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The Revolution Will Be Tweeted

by Michael Shermer, Oct 06 2009

At the Atheist Alliance International conference this past weekend in Burbank, California, the Skeptics Society had a booth in the vendor’s section of book sellers and the like, the latter of which included a table full of bumper stickers. One struck me as a poignant proxy for what I predicted will happen at the end of my book, The Mind of the Market: the Internet as a form of trade will enable freedom to find a way. The bumper sticker reads: The Revolution Will be Tweeted. I presume the reference is to the Iranian elections, the suppression of the protests of the corruption of which were tweeted.

The Revolution will be Tweeted.

This concept allows me to expand to my blog readers here what I mean by “free trade.” Most of you have pounced on me for using terms like “libertarian” or “capitalism.” But what I mean by free trade is much broader and encompassing: the free exchange of products, services, and ideas between people anywhere in the world anytime they want. To show how broadly I go with this concept, when Chimp A grooms Chimp B, and subsequently when Chimp A is attacked by an alpha male, Chimp B is more likely to come to his aid because they have formed a bond, an attachment, a trading relationship. Grooming in this example is a form of free trade.

Why does this happen? In The Mind of the Market I introduced Bastiat’s Principle, based on an observation by the 19th-century French economist Frédéric Bastiat: “Where goods do not cross frontiers, armies will.” Its corollary elucidates one of the principle steps toward conflict reduction: where goods do cross frontiers, armies will not.

This is a principle, not a law, since there are exceptions both historically and today. Trade — the free exchange of products, services, and ideas between people — will not prevent war, but it attenuates its likelihood. Thinking in terms of probabilities instead of absolutes, trade between groups increases the probability that peaceful and stable relations will continue and decreases the probability that instabilities and conflicts will erupt.

As an example, Yanomamö hunter-gatherers are not only the “fierce people,” as Napoleon Chagnon characterized them, they are also willing traders. Following the political dictum “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Yanomamö inter-village trade and reciprocal food exchanges serves as a powerful social glue in the creation of political alliances. As in my Chimp example above, Yanomamö Village A cannot go to Village B and announce that they are worried about being conquered by the more powerful Village C, since this would reveal their own weakness. Instead, Village A forms an alliance with Village B through trade and reciprocal feasting, and as a result they not only gain military protection but also encourage inter-village peace. As a by-product of this politically-motivated economic exchange, even though each Yanomamö band could produce all the products it needs for survival, they often set up a division of labor and a system of trade. The unintended consequence is an increase in both wealth and products. The Yanomamö trade not because they are innate altruists or nascent capitalists, but because they want to form political alliances. “Without these frequent contacts with neighbors,” Chagnon explains, “alliances would be much slower in formation and would be even more unstable once formed. A prerequisite to stable alliance is repetitive visiting and feasting, and the trading mechanism serves to bring about these visits.” Where goods cross Yanomamö frontiers, Yanomamö armies do not.

Bastiat’s Principle holds not only for hunter-gatherers but for consumer-traders as well. Note, for example, that in the modern world of consumer-trading nation states, economic sanctions are among the first steps taken by a nation against another when diplomatic conflict resolution attempts break down. Often such sanctions are imposed for purely economic reasons in a mercantilist mode, as when the United States imposed import tariffs on steel purchased from China and Russia in 2002, which the World Trade Organization declared to be illegal. Economic sanctions are also imposed for political reasons, as when the United States enforced them on Japan after its invasion of China in the 1930s, and these became a prelude (among other factors) to Japan’s retaliatory bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and our involvement in the greatest war in history. Or more recently, economic sanctions were imposed by the U.S. and Japan on India following its 1998 nuclear tests, by the U.S. on Iran because of the latter’s state sponsorship of terrorism, and by the United Nations on Iraq as a tool to force the Iraqi government to comply with U.N. weapons inspectors’ search for weapons of mass destruction.

