Like Other Information Technologies Have Shaped Political Systems Before
All this reminds me of a feeling I put into words four years ago, just before the french presidential election.
I was trying to prevent someone to vote for the far right, and while talking, I realized I felt closer to the German citizens who did a sit-in to say to french people "please don't go that way, please stay in the EU with us", than to my fellow Frenchmen and women who were about to vote for the far right.
I effectively felt closer to people from a country I've never been to, than to my compatriots.
Closer ideologically, culturally, and even emotionally.
Because we share more values and could communicate in English anyway, so our first language is not even a question.
I think that's when I realized I didn't really relate to the idea of nation-states anymore. Being french/german/american today says less about someone than their values and vision of the world.
I worry about how it's gonna evolve though. Nation-states are not gonna go without a fight, and in the end we still need a place to live. Are countries gonna split in smaller entities ? (not sure that'd be a good sign and done peacefully) Are people gonna be allowed to move more and immigration laws will losen up ? (seems unlikely right now considering the rise of the far right in a lot of places)
Curious about your thoughts on this.
The parallel with Luther's 95 thesis is interesting and your endeavor of building 95 new thesis is ambitious! But upon re-reading your article -yes, your articles are dense and packed with information- it seems to me you presuppose the "killing of the Nation State" by Information Networks as a good thing. However, I would argue that although the current system has many flaws, thanks to Nation States we have some redistribution of wealth (of varying degrees depending on the countries), we have infrastructure (hospitals, roads), public school systems, social security nets. Thanks to strong Nation States, we are starting to see legislation seriously taking into account environmental issues. With no Nation Sates, who would "police" the acceptable behaviour? Who would enforce much needed emission/gender quotas? Who would build the roads that connect small towns? Who would pay for scientific research that has not immediate economic return? Are new Information Networks offering a better solution to these problems? Because what we are seeing now, is that the rise of these Information Networks are, on the contrary, offering a worse system for the majority: bitcoin being used mostly for money laundering and narco payments; social networks being used to spread fake news, conspirationalist theories, propaganda; decentralization used to evade tax-paying... by the wealthiest individuals and corporations, destroying the middle class; bitcoin mining (again) being super energy consuming. Do we really WANT to suppress the Nation State to supplant it with a deregulated system where the only interest taken into account is the private interest? Are gatekeepers superfluouse? Bad per se? How do we make sure the change of paradigm works better for the majority? If you manage to articulate in your new 95 thesis a way to incorporate the "general good", it would be the most powerful blueprint.
Fascinating article, thank you Thomas. I think your article on information networks would need to incorporate how, with the billions of nodes of information stemming from people of all over the world, this creates a hell of a lot of "noise". This means that important / worthwhile / novel ideas & solutions have a much harder difficult chance to stand out by their own merit. (Twitter is a great example of this.) Also, these information networks are subject to being manipulated and purposely used to distribute misinformation, by groups, politicians, state-nations, etc. So, while access to information is now widely available, there are also greater chances to mislead millions of people. That is why, in my opinion, the world is becoming increasingly polarized, it has become harder and harder to know what is really true and people are becoming more anxious, afraid, radicalized, despondent, angry, etc. As human beings, we are able to co-exist if there is an underlying sense of trust between us as a group or society. The issues I highlighted are eroding such common trust, so as nation-states eventually disintegrate, they will be replaced by factions of people united in their beliefs, ideologies, religions, etc. and opposed to other who do not share them. Hope this helps =)
Tomas, I used to think that we would evolve toward corporate states since we have begun to see such outsized political influence wielded by corporations, mostly through their financial influence on politicians. But then you introduced how blockchain will likely dispense with gatekeepers. I have watched how blockchain has made bitcoin relatively impervious to gatekeepers. We now see virtually all the major western nations manipulating their money supply to an unhealthy degree, classic gatekeeping, and enormous transference of wealth through inflation. I can only hope that blockchain might offer a more efficient method of this, even though market discovery worked well for centuries, maybe millennia. I eagerly await your next installment.
