Impact of the Emerging Digital Environment
The Cybernated Space-Economy

Robert McDaniel

Emergence vs. Evolution

Why should a borderless society not exist? In fact, from a complexity viewpoint, we may ask can it be stopped? We are all members of many sub-societies nowadays, virtual communities of diverse wishes and structures. We thus need a political arrangement that can support this structure in an appropriate way. But when we ask how it is already structured, we find that it has actually self-organized over the years - and it works! Perhaps it really is time that we discarded those control based ideas of yesteryear and embraced in politics what has already happened elsewhere in modern society.
Source: Freedom Beyond Control

I was initially going to entitle this document "Impact of the Evolving Digital Environment" but that seemed to imply that a digital environment of some sort already exists and has existed, perhaps, for some time. Thus we speak of organisms, such as plants, animals and humans, evolving over time as certains forms appear more successful in surviving than others. And to some extent this may be true, too, of machines including the computer, though the "information (or digital) machine" is certainly a species quite different from the machines of the industrial era, the latter being characterized by moving gears and other moving mechanical parts. But while I am comfortable discussing the evolution of the attributes of individuals or the parts of a species or system, when considering change in the totality (or the sum of the parts) it strikes me that "emergence" is a better term. There is a certain linearity implicit in evolution while the change that occurs as a result of communicating parts or individuals is akin to order arising out of chaos, i.e. order emerges.

The concept of emergence allows geographers to consider the possibility that our fundamental object of study - the basic interrelationships between social and biophysical systems - is greater than the sum of the individual pieces (social and bio-physical processes separately). [Source:]
(For a complementary view of emergence see the article by Richard Seel.)

A term frequently encountered in recent books describing current change is "convergence". Indeed I have used it to describe what is happening to electronic devices in the home. Some machines, e.g. motors, have converged with other machines, e.g. lawnmowers and chainsaws. But the convergence currently underway among the electronic devices of communication and computation does seem to be of a different order of magnitude and of kind than that of their mechanical predecessors. The convergence is much more seamless and becoming increasingly so. And while the major motivating factor for convergence in the industrial era was energy, in the unfolding era it is information, which Gregory Bateson defined as that which changes us. Thus while "energy machines" triggered change, the new "information machines" are, in a sense, machines for creating change! Change is exponentiated. The pervasive nature of the changes associated with digital devices has been exhaustively reviewed by William J. Mitchell in his book "City of Bits". Such changes were also anticipated, though in a much more cursory fashion, in earlier works of mine, one unpublished and one published.

The present technological revolution may have as powerful an effect on the economic, political and social character of societies as earlier major technological revolutions. The full effects of major technological change are hard to predict. Some of the characteristics of this chips for neurons revolution appear to be:
The replacement of low-level intellectual functions by electronic devices -- the bank machine, autonomous robotic devices, the "electronic pilots" commercial aircraft, security devices, automation of services, automated and flexible manufacturing, global information systems, etc. - This is changing productivity and the nature of work.
The capacity to make enormous bodies of knowledge instantly available to individuals linked through the electronic networks and the creation of learning networks, that cross existing geo-political boundaries. This is changing our approach to learning and our education institutions.
The opportunity to interact through virtually instantaneous global networks for a variety of functions ranging from education and training to entertainment, financial markets and business and military activities.
Virtually instantaneous global transmission to individuals in all regions through news media and other institutions of "information", whether objective or biased. This could change values, beliefs and cultures.
The prosperity of regions, the nature and concepts of work, income equity, values, cultures and social and political systems will change as a result of this technological revolution. If we look at how Home Sapiens has coped with other deep and broad technological revolutions, there may be some insights that might be relevant to how we cope with the "chips for neurons" revolution. What is clear is that social policies and institutions in Western countries that helped sustain political freedom and civic societies for the developed economies of this century are not sustainable in the face of the forces unleashed by today's techno-economic revolution.


