The really real revolutionary revolution of the Internet

James Burke

The man in the photo, science historian and broadcaster James Burke, is a revolutionary. So pay attention. This is important.

I don’t mean “revolutionary” in the lame-arsed sense used by every pissant little company with a new kind of double-whacko widget that’ll “revolutionise” the double-whacko widget industry. Because it’s now available in three different colours.

No, I mean the real kind of revolutionary: someone who advocates a revolution — yes, as in a complete overthrow of the established political system.

I’ve just finished watching Burke’s ten-part TV series from 1985, The Day The Universe Changed. It’s available on DVD, but you can also do what I did and watch the whole thing on YouTube. At least until some copyright-addled arsehole decides that you can’t.

As Wikipedia says:

The series’ primary focus is on the effect of advances in science and technology on western philosophy. The title comes from the philosophical idea that the universe essentially only exists as you perceive it through what you know; therefore, if you change your perception of the universe with new knowledge, you have essentially changed the universe itself.

To illustrate this concept, James Burke tells the various stories of important scientific discoveries and technological advances and how they fundamentally altered how western civilization perceives the world.

Apart from anything else, TDTUC is an excellent history of western scientific thought. But, after taking you on this journey, Burke’s final episode is a revolutionary call to action.

Here’s the final minutes:

We still go on believing that today’s version of things is the only right one because… we can only handle one way of seeing things at a time. We’ve never had systems that would let us do more than that, so we’ve always had to have conformity, with a current view.

Disagree with the Church, and you were punished as a heretic. With the political system, as a revolutionary. With the scientific establishment, as a charlatan. With the educational system, as a failure.

If you didn’t fit the mould, you were rejected.

But, ironically, the latest product of that way of doing things is a new instrument, a new system that while it could make conformity more rigid, more totalitarian that ever before in history, it could also blow everything wide open. Because with it, we could operate on the basis that values and standards and ethics and facts and truth all depend on what your view of the world is — and that there may be as many views of that as there are people.

And with this [brandishing a computer microchip] capable of keeping a tally on those millions of opinions voiced electronically, we might be able to lift the limitations of conforming to any centralised representational form of government — originally invented because there was no way for everybody’s voice to be heard.

You might be able to give everybody unhindered, untested access to knowledge, because the computer would do the day-to-day work for which we once qualified the select few in an educational system originally designed for a world where only the few could be taught.

You might end the regimentation of people living and working in vast unmanageable cities, uniting them instead in an electronic community where the Himalayas and Manhattan were only a split second apart.

You might, with that and much more, break the mould that has held us back since the beginning, in a future world that we would describe as balanced anarchy and they will describe as an open society, tolerant of every view, and where there is no single, privileged way of doing things — above all, able to do away with the greatest tragedy of our era: the centuries-old waste of human talent that we couldn’t or wouldn’t use.

Utopia? Why?

If, as I’ve said all along, the universe is at any time what you say it is, then say!

Now a few people are poking around the edges of this revolution. But how many actually comprehend the full breadth and depth of what’s going on?

Here in Australia, Senator Kate Lundy‘s Public Sphere events have started scratching the surface. At the state level, Penny Clarke MLC is kicking off the NSW Sphere next month, at which I’ll probably be speaking.

And yet, as I say, these events are only scratching the surface.


Because they’re looking at how the tools of Web 2.0 and beyond can be used to support the existing national and state governments and their institutions and instrumentalities. Because they still imagine that central authorities make everything happen. Because they still imagine that the role of the citizenry is to participate in systems set up for them by that central authority, instead of just autonomously doing things for themselves.

The true revolution is that the existing national and state governments and their institutions and instrumentalities will become irrelevant.

As Clay Shirky has pointed out, a 3-million article Wikipedia was knocked off in only the number of man-hours Americans spend watching TV advertising in one weekend. One weekend!

As Open Australia has demonstrated, just a handful of people can create a better and more flexible system for reading parliamentary debates than parliament itself.

As Mark Pesce has pointed out, old-fashioned hierarchical organisations actually get in the way of new systems emerging. And you can watch him say that on video.


Imagine what might be possible when the burden of clunky hierarchical dinosaur-organisations is removed. Imagine what might be done with 51 more weekends-full of community participation. Then, as James Burke says… then say it!

12 Replies to “The really real revolutionary revolution of the Internet”

  1. Oh what the hell. I’ve got ASIO following me on twitter already so visiting this blog post, reading it, nodding in agreement and leaving a comment of approval ain’t going to make it any worse! 😉

    Vive la Révolution!

