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The End of the World: The State vs. the Internet

Will the Internet be a technology the state can harness to extract more loyalty from its citizens? Or will it destroy the imagined communities that make the state possible, replaced by a more nimble, disruptive organisation?

by David Eaves On June 22, 2012

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A while back, I thought I saw a tweet from Evgeny Morozov that said something to the effect: “You don’t just go from printing press to Renaissance to iPad; there are revolutions and wars in between you can’t ignore.” Since I can’t find the tweet, maybe he didn’t say it or I imagined it… but it sparked a line of thinking.

Technology and Change

Most often, when people think of the printing press, they think of its impact on the Catholic Church – about how it enabled Martin Luther’s complaints to go viral and how the localisation of the Bible cut out the need of the middle man the priest to connect and engage with God. But if the printing press undermined the Catholic Church, it had the opposite impact on the state. To be fair, heads of state took a beating (see French Revolution et al.), but the state itself was nimbler and made good use of the technology. Indeed, it is worth noting that the modern notion of the nation state was not conceivable without the printing press. The press transformed the state – scaling up its capacity to demand control over loyalty from citizens and mobilise resources which, in turn, had an impact on how states related (and fought) with one another.

In his seminal book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson outlined how the printing press allowed the state to standardise language and history. In other words, someone growing up in Marseilles 100 years before the printing press probably had a very different sense of history and spoke a markedly different dialect of French than someone living in Paris during the same period. But the printing press (and more specifically, those who controlled it) allowed a dominant discourse to emerge (in this case, likely the Parisian one). Think standardised dictionaries, school textbooks and curricula, to say nothing of history and entertainment. This caused people who might never have met to share a common imagined history, language and discourse. Do not underestimate the impact this had on people’s identity. As this wonderful quote from the book states: “Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.” In other words, states could now fully dispense with feudal middle managers and harness the power of larger swaths of population directly – a population that might never actually meet, but could nonetheless feel connected to one another. The printing press thus helped create the modern nation state by providing a form of tribalism at scale: what we now call nationalism. This was, in turn, an important ingredient for the wars that dominated the late 19th and early 20th century – think World War I and World War II. This isn’t to say without the printing press, you don’t get war – we know that isn’t true – but the type of total war between 20th century nation states does have a direct line to the printing press.

So yes, the techno-utopian world of: printing press -> Renaissance -> iPad is not particularly accurate.

What you do get is: printing press -> Renaissance -> state evolution -> destabilisation of international order -> significant bloodshed -> re-stabilisation of international system -> iPad.

I raise all this because if this is the impact the printing press had on the state, it begs a new question: What will be the impact of the Internet on the state? Will the Internet be a technology the state can harness to extract more loyalty from its citizens… or will the Internet destroy the imagined communities that make the state possible, replaced by a more nimble, disruptive organisation better able to survive the Internet era?

Some Scenarios

Note: again, these scenarios aren’t absolutes or the only possibilities, they are designed to raise questions and provoke thinking.

The State Destroys the Internet

One possibility is that the state is as adaptive as capitalism. I’m always amazed at how capitalism has evolved over the centuries. From mercantilism to free market to social market to state capitalism, as a meme it readily adapts  to new environments. One possibility is that the state is the same – sufficiently flexible to adapt to new conditions. Consequently, one can imagine that the state grabs sufficient control of the Internet to turn it into a tool that at best enhances – and at worst, doesn’t threaten – citizens’ connection to it. Iran, with its attempt to build a state-managed internal network that will allow it to closely monitor its citizens’ every move, is a scary example of the former. China – with its great firewall – may be an example of the latter. But one need not pick on non-western states.

And a networked world will provide states – especially democratic ones – with lots of reasons to seize greater control of their citizens’ lives. From organised crime, to  terrorism, to identity theft, governments find lots of reasons to monitor their citizens. This is to say nothing of advanced persistent threats which create a state of continual online warfare – or sort of modern day phoney phishy war – between China, the United States, Iran and others. This may be the ultimate justification.

Indeed, as a result of these threats, the United States already has an extensive system for using the Internet to monitor its own citizens and even my own country – Canada – tried to pass a law last year to significantly ramp up the monitoring of citizens online. The UK, of course, has just proposed a law whose monitoring provisions would make any authoritarian government squeal with glee. And just last week we found out that the UK government is preparing to cut a blank check for internet service providers to pay for installing the monitoring systems to record what its citizens do online.

Have no doubts, this is about the state trying to ensure the Internet serves – or at least doesn’t threaten – its interests.

This is sadly, the easiest future to imagine since it conforms with the world we already know – one where states are ascendant. However, this future represents, in many ways, a linear projection of the future – and our world, especially our networked world, rarely behaves in a linear fashion. So we should be careful about confusing familiarity with probability.

The Internet Destroys the State

Another possibility is that the Internet undermines our connection with the state. Online we become increasingly engaged with epistemic communities – be it social, like someone’s World of Warcraft guild, or professional, such as an association with a scientific community. Meanwhile, in the physical world, local communities – possibly at the regional level – become ascendant. In both cases, regulations and rules created by the state feel increasingly like an impediment to conducting our day to day lives, commerce and broader goals. Frustration flares, and increasingly someone in Florida feels less and less connection with someone in Washington state – and the common sense of identity, the imagined community, created by the state begins to erode.

This is, of course, hard for many people to imagine – especially Americans. But for