Just as networks are replacing the hierarchies that emerged as the defining organizational form of the industrial era, whether in business, government, or other institutions, so does it appear that evolution, another term closely associated with that fading era, will be replaced by emergence. Indeed, as we tentatively move to control evolution following the "knee-jerk" practices of industrialism, we find that the dynamic kaleidoscopic patterns which daily confront us make such not only impossible, but counterproductive, by inhibiting the free exchange of information. There is danger here of some confusion because control of evolution of a species through selection of individuals and their descendants has been practised for centuries, and we are getting better at it. One just has to mention "Dolly", the cloned sheep, to perceive that possibility. But today global corporations are unconsciously building the cybernated space-economy that will emerge as they continuously automate all aspects of production (mining, logging, fishing, farming, transporting, communicating, manufacturing, wholesaling, retailing, managing, financing). The challenge for those attempting to "guide" such systems is to recognize emerging patterns, inform their constituents of their meaning and the need for access. It would then be expected that the constituents would act appropriately out of "logical necessity", to borrow an argument proposed by the cyberneticist, Stafford Beer. The behaviour of bees in a hive and a flock of birds in flight may be explained as the collective result of individual reactions to a perceived need, i.e. a logical necessity.

Another example of collective decision-making is the following:

Oblivious to its fellows, the single-celled creature called the cellular slime mold slithers amoeba-like along the ground, lapping up the nutrients in its path. But when the food supply runs out, it has a biochemical panic attack, frantically sending out molecular signals to other nearby slime molds, which in turn are sending out signals of their own. Guided by these primitive conversations, the individual cells come together to form a multicelled organism, sprouting a stalk and a head of spores that become the seeds of the next generation. When these fall to the ground, the cycle begins anew.

Exotic as it seems, this behavior is just a stark example of one of the most familiar phenomena in the living world: the way individuals, whether cells in a body, plants and animals in an ecosystem, or members of a corporation or society, congregate into complex wholes that take on autonomous existences of their own. There is no need for a central controller orchestrating their movement. Each member, simply by exchanging information with its nearest neighbors, unwittingly contributes to the commonweal. From simple, shortsighted, generally selfish actions, a transcendent global behavior emerges.

Source: Mindless Creatures Acting 'Mindfully'

Or consider the behaviour of ants:

The behavior of individual ants is remarkably automatic (reflex driven). Most of their behavior can be described in terms of the invocation of about a dozen rules of the form "grasp object with mandibles," "follow a pheromone trail [scents that encode the messages "this way to food," "this way to combat," etc.] in the direction of an increasing (or decreasing) gradient," "test any moving object for colony-member scent," and so on. This repertoire, though small, is continually invoked as the ant moves through its changing environment. The individual ant is at high risk whenever it encounters situations not covered by the rules. Most ants, worker ants in particular, survive at most a few weeks before succumbing to some situation not covered by the rules. The activity of an ant colony is totally defined by the activities and interactions of its constituent ants. Yet the colony exhibits a flexibility that goes far beyond the capabilities of its individual constituents. It is aware of and reacts to food, enemies, floods, and many other phenomena, over a large area. It reaches out over long distances to modify its surroundings in ways that benefit the colony, and the colony has a life span many times longer than that of its constituents. To understand the ant, we must understand how this persistent, adaptive organization emerges from the interactions of its numerous constituents.
Source: D.R. Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, New York:Basic Books, 1979, cited in John Holland, Emergence: From Chaos to Order, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1998, p. 81.

Comments on Kevin Kelly's New Rules for the New Economy, New York : Viking, 1998.

