Culture & Empire

date Apr 20, 2015
authors Pieter Hintjens
reading time 15 mins

Units of functions - cells

Or consider a living cell, which has more moving parts than a Boeing 777 and is smaller than a micron. Cells are self-healing, self-reproducing, and self-organizing.

Empire’s birth … maybe a company too?

I argue that every great empire is born out of a monopoly on a vital new technology: bronze, iron, the horse, irrigation, roads, military organization, finance. In each instance, essential knowledge spreads until everyone has access to it. Then the empire loses its monopoly, crashes, and the cycle repeats.

Cost of technology

The true cost of building a bank-sized data center drops by 50% every two years. The result is that older banks start to face competition from small aggressive competitors, especially as the Internet begins to make the local branches obsolete.

Through adoption, then laws

Few people realize the role technology is playing in an ongoing revolution until it’s too late to stop it. The emperor’s old toy doesn’t look disruptive until it’s in the hands of millions. Then come the laws banning, controlling, and restricting it.

Tasks and roles

Horses only for the nobles. Books only for the priests.


Political systems claim to do what is best for society. That is not how things happen. Laws are written by the powerful for their own benefit first, that of others incidentally. It’s up to the downstream farmers to organize, gain power, and fix the laws. Democracy does not create balance in a society; it can only express its balances or imbalances.

New political structures

The new political structures of the twenty-first century will be unlike any we’ve ever seen before. Today, we have the seeds, and already they are international, anonymous, decentralized, self-organizing, fast, and accurate.

Searching knowledge

Knowledge has largely moved on line, with Google acting as the general index and Wikipedia and Facebook as the aggregates of human knowledge. Who you know is as important as what you know.

New behaviors with digital

When culture becomes digital, it’s more than just a technological shift. With this shift, we also see new behaviors emerge.

History of RFC!

Crocker, Carr, and Rulifson are not household names. Steve Crocker and his team invented the Requests for Comments, or RFC series. These documents became the laws of the Internet, specifying every standard in a clear form that was freely usable by all.

Technology leaps

“During the period of Watt’s patents the United Kingdom added about 750 horsepower of steam engines per year. In the thirty years following Watt’s patents, additional horsepower was added at a rate of more than 4,000 per year.”

Technology leaps for Internet

It took only four decades to go from three terminals on a local network to almost seven billion mobile phones, of which two billion are smartphones, on a global network.

Stamping down pirates

Its successors (FastTrack, Gnutella, Kazaa, WinMX, AudioGalaxy) were also smashed by music industry lawsuits. In a pattern we see many times, stamping down one pirate business created dozens of new ones to take it place. Killing Napster turned a handful of networks into dozens, then hundreds, mostly using the BitTorrent peer-to-peer (P2P) technology.

Impossible to kill

It has proven impossible for the music industry to kill file sharing, yet they have tried endlessly, declaring “war on downloaders,” suing file sharers, buying laws to criminalize copyright infringement, and on and on.

Convenience > Free

It was never about getting something for free as such, rather about convenience and choice, and it turns out we’re mostly happy to pay for this. Indeed, downloading and sharing free music was never a cheap hobby; it needed large hard disks, fast connections, and powerful PCs.

Obscurity > Piracy

What every software project has known for decades is now apparent to the movie and TV studios as well: the real threat to long-term survival is not piracy. It is obscurity. Piracy didn’t kill the moving picture. It probably saved it from disappearing among the many other digital attractions.


The GPL is a model for a broader kind of collaborative innovation that people call “remixing,” which we see in other sectors such as music and digital art. Remixing is a surprisingly effective way of producing certain kinds of knowledge goods.


Remixing is a natural way of working that has a long history with roots in our social psychology. Sharing one’s ideas and work is good for everyone. No one likes a hoarder: imagine the reaction to a doctor who discovers the cure for a disease – using all the knowledge given to him by others – and refuses to share his new knowledge with others.

Connectivity in the past

There was no other way to connect to the world except through a tiny handful of ports and the cities that grew around them. Control those precious gateways to the outside world, and a life of luxury is guaranteed.

Role of governments

We could all be a lot wealthier, happier, and freer if governments kept to their role as arbitrator and regulator, and spent less time trying to interfere in markets to benefit their friends.

