It was almost 300 years from Gutenberg’s invention of the European printing press (1450) until the Age of Enlightenment beginning in 1715. If we see digital media — first invented as telegraph transmissions in 1855 — to be the dawn of the electric/network age, then we may have a similarly long period of change and turmoil still ahead of us.
Marshall McLuhan famously said that, “The medium is the message”. Thousands of years ago, the medium of the written word enable rulers to extend their command and control over larger empires and kingdoms. Institutions, like the three religions of Abrahamic tradition, were able to use the written word to get their messages spread across vast regions. As discussed above, the printed word enabled the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. Printed works enabled mass literacy and market economies emerged in kingdoms and later dominated nation states. In summary:
- Writing enabled institutions larger than tribal societies could build.
- Print enabled markets that could cross oceans and continents.
What do electric/digital communications enable? — Networks.
According to Niall Ferguson — “the word network appeared at the same time as electricity” — in the English language.
The three organizing forms for society, chronologically — Tribes, Institutions, Markets — are widely applicable across history. Each form builds on the other and changes it. The last form is the dominant form — today that would be the Market form (as the effects of 2008 market crash and the economic effects of the pandemic show). A new form is emerging — Networks‚ which is David Ronfeldt’s T+I+M+N model. This form has also been called the commons or the noosphere.
I believe we are currently between a triform (T+I+M) and a quadriform (T+I+M+N) society, which accounts for much of the current political turmoil in our post-modern world. This model can help inform us how to build better organizational forms for a coming age of entanglement.
This is our current challenge which has become more obvious as we have seen the failure of national governments and institutions to deal with the pandemic and the climate catastrophe. In an age of global electric media, we need new forms to organize, make sense, and take action.
This post is a short extract from Perpetual Beta 2022.