"We are rushing into a world where connectivity is everything, and where old business know-how means nothing. In this new order, success flows primarily from understanding networks and networks have their own rules. In New Rules, Kevin Kelly presents ten fundamental principles that invert the traditional wisdom of the industrial world." "For example, "Plenitude, Not Scarcity." Industrial age wisdom says value comes from scarcity. But in a network economy, value comes from abundance. Consider the "fax effect." One fax machine is worth nothing. Even a small network of fax machines is valuable. But each machine added to a fax network increases the value of all the machines on the network exponentially. The idea of plenitude is to create something that is connected to as many other products, services, and networks as possible." "New Rules explains why these powerful laws are already hardwired into the new economy, and how they play out in all kinds of businesses - both low and high tech - all over the world. More than just a profound overview of new economic principles, New Rules prescribes many clear and specific strategies for success."
There may also emerge a "new geopolitics" wherein citizens in one jurisdiction may opt for legislation pertaining to health, business, education, or whatever, in another jurisdiction which they believe meets their needs better than that of the particular nation-state (or subnational entity) in which they reside. Minorities in different jurisdictions may unite in cyberspace to enjoy the rights difficult to acquire in terraspace. New taxation formulae would have to be developed to fund such novel practices.

Imagine a world where a citizen could search the globe to assemble "my government," the ultimate in customized, customer-centric services. Health care from the Netherlands, business incorporation in Malaysia, marriage licenses granted from a municipality in the United States. It's no longer a question of whether such a world is technically possible.

Imagine a future where new global institutions will be created to match the scope of today's new economic, environmental, and security challenges; where local municipalities and regions act as the "real" governments in people's daily lives; where virtual worldwide communities provide a sense of belonging - and perhaps services as well - to people sharing a heritage, but not a physical location; where a mix of public and private suppliers compete for customers.


Complementing the new geopolitics is emerging "fourth generation warfare" characterized by networked soldiery:

In planning future weapons systems for the ground forces, it is clear that the United States should avoid the classic platform-centric mindset and move instead to network-centric thinking analogous to that reflected, for example, in the Navy's cooperative engagement concept (CEC), which provides a common picture of the naval battlefield to the various ships in a battle group. For ground forces, a network-centric approach would involve networked soldiers sensors, C2, and weapons with overlapping and complementary capabilities that could be focused adaptively from significant distances (as in "maneuver of fires"). The forces would have both beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) and line-of-sight (LOS) missiles. Light mechanized fighting vehicles would be equipped with medium-caliber cannons. An advanced suppression weapon, in one of several configurations, would support the requirement for suppression and destruction of dismounted infantry in a variety of environments.

The Industrial Environment Merges with the Natural Environment

The Agricultural Revolution involved taking the existing natural environment and programming it to ensure a regular supply of food and other products of the soil at selected sites. Land became a wealth-producing resource and subsequently the property of an aristocracy. The measurement of land was facilitated by geometry. The accumulated wealth provided the capital to underwrite the Industrial Revolution which greatly increased the supply of goods by locating factories at selected sites. The measurement of the dynamics of production required calculus. Speedy and cheap transportation (based on fossil fuels) encouraged global trade to benefit from comparative advantage. A further increase in leisure time and wealth supported the formalization of research, invention and innovation, activities also spurred on by large-scale warfare. National censuses generated massive blocks of data whose analysis was enabled by matrix algebra. The need for timeliness in processing such masses of data was solved by the computer. Now, just as the Agricultural Revolution led to programming the natural environment to sustain an urbanized (centralized) population, so the emerging Digital Revolution may be marked by the programming of the industrial environment to sustain a decentralized population. Complementing transportation, however, is now a communication system (increasingly digitally based) which appears destined to ensure global access to the knowledge necessary to the support of the decentralized population at a uniformly high standard of living. This population will draw its sustenance from the industrial environment just as a primitive population drew upon the natural (seas, soils) environment. But now to massive numbers and the speed of light must be added rapid, if not convulsive (intra-generational) change, leading us to seek the insights of catastrophe theory, chaos theory, fuzzy logic and multimedia (sound, video, graphics, geographical information systems (GIS)) based methods of pattern recognition.