  2. Big James Burke fan here. I remember watching this series when it first came out and being blown away. I have the companion book around here somewhere too.

    Looking back, it’s even more amazing how prescient he was. His doco After the Warming was also the first time I had ever heard of the problems with greenhouse warming and what to do about it…

  3. Are we talking about making the tools of power available to everyone or are we talking about honest and open government (i.e. no bs)

    An example of the former is in New Zealand earlier this month, a private members bill Prohibiting Imports Made by Slave Labour was submitted to the House of representatives. This bill comes from the NZ Progressive Bills Wiki. –

    The problem with the latter is that the very people we are asking nicely to give us access, are controlling the spin – examples are where Senior US Journalists (like Helen Thomas, who is no way a neo con / neo liberal or whatever) are querying the Obama Administration’s manipulation of Press Conferences

    or where the SMH have identified where the NSW State Premier and Treasurer are colluding to misled the public over figures used in the State Budget, and in government advertising

  4. While I do feel that this information age and the internet in particular will change a lot of things, certainly things that people in power managed to get away with before. I can’t help but fear that politicians, religious leaders and corporatists are catching on and will stop this social revolution dead in its tracks.

    Take Iran and China as rather extreme examples. Both are countries with a young and sizable educated population. Yet all their web 2.0 skills have gotten them is a brutally violent backlash by those in power.

  5. @Alastair: You can also watch After the Warming on YouTube. Yes, it’s amazingly prescient. The only thing which really dates it, apart from the retro-futuristic fashion of his white suit, is a future economy being led by Japan. Oops.

    @martin english: You’ve identified a key problem, one that’s worse here in Australia, a monarchy, than in a republic like the US. Here, the structures are built around the concept of The Crown owning the data, whereas in the US the people own the data so it’s easier to argue that access be provided.

    The Australian government’s paper Australia’s Digital Economy: Future Directions paper contains a whole section which supposedly commits the government to opening up data, and it does appear that the Rudd government it serious about this. But there’s so much to be done in terms of changing public servants’ attitudes.

    @Woolly Mittens: Indeed. Technology is just a tool. We choose what we do with it. In a democracy, supposedly we get to make that choice. Supposedly.

  6. I remember that series and I remember being confused that I could have been so ignorant of these world-changing events.

    This is old, and I may have mentioned it before but about the time that Cluetrain was influencing much of our thought, Joi Ito wrote a paper on emergent democracy:

    Dee Hock, the founder of VISA, wrote an email in response: The bit that blew me away then was this:

    I wonder if you realize that a dozen or two people like yourself with the right combination of communication, technological and organizational skills could design and implement a global government without the consent of any present form of organization and provide it with the neural network to insure its success.

    In 2003 we could see the potential, but it’s taken until now, and the rise of social media, for it to become real.

  7. All very interesting. But what happens when my house is on fire? I like the idea that there is a central authority that will show up without fear or favour to extinguish the blaze. I don’t trust people “autonomously doing things for themselves” to put out the fire.

  8. @Jeffery Candiloro: Good point. The issue is, though, that the fire brigade needn’t necessarily be structured as it is now.

    While it might be good to have, say, standardised training so everyone can work together on large-scale operations, there doesn’t necessarily need to be a layer of management that covers every local brigade from Wollongong to Bourke.

    1. So, are you suggesting a militia type fire extinguishing service? One where everyone in the community is equally trained and can build ad-hoc teams to extinguish a given blaze in a given location?

      If so – that was fine in the past. But now we are so specialised in our skills and knowledge that we can’t practically ask people to be sufficiently knowledgeable that they can maintain a high-skill job, engage in the best practice for fire fighting, handle a forensic police investigation, cook solid meals and raise a family.

      I would suggest that the layer of management, whilst it may be able to be restructured/refined/improved is necessary to ensure that the training is standardised, is delivered properly and is able to provide the co-ordination necessary.

    2. @Jeffery Candiloro: No, I wasn’t suggesting anything at all like the militia you describe. I think it’s pretty clear that specialised roles have always been needed since we stopped being plains-dwelling apes.

      I was merely suggesting that central management may not be needed for every single aspect of running a local brigade. Training, yes. How each individual brigade chooses to do other things, well, maybe it doesn’t need to be centralised. Or maybe the centralisation happens at some other scale than “state”.

      I’m not that familiar with fire brigades. Obviously my off-the-cuff comments will easily be challenged, so I’m not particularly interested in pursuing that. I’m more interested in stepping back and looking at bigger-picture issues.

      What I am interested in is the assumptions we made when designing the institutions we currently have, and asking whether those assumptions are still valid, or will remain valid.

Comments are closed.