The one Road and its tributaries

Image by Matěj Čadil

He often used to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.’    –JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring [Frodo recounting, to Sam and Pippin, a statement by Bilbo]

This post is inspired by a great thread I saw on Mastodon (which I just joined and so far love) explaining the concept and purpose of the “fediverse,” and specifically its potential promise for curtailing some of the most domineering behavior of more traditionally organized, corporate-run platforms. Since I am currently re-reading The Lord of the Rings, the thread of course also made me think of one of my favorite Tolkien quotes (above) … for I think fairly obvious reasons.

If there is one thing that is human and universal, it is the tendency to create and congregate in shires, through which we relate to the larger world. This isn’t the unique tendency of English country folk, or of white Americans. It’s universal. When people in big cities say ‘it feels like a small town after a while,’ this is what they mean. Even the largest global corporations try to recreate or simulate the shire within their firm boundaries–or sometimes within separate firms they dominate, thanks to lax antitrust law.

Opponents of antimonopoly, on the right and the center but also too often the left, sometimes dismiss the project as anachronistic nostalgia for the shire, at best, and as suspicious parochial attachment at worst. It’s funny because maybe the central motif of Lord of the Rings for me is, instead, this constant, iterative interaction between the shire and the world stage — the one great Road and its countless local tributaries, including even the path in front of one’s own hobbit hole (or dwarf cave, or big person town, or etc). And of course the central antagonist of Middle Earth is the one who sought total, centralized control (originally with good intentions!).

The point of the fediverse thread linked above is that coordination among many, locally controlled shires is much more robust in resisting the type of destructive meltdown currently unfolding on Musk’s Twitter — and more specifically, that it’s likely to force bigger and more powerful actors that *do* come into the space to preserve interoperability across platforms … which in turn acts as a check on the entrenchment of any single dominant actor. Etc.

Against this promise, some voices on the left are overly credulous of generic, overbroad efficiency claims made on behalf of large platforms and large firms generally — and also seem to believe that large, dominant corporate actors will somehow be easier to bring under collective labor or public control. It’s just one example, but Twitter going in the precise opposite direction–helped along by legal norms that supposedly enact these ideas of efficiency–is yet another point against this incredibly sticky idea.

Anyway, I’m really happy to be part of the fediverse. The vibes are good, as they say. But this is not just an online thing: We also need legal reforms in the near future that will allow us to support fediverse-like coordination structures across the economy.

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