Nature abhors a vacuum. Wherever there is an opportunity for power, that opportunity will be seized. There are serious implications for the information society.
Horror vacui, claimed Aristotle: nature abhors a vacuum. This is a concept in physics: there is no true empty space, for whatever is there is filled, at a minimum, by a quantum field. You’ll be familiar with this in your daily life, too, if you’ve opened anything vacuum sealed before. Air immediately fills the space.
Wherever space and opportunity exists, it is seized.
Human Nature Abhors A Vacuum
It is in human nature to seize any available opportunity. This is the principle that underlies capitalism: the invisible hand of the market. If there is an opportunity for profit, we expect it to be seized. If there is an opportunity to consolidate, likewise. We expect innovation to solve problems, because there is an opening for a solution. And whoever provides the solution will reap the rewards.
We are social animals, predisposed to organize in groups. With groups come the necessity for power mechanics and dominance hierarchies. So dealing with power is in our genetics. We are driven to organize; once organized, we’re driven to determine leadership.
The in-built human tendency for group organization means that human nature abhors a power vacuum. Groups need leaders; towns need leaders; nations need leaders. Thinking this way is a part of who we are.
Because we’re predisposed to thinking about power and seizing it within groups, we look for it even outside our own groups. This tendency drives every conqueror in history: with power consolidated in the home group, the conqueror looks to expand what he has power over. And so he rides into the horizon, in search of empire.
Humanity has followed the same pattern. As technology has increased our capabilities, we have brought ever greater resources under our control. Our eyes aim ever-higher, and we’re now looking to control the very forces of nature on our home planet, and looking beyond into space.
Power Available Is Power Seized
No opportunity for power goes unexploited. The rewards, and the instinctive drive, are too great. If there is a chance to bring more people under someone’s control, that person will take the chance. If there is a chance to bring more of the world and the universe under our control, humanity will take that chance.
Managing Opportunities For Power
Managing opportunities for power thus becomes a crucial factor in defending free society.
This is old wisdom, of course. Some of the most prescient and persistent thought in human history has gone towards solving exactly this problem. The US Constitution is one of the best examples, but they include the Magna Carta, and the idea of limited government and separation of powers in general.
We’re well aware of this fact for government, but are in danger of losing sight of power structures outside that. Corporate power and globalized capitalism are a major concern for grassroots activists on both sides of the political spectrum. Despite the turbulence in world politics, they are still largely unaddressed in policy (so far). It may be that the opportunities for those enterprises to seize policymaking power are already taken. But there are risks beyond global corporations.
Here are some opportunities for power that are just sitting there:
- Amazon’s increasing dominance of retail, in the US at least. There appears to be nothing stopping the eventual emergence of an Amazon monopoly
- Facebook’s ownership of the largest social graph in history, the capability to manipulate people’s emotions, the ability to micro-target propaganda, and the immense political power of its platform
- The ubiquity of devices which can monitor the physical location of any individual, and collect video and audio recordings of their communications
- The fact that the majority of human communication of value in the information society is taking place on a network which can be easily monitored (the internet)
To varying degrees, these have been seized or not seized. But the availability of opportunity for groups like Amazon, Google, and Facebook continues to increase, and they are continuously deepening the potential power available to them in tandem.
Power available is power seized. We should be paying much more attention to the potential power available to those outside and inside government. History and human nature tell us that no matter what, it will, eventually, be exploited.