emerging, and it has quite a lot of potential. Just as any communicative technology has had in the past to influence society. I believe, for one, that this will be at least as important and crucial as the printing press was... There is plenty of factual evidence we can look at to see how people are utilizing internet communication as a dominant means of speaking with each other. We're on such a network. Wikipedia, youtube, blogging are only the bare skeleton of what's to come, if the technological trends continue. If you observe these trends and facts thoroughly, there is certainly a powerful argument.

Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
Jeremy said: "And the way we manage money, time, certification and organization will face a major overhaul in this century, so that newer, and better forms of organization will emerge, making bureaucracies as they exist today become dated and inefficient. It's a leap of the imagination, maybe, but if you study the trends, the future is painted very differently. It all comes down to the inherent structures of the way we organize and manage society will become more complex, and decentralized modes of organization will be efficient structure to adapt to that complexity."
This has been a dream through the 19th and 20th centuries. Remember Marx's idea that the state would fade away? It did not exactly happen in the USSR, China, North Korea, or any of the progressive, people's utopias. So far you have offered no evidence of such a development, other than the existence of the internet, a phenomenon much owing to state bureaucracies, including military bureaucracies. Prognosticating and prohesizing is a tricky business at best, and the future is always a mystery. But one must at least have some kind of credible argument.

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