The Digital Environment

Ubiquitous computing will bring the Internet into our daily lives with less effort. Instead of keeping lists of pertinent URLs or "favorite places" on our browsers, the devices that need the information can find it themselves. Instead of "surfing" to find and sift through all of the information available to us, some other agent or device will do the searching for us.

The digital environment will lead to the integration of the natural and industrial environments through the medium of embedded miniaturized sensors. Kevin Kelly in Out of Control may be right when he says:

The realm of the born - all that is nature - and the realm of the made - all that is humanly constructed - are becoming one. Machines are becoming biological and the biological is becoming engineered.
Also relevant to the incorporation of sensing devices into smart materials is the work in Amorphous Computing described in the following:

The objective of this research is to create the system-architectural, algorithmic, and technological foundations for exploiting programmable materials. These are materials that incorporate vast numbers of programmable elements that react to each other and to their environment. Such materials can be fabricated economically, provided that the computing elements are amassed in bulk without arranging for precision interconnect and testing. In order to exploit programmable materials we must identify engineering principles for organizing and instructing myriad programmable entities to cooperate to achieve pre-established goals, even though the individual entities are unreliable and interconnected in unknown, irregular, and time-varying ways. We call this effort the study of amorphous computing.
The motivation for much research into the technology which will be applicable in this context is the exploration and settlement of space. For example:

NASA must adapt and/or develop appropriate technologies in medical informatics, smart medical and environmental sensors, decision support systems, image compression, new teaching aides, holography, virtual environments and noninvasive procedures. Information technologies will enhance on-board training so the crew medical officer and the crew engineer both can maintain their skills in many diverse areas.

These kinds of technologies will provide an opportunity for the crew medical officer to obtain vital information about crew members' physiological status without using invasive procedures. The ability to analyze blood without obtaining a blood sample has tremendous benefit in space flight and an even greater benefit on Earth. It reduces the consumables that need to be taken to orbit, and no reason would exist to return samples to Earth for postflight analysis. Similar technology also would benefit environmental sampling.


Associated with pervasiveness and ubiquity of computing and sensing devices may be ongoing research in the area of tele-immersion. This emerging technology will enable spatially separated individuals and groups to communicate orally and visually in 3-D interactive mode as though they were all present in the same room:

Tele-Immersion (National Tele-immersion Initiative - NTII) will enable users at geographically distributed sites to collaborate in real time in a shared, simulated environment as if they were in the same physical room. This new paradigm for human-computer interaction is the ultimate synthesis of networking and media technologies and, as such, it is the greatest technical challenge for Internet2. To ensure that these new environments become a reality, Advanced Network & Services has acted as a catalyst in bringing together recognized experts in virtual reality and networking, led by VR pioneer Jaron Lanier. The results of our joint research effort will be an objective voice and a factual basis for the creation of the networks of the future.
Source: National Tele-Immersion Initiative

Contributing to the seamless character of intercommunicating objects will be the "digital paper" technology being developed by Anoto:

If (this} network rolls out as scheduled, within a year you'll be able to make a check mark beside a magazine ad to receive information about a product, or even to buy it. Visualize ecommerce without the click-and-wait: Browsing through a printed catalog, you'll purchase items - software, a subwoofer, or a trip to Paris - by ticking them off with a pen. Circling your destination on a city map will display, on your PalmPilot or mobile phone, the quickest route from here to there, movie showtimes, or tonight's menu at the best bistros in the area.
To do these things, you'll need an instrument like the Chatpen that contains technology developed by Anoto. (By 2003, other Anoto-enabled pens, including Pilot rollerballs and a characteristically elegant offering from Montblanc, will be available.) You'll also need a supply of the special paper that Anoto has christened digital paper. It won't be hard to find, and it won't cost much more than standard copy stock. Unlike Xerox PARC's electronic paper or MIT/E Ink's Immedia, Anoto's technology employs real paper and commonly available inks. By the time Chatpens appear in office-supply shops and mail-order catalogs this fall, digital paper sporting the Anoto logo will be turning up everywhere.