Economic sanctions send this message: if you do not change your behavior we will no longer trade with you. And by Bastiat’s Principle, where our goods do not cross your frontiers, our armies will. Not inevitably, of course, but often enough in history that the principle retains its veracity. Economic sanctions are not a necessary or even sufficient cause of war, but they are almost always a prelude to war.

In The Mind of the Market I also introduce the Starbucks’ corollary to Bastiat’s Principle: Where Starbucks cross frontiers, armies will not. That is, the free trade of products between peoples, and open access to services across geographic borders, obsoletes the necessity of political borders and thereby decreases the probability that armies will cross them. To the Starbucks corollary I add the Google theory of peace: Where information and knowledge cross frontiers, armies will not. That is, the free trade of information between peoples, and open access to knowledge across geographic borders, obsoletes the necessity of political borders and thereby decreases the probability that armies will cross them.

A stirring example can be seen in Europe. Since the formation of the Treaty of Rome and the European Union — which integrated disparate and historically divided European nations under one economic umbrella — where once invasions and wars were commonplace throughout a thousand years of European history, they are now unthinkable. Try it. Imagine Germany invading France and waging war upon her, or picture France motoring its armies through the Chunnel and then marching them into London to declare the country French. What once made for dramatic literature now sounds like pulp fiction.

The Wikification of the economy adds to the Google theory of peace the entire world economy as practiced by and participated in by billions of people. Wikipedia is the right analogue for this emerging economic phenomenon. It is an open-sourced, peer-produced, mass-collaborated, bottom-up, self-organized, emergent property of millions of people choosing to build the modern equivalent of the Alexandrian library whose purpose it was to make the sum of the world’s knowledge available to everyone in one location. Granted, the ancient Alexandrian Greeks had far less knowledge to store than we do today — by many orders of magnitude — but we have the World Wide Web.

In the long run, no dictator, demagogue, priest, president, or any other pretender to power will be able to control the Googlefication, Wikification, eBayification, MapQuestification, YouTubeification, MySpaceification of information, knowledge, geography, personal relationships, markets, and the economy. Chinese bureaucrats can attempt to put all the firewalls and controls they want on a billion potential Chinese web surfers, but in the long run they will never be able to prevent knowledge, products, and people from finding their way to those who seek them. And to this list we can now add the Twitterfication of information. The revolution will be tweeted. And…

Freedom finds a way.


14 Responses to “The Revolution Will Be Tweeted”

  1. KC says:

    As usual, a wonderful thought provoking post!

  2. teacherninja says:

    Yo, freedom! Now if I could just get more of my poor students online so they can find out about the revolution…

  3. Diego says:

    interesting idea … I’ve read about it … 30 years ago! Where?
    Asimov’s novels!

  4. Jonas says:

    Amen to that! Reciprocity ftw!

  5. Tuffgong says:

    What really makes me admire Shermer here is the level of dedication he has in responding to commenters on a blog. He doesn’t have to do any of this, he can just go on his business. Instead he repeatedly posts, replies, argues, counter-argues because proper intellectual and skeptical discourse is important to the man. Not bad at all.

    The biggest shame surrounding Shermer’s posts are that they are naturally devoid (being in blog format) of the context that will more times than not shut up a lot of unreasonable outcry against his posts. Over time it is slowly supplied but it is very much seen in other places.

    It’s like Carl Sagan posting and responding to commenters on a blog, it’s amazing (and I’m not saying Sagan = Shermer). How awesome is that! Like I’ve been saying, agree or not, Shermer and all the Skeptologists deserve some credit in that way.

  6. Max says:

    Iran could take down Twitter by holding their next election via Twitter, a la the Skeptoid Twitter survey clusterfuck.

  7. Beelzebud says:

    And how did that Twitter revolution work out for Iran?

    Once again, nothing but free-market/libertarian evangelism dressed up as scientific skepticism.

