Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

There seems to be some sort of general rule that technologies and systems like conversations on the Internet, the US democracy (and its capture by powerful financial interests), the Arab Spring movement and many other things that were wonderfully optimistic and positive at the beginning seem to begin to regress and fail as they scale or age. Most of these systems seem to evolve into systems that are resistant to redesign and overthrow as they adapt like some sophisticated virus or cancer. It's related to but harder to fix than the tragedy of the commons.

I want to write a longer post trying to understand this trend/effect, but I was curious about whether there was some work already in understanding this effect and whether there was already a name for this idea. If not, what we should call it, assuming people agree that it's a "thing"?


At the risk of sounding overly cynical, I think you don't have a "there goes the neighborhood" rule, but rather the interacting effects of the iron law of institutions (The people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. - attributed to Jonathan Schwartz) and reversion to the mean.

In programming we use "technical debt" to describe how code becomes more and more clumsy if features are expanded without "refactoring" existing code to accommodate the framework of new features. Over time this results in, for example, ArcGIS, the bane of all geospatial analysts.

More generically, maybe there is "institutional debt" or "organizational debt" acquired as tribes of humans expand beyond their founders.

So that's the "bloat" phenomenon, but I think this is a more active thing... like a cancer. These "super-intelligence" systems like the NRA, ISIS, etc. are learning and actively defending against "attacks".

Mr. Ito,

I think, perhaps, the overarching question you seek to address is:

How has technology changed politics?

Which is a question that can be replaced with:

What is the nature of technology, governance, and religion with respect to their impacts on humans?

Here is a short slide deck attempting to address the question:

Here is a body of research born out of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy @Tufts that you may find useful.

You may also want to research "Democratic Constitionalism". Which is a feel good sounding term but when you look under the covers there is nothing democratic about it and its main goal is to circumvent the traditional guarantees of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.

I'm surprised that you are even surprised by this. Yes, there is a name for this already. There are several, to be precise.

A. Overhype (and then the inevitable disillusionment)
--- especially by the gulliable.
B. Reversion to the mean.
--- This is econ-talk
C. Told-u-so
--- often by general skeptics like myself.

They're close, but I'm talking about these powerful systems that seem to evolve and adapt to attacks to try to disable them. They seem to be "entities" not just systems not working as promised or things getting spoiled. For instance, it's seems much harder to fix the takeover of democracy by commercial interests or systems like ISIS than previous systems. They seem more robust. I'm sort of wondering whether evolutionary dynamics or game theory can model why they seem to be evolving... or whether it's more of a pendulum that will swing back the other way.

The way you set up the discussions about movements which "begin to regress and fail as they scale or age" made me think about another way to say it. How movements are becoming establishments and solidify (think about Russian, Cuban revolutions) or any kind of dictatorship coup which is sometimes initially started (or at least marketed) as a way to initiate the violent, brutal changes **and temporary** to create a new society. And so it made me think about this book by Thomas Kuhn. Read it. It explains how changes emerge in sciences.

The Arab Spring movement and other movements are not made to last, they are agent of changes. They are the fire under the meat but they are not the meat. I somehow like how SEALDs decided to disband after the security law was voted. Creating a group for a purpose to push for a change and a specific topic (successful or not), once it is done (fail or success), disbanding to leave room for something else has somehow something appealing. Not everything can be done like this, and the after is where the things are becoming difficult, because it requires long term engagements, processes, etc.

After sparks . It requires calm careful effort and leadership.

Economist Gordon Tullock did some work on decay of revolutions. Essentially that the cost-benefit dynamics mean only committed people get involved early, but opportunists join in as the tide turns. One of his better-known papers is Paradox of Revolution, Journal of Public Choice Fall 1971.

This seems closely related to the innovator's dilemma. As an organization becomes successful deploying a new technology, the establishment of priorities, rules, ideas, and standards makes the organization more resistant to further changes. New ideas, which in the beginning permeated the porous shell of the company, begin to get rejected as the organization develops a 'shell' of standardization, process, structure, etc.

I had this tab open at the time, and finally stumbled back across it. Sorry for necroposting. :)

I think this is generally known as, or at least closely related to, the Iron Law of Oligarchy. ("(A)ll forms of organization, regardless of how democratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop oligarchic tendencies, thus making true democracy practically and theoretically impossible, especially in large groups and complex organizations.")

Or in a slightly different form, related to the Iron Law of Bureaucracy. ("In any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration. Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc. The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.")