Mobile phone

To poor people in remote areas, the mobile phone is much more useful than any conventional computer. It is portable, cheap, durable, has a long-lasting battery, and can do a lot. Once a mobile network exists, it can very rapidly scale up to the latest state of the art. And the lack of regulation – which enables corruption and stagnation in classic industries – creates space to innovate in the African mobile industry.

Wise crowd

Surowiecki identified four elements necessary for a wise crowd : diversity of opinion, independence of members from one another, decentralization, and effective ways to aggregate opinions.


Citizens of digital society choose freely which authorities to respect and which to ignore. The core trick is to accept authority without giving it the “right to command.”


Define a powerful mission to attract newcomers. Make it really easy for people to get involved. Embrace argument and conflict; it’s where good ideas come from. Delegate systematically, and create competition. Work with volunteers more than employees. Get diversity and scale. Make people own the work; don’t let the work own the people.

Building a community

First, some general advice about building a community. Be brutally honest with yourself and with others. Your biggest challenge is overcoming your own prejudices and biases, and then those of everyone you work with.

Good mission statement

A good mission saunters past “sane” and steps into “you cannot be serious!” Wikipedia’s mission, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” is a good example.

Impossible missions bigger than yourself

Impossible missions attract the right kind of people for a young project.

Easy to join

The platform has to be free to use. It has to be easy to learn and work with. Your seed project has to be visible to anonymous visitors. It has to work for anyone no matter his or her age, gender, education, or physical location.

Developing in the open

You want to be working on your seed in public view, and talking about your new project, from the very start. This means people can make suggestions, and feel involved, from day one.

Minimal rulebook

Otherwise, you can start with a minimal rulebook and grow it over time as you see what problems hit the community. This is, for example, how the Wikipedia rulebook grew up.


Complex, pointless, or unwritten rules are toxic to groups. They create space for argument, confuse people, and make it expensive to join or leave a group.

Wrong technique used by cults

A favorite cult technique is to randomly punish and reward people so they become confused and stop questioning authority.

Making changes

If someone wants a feature, they either send us a patch, or offer someone money to make the change, or they wait. This means people only make changes they really need to make.

Unhealthy practices of making bosses happy

In the old industrial-era business, teams get their feedback from their bosses. This turns into an exercise in power: you’ll be scored higher for compliance than for accuracy. Making your bosses happy so they give you a pay raise is not healthy.

Meeting !== work

Do you need meetings to get work done as a group? This is a sign that you have deeper problems in how you work together. You are excluding people who are not physically close by.

No barrier to entry

Make it absolutely simple for logged-in users to create new projects. If projects are organized per user, you don’t need to worry about junk. If they’re in a shared space, you may need tools to purge junk and abandoned projects.


Complexity turns people away because it’s so difficult to learn. The solution is to use very regular structures that you can learn once and then predict many times.

Cities vs castles

The successful on-line communities are cities, not castles.

Projects »> People

Businesses love their castles, which inevitably describe Important People, not projects, and certainly not the major business problems. Their organizations are huge and irregular. There’s no way to understand them except by memorizing them in detail. Then again, you can’t simply move around the castle, so there’s little benefit in learning its layout.

Be humble and share

When you talk about people, products, or organizations, be polite and stay balanced. When you promote your product or community, talk about the problems you solve, not how you are better than your competitors.


The lack of humor in an organization is a sure sign that everyone there is fundamentally miserable. Worse, it makes the group vulnerable to conflict and fracture.

Simpler to move faster

You make a racing car faster by removing weight, not by adding power. You can make your community lighter, faster, and more agile by being dogmatically minimalist about the work you do.

Getting participation

Perfection precludes participation. Releasing buggy, half-finished work is an excellent way to provoke people into contributing. Though it can be hard for big egos to accept, flaws are usually more attractive to contributors than perfection, which attracts users.

Intelligence with crowd

Intelligence is a social effect, though it feels personal. A person cut off from others eventually stops thinking. We can neither collect problems nor measure solutions without other people.

Organization » Who we are

how we organize matters much more than who we are.

Stupidity –> Madness

In general, collective stupidity is a precursor to collective madness.

No diverse views

Why does watching TV make us stupider? It has a very strong effect on how we see the world. When millions of people see the same programs, their overall diversity of opinion seems to fall dramatically.