  8. JPCaetano says:

    Even before reading Shermer’s post I was reminded, by the bumper sticker, of the title of one of Joe Trippi’s books: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything”.
    I haven’t read it but I know it focuses on how the internet has affected politics.

    Also, when I read the bumper sticker my mind saw Twitter as a symbol for the internet.
    The Iranian incident is really just the tip of the iceberg. For the first time I actually connected with the people from that part of the world. Simply by what I was seeing and how similar they were to me. And the Twitter part of it, it was like seeing people reaching out from behind iron bars.
    I know subjects can be a lot more complicated than what Shermer makes them seem, and that some people might disagree, but still, the things he says, and many other factors pointed out by others like Jimmy Wales and Chris Anderson, they at least give me, my generation, a little bit of hope, even if on the naive side and even if just for a moment, that things can be better, that the pieces are there, people just have to realise they’re playing a different game. Old routines are being shed. And the ones who get it the most are the young people.

    If I died tomorrow and survived that, to reminisce and think about my life on earth, I would think “What a pleasure it was, to have glimpsed humanity at that moment, bursting at the seams with potential and freshness”.

  9. Anthony O'Neal says:

    In WWI all of the actors had far, far more to lose by going to war than they had to gain… and they did it anyway. Mutual benefit will never overcome the virus of nationalism.

    I think that’s probably the main reason WWIII is impossible in Europe today. Not because of free trade. Britain had completely free trade with any nation before WWI. But WWII completely and totally destroyed German nationalism.

    • Vie says:

      That’s an excellent point. Wars are seldom predicated on a careful analysis of “mutual benefits”, as O’Neal put it. Wars are costly, both in economic terms and human lives. Yet they happen anyways. How many genuinely, truly productive wars can you name? For every war that results in an undisputed victory where some concrete and significant goal is achieved, there is a hundred wars where nothing is achieved except a death toll and a new collection of rubble. Wars don’t always occur over resources- there are ideological skirmishes, religious jyhads, and nationalistic campaigns.
      Is it being implied that these types of wars happen just because party A couldn’t exchange ideas with party B?
      Of course that isn’t why! In most cases, all parties in a conflict are well aware of what the other parties think and believe. “Free trade” of ideas has already occurred.
      What you’re really proposing is some magical metamorphosis that will somehow disable the capacity of one human group to disagree with another, to murderous ends.
      That won’t happen. It’s a fantasy. Freely exchanging ideas will not necessarily make any group more tolerant of those ideas. It won’t necessarily make people rational or peaceful. The Taliban used the internet to circulate their ideas. White Supremacist groups have websites. There are anti-gay blog rings.
      Technology is not a solution to the ugliness in human nature, maybe because there simply isn’t one.
      Since the internet, the best vehicle for “free trade” as Shermer describes it, has been around people have not become more enlightened. They’ve just watched Midget Mud Wrestling and grainy porn. Let’s not forget the Fat Jedi or “the Count Censored” on YouTube.
      Just because an individuals may have the capacity and the opportunity to better themselves doesn’t mean they will. Nature seeks to conserve energy and effort. An organism will generally not do more than what is necessary to perpetuate itself. In other words, most people will do the thing that requires the least effort for the most gain.
      Reality has proven this rule. The new crop of kids are generally simpletons, not Einsteins. Why? Because there is no real imperative to be anything else.
      As far as the Yanomamo… If you thoroughly familiarize yourself with Chagnon’s work, you’ll quickly discover that alliances among the tribes are notoriously fickle and that the tribes are in a near-constant state of war. In fact, Chagnon characterizes the people as chronically aggressive. He states “The Yanomamo are still conducting intervillage warfare, a phenomenon that affects all aspects of their social organization, settlement pattern, and daily routines. It is not simply ‘ritualistic’ war: at least one-forth of all adult males die violently.” In fact, Yanomamo society is structured to facilitate war, not peace. Wife beatings and solving disputes with clubs duels (resulting in broken bones, scars, and occasional death) are also Yanomamo traditions. Shermer, are you really suggesting we use Yanomamo tactics to improve our society?
      A human cannot overcome the condition of being human. There is no philosophy, religion, book, science, technology, political party, or economic system that can fix the human tendency to manipulate those things for perverse reasons. As humans we will always be vulnerable to our weaknesses: greed, selfishness, intolerance, irrationality, cruelty, deceitfulness, just to name a few.
      Shermer, I think you need to let go of the very 60’s idea that some Age of Aquarius will dawn and make us a new, better species. It’s as silly as the beliefs you try to debunk. Oh… one more human vice… imprudent obstinacy.

