Phyles in Fiction

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Kevin Carson:

"Back in the late ’90s, cyberpunk writer Neal Stephenson introduced the concept of “phyles” in The Diamond Age. Phyles filled the void left after encryped commerce and digital currencies had deprived the Westphalian nation-state of most of its revenues, and most of the world’s states were either substantially hollowed out or had collapsed altogether into Balkanized collections of city-states. The phyle was a distributed, non-geographically-based, global civil society, providing — much like the medieval guilds at the height of their vigor — a range of support platforms for its members: reputational rating systems and quality certification, cooperative buying and marketing, assorted benefits like health and unemployment insurance, legal and security services, encrypted currencies and virtual marketplaces, and so forth.

More recently, Bruce Sterling — in The Caryatids — described a post-state world divided between two distributed global civil societies: the Acquis and the Dispensation. Members of the Acquis were connected via electronic-neural linkages to a “sensorweb,” and were able to view the world with a virtual layer (tied to the physical world via GPS coordinates) superimposed on it, and with semantic tagging of objects to convey information.

David de Ugarte has developed Stephenson’s concept of phyles in terms of what he calls the neo-Venetian model. The Venetians maintained a sort of networked merchants’ guild headquartered in Venice, with Venetian enclaves rented in major Mediterranean port cities for habitation by Venetian merchants who happened to be there at any given time. The Venetians’ distributed society, much like Stephenson’s phyles, provided a range of support and governance services for its members. In Poul Anderson’s Kith stories, the Kith — a starfaring subspecies of homo sapiens which had diverged racially and developed a separate culture as a result of time dilation — maintained Kith enclaves in the spaceports of all the major worlds they visited. Individual Kith, who lived lifetimes of many thousands of years by subjective planetside standards, lived in houses in the Kith quarters leased by their families or tribes on the occasion of their return to a world after several decades or centuries of local time.


Daniel Suarez, who was closely associated with Robb in the process of writing his novels Daemon and Freedom, organized the Daemon’s darknet economy on essentially those lines. Holons, or diversified and largely self-sufficient local economies, were plugged into the darknet’s distributed platforms. But along with Robb’s model, Suarez threw in something that closely resembled Sterling’s sensorweb. “D-space” used the same kind of mapping architecture as massively-multiplayer online role-playing games — but with the D-space map superimposed as a virtual layer atop the real visual landscape. Anyone wearing visual uplink goggles, wired into the darknet, viewed the world with D-space superimposed on it. The D-space layer was tied to the physical world through GPS coordinates, individuals were tagged through their darknet interface. To anyone viewing the world with the D-space layer superimposed, other individuals had their darknet call-out floating over their head, along with their ranking level within the system and their reputational rating." (