On anarchy

The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.
— Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google.

Anarchy the very word is enough to provoke visions of riots, of pillage of plunder. Oddly the word itself originally meant something else entirely. It meant simply that there was no ruler. Hence Schmidt’s quote that the internet has no rulers.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word comes from the Greek anarkhia, from anarkhos, from an- ‘without’ + arkhos ‘chief, ruler’. In other words there was no rule by a single person, a monarchy, (Greek mono meaning one), or rule by a small number an oligarchy. (Oligos = few.)

Whether these few were based on (assumed) excellence, the aristocrat. Or on money, the plutocrat, or competence the meritocrat. Or indeed a theocracy, where rule is by god(s), or at least their human appointees. It also means that there is no rule by the demos, the people, i.e. a democracy.

In other words the term anarchy was originally free of any assumed judgement of what such a state would be like. This is clearly not the case now. As this definition from Merriam-Webster shows. It goes from the simple statement to two polar opposite definitions based on the presumed consequences of this statement.

  • : absence of government
  • : a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority
  • : a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government

To paraphrase:

  • There is no government: this is hell.
  • There is no government: this is heaven.

Image of the NeXT workstation (a NeXTcube) used by Tim Berners-Lee as the first Web server on the World Wide Web.: Coolcaesar at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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