Most all of the New Testament is testimony to the power of the hand-carried letter. The Roman Empire succumbed to Christianity largely because of the letters Paul wrote to early Christian groups scattered across the landscape. Paul used those letters to morph the preachings of an obscure Jewish rabble-rouser into teachings that captured the collective imagination of the Gentile world. Among other things, that replaced Roman rule-by-brutality with consideration of your neighbor's values. Imagine how much faster that transition would have happened if the printing press had been invented back then, long befoer the firsst Gutenberg bible was printed. And that process of huanization continues, documented by the exponential decline over the last two millenia of the rate of human deaths at the hands of other humans. As the Internet continues to level the playing field, tackling universal challenges like climate change and systemic racism starts to make sense. By the way, you can add "world spiritual transformation" -- following closely upon "global identity" -- to the list of 95 Theses.
Fascinating article. It seems to me that if information networks are to have the global influence you propose, there must be a way to distinguish between facts and misinformation. If Trumpian denial of facts becomes a global rule, then information conveyed across networks can't be trusted and the networks will eventually collapse or become irrelevant. Facebook is struggling with this dilemma now, and has yet to come up with a solution. There's a difference between generating ad revenue from clicks on viral conspiracy postings and undermining nation states by spreading facts and credible ideas.
I hope that your prediction that block chain will lead to the disappearance of nation states will prove true . But I am skeptical, given how quickly the Chinese govt was able to suppress the Hong Kong democracy movement and culture through suppression of information and the use of police force. The Chinese clearly understand the importance of controlling information networks.
The various periods of revolutionary change detailed in the essay all occurred during eras when the concentration of power was orders-of-magnitude less than we observe today. If authority flows ultimately from the ability to force another to submit or be destroyed, the total combined quantity of "authority" in the world today is many millions of times greater than that available to totalitarians of the past. Since inception, these levers of power have proven difficult to dismantle - like the Ring of Sauron, someone will always crave power on that scale. How to get that genie back in the bottle? If power on that scale becomes truly decentralized, there will inevitably be a miscalculation in the future that leads to calamaty for all - so, for better or worse, that kind of power must be concentrated in a limited number of nodes; if not nation states, what authority will rise to claim the power?
Nation states facilitate the blood-less transfer of wealth from those with less power to those with more - establishing media of exchange, enforcement of contracts, quashing individuals' resistence to collective priorities, etc. These vital functions have given us the modern world...
Thank you for this interesting article. I think you are slightly cherry-picking the facts though. I understand it is mostly to streamline the narrative and focus on big trends, but I think it affects the way we construe them.
1) I am not sure the XX century turn is that different from Luther's times. He could spread his ideas quickly with books and local supporters, and so could do the XX century dictators. In fact, Stalin resorted to radio very rarely, and he/his party came to power before the age of mass radio, so his case is clearly different from, e.g., Hitler who relied on popular support. The "broadcasting" figure in the article is drawn as if the older "16th century" network isn't there anymore, but it is still there, right? I see how much difference printing could bring. However, later additions are just additions to this network, and it's not so clear to me what exactly later tech brings (apart from the chance to hear the newsmakers without any middlemen and much faster operation).
2) Having said that, I think it is safe to presume that the "global information network" is already here for quite a long time; even if we talk about Internet, you could read major newspapers online, say, 20+ years ago, so we can already dicuss the effects of this structure. I am afraid what we see in reality is "echo-chambering" rather than spread: people tend to ignore information coming "from the other side", and the mass media actually takes sides (which is also unsettling). We have the network, but most people don't really use it: it's much easier to resort to "default" options such as major media or Youtube/Facebook algorithms.
3) Speaking of nation states, it is tempting to imagine a Fukuyama-style world, but if we look at the facts, world is seemingly splitting rather than cooperating. I am not talking just about the present day, it is a trend from early 90s (when many territories preferred having independence when they got a chance) till 2010s (think Sudan) and then the UK voting. It is very possible that this is just a temporary relapse, but nobody really knows, and we can't just ignore facts. There is a lot of sympathy to "people who want to live their way", where by "people" a certain political nation is understood. Even "international" companies (like Wikimedia) aren't 100% international as they have to comply with regulations of their home jurisdiction, which affects their behavior in all sorts of subtle ways. This is also quite damaging to world unity, because it motivates the local governments to create their own independent alternatives.
I see three scenarios:
1) big corporatioins will take over, the ones that control the information flows today, like the big social networks.
2) Nation states will not disappear, they will just become bigger and bigger. Big economic blocks like China, EU,... will dominate. China shows, that centralised power, Internet and censorship can go together very well. Also with their development of CBDC...
3) A new world society will appear. Information will travel freely. We will work with people who live on the other side of the planet. We will use a worldwide blockchain based currency and many different utility tokens.
