Opening the Floodgates - Ben Werdmuller von Elgg

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.

Gatekeepers are everywhere. They are necessary, they are efficient, and they are holding us back.

In the Internet age, publishing has become the poster child for pre-Internet business models. It was an expensive business, once upon a time: works needed to be written, edited, acquired, typeset, printed, bound, advertised, distributed and sold. Entire industries - careers and legacies, even - grew up around this workflow. Publishing houses were the gatekeepers for who could be published. Bookstores were the gatekeepers of whose work could be sold. Because there were so many inherent difficulties involved in reaching an audience - not least distance, cost and the technology required - the gatekeepers had the only viable route to making it happen. Their size and economies of scale enabled authors to find readers for generations.

Then, in the 1990s, the world changed: Tim Berners-Lee invented the web, Marc Andreessen invented the modern web browser, and suddenly, anybody could write and find an audience - or communicate with anybody - anywhere in the world. Magazines and newspapers began appearing online. Within a decade, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning had collaborated to create Napster, a music-sharing service that in two short years managed to undermine the entertainment industry's long-standing business model. It wasn't just that users were sharing music illegally with each other on a large scale, although that was happening; the big change was that suddenly, all independent artists needed to do to share their music was upload it.

The gatekeepers - the publishing houses, the Recording Industry Association of America, and others - began to fight back, but it was clear that the new models were here to stay. The old guard's economies of scale no longer mattered; technology had found a better way, and consumers voted with their feet.

It would be easy to argue that this change is restricted to post-scarcity items: products that can be encapsulated digitally and copied an infinite number of times. However, this is not the case. In the summer of 2010, the New York State legislature - heavily sponsored by the hotel industry - cracked down on residents subletting rooms as unofficial hotel rooms and advertising them on open markets like If you visited a strange city and didn't have a place to stay, hotels were once a handy gatekeeper: for a price, you could generally trust their safety, cleanliness and comfort. In the age of truly open markets with built-in metrics for trust and accountability, anyone can offer a room, and as a result, the days of the global hotel chain may be numbered. Whereas brands were once symbols you could judge products by, there are now more direct ways to determine quality. Once, you were limited to commercials you had seen or articles you had read. Now, you can ask everybody.

There is a revolution ahead of us. Music distribution models, the market for hotel rooms or where someone can publish an article are all part of a prelude to a far bigger change: a switch from political parties and the politics of aggregation to individual politics driven by the people. Imagine an open market for politics - both politicians and political ideas themselves - that incorporated similar trust metrics to those used to safely find independent hotel rooms, where individuals didn't need the support of parties, unions or global businesses to have a chance of being elected or having their ideas incorporated into the democratic process.

Global society is rife with baked-in power structures that restrict the possibilities for billions of people - and in turn for all of us, by limiting the talent, intelligence and skills we can draw on. By removing and revealing the economic interests that control how our world is run, and empowering people to make better choices about the world around them, there is a potential for a new kind of collaborative society. Here, there is room for liberal, conservative and libertarian values; for people of all religions and belief systems. Rather than imposing ideology, these new markets provide greater freedom for ideologies to coexist, transcending borders and valuing individuals over their geographies or circumstances. The only requirements are the freedom to communicate and the right to free will.

Providing this globally will be the biggest battle of the 21st century. But it is a battle which must be won.