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Monday, December 16, 2013

Everything Is Modular . . . Is Governance Next?

Interchangeable parts revolutionized manufacturing—and all aspects of life—at the dawn of the Industrial Age. It’s in some way analogous to how the digitization of information is changing life today. The difference is that now you get the best of both worlds: You can keep the differentiation and individualization while also getting the standardization. It's a mash-up world; it's weird, and it's beautiful. We can most easily see the impact in entertainment, but the implications reach far deeper, opening new possibilities for commerce and governance.
To my kids, this is all second nature. My son thinks modularly, and sees the world as a series of modules. He's grown up with platforms like the iPad that are populated with modules called apps, which you can mix and match any way you like. He likes Minecraft, Legos, and Star Wars. There are Lego mods for Minecraft, and Minecraft sets for Lego. There are Lego Star Wars products and shows. There are YouTube video mashups of all these things. Some of the shows he likes combine medieval adventure tales with high technology, or Greek myths with cartoon slapstick and pop-culture references. Nyan Cat and Batman fighting an ancient pharaoh with the Ring of Power? Sure, why not?
When I was a kid, things were far more cemented to their platforms. I liked Top Gun, Star Wars, baseball, Legos, and a great many other things. With the exception of constant attempts to make Star Wars characters with my Legos, the idea of crossing these forms of play never entered my mind. A Lego TV show would've seemed weird and never occurred to me.
It's possible I'm only noticing a difference between myself and my kids, and there's not much more to it. But it seems likely something more fundamental is going on. 
Information is freely available in a wide open, wild market, and it's beautiful. There are no Star Chambers to give imprimatur to what should and should not be considered official or good ideas. There aren't publishing companies or government agencies powerful enough to dictate content or the media upon which it travels. All information is on an equal playing field. You referenced 20 great scholars in the footnotes and spent a lifetime completing this great work? Good for you. But I might just find a blog post written in 20 minutes or a TED talk that's more valuable. Sorry.
This democratization puts Rebecca Black and Maria Callas in the same arena. The whole world has equal access to each (unless, as is often the sad case, one of them resists and tries to keep their work hidden from the world, thinking it will make them more valuable). My kids wouldn't think anything was weird about a dub-step remix of Epic Beard Man singing Pavarotti. Everything, every great work and idea, from all of history and every genre, is available to everyone with an Internet connection.
A lot of the kings of the old guard lament this change and consider it vulgar. That's what people thought about Shakespeare and Dickens and the Impressionists, too. Get over it. Content is king. If you want to be appreciated, create great content, and make sure not to hide it from a world that just might autotune or photobomb it.
It's exciting to think how culture will evolve and find new ways to create out of this informational abundance. Right now, it kind of feels like the wild frontier, where this new ability has us exploring every crazy mash-up we can, just to prove it's possible and break down old categories and constructs. It's fun and it's just the beginning. Kids who grew up without the old categories won't feel the need to destroy them. They'll be able to spend their energy creating new forms, not only being conscious iconoclasts.
What other areas of life, besides just culture (is there a difference now between “high” and “low” culture?) will this modular outlook affect? Seeing everything as a module that can be moved from one platform to another, layered or nested with any other module, has got to bring about some innovations we can't even yet imagine in every institution and aspect of life.
Already people expect to be able to customize their lives in ways they never did before, and as a result, they want options in the services they purchase, many of which were once the sole domain of top-down governments. Ideas like community and patriotism used to be the foundation on which states could maintain their power, even when they delivered an inferior product. Digitization has revolutionized the way people view these concepts. They are more socially connected than ever, but it has little to do with arbitrary lines on a map or bureaucratic jurisdictions. 
The overlapping networks of modules have created new communities, new loyalties, and new citizens who are citizens by choice. If your smartphone is a platform used to house modular forms of entertainment and commerce, why not also governance? Forget the government bus system and download the Uber app. Who needs the public school when you have Khan Academy? Why can't services like getting a cat out of a tree, or defusing a domestic disturbance also be offered in a diverse array of modules, instead of by one clunky agency?
My kids’ video games are just the beginning. I've got my popcorn and I'm going to enjoy watching it happen—or at least follow the hashtag on Twitter.