Source: Digital Paper from Anoto. And you can also get a first-hand report from Anoto itself.

The residues of the industrial environment may serve to support and replenish the natural environment in response to the automatically-generated sensor information emanating directly from terrestrial sites and indirectly via earth-girdling resource satellites (multi-spectral, infra-red, radar). Currently the practice of precision farming exemplifies such activity.

There seems to be a consensus that computers will disappear from desktops and laps and literally fade into the environment of walls, doors, chairs, clothing, household appliances whence they will be activated remotely by voice, eye and body movement, brainwaves, detection of DNA and other physiological data, and the wireless transmission from other computing/sensing devices. Concurrent with these developments is the emergence of a wireless economy.

The next new, new thing is worldwide wireless. It isn't just devices that will drive the wireless world - it's ubiquitous, personal connectivity, including people to people, people to things and things to things. And enabling technologies such as virtual reality, intelligent agents and self-optimizing systems will all play a role in developing the new systems.

The military-inspired surveillance technology of the 20th century may evolve in sophistication and capability to emerge as the key system pervading the 21st century. It is this technology that may well provide the support system which in the past has been met by jobs and social welfare. Just as eons ago the earth's soil system emerged to support the flora and fauna which humans later were to use as a support system, so the new digital environment may be tapped to fill an analogous role. And just as the soil system was not the product of conscious design so will the digital system emerge unplanned from the decisions of billions of human minds. Another Kevin Kelly quotation is relevant to this notion:

The tiny bees in my hive are more or less unaware of their colony. By definition their collective hive mind must transcend their small bee minds. As we wire ourselves up into a hivish network, many things will emerge that we, as mere neurons in the network, don't expect, don't understand, can't control, or don't even perceive. That's the price for any emergent hive mind.

This is not to say, of course, that humans are not more intelligent than bees, but only that, as a collective, they may have even greater powers of unarticulated communication!

Another related development is pervasive computing addressed in the following quotation:

The Network Computer will have a huge impact on the portable computer market, potentially even redefining the whole definition of portable computing. Instead of portable computing, we will have pervasive computing. Here's how it will work.
The discipline probably most responsible for research into the problem of analyzing global patterns and flows is geography, especially its subfield of geographical information systems (GIS). The Commission on Geosciences, Environment and Resources of the (U.S.) National Research Council has recently published the paper The Future of Spatial Data and Society (p. 18) which includes the following statements:
Time lag between production and use is a determining factor in the availability of current, timely spatial data. Instrumentation of the environment will become a major source of real-time data. As the time lag between production and us approaches zero, the way data are managed, distributed, and used will be profoundly different.

Intelligent instrumentation can support real-time monitoring of the environment, with associated feedback and response. Instrumentation will provide location information and associated processing and analysis to aid vehicle navigation, traffic monitoring, weather and pollution monitoring, farming practices, and a host of other new applications.

As an aside we might compare the somewhat parallel argument presented in the following which appeared in the 1968 AAG Commission of College Geography report, "A Systems Analytic Approach to Economic Geography":
At present, we tend to use the computer as an extremely rapid, and extremely efficient, calculating machine, and draftsman. But the data we use are periodic, and subject to long delays in updating. The maps, no matter how sophisticated the analytical techniques employed, are static.

Yet another development is a graphic display device, the cathode ray tube (CRT). Given a time-series of spatially defined data (e.g. a series of digitized weather maps), perhaps transformed to a continuous surface, one can run this information sequentially through an appropriately programmed computer and display the results on the CRT. On the screen may be viewed a moving image representing changes in the climatological situation, or in the economic landscape over time. Such a dynamic image (which could be video-taped for repeated viewings) would provide further insight into relationships underlying the observed differential rates and directions of change.