We are all the same

All modern humans descended from about 10,000 individuals who lived about 300,000 years ago, and all non-African humans from a far smaller selection. Anyone who thinks their particular family tree makes them special is as crazy as a Cardinal.


there is zero correspondence between good genes and “ethnic origin,” except in reverse: the more isolated and homogeneous a gene pool is, the more likely it is to be filled with bugs.

Internet and performance

Here’s a claim: the quality of any society correlates directly to the performance/price ratio of broadband Internet in that country.

Un-profitability to kill bad behaviors

To change the behavior of an individual or a group, the only sustainable strategy is to change the economics. If it’s unprofitable to be a thief, people will stop becoming thieves.

Basic human rights

High Internet costs and censorship should be treated as crimes against humanity, and access to IP packets as a basic human right, along with free education, clean water, and freedom to travel.


Immigration looks set to remain one of the great debates of the next hundred years or so, and the outcome will reflect history. Eventually it is likely that we’ll all have to be allowed to be free to travel anywhere in our world without interference or pressure.

Myth of the single creator

Modern patent and copyright law, though very different in substance, share their common origin in this myth of the individual creator. This conflict was quite explicit in the debate around early British copyright law , with London booksellers arguing for infinite copyright, and the competing Scottish printing industry arguing for freedom to copy.


The notion that religion makes men mad is ludicrous. It makes them less sharp, for sure, yet it also has strong survival value for societies in stressful environments.

Religious conflicts

Every violent so-called “religious conflict” is driven by local politics. Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Lebanon, Chechnya, Syria, Algeria, Libya, Northern Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Indonesia, Burma… the story is always one of cynical older psychopaths wrestling for power, using whatever weapons they can, including weak and vulnerable people who can be convinced to fight and die for them.

Cost gravity

Further, technology never runs backwards. Cost gravity means that what is expensive today becomes cheap tomorrow, with the arguable exception of scarce natural resources. One example: solar technology, which today is still a luxury good.

Property laws

Empirical evidence suggests that countries with strong property rights systems have economic growth rates almost twice as high as those of countries with weak property rights systems, and that a market system with significant private property rights is an essential condition for democracy.

Innovation and patents

The largest holder of software patents is IBM. Do you know of a single successful software product they have ever made using their patents? The largest and most successful software system ever built was the Internet. Not a single of its protocols is patented.

Individual vs society

The core lie is that mythological inventor. As I argued in “Spheres of Light”, we don’t invent solutions so much as discover them, and it takes a society to do this, not individuals.

Monetary vs sharing rewards

It does not matter how much you bribe your researchers. If they are cannot share, they cannot innovate. Have you seen the latest smartphones from North Korea?

Poor authority

A poor authority will see its assets flow away, not quite overnight, yet within a few years, perhaps even months. When Oracle bought Sun in 2010, they also took over Sun’s many free software projects, including MySQL and OpenOffice. Within a few months, these had forked – as allowed by their open source licenses – to create MariaDB and LibreOffice, simply because Oracle was doing what it does best, being arrogant and overbearing. That works well with corporate clients. It is not the ideal way to treat on-line communities.

Ownership vs enforcement

Who owns your Twitter profile? You do, of course. Who enforces that property? Twitter does. So digital society is filled with authorities, from huge ones like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, with hundreds of millions of citizens, to tiny ones with a handful of participants.

Digital authorities vs state

These digital authorities define their own property laws, and enforce them without negotiation, and are thus analogous to a State. Such digital authorities are the digital successors to the industrial-age nation-state.

Piracy and advertising

HBO’s most popular show as I write this is Game of Thrones, a cracking swords-and-dragons political epic. It is also the most pirated TV show ever. Speaking of this, the CEO of Time Warner (owner of HBO), said, “Our experience is, it all leads to more penetration, more paying subs, more health for HBO, less reliance on having to do paid advertising – we don’t do a whole lot of paid advertising on HBO, we let the programming and the views talk for us –it seems to be working.” So piracy is not hurting sales of TV shows, and instead emerges as the cheapest and most effective way to increase them.

2 types of thinking

We have two major and opposing strategies to deal with unacceptable mystery. These are: magical thinking, and evidence-based thinking, which we also call “science.” Magical thinking starts with an grand explanation that appeals to emotion and self-interest, and then it collects support for that explanation. Science on the other hand, formulates theories and then tries to break them with evidence, reproducible data, facts. Large theories are disassembled into smaller ones so each piece can be tested independently.