Dreaming of Compassion: Technology, Polyamory, and Social Justice


I want a new American Dream. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I think that we could build it, if we try together, because we live in an amazing moment in history.

As I bet any sexually vocal person will tell you, the Internet has fundamentally transformed our ability to communicate with one another. For example, before the Internet, if you were a gay teenager in bum-fuck nowhere, you were the only gay person in the world. Now, though, after the Internet, if you’re a gay teenager in bum-fuck nowhere, you’re one of millions of gay teenagers communicating online.

This is big. This is not merely the evolution of telecommunication technologies. This is a revolution.

The Internet is such a big deal that it’s actually a revolution of all kinds—media, governance, technology itself. But it’s also a second sexual revolution, and this one—our generation’s sexual revolution—traces its roots through the first. This is where just a bit of history comes in handily.

On May 9th, 1960, the first oral contraceptive was made available to the general public; “the Pill” sparked the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Like all revolutions, no one could predict the outcome at the outset. It sparked chaos; the sexual revolution precipitated the “sex wars” in the 1980s.

Also in the 1960s—in 1962 to be exact—Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, affectionately known as “Lick,” (not kidding) first proposed a global network of computers. The project was initially adopted by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), an R&D branch of the US military.

As the slogan “Make Love, Not War” spread through public consciousness in the “free love” movement of the 60s, the Internet was being recognized as a tool of generic utility and in 1969 was launched as ARPANet. “Make love, not war” is, at least poetically, a physical parallel of Internet technology.

A specification for the ubiquitous File Transfer Protocol (FTP) was published in 1973—the same year as the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in America. In 1986, as the sex wars raged, the National Science Foundation funded NSFNet as a cross country 56 Kbps Internet backbone for expressly non-commercial, essentially academic purposes. The protocol for the World Wide Web, called the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), was developed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, and, of course, eventually became the most widely used protocol on the public Internet.

In the same way as Gutenberg’s printing press was recognized as a revolution, bringing with it 150 years of chaos, so too is the Internet. Before the printing press, countries were kingdoms. The invention of the printing press around the year 1440 essentially signalled the start of the end of a feudal Western social order, culminating in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which brought forth a new system of political order to Europe and, with it, the modern concept of nation states. What might replace today’s countries in 150, or even just 50 years from now?

These histories highlight the intersections of and tensions between technology, culture, and policy. Moreover, hegemonic preconceptions are especially insidious when they make their way into technology. The same-sex marriage debate illustrates this when, for instance, clerks in many jurisdictions maintaining matrimony databases try to record a new marriage and the computer systems they use ask them “Which one’s the wife?” This unintentional antipathy to the diversity of human identities and relationships, which is literally encoded into society’s infrastructure, is perhaps the greatest silent threat to our species’ survival.

Schemes for a marriage database completely free of gender and sexuality assumptions do exist. Sam Hughes’s example permits any human to marry any other human any number of times and have any number of partners simultaneously. Now, if you tried to use a schema like his, you’d actually be forced to write tons of application layer logic to enforce the legal restrictions that are placed on marriage today; our technology already offers us capabilities that are beyond our society’s understanding of the social constructs and contracts many people have and are using right now.

The Dalai Lama once said, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” But today, as environmentalist and author Paul Hawken observed, “goods seem to have become more important, and are treated better, than people.” Faced with the existential threat of this mounting tension, our species will be forced to shoulder the challenge that political advisor Jeremy Rifkin imagines we can accomplish: “extend our empathy to the entire human race as an extended family, and to our fellow creatures as part of our evolutionary family, and to the biosphere as our common community,” or perish.

Thus, the urgent question is: how do we do that? As it happens, today’s polyamory movement is uniquely situated at an ideological and technological intersection illuminating a possible answer. Polyamory’s key tenet—that a relationship involving more than two individuals is a good and valuable thing—is so powerful because it is so simple. To understand why, we can look to the Internet.

In his seminal work, New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World, technology theorist Kevin Kelley wrote, “In the network economy, the more plentiful things become, the more valuable they become.” From a polyamorous perspective, one could say, “Love is not a scarce commodity,” or, even more generally, “the more, the merrier.”