  10. kenn pappas says:

    There are times when I have believed Michael Shermer carries logic and scientific critical thinking into the wrong areas in politics and religion. This is not one of those times. This essay is brilliant and thought provoking, perhaps the best short essay I’ve ever read from him.

  11. Gary Sloan says:

    A retired English professor, I sometimes find myself more attentive to the style of what I read than to the content. Shamefully, what I will probably remember best about “The Revolution Will Be Tweeted” is the delightful parade of words with the suffix “ification”–e.g., “eBayification,” “MySpaceification,” “YouTubeification.” (I am still mulling why “Tweeterfication” lacks the initial “i” of the suffix. Facebook fans may lament the absence of “Facebookification” and Yahoo patrons “Yahooification.”)
    I pondered the use of “obsoletes” as a verb in “obsoletes the necessity.” Though I don’t recall having previously seen “obsoletes” employed as a verb, such usage creates a handy neologism. The standard verb form of “obsolete” is “obsolesce,” but it is traditionally intransitive. That is, doesn’t take a direct object: “The machines will eventually obsolesce,” but not “Time obsolesces all machines.” Actually, I prefer “obsolesces the machines” to “oboletes the machines. Don’t ask me why. Non gustibus disputandum. There’s no disputing taste.
    The phrase “principle steps” (as opposed to “principal steps”) is, I assume, an instance of Homer (or Michael) nodding–unless an exceedingly subtle pun is afoot.
    “Whoe’er thinks a faultless piece to see / Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be” (Alexander Pope, “Essay on Criticism”). I, myself, long ago abandoned all hope of writing a faultless piece.
    Michael, I concur with your thesis. A similar point about trade vis-a-vis war was made by Thomas Paine in the run-up to the American Revolution in his influential pamphlet “Common Sense.”
    In my estimation, Michael, you are one of the most engaging, intelligent, and, yes, stylistically savvy writers in the contemporary freethought camp.

  12. John Draeger says:

    “In the long run, no dictator…will be able to control…the economy.”

    Is anyone else skeptical of that prediction?

    What about the free trade of harmful ideas and substances – like intolerant religious beliefs, or illicit drugs? There are problems with Dr. Shermer’s utopian global economic model. Humans feel the need to control other humans, and most humans alive today hold mutually exclusive religious beliefs. Free trade does not reduce resource scarcity (a cause of war) because people tend to be greedy, as we’ve seen recently with the collapse of under-regulated global financial markets. It’s as if Shermer has ignored this valuable history lesson. Seems to me that Shermer is emotionally invested in old economic ideas (they are not new, as others have noted). What I got from his book was an attempt to blend evolutionary theory with economics – a non sequitur in my opinion. Due to strong emotional investment in the these libertarian ideals we should continue to expect sales of his economics book to be pushed in future posts. To admit the thesis of the book is erroneous would be a giant horse pill of cognitive dissonance to swallow.

    “Big gov’t is the root of all evil” is the conspiracy theory of most libertarians it seems – if one can even define libertarianism (see Dr. Massimo Pigliucci’s blog, Rationally Speaking, for an essay on that). And regulations are evil too. If you go back and read Shermer’s posts from a few months ago, that was the free trade/markets he himself defined. Well, both socialism and capitalism have failed when tried alone. What most developed countries are doing is employing some combination of both.

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