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 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.”
A polyamory advocate’s core goal can be succinctly described as achieving equality in relationship choice. Like many polyamorous people, Angi, who “has one daughter, one husband, and one boyfriend,” sees compulsorily monogamous relationships, in which one person is “attached” to one and only one other person, as limiting. Instead, people may find more value when a person can be “attached” to more than one other person. In her own words, “we all deserve to live in a world where we are free to choose whatever relationship structure suits us the best, without being made to feel that we are some kind of freaks or degenerates.”
If you drew people as dots and the relationships between them as lines connecting the dots, the result would look remarkably similar to the topology of telecommunication networks like the Internet, wherein dots represent telephony devices (phones, fax machines, computers, etc.) and lines represent interconnections between them. However, a telecommunication network in which each device could only be connected to one other device—a compulsorily monogamous worldview—would not be very useful. Why buy a phone that can only call one other phone in the world?
This freedom to “connect” with whomever we choose, to exchange ideas with others regardless of geographic constraint, undeniably enriched our intellectual experiences. Is it so hard to imagine the same phenomenon holds true when we exchange bodily fluids or emotional adventures? 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.
Further, the “emotional value” derived from a polyamorous culture is not ambiguous. It can be accurately valuated, albeit not in any currency currently recognized. Instead of dollars and cents, the value it creates is of social capital, intimacy, degree of connectedness, and love. Its “currency” is none other than empathy itself; its payload isn’t digital data, but empathic experiences that cultivate shared joy. There’s even a word for this experience: compersion.
Polyamorists also developed discrete ways to “packetize” empathy and emotional communications. Conversational techniques such as “mirroring” (what Non-Violent Communication calls “reflecting”) in which a listener rephrases what they heard a speaker say, act as a kind of cyclic redundancy check, or an error-correction protocol, for emotional information transmission. It ensures that what one meant to say is what was heard, avoiding misunderstandings.
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.
It is now our words, in the form of programming languages, that are driving the evolution of technology. Meanwhile, technologies like online 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.” This marriage of polyamorous culture with the Internet thereby accelerates the distribution of the Dalai Lama’s prophylactic prescription for humanity.
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.
As Harvard professor Nicholas Christakis observed, your structural position in a social network, and the topology of the network itself, influences many things in your life:
[I]f you imagine social networks as a kind of vast fabric of humanity—I’m connected to you and you to her, on out endlessly into the distance—this fabric is actually like an old-fashioned American quilt, and it has patches on it, happy and unhappy patches. And whether you become happy or not depends in part on whether you occupy a happy patch.
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. Christakis continues:
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.
If our “civilization,” as our dictionaries insist, truly is “the most advanced stage of human social development and organization,” why then is humanity the only species in the world without full employment? Why are we so poorly trained in the principles of peaceful social development and organization? Accepting the polyamorous tenet, that goodness is inherent in social connectedness, is therefore fundamental to realizing our dictionaries’ aspirations.
After all, as Jeremy Rifkin said, “To empathize is to civilize. To civilize is to empathize.” If this is true, then cultivating the skill of empathy across the planet’s populace, as polyamorous culture actively endeavors to accomplish, is a prerequisite not merely for one’s own individual happiness, but also for the very survival of civilization—and our humanity.