I’m looking out the airplane window, marveling that the clouds are below me. My computer is out and I’m surfing online. As usual, I inhale a big intake of air, still dazzled that this is possible.
A notification pops up that there is a meeting taking place in Austin, Texas, a digital Meetup sponsored by the Mises Circle as run by a student name Michael Goldstein. I’m invited to join.
Surely, their bandwidth won’t support my joining. But I figure I will try it anyway. Suddenly, I find myself on camera along with many others, and looking not only at others who have entered the digital space, but also at a group of students in a room where the meeting itself is taking place.
So I do a double take, glancing at my screen and out the window again, and I almost have to pinch myself. I’m flying above the clouds, yet I’m also on the ground in Texas. In technological parlance, the whole thing is made possible by “cloud computing,” but it is also literally true.
When exactly did this kind of thing become possible? There was no headline in The New York Times. There was no grand announcement. I’m not even sure myself when this became possible. Google Hangouts are about 18 months in existence, but the technology keeps improving bit by bit. It seems almost like it all happened in the blink of an eye.
Remember how people warned us about how digits would destroy personal contact? How we would all get sucked into the Web vortex of fake friendship and digital relationships and lose the ability to engage each other face to face?
As far as I can tell, experience is showing the opposite. The digital world is making possible new forms of robust physical networks too, people meeting face to face in social settings that did not and could not have existed even five years ago. And these physical meetings are integrating with digital ones.
And maybe that’s the great benefit of the digital turn. Digits link real-life human beings in ways that had never been possible in previous ages. This allows the formation of human communities to serve a crucial social and political function: They serve as a buffer between the individual and the state. Such networks are essential for the building of human liberty.
Today, there are thousands of gatherings of people from all walks of life that would not otherwise exist. There is a simple reason. Now we can form them and get the word out, and others can find out about them. These enthusiast groups cover crafts, running, surfing, painting, music, technology, philosophy, religion, investment, and every other conceivable thing.
For example, I just returned from an exciting speaking tour of sorts in southeast Texas. Gatherings of this sort — huge cross sections of people from many walks of life — would have been so much more difficult in the pre-digital era. Why? Well, in the past, the organizers might not have known there was a demand, they might not have had the resources to promote, and people wouldn’t have thereby known they should even attend at all.
But with the digital world of Web communities and social media, it all came together quite beautifully. There was a traditional meet and greet in a restaurant one night with a standing-room-only crowd where your editor gave a talk on new strategies for reclaiming our right to be free. This was sponsored by Liberty on the Rocks, an expanding network of meetings all over the country for libertarians.
At the main event, held at Stephen F. Austin State University, in Nacogdoches, Texas, Young Americans for Liberty and the Charles Koch Foundation sponsored a conference on libertarian ideas, as well an event with a more formal and academic approach (but still fun!).
Stefan Molyneux gave a paper on how politics compromise ethics. Jessica Hughes eviscerated the idea that the Constitution is a source for freedom and human rights. Stephan Kinsella presented an illuminating case against John Locke’s idea that we own the products of our labor. Your editor presented a tutorial for living outside the state.
The place was packed, with people coming from long distances to be there. We even had one digital speaker. Walter Block appeared on Skype on the big screen and answered a number of audience questions on banking, labor, the environment, and other matters.
Stefan Molyneux, Stephan Kinsella, yours truly,
and other “meet and greeters,” at Liberty in the Pines, Feb. 23, 2013.
It was a fun, educational, and exciting experience. We all take this for granted, but again, trying to put this kind of meeting together 20 years ago would have been nearly impossible. Today, it is commonplace. In fact, even this very evening, I’m speaking at a student gathering that was easily formed and promoted through Facebook and Twitter, whereas it would have required plastering posters all over campus in the past.
I first began to sense this some years ago when a friend of mine moved to Shanghai. Had this happened 20 years ago, this young American would have been lost and isolated for years, maybe forever. But he and his wife notified their network in advance and arrived with a social structure already in place. They moved into a foreign country with an unfamiliar culture where the language is forbidding and still felt right at home.
This type of thing is happening all over the world and probably in your hometown. It began a few years ago with the institution of the Meetup. But over time, many different venues have served the same purpose. Facebook and Google started allowing events to be created, shared, and promoted. And the lines between digital and physical are blurring so that Google Hangouts and Skype meetings of groups commonly extend and entrench the relationships formed in physical spaces.
As a result, all kinds of intellectual societies are becoming ever smarter and more sophisticated. This is particularly true in libertarian circles. Students today are able to read and borrow from thinkers from all ages. Barriers between factions have broken down. The learning never stops, extending from digits to real life and back again. This has put new pressure on me as a speaker, but in a good way: If I ever repeat myself, someone will take note!
Coming up in Las Vegas, July 10-13, 2013, is the largest gathering of the year. The event is FreedomFest, and there could be as many as 3,000 people there. Laissez Faire Books is sponsoring an entire day of talks and panels. We’ll have a large book table of all the speakers’ books. The event keeps growing year after year because it gets better and more people are hearing about it.
Technology has heightened the value of the event, and the event has heightened the value of the technology. They work together. The result is the formation of a new community of people who find new forms of strength, intellectual confidence, and human camaraderie in discovering that we are not alone, but are part of something much larger than ourselves. We are part of a generation radically rethinking the way the world works and the role of politics in society.