On a mailing list I frequent, a regular expressed doubt about the possibility that very small subgroups of a society (less than 5% of its population) can cause large changes in the overall direction of its evolution without long historical timespans to work in. But I know from experience that this can happen, because I’ve lived it. My explanation (lightly edited and expanded) follows.
Of particular note is my explanation of how engineering design can shape history.
Sometimes, when society reaches a cusp point, the decisions of individuals and small groups can have very large downstream consequences that are even visibly large in the near term.
I have personally been present, and an actor, for at least two such hinge points of history: the finalization of the Internet design in 1983, and the mainstream emergence of open-source methods in the late 1990s. Even in the relatively short time since it has become clear that these are game-changers on the civilizational level, with ripple effects that will shape the rest of human history.
There may be other ways for it to to happen, but the way I’ve seen it happen is that a few engineers make choices that have very large implications for centralization vs. decentralization and the prevalence of information asymmetry, then bake these into infrastructure before the political class notices that the outcome could have been different.
Thought experiment: imagine an Internet in which email and web addresses were centrally issued by government agencies, with heavy procedural requirements and no mobility – even, at a plausible extreme, political patronage footballs. What kind of society do you suppose eventually issues from that?
I was there in 1983 when a tiny group called the IETF prevented this from happening. I had a personal hand in preventing it and yes, I knew what the stakes were. Even then. So did everyone else in the room.
Thought experiment: imagine a future in which everybody takes for granted that all software outside a few toy projects in academia will be closed source controlled by managerial elites, computers are unhackable sealed boxes, communications protocols are opaque and locked down, and any use of computer-assisted technology requires layers of permissions that (in effect) mean digital information flow is utterly controlled by those with political and legal master keys. What kind of society do you suppose eventually issues from that?
Remember Trusted Computing and Palladium and crypto-export restrictions? RMS and Linus Torvalds and John Gilmore and I and a few score other hackers aborted that future before it was born, by using our leverage as engineers and mentors of engineers to change the ground of debate. The entire hacker culture at the time was certainly less than 5% of the population, by orders of magnitude.
And we may have mainstreamed open source just in time. In an attempt to defend their failing business model, the MPAA/RIAA axis of evil spent years pushing for digital “rights” management so pervasively baked into personal-computer hardware by regulatory fiat that those would have become unhackable. Large closed-source software producers had no problem with this, as it would have scratched their backs too. In retrospect, I think it was only the creation of a pro-open-source constituency with lots of money and political clout that prevented this.
Did we bend the trajectory of society? Yes. Yes, I think we did. It wasn’t a given that we’d get a future in which any random person could have a website and a blog, you know. It wasn’t even given that we’d have an Internet that anyone could hook up to without permission. And I’m pretty sure that if the political class had understood the implications of what we were actually doing, they’d have insisted on more centralized control. ~For the public good and the children, don’t you know.~
So, yes, sometimes very tiny groups can change society in visibly large ways on a short timescale. I’ve been there when it was done; once or twice I’ve been the instrument of change myself.