An OLRT (online, realtime) capability, in conjunction with the above CRT capability, would enable one to observe spatial changes as they were happening. This, we submit, is a difference in degree, which may lead to a difference in kind insofar as control of the space-economy is concerned. It would seem that such a continuous involvement (requiring as it must virtually continuous man/computer interaction) may lead to a mode of thinking quite different from that evolved in an environment kept at arm's length, so to speak.

But continual up-dating of data is very costly, and is it necessary? What constitutes real-time in one activity may lead to redundancy in another. Should data be reported daily, weekly, monthly, or hourly? The answer will depend upon the process speeds involved. Much research would be required to answer this question, using OLRT systems.

And how does a mere human cope with the problem of interpreting such a continuing flood of information? The solution to this problem may lie in some form of pattern recognition methodology. As we turn more and more detailed analysis over to the machine, we perhaps must devote equally increasing amounts of research effort to the development of modes of information display which the human brain can grasp. As humans, our strength appears to lie in the recognition of form and concept. Perhaps we have much to learn from the artist in this regard.

The union of the industrial and natural environments through the medium of digitization may be especially manifested in automated fabrication. Perhaps it is not too surprising that our economy is unconsciously becoming increasingly similar in organization to our autonomic physiology. As we hive-like strive to construct a sustainable system for survival the model with which our minds may be most familiar is the one which assures their own physical survival. It was one of Marshall McLuhan's many insights that in economic structural terms we are turning inside out! We are developing what may be termed a manu-net, wherein the home becomes the source of manufacturing control. Marshall Burns, the author of Automated Fabrication, has suggested this similarly decentralized future for the manufacturing system.

A complementary view has been put forward by Michael Rothschild in his Bionomics: Economy as Ecosystem:

Bionomics describes the ecosystem and the economy as separate, parallel domains of evolving information. Genetic information, recorded in the DNA molecule, is the basis of all organic life. Technical information, captured in books, blueprints, databases, and the know-how of millions of individuals, is the source of all economic life.

Based on theories of complexity and chaos is the book "Butterfly Economics" by Paul Ormerod:

Paul Ormerod, renowned as the thinking person's economist, tears up conventional wisdom and explains why the economy is so much more than the sum of its parts. Taking in the latest scientific, social and mathematical theories, Ormerod argues that the economy must be viewed as more like a living organism than a machine. Like society itself, it is a complex system, living at the edge of chaos. For economics, the implications of complexity theory are enormous. Paul Ormerod is the first to think them through. He suggests that both left - and right-wing policies on such issues as unemployment, poor regions or lone parents have been doomed to a very high rate of failure. Much of the control that governments believe they exercise over the economy and society is illusory. Instead government ministers - and people in the business world - need to adopt quite different mindsets and less heavy-handed approaches. Hence 'Butterfly Economics'. (Source: Book jacket)

Just as with geographical positioning systems (GPS) no one need ever be lost again anywhere on the earth's surface, so with the nascent sensing/communicating capabilities of the digital environment noone among the billions of the earth's population need be overlooked and his/her needs for survival not provided. And the cybernated space-economy may make production as invisible (it's there but not worthy of notice!) as our internal physiological processes of digestion and cell-building. The corollary would be the abolition of work, in the labour not the ludic sense.

It is then, in this context, that the case may be made that there is a need for policymakers and indeed all citizens to make themselves intimately familiar with the characteristics of the emerging digital environment. As global population becomes deeply aware of what its collective brains are producing then may be expedited the search and discovery of new patterns of work and living. It may then be better appreciated how the goals of the MAI, NAFTA, and other global economic agreements may influence the emerging system. It seems a fruitless exercise to argue the pros and cons of these agreements in the context of a rapidly disappearing age. Well-meaning but misguided criticism based on an outmoded paradigm may result in the classic error of killing the goose that may lay the golden egg!

Here is a list of links of related interest.


An earlier attempt to provide a more general synthesis of global trends may be viewed in my digital poster session Future Communities.

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