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Imagine a simulation in which a large of number of actors, defined by a large range of properties, acquire utility based on a set of complicated rules that are applied to their properties and to other actors’ properties.  For instance, a particular actor might accrue utility if it shares three specific properties with a large number of other actors.  A different actor might accrue utility only if other actors share two of those properties but do not share the third.  Actors are able to modify their own properties based on certain constraints, but there is a utility to cost to these modifications.  Further, actors have limited information about other actors’ properties (for instance maybe they are only aware of actors that share a particular property with them, or they only have out-dated information about most actors) and also about the rules that define the simulation (their utility function is not exactly what they think it is).

You could plot a very simple version of this simulation on a grid, with each axis representing a property and dots representing each actor, or imagine a more complicated version in n-dimensional space.  Presumably, the simulation would play out by actors moving from their starting position and arranging themselves in better locations, eventually finding local maxima and remaining there, or at least creating fairly stable sub-optimal equilibria.

Now suppose you modify the simulation such that actors are suddenly able to access all of the information across the entire simulation.  Both rules and all other actors’ properties become immediately accessible to every actor.

With this change to the simulation, presumably two things would happen: drastic reorientation of actors, and vastly higher total utility.

If you haven’t yet guessed, the simulation is meant to describe humanity; the modification to the simulation is the advent on the internet and real-time communications networks; properties are physical location and things like political orientation, job skills, and membership in organizations, etc.  The point of the exercise is to try to illustrate just how significant this technological development is.  Humans have built our social framework premised on communication being expensive, and the entire framework now can be rearranged to exploit the fact that communication is essentially free.

In other words: this internet thing is going to be huge.  We’re only just starting to figure it out.


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