How far can the peer-to-peer revolution be pushed? It’s time we start to speculate, because history is moving fast. We need to dislodge from our minds our embedded sense of what’s possible.
Right now, we can experience a form of commercial relationship that was unknown just a decade ago. If you need a ride in a major city, you can pull up the smartphone app for Uber or Lyft and have a car arrive in minutes. It’s amazing to users because they get their first taste of what consumer service in taxis really feels like. It’s luxury at a reasonable price.
If your sink is leaking, you can click TaskRabbit. If you need a place to stay, you can count on Airbnb. In Manhattan, you can depend on WunWun to deliver just about anything to your door, from toothpaste to a new desktop computer. If you have a skill and need a job, or need to hire someone, you can go to oDesk or eLance and post a job you can do or a job you need done. If you grow food or make great local dishes, you can post at a place like credibles.co and find a prepaid customer base.
These are the technologies of the peer-to-peer or sharing economy. You can be a producer, a consumer, or both. It’s a different model — one characterized by the word “equipotency,” meaning that the power to buy and sell is widely distributed throughout the population. It’s made possible through technology.
The emergence of the app economy — an emergent order not created by government or legislation — has enabled these developments, and they are changing the world.
These technologies are not temporary. They cannot and will not be uninvented. On the contrary, they will continue to develop and expand in both sophistication and in geographic relevance. This is what happens when technology is especially useful. Whether it is the horseshoe of the Middle Ages or the distributed networks of our time, when an innovation so dramatically improves our lives, it changes the course of history. This is what is happening in our time.
The applications of these P2P networks are enormously surprising. The biggest surprise in my own lifetime is how they have been employed to make payment systems P2P — no longer based on third-party trust — through what’s called the blockchain. The blockchain can commodify and title any bundle of information and make it transferable, with timestamps, in a way that cannot be forged, all at nearly zero cost.
An offshoot of blockchain-distributed technology has been the invention of a private currency. For half a century, it has been a dream of theorists who saw that taking money out of government hands would do more for prosperity and peace than any single other step.
The theorists dreamed, but they didn’t have the tools. They hadn’t been invented yet. Now that the tools exist, the result is bitcoin, which gives rise to the hope that we have the makings of a new international currency managed entirely by the private sector and the global market system.
These new P2P systems have connected the world like never before. They hold out the prospect of unleashing unprecedented human energy and the creativity that comes with it. They give billions of people a chance to integrate themselves into the worldwide division of labor from which they have thus far been excluded.
With 3-D printing and computer-aided design files distributed on digital networks, more people have access to become their own manufacturers. These same people can be designers and distribute the results to the world. Such a system cuts out every barrier that stands between people and their material aspirations — barriers such as product regulation, patents, and excise taxes.
It’s time that we begin to expect the unexpected. What else is possible?
Entrepreneurs are already experimenting with an Uber model of delivering some form of health care online. In some areas, they will bring a nurse to you to give you a flu shot. Other health services are on the way, causing some to speculate on the return to at-home medical visits paid out of pocket (rather than via insurance).
What does this innovation do for centralist solutions like Obamacare? It changes the entire dynamic of service provision. The medical establishment is already protesting that this consumer-based, one-off service approach runs contrary to primary and preventive care — a critique that fails to consider that there is no reason why P2P technology can’t provide such care.
How much can things change? To what extent will they affect the structure of our political lives? This is where matters get really interesting. A feature of P2P is the gradual elimination of third parties as agents who stand between individuals and their desire to cooperate one to one. We use such third parties because we believe we need them. Credit card companies serve a need. Banks serve a need. Large-scale corporations serve a need.
One theory holds that the State exists to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. It’s the ultimate third-party provider. We elect people to serve as our representatives, and they bring our voices to the business of government so that we can get the services we want. That’s the idea, anyway.
But once government gets the power to do things, it expands its power in the interest of the ruling elite. The taxicab monopoly was no more necessary than the government postal service, but the growth of P2P technology has increasingly exposed the reality of how unnecessary the State as a third-party mediator really is. The post office is being pushed into obsolescence. It’s hard to see how the municipal taxi monopoly can survive a competitive contest with P2P technology systems.
Policing is an example of a service that people think is absolutely necessary. The old perception is that government needs to provide this service because most people cannot do it for themselves. But what if policing, too, could employ P2P technology?
What if, when there is a threat, whether to you or to others, you could open an app on your phone and call the private police immediately? You can imagine how such a technology could learn to filter out static and discern threat level based on algorithms and immediately supplied video evidence. We already see the first attempts in this direction with the Peacekeeper app.
Rather than a tax-funded system that has become a threat to the innocent as much as the guilty, we would have a system rooted in consumer service. It might be similar to the private security systems used by all businesses today, except it would apply to individuals. It would survive not through taxation but subscription — voluntary and noncoercive.
How much further can we take this? Can courts and laws themselves be ported to the online world, using the blockchain for verifying contracts, managing conflicts, and even issuing securities? The large retailer Overstock.com is experimenting with this idea — not for ideological reasons but simply because such systems work better.
And here we find the most compelling case for optimism for the cause of human liberty. These technologies are emerging from within the private sector, not from government. They work better to serve human needs than the public-sector alternative. Their use and their growth depend not on ideological conversion but on their capacity to serve universal human needs.
The ground really is shifting beneath our feet, despite all odds. It is still an age of leviathan. But based on technology and the incredible creativity of entrepreneurs, that leviathan no longer seems like a permanent feature of the world.