Jaron Lanier raises some interesting points—more, in fact, than I can address here. But two aspects of his essay particularly struck me because they jibe so closely with what’s going on in my life right now.
On the tension between the agora and the antigora, his points seem to have a lot to do with some things I’ve observed about the tension between big and small. Those two things aren’t always parallel: the Internet is big, but open, and plenty of clubs are small, but closed. But there seem to be some parallels. In this essay on small and big, I noted that big entities—like eBay—make it possible for lots of small businesses to form. (I expand on this point at considerable length in my forthcoming book, An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths). I’m pretty sure that eBay counts as an “antigora”—you have to join, and eBay has the authority to keep you out if it wants—but in fact it functions as something very close to an agora. (Jaron calls it a “semigora,” which actually seems about right).
In the agora of the Internet, issues of trust and communication serve as significant barriers; in the antigora of eBay, those problems are (mostly) addressed. (eBay also offers health insurance to its “power sellers,” and it’s not all that hard to become a power seller; its antigoran nature lets it use its buying power to get them better deals than people could get in the agora on their own.) On the other hand, eBay can exist only because it’s embedded in the larger open space of the Internet agora. And lots of people started using the Internet regularly because it provided access to antigoras, or semigoras, like eBay and Amazon.
This makes me wonder if the semigoras (Jaron’s neologism is already catching on!) might not prove to be very fertile places for innovation and growth on the Internet – a sort of informational tidal basin exploiting the boundary between two different zones. Or perhaps I’ve just fallen into a very 1990s sort of metaphor…
In these respects, I think I agree with Eric S. Raymond, who observed:
“antigoras” are actually reputational agoras (Michael Goldhaber and others have since popularized this idea under the rubric of the “attention economy”).
In the other direction, agoras morph into antigoras when they need capital concentrations to keep functioning; one good example of this is IMDB. Wikipedia may be beginning a similar transition right now. This isn’t to be feared, it’s just an adaptive response—nobody, after all, is actually forced to “slave” in an antigora. I think one of the consequences of communications costs being driven towards zero is that social organizations are more likely to undergo such phase changes during their lifetimes.
Eric’s also right that only a highly productive economy can support a gift economy across large numbers of people, and that echoes a theme that I’ve sounded in An Army of Davids: We may achieve the worker’s paradise, but it will be through the interplay of technology and markets, rather than via the mechanisms favored by 20 th Century advocates of socialism.
Jaron also notes another theme that I’ve sounded: The empowerment of ordinary people is a good thing, but it also carries with it the dangers inherent in empowering bad people. In a world in which individuals have the powers formerly enjoyed by nation-states, an already-shrinking planet can get pretty small.
To me, this is another reason why we should favor space exploration and – more significantly, over the long run – space colonization. (As I wrote a while back, “Stephen Hawking says that humanity won’t survive the next thousand years unless we colonize space. I think that Hawking is an optimist.”) And, it happens, the empowerment of individuals and small groups that we’re seeing elsewhere is also going on here, with significant progress in space technology taking place now that it’s moving out of the hands of a government monopoly. Let’s hope it moves fast enough.