As I see it, a poly activists’ core goal can be succinctly described as achieving equality in relationship choice. That is, polyamorous people recognize that the structure of a compulsorily monogamous relationship, in which one individual is connected to only one other individual, is limiting. Instead, we argue, many people may find more value by changing the structure such that one individual can be connected to more than one other individual.

This has some remarkable parallels to the way telecommunication technologies (like the Internet) work. In essence, polyamory does for relationships what digital telecommunication technologies have done for ideas. Here’s how veteran web designer John Waters explained it:

In the industrial economy, scarcity established value. Natural resources such as oil, gold, and diamonds were scarce and therefore considered valuable. […] Paul Romer and other theorists introduced the “New Growth Theory”. In this model, the principle of scarcity is turned upside down.

The new theory essentially divides the world into two productive inputs: “things” and “ideas”. Only one person at a time can use things such as a hammer, a telephone, a lawnmower, or a car. On the other hand, ideas can be used by many people simultaneously, i.e., recipes, blueprints, formulas, methodologies, and software. They can be used to rearrange things. They can be copied, shared, and connected, thereby leading to more ideas. “Economic growth,” Romer says, “arises from the discovery of new recipes and the transformation of things from low to high value configurations.”

Such “transformation of things from low to high value configurations” is what the polyamory movement does with regard to relationships. The most obvious limitation with the often-monogamous notion of “true love” is that it creates a scarcity model, and free distribution is anathema to maintaining scarcity. Polyamorous people understand that “free love” is not just a hippie slogan, it is a way to create real-world emotional value.

It is now our words, in the form of programming languages, that are driving the evolution of technology. The corpus of this technological literature changes our physical reality, offering us everything from hormone therapies to space shuttles to online social networks.

Meanwhile, those same social networks offer fertile soil where non-mainstream perspectives—and new languages—can take root. As Wired columnist Regina Lynn wrote, “Beyond the obvious benefits of online community, the language’s Internet-speed evolution continues to give polyamory a boost. When poly or poly-curious people stumble across the polyamorous lexicon, the discovery can help validate their worldview.”

The introduction of new language—both terms and techniques for communication itself—is a profound change. In the words of asexuality activist David Jay, “By finding new ways to talk about relationships we can greatly increase our options for forming them.” In addition to the value offered by transforming the topology of relationships, there is value in having a diversity of relationship types; even healthy monogamous people have strong friendship, co-worker, familial, and other kinds of social networks that look similar to polyamorous people’s more intimate networks.

In the early 19th century, American railways were a transportation infrastructure for commerce—a network of matter-moving devices. In the early 1990’s, the World Wide Web emerged as a general purpose infrastructure for communications—a network of idea-moving devices. Today, polyamorous and non-monogamous culture is a peer-to-peer infrastructure for the transmission of information about human relationships—a literal social network of compassion-moving devices.

This marriage of polyamorous culture with the Internet thereby accelerates the distribution of the Dalai Lama’s prophylactic prescription for humanity. Or, in other words, the success or failure of that quintessential American Dream, your “pursuit of happiness” is, at least in part, intertwined with others’ similar pursuits. As Harvard professor Nicholas Christakis observed:

“If I were always violent towards you or gave you misinformation, or made you sad, or infected you with deadly germs, you would cut the ties to me, and the network would disintegrate. So the spread of good and valuable things is required to sustain and nourish social networks. Similarly, social networks are required for the spread of good and valuable things, like love and kindness and happiness and altruism and ideas. I think, in fact, that if we realized how valuable social networks are, we’d spend a lot more time nourishing them and sustaining them, because I think social networks are fundamentally related to goodness. And what I think the world needs now is more connections.”

In the latter 20th Century, the American Dream grew up in a house with a white picket fenced porch, had a college education, and got a steady job. But today, the American Dream has increasingly been seen as a platitude veiling corporate greed. Founding director of Xavier University’s Center for the Study of the American Dream, Michael Ford, sums up the situation like this:

[T]o an astonishing degree [Americans] have lost confidence in the institutions traditionally seen as Dream guardians. […] Americans feel they are on their own but they haven’t lost the Dream. They have confidence in themselves, their families and their personal networks.

So perhaps adopting the polyamorous tenet, that goodness is inherent in social connectedness, is therefore not merely a social ideal, but also a blueprint for a 21st Century version of a re-imagined, re-invigorated American Dream.