It has been a while since I've posted an entry about TED. In case you don't know what it is, go to ted.com and marvel of the interesting things one can find there. Well, in this post I am going to post two talks about the Internet. One talks about how concepts that would never have worked in real life have caught on in cyberspace (see Wikipedia, where people add information voluntarily, without any remuneration) and the second is about how the Internet can be used by totalitarian(?) states to oppress, rather than being a magic tool that spwens democracy. My comments are at the end of the post.
I have to say that Jonathan Zittrain's talk made me immediately think of Fidonet. Long before there was the ubiquitous Internet, amateurs would host Bulletin Board Systems where people could connect and send/read mail, download files and engage in social activities. Actually, one could think even further back, to pirate radio stations, that people would run on their own money (and seldom their own risk) without any chance of a profit.
So yes, given a method of reducing the cost of help significantly, I think a vast majority of people would help others without considering it a bother. However, to adapt the theory that any altruistic person is helping others because of personal reasons, therefore it is a form of egotism, I think a better way of putting it is: given a method of reducing the cost of coagulating in a group, people will enlarge their concept of clan and start doing stuff they would do for themselves for a lot more people.
That brings me to the second talk, Evgeni Morozov's,that would have been a lot more powerful if the guy would have stopped a few times to take a breath, right? :) He talks about the ease of using the Internet to determine the network structure of groups of people (clans again) and then striking where it is most effective with minimal cost to the establishment. There are mathematical algorithms that can do this automatically, just give them a graph of people and they will determine the leaders of opinion, the hubs of information. Then you can either persuade or remove them, giving you the power to control their entire "flock", just like pruning a bonsai tree to make it look like you want it to. And I think this system is a lot more used in democracies, rather than in totalitarian regimes, for the simple reason that despots have other options.
Both ideas seem to have a point in common, in my view, that in any strongly connected group of people leaders will naturally emerge , without any other reason than that they feel good about it, and stear a lot of passive people, whether in opinion or action. In an ideal situation, where all connections between people would be transparent (and I imagine Google is not far from having this kind of information), the entire humanity could be reduced to an active minority and an inertial mass of people.
This is interesting as a case study, because I am talking of an elite group of people, and not one that is organized, but one that is emerging naturally from chaotic personal behaviour. Something like Asimov's psychohistory could use that, with the axioms slightly modified to talk about "active population" as opposed to total population.