Apartment hunting can be tortuous. In a seller’s market – New York, Sydney, Hong Kong – prospective tenants endure all sorts of difficulties to secure the right flat at the right price in the right location. All of this happens in the dark. Very little information about rents has ever been publicly available. You won’t know a particular landlord is gouging you simply because he knows you don’t know any better. The landlord holds all the cards: not just the keys to the property, but the rental history of that property, rents for similar properties, maintenance costs for the property, and so forth. That information helps the landlord operate from a position of maximum advantage in the transaction, converting information into power.
This informational asymmetry means the landlord always gets the better deal: he who knows most wins, and keeps winning. Each win adds momentum and capability, gradually cementing the winner into a fixed position of dominance in the relationship. Information confers power, and power amplifies the ability to gather information, a feedback that, if unchecked, leads to domination.
The world is broadly composed of instances where information has concretized into the forms of power. Sumer springs forth from the information inscribed on countless clay tablets; Rome ran on papyrus until Egypt left its sphere of influence, whereupon, unable to manage its information flows, it collapsed; every modern state seeks to sequester the flows of information, through censorship, military classification, or taboo. East Germany’s Stazi created a nation that spied upon itself, submitting this information to an authority that used every last scrap of it to maintain its dominance.
The grand dictatorships of state power and the petty dictatorships of landlords both draw their sustenance from information asymmetry, arbitrageurs of the truth. Where the facts can be withheld, this gamesmanship will inevitably take root and quickly comes to dominate all interactions. In the kingdom of the informationally blind, the well-informed is king.
Where asymmetries exist, pressure builds to equalize them. Vast asymmetries – such as the darkest secrets of state – consequently necessitate thick walls of law, force and culture to keep the outside out and the inside in. The existence of a wall implies something to defend, so attacks always occur, attempts to release the informational pressure stored within. The first strikes, crude clawings at the goal, nearly always fail, but each failure feeds back into a process of assault continuing unabated and undeterred for as long as the wall persists. Eventually the attack succeeds, the wall comes down, and its contents spill forth. Information, like energy, has entropy, and broad distribution in equilibrium is easier to maintain than tightly-held concentrations.
There is now another way.
Rather than penetrating the chamber of secrets, the chamber can be surrounded with information of equal salience and equivalent or even greater density. Instead of one bright spot in a sea of darkness, everything is illuminated. The asymmetry vanishes because it is no longer singular, nothing special. It might even reverse, as the environment surrounding the wall becomes more dense with information than anything held within.
Renters in New York now share information about the rents they pay using RentHackr. The website generates a map of each entry (together with its location and date) so that other renters can compare equivalent prices in a particular neighborhood, building – perhaps even the apartment itself, if the previous tenant submitted information to RentHackr. The prospective tenant now knows as much about prices for a given unit as the landlord does – probably even more, since RentHackr’s thousands of contributors offer up a much broader range of experiences and information than any single landlord would have opportunity to encounter.
This shift has been as sudden as it has been complete. Landlords have always bargained from a position of power borne from informational asymmetry. So have governments, banks, and nearly every other organization or relation that operates with power. All of those carefully protected islands of knowledge become indistinguishable and unimportant as the ocean recedes.
The sharing of specific knowledge domains by communities of hyperconnected individuals is a revolutionary act. It overturns power structures reinforced by informational asymmetry without firing a shot, staging a strike, or even raising one’s voice. Sharing is the antithesis of violence, yet it yields greater results than bombs.
We are just coming into an understanding of the relation between sharing, knowing and power. The massive realignment of human relations and institutions that is one key attribute of the next billion seconds begins with the sudden vanishing of all power structures, everywhere, as the energy which fed them loses its potential. In an information-rich world, information is not, in itself, power. Power has migrated elsewhere, and all those who use power will be forced to migrate with it, into lands both distant and foreign.
The collapse of any given informational asymmetries has been driven more by whim and luck than any intention; they occur randomly and serendipitously, but with each collapse something is learned of the conditions which precipitated that collapse, information hyperdistributed and imitated when the opportunity arises. Each instance of collapse carries with it everything learned to this point, and thereafter carries everything learned in the current instance.
These moments of collapse consequently have become more frequent and more pronounced. Within this half billion seconds they will transition from the exception to the norm, until no power structure of any consequence persists in its antique and redundant form. Everything once believed concrete is suddenly seen to be a castle made of sand. As this perception becomes pervasive, everything connected with power becomes provisional. Our hierarchical relations, which tell us our place in the order, are being supplanted by relations of affiliation, which tell us who we are by whom we know. Since this is already the way the world actually works, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock.
We no longer have the comforts (and terrors) of power to guide us. There are no lords and no masters, no governor anywhere. But this is not utopia nor mere anarchy. There will still be power, but differently constituted, drawn not from secrets and silence, but emerging as a quality of connecting and sharing.