The tech policy researcher Adam Thierer has suggested an exciting thing: that the internet could be organized in a similar way to Robert Nozick’s framework for utopia (you can read Adam’s explanation here and here). The hope is that this would lead to an internet where:
Netizens are free to pursue their own vision of a good life in a community of their choosing, free from centralized or coerced visions of what ‘a good life’ should entail.
For many people, there is great appeal to this idea. But could we really model the internet on Nozick’s framework? One of the reasons the framework has been criticised is because it is so difficult to apply to the real world.
In this post I hope to show that Thierer’s suggestion is possible because of the particular characteristics of the internet. That is, the functioning of Nozick’s framework depends on certain features of the environment in which he imagines it – one of vast space, plentiful resources, lots of people, abundant skills, low transport costs, and ease of acquiring information. These characteristics are necessary in order for people to create communities and move between them freely as the framework intends. For some more explanation of this idea, see here. While these features are not present in the real world, it is possible that they could be present online. And hence, it is possible that we could apply Nozick’s framework for utopia (or something like it) to the internet.
1. Vast space – in Nozick’s framework people are able to create the community they most prefer. In order for this to be possible, there needs to be an almost unlimited space for creation – people must be able to create communities without affecting the ability of others to create their own communities now and in the future. On the internet, while the space available for creation is finite, it is also enormous. The size of the internet is somewhere in the order of exabytes, and it is growing daily as we add hardware and servers. On the internet, there is enough space for all people to create communities.
2. Plentiful resources – in Nozick’s framework people can create communities with a seemingly endless supply of resources and materials. On the internet the resources for creation are those things we need to build communities online – computing power, bandwidth, electricty. These are also finite, but most people in wealthy countries can access them at relatively little cost. Nevertheless, for a truly inclusive framework to be created on the internet more people would need access to cheap community creation rescources.
3. Lots of people – in Nozick’s framework people can imagine other people to populate their preferred community. This is necessary in order for people who wish to create a bustling city community, for example, to be able to do so. On the internet this is not the case – people are limited. But a significant difference is that people can join multiple communities online. In Nozick’s environment, we exist only in one community at a time. This ability to participate in several communities at once was not imagined by Nozick, and is crucial for the success of application to the internet. In addition, an online community doesn’t need people in the same way as a physical community – we can have small communities because we can create many tools without the help of other people. Nor do the citizens of the community need it to supply their basic physical needs in the same way. For these reasons, people could still have the freedom to create the kinds of communities they prefer online despite the finite number of people.
Nevertheless, there will be limits here. People may not be able to start their preferred social network easily, for example, due to lack of members. But this is the same in Nozick’s framework – communities compete for membership, and some will succeed while others fail.
4. Abundant skills – In Nozick’s environment, a person could create a community simply by imagining it. On the internet people might be limited by a lack of skills. An individual must at least know how to operate a computer, how to use the internet, and also how to use applications within in it. In this sense, there are very real barriers to creation caused by the level of skills and knowledge required. Nevertheless, this barrier is fluid and we can improve it – individuals can build tools to help other individuals create more easily and intuitively online.
5. Low transport costs – In Nozick’s environment people could move between communities seemingly instantly and for free. Likewise, the cost of moving between communities is very low on the internet. We do not need to move between communities in the sense imagined by Nozick. Rather, we can participate in multiple communities at once, and move our attention between them. To be sure, there are costs with leaving a community permanently if we have invested time and energy in it. This I’ll address in a follow up post.
6. Low information aquisition costs – in Nozick’s framework people could find out about other communities without great cost. So too on the internet as computer aided search helps over come the problem of information aquisition. There are other problems to be sure – as Puwl raised in a comment on the previous post about the desirability of such wide choice. I’ll address these in the next post in this series.
What’s the point?
The future of the internet, and what rules it has, is up to us. The point of the discussion above is that one option we have is to use Nozick’s framework (or something like it) as a blueprint, or a guide, for how the internet of the future develops. What kind of rules do we want online? And who do we want to make them? Nozick’s framework provides powerful and robust ways of answering these questions.