Reflections on the Third Millenium

Dale Amon

Whether this is the "true" start of the Millenium or not is really rather meaningless. We have rolled over the odometer and with it we have sealed yesterday into a box labeled Second Millenium.

It's the human cognitive perceptions which matter, and which mean we are today starting with a very large clean slate upon which to write the future. Our civilization is time based and individuals within it mentally package events based on the calendar. We put yesterday behind us, and then we package our yesterday's into weeks, months and years; perhaps once in an average lifetime we get to drop all of those years into a century sized box... and yesterday we packaged 10 centuries into the Second Millenium Box and placed it on the shelf of human history.

There is another factor that affects human perception and cognition. A form of Regression to the Mean. In an historical context it means that as we get more distant from a box in time, our perceptions of the contents of the entire box tends towards the average of that box. Thus, as we distance ourselves from the Second Millenium, it will not be a time of technology and spaceships. Apollo, Columbus and the Crusades are now shelved together, but in the minds of future school children our just past millenium will be more one of sword wielding armoured men on horseback hacking away at each other, perhaps mixed up with some confusion about biplanes, radio and such.

The Second Millenium was not about science and technology per se. It was the millenium that led to the germination of those ideas at its' very end, on the doorstep to the Millenium in which they will fully flower.

This ability to box things gives us a certain freedom from the past as well. It allows us a psychological new beginning, one we can face with a semblance of a state of innocence and hope. It is somewhat of a comfort to have the excesses of the Inquisition, WWII, the Central State Communism of Stalin, the massacres of Hitler and Pol Pot, slavery and colonialism safely behind us, or at least sufficiently so that they do not a priori enter into the ethos of this blank slate called the Third Millenium.

The slate may be blank, but it does have initial conditions that will define its' first few centuries and certainly affect if not define its' mean when looked upon from the 4th Millenium.

There can be little doubt that technology defines this new era. We have:

I've left this until last because it is possibly the most explosive change of the lot and is the one that will aide and abet many of the above and change society into something that will be unrecognizable to Second Millenium minds. Precisely what those changes are is almost certainly beyond detailed prediction.

The Second Millenium opened with some of the elements of the birth of the Nation State in place, and in many ways the millenium is the story of the growth of that entity and the battle between it and its' competitors.

This Millenium is opening with the germs of an equally major re-thinking of how humans organize themselves. States are hierachical. They work well in a reality that has relatively slow information flows, and in which the collection and particularly the collation and analysis of information is very costly. In such a world information moves vertically. It is analyzed on the way up and then distributed from the top downwards. The last century of the previous millenium took this to its' logical extreme with "mass media". Whether in service to the Nazi state or to a less overt unspoken desire to keep the status quo in "free" states, mass media was the tool of thought control that made that century everything that it was.

But communications technologies have been eroding that ability to control and now as the internet goes into full flower over the next few decades, it is likely to undermine the very concept of the state and many of the concepts built around it. The recent results of the eToy vs eToys battle may perhaps be a foretaste of what is to come in a world where information flow is horizontal. Information is power, and if the flow is horizontal, then the power will also be horizontal.

I cannot predict where this will lead. I can predict certain events as likely, but I cannot describe the new society. For example, I can safely say that court rulings around the world that are made in the interests of those in the current power structure will be effectively overturned in practice. What use would it be to eToys for example, to win its' court case against eToy if public opinion then bankrupted it? What good will it do IFIP to win a court case in Denmark or elsewhere if the most vibrant part of the music industry is caused to move into the GPL? Even if they win, they might find their product turn to dust in their hands.

High speed horizontal flows of information imply a very different way of organizing human affairs. Events have already accelerated beyond the fastest possible pace at which the hierarchical structures of state bureaucracies can adapt. And the pace is still heating up. My own guess is that we are headed for a human society based on the self organizing principles of mathematical chaos. The numbers of human beings on earth are so large now that it is entirely possible the system could be a stable one. I would like to imagine this has some libertarian overtones to it, but I simply do not know what the instantaneous interaction of the individual decisions of 10 billion people will bring into being.

Whatever it is, it will certainly be interesting.

This article has appeared in Online Europe, has been quoted in a local newspaper in the Southern United States and has appeared in IF: Ireland's Internet Future.