It isn't hard to see how the nation state has already been weakened by the speed and ease with which capital can move across borders. But what will emerge to replace it? Right now, the most powerful players economically are transnational corporations -- but what replaces the nation state politically? A state is defined by its monopoly of force in a given territory. How will that change? Is it possible that a planetary government will emerge?
Thanks Tomas for a very interesting article. Very thought provoking, but as some others have pointed out, there are some simplifications and maybe cherry picking in the data, although the description of the ways information is important seems sound to me.
In fact, Spain, England and France became politically united before the printing press, through alliances/conquest and deals between the royal families of Europe. Italy and Germany may have followed your roadmap to Nationhood (that is the emergence of a national language through the printing press, and then a Nation State) but other countries followed the political path to building a nation, before the effect of the press. Also, as other coment remarked, Nationalism was reinforced by the widespread literacy in the end of the XIX century.
I agree with you that information technologies are always important, but changes are produced in a feedback loop, were information is important but not necessarily the driving force.
Events such as the rise of Capitalism, the european discovery of the Americas are also important in shaping the Nation States we find today.
You seem to ingnore the economic changes brought by Capitalism, based also on other technologies that were created locally for example those that brought about the Industrial Revolution. The textile industry in England, the steam engine and the railways were created mostly by crafsmen, which were not a part of the main scientific information network. Again, a feedback loop based on information sharing was essential later to spread, perfect and consolidate the industries created in the XVIII century and create new ones in the XIX (electricity and radio).
I see also a struggle between Nation States and large Corporations which has started, with Nations trying to close tax loopholes of Corporations, and I wonder if the new emerging power is not Bitcoin and decentralization, but rather the power of Corporations. Many of them are already larger in revenue than several Nation States, they benefit from fast comunication through the new technologies, and are accountable only to their share holders (and even then to a few key shareholders).
Again, many thanks for a thought provoking article. Tomas, ¡un abrazo virtual!
I'm curious who, in your view, the new political bodies will be in the internet-Blockchain world. Will it be the big tech companies? Will it be the consensus based governance mechanisms that exist in blockchains like Bitcoin?
If the latter, how will they enact real world change. How do they upgrade and maintain roads, provide hospitals etc? That seems like a reason for nation states to exist, albeit ones hollowed out by the Internet. That's already happening.
Also, what happens when nation states fight back? Using anti trust laws to take down tech companies. Creating their own central bank issued digital currencies. Banning particular blockchains, e.g. banning Bitcoin.
Please include in your thoughts on our changing future a reality dictated by the current concentration of wealth (power): toxic waste (spent fuel rods, etc), global warming, ocean acidification (from NOAA - "When carbon dioxide (CO2) is absorbed by seawater, chemical reactions occur that reduce seawater pH, carbonate ion concentration, and saturation states of biologically important calcium carbonate minerals. These chemical reactions are termed "ocean acidification" or "OA" for short"). Are these forces greater or lesser in strength than blockchain tech and/or the English language in shaping the future of our species?
You have not commented here on the risks of loss of gatekeepers who also might protect from nefarious uses of blockchain such as blackmail
I'm thinking about post nation-state systems. I spent a career trying to stop child abuse and watched the prosecutorial & social services system grind along slowly at great cost. However if we look toward accountability and stopping corruption, and if transparency is a great disinfectant, the internet may the the most effective way. Leapfrog over the slow prosecution process and expose the sex trafficking networks, government and corporate corruption networks, and place a high value on providing evidence to back up accusations, follow the money and expose them. Those at the top are having a hard time censoring the internet effectively. Maybe Musk's satellites will make it harder to censor?
Tomas, lo que planteas acá, con toda razón es lo que se viene, es lo que planteo Diamond, es como ha sido el mundo siempre. Desde que comenzó a evolucionar el Homo de Heidelberg en Europa (Neanderthals) y en África (nosotros), imagínate, esto se remonta al inicio del ser humano. En ese tiempo el puente era el aire y él boca a boca, el Homo Sapiens llegó a Israel hace 35 mil años, terminando con el “reinado” de otros humanos, particularmente los Neanderthals, quienes lo tuvieron por 500 mil años, pero la comunicación de que probablemente había terrenos más fértiles, el tener mejores herramientas y un cerebro diferente, cambio el curso de la humanidad ya desde ese tiempo y siempre ha sido igual. Pero hay fueron decenas de miles de años.