When I rebooted my website a while back, I took out my 2008 thoughts on Amazon Space and the human and operational limits to Trust.

Let’s get it back here. It still reads nicely enough (Wait … huh? What’s a PDA?). The screams of Aleppo are now coming directly into the ears of the UN Security Council …


The Rise of Intelligent Networked Pluralism

Amazon Space

You are Inveterate Global Seminar Guy.

You are sitting in an interesting seminar in Paris. The speaker is lively and thought-provoking. You decide to buy her latest book.

In the break you take out your PDA, find the book on Amazon.com and order it, giving as the priority shipping delivery address the hotel in Budapest where you are heading in four days’ time.  You email the hotel to ask them to look out for the package.

You arrive at your Budapest hotel. The book is waiting for you.

In the next seminar another speaker attracts your interest. You order his book, asking that it be sent via priority shipping to your hotel in Zambia, your destination next week. You email the hotel.

You arrive in Zambia. Power-cuts. No sign of the book at the hotel. No-one at the hotel can be found to say whether your email arrived and was actioned. The book does not appear in your four days in Zambia.

You contact Amazon, who say that the book was despatched on time – they quickly agree to send a further copy to your home in Texas. It is waiting for you there when you arrive.

* * * * *

A plausible scenario? Assume that it is plausible enough. What does it represent?

The world has two important spaces. Amazon Space, and Non-Amazon Space.

In Amazon Space there is a high probability that the technical infrastructure works consistently well to allow Amazon orders to be made from PDAs/laptops while the buyer is on the move. Plus a high probability that deliveries will be made promptly across that space, with the goods reaching the client in good shape. Not only goods ordered from Amazon, of course.

In Non-Amazon Space either the technical infrastructure needed to make Amazon orders reliably and securely is absent or unreliable. And/or deliveries do not appear on time, or at all, or the goods do appear but are damaged.

Amazon Space is where the billion people who own the means of production of the word’s ideas now live.

Amazon Space is an astonishing unprecedented civilisational achievement. It links people and processes freely and fairly across borders. It allows people at their own pace to spread knowledge and best practice and innovation. It gives a chance to anyone within that space to do things differently.

And perhaps the most amazing thing. It rests on a dense network of contracts and understandings between companies and individuals who have never met.

I am an Amazon regular customer. When I order a book from Amazon I do it despite the fact that I have never met anyone from Amazon, or the credit-card company, or the publishers of the book I ordered, or the people who run the delivery services, or the software designers who make it all happen, or the people who make and sell the book’s packaging, or the people who run the chemical company who make the ink used on the book’s page. Or countless others involved directly or indirectly in my immediate book-order and the myriad other transactions which make it all happen.

Yet without a thought as to how all this happens I click on Amazon.com, quickly find a range of choices from millions of products, and order the one I want. Then it arrives.

Why does something at once both unimaginably complex yet so unplanned and anonymous actually function?

At root it all works because the legal system across Amazon Space deals with the issue of Trust between Strangers.

In Amazon Space you know that if there is a row between you and Amazon or between people/companies at different parts of the Amazon supply-chain, numerous mechanisms exist for that row to be managed and if necessary resolved by fair-minded and objective/disinterested ‘others’ (mediators, arbitrators, expert witnesses, ultimately the courts).

You may well not know exactly how all that works. You suspect that it can be complicated and expensive. You hope that any row will not end up in that labyrinth. But you also know that if there is a serious dispute, you have a good chance of at least a reasonable process and a reasonable outcome.

Knowing that, while (of course) you usually prefer to deal with a business you know and trust it does not matter that much if in fact you know or trust the firm you are dealing with.

You know that they know that you know that if they try to cheat you, you have a Legal Options to use against them which could cause them financial or reputational damage. This in turn gives each business a significant incentive to do its best to treat customers in a respectful, efficient way.

A remarkable virtuous circle emerges – businesses compete not only to deliver higher quality products and services, but also convincingly to project higher standards of integrity and service.

This is a sophisticated way of dealing with Trust. In fact the UK and US have turned Trust into a lucrative export item.

When international contracts are written many of them provide for mediation/adjudication in British or US jurisdictions. Why?

Because people know that in those jurisdictions there is the planet’s best available chance of a fair and objective decision process if things go wrong. A busy industry has grown up in London and New York and other UK/US centres around this fact – those centres are selling their ability to manage Trust between Strangers better than anyone else.

The point?

Once a way is invented to allow people to make contracts with people and firms they have never met and may not especially trust, the number of possible and likely contracts soars exponentially. Wealth grows apace

Welcome to Amazon Space.

Non-Amazon Space

Contrast this with Non-Amazon Space.

In Non-Amazon Space the legal system does not work fairly, sensibly or even at all.

Judicial salaries and incentives are pitifully low. Many utilities are publicly owned and highly inefficient. Corruption is rife throughout public life. In the Balkans relatively small amounts of money – eg the proceeds from smuggling a few trucks of cigarettes – do not merely buy a judge. They buy great slices of the legal system.

A Bosnian friend of mine went to live in the UK for a while. He returned to Sarajevo deeply depressed. “In England if you want a new telephone line installed at home they just do it. Here in Bosnia you have to invite someone from the telephone company round for coffee and grovel, plus pay him a little extra. Then you wait. The customer counts for nothing.”

The populations struggling with the iniquities of Non-Amazon Space know all this, all too well. It is their daily reality – they are implicated in the whole sorry story, reinforcing the petty corruption instincts in official channels by paying out bribes to get all sorts of permits or basic medical care.

Above all they know that if an issue goes to court it may well never be dealt with on its merits. The judge will be influenced improperly. Or someone in the bureaucracy will be bribed to mislay the papers. Witnesses will not appear to testify. Hearings are repeatedly postponed. A waste of time to try to seek much justice in that swamp.

So a would-be buyer and would-be seller have a far smaller ‘trust horizon’. They fear being cheated. To protect themselves they tend to strike deals only with people they think are reliable, or at least less likely to cheat them.

People they actually trust in person , or who are related to people they actually trust. People from their extended family, their clan, their tribe, their ethnic group, the same religion. And if they are operating on any scale they keep well in with tough people who might be able to use extra-legal means to enforce contracts.

The result?

Without a strong mechanism for handling Trust between Strangers there will be far fewer contracts.

The number of contracts signed is the precise expression of the fact of economic growth. Fewer contracts means that everyone is poorer, apart from corrupt officials and the criminal classes who have their own ways of dealing with Trust among themselves.

More generally, Amazon Space is a ‘developed world’ phenomenon, even if within parts of the developed world there are Non-Amazon Space pockets of corruption and inefficiency where Amazon Space orders do not get delivered.

Non-Amazon Space in its most extreme forms comprises those parts of the world where the state clamps down on private communication (eg North Korea, Cuba), or people and their societies are too poor to sustain an IT infrastructure and associated healthy processes on a scale which matters (Afghanistan, Sudan). There are also intermediate spaces where Internet use is big and lively and Amazon Space is growing but remains constrained in important respects (China).

In Amazon Space the population is strong. Networked people have power. They can mobilise spontaneously, using mobile telephones, blogs, texting.

In Non-Amazon Space the population is weak. Communities can be shut down or even wiped out, in anonymous silence.

This opens the way to horrors on a stunning scale. Bernard-Henri Levy describing Sudan:

Another thing which I never saw to this extent (and which makes the polemic about genocide completely outrageous and frivolous) is the impossibility of giving the real number of dead.

 Nobody knows if it is 200,000 dead, the number which has been given on and on for years, if it is, which is my evaluation, closer to 300,000 or 350,000; some human rights organizations—serious ones—say 400,000, maybe 500,000. From 200,000 to 500,000—nobody being able to decide which is the right figure?

… This huge mass murder [that’s] impossible to calculate, these hundreds of miniscule lives, tiny lives not even worthy of remembrance, or who their murderers rendered not even worthy of remembrance.

There is a very famous American book of James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I would like tonight, and I have tried without stopping for one year, to praise, to try to praise, if I can, unfamous men, men without fame, men without names, murdered people without any trace in the memory of mankind.

This is Darfur today.

Yet just as in Cuba some new opportunities at last are now emerging for private communication, across Africa in territories hitherto seen as almost beyond hope the possibilities of Amazon Space are stirring. Millions of Africans are able to acquire new cheap digital telephones with some sort of Internet access.

This technology gives African human potential at long last a chance to express itself, at its own pace, in its own way. Development policies for decades have been dominated by stultifying we-know-best socialist/etatistic ‘top-down’ thinking of donor governments and recipient governments alike. Africans themselves now are starting to do the job, as they own the basic tools to do it.

In short, we are seeing quite new forms of democratic and economic possibilities emerging round the world. Non-Amazon Space shrinks with each mobile telephone sold.

Policy Implications (1): Development Policy

If bringing people from Non-Amazon Space into Amazon Space is these days almost a pre-condition for giving them a chance to improve their lives, international development policy needs to re-focused on two areas:

  • Rolling out cheap modern mobile telephone networks to those areas lacking it, plus imaginative schemes to help poor people afford mobile telephones
  • Major new investment in reforming and gearing up local legal infrastructure to help underpin Amazon Space activity and greater ‘contracting between strangers’. That builds on the trail-blazing emphasis on property rights made by Hernando De Soto.

This requires a significant change of development official mind-set. I recall talking in Belgrade to a senior official from the wealthy UK development Ministry DfID. I urged him to consider a step-change in funding to help Balkan legal systems work properly. Otherwise UK/EU taxpayers were pouring funds into a regional bucket with big holes in the bottom.

The reply? “Legal reform is not a DfID ‘priority sector’”.

Legal reform in Non-Amazon Space is laborious. Local legal systems and culture are by definition rotten with inefficiency and vested interests.

So maybe we need to think about putting our development assistance into a new cooperation with the IT companies themselves, to use new technology to leap-frog the barriers of the hopeless official legal system and instead set up innovative informal on-line dispute-resolution arrangements, bringing in people of unimpeachable integrity?

If a local Non-Amazon Space government is too weak to run an honest legal system, why not work with Amazon/Microsoft/Google to create one instead?

Policy Implications (2): National Sovereignty

Amazon Space impacts on traditional ideas of ‘national sovereignty’ in two ways.

First, the obligation to take a fair share of the responsibility for protecting Amazon Space as a whole.

Although Amazon Space has an intrinsic strength arising from the breadth and depth of its own networked nature, it relies upon a real-life equipment (power-generators, communications cables, data storage computers) to function. Such facilities can be attacked by terrorists or saboteurs.

Who protects those facilities?

In principle it is for each state to protect those facilities sited on its own territory. But what if a state is too weak to do that, and/or allows terrorists and sophisticated criminals to use its territory as a base for plotting attacks on key Amazon Space installations?

If a country wants to enjoy the manifold benefits of belonging to Amazon Space, does it in turn have to accept an implicit obligation to take responsibility for defending Amazon Space pro-actively and vigorously against those who for whatever reason want to wreck it?

And if it is unable or unwilling to take the action needed to deal with such people, can it complain if other Amazon Space powers acting under a new version of the doctrine of collective self-defence step in to do that job instead?

Second, the obligation to treat Amazon Space citizens with basic respect. And perhaps also to do what one can to protect Non-Amazon Space citizens.

Recently I was a Harvard-sponsored seminar at which issues of international ‘humanitarian intervention’ and the Right to Protect were discussed.

I recalled seeing signs as one entered Harvard Square: Cambridge is a Domestic Violence-Free Zone.

I said that if you were walking down the street near Harvard and saw a man beating his wife/child/dog brutally with a stick in his front garden, you were morally and maybe even these days legally obligated to intervene to stop the violence.

Thus we long ago moved on from the idea that the ‘sovereignty’ of one’s home was a shield behind which seriously illegal acts could proceed uninterrupted. So if it is unacceptable to brutalise one person in one’s own garden, why is it acceptable to brutalise millions of people in one’s country without fear of being stopped?

Increasingly the oppressed have a voice via mobile telephony.

Imagine the UN Security Council debating the rights and wrongs of Sudan or Zimbabwe. These debates in practice are stuffy and abstract expositions of international law and politics.

What if a live feed were set up to broadcast to the Council the screams of fear from a Sudanese village about to be wiped out? Would not the moral case for intervention look different to those distinguished diplomats? Would clever formalistic arguments for doing nothing to make a difference stay credible?

Policy Implications (3): The Vocabulary of Intelligent Networked Pluralism

The centuries-long era of ‘Western’ states imposing themselves round the planet is drawing to an end. It does not work any more – local populations are too well-armed, in all senses.

Which is why it makes sense to abandon the tired vocabulary of words like ‘Western’, ‘North v South’ and maybe even the word ‘democracy’ itself, in favour of the new language of partnership – more realistic but not without serious substantial meaning: Intelligent Networked Pluralism.

The networked part of that definition is obvious enough, driven by cheap mobile telephony and accompanying Internet access.

Intelligent? This means various things. Above all it is unintelligent to exclude large numbers of people from the network, eg to deny women an equal and fair chance in education and in society. It is unintelligent to suppress basic freedoms. It is unintelligent to suppress ideas. It is unintelligent to allow corruption and injustice to be systemic.

Pluralism? This follows from intelligent networking. It implies growing social open-mindedness (including towards unconventional lifestyles and sexual preferences), a willingness on the part of governments and leaders to listen responsively to the people, reasonable official flexibility and ability to admit errors, openness upwards and downwards to new ideas and solutions.

Multi-party democracy in its classic Western form is one good way to achieve all that and more, but there are other ways which get a population most of the way there and are seen as generally open and satisfactory enough (’Asian models of democracy’).


The gap between the numbers of contractual transactions among those enjoying the reliable pluralist Amazon Space and the far smaller number of transactions in unreliable repressive Non-Amazon Space grows exponentially down the years.

So does the gap in prosperity. The reliable get richer. The poor stay poor. And are massacred.

Unwise. Unnecessary. Unfair.

A world in which most countries subscribe wholeheartedly to Intelligent Networked Pluralism – and the others are being drawn inexorably in that direction –  gives us ‘Western’ countries enough security and even moral reassurance.

The challenge of our times is threefold:

  • To devise new paradigms for operational partnerships across Amazon Space, based upon Intelligent Networked Pluralism
  • To create a vision for reducing and eventually abolishing Non-Amazon Space
  • And to lay down a firm line against enemies of all sorts who might seek to disrupt it, either from within Amazon Space or from Non-Amazon Space.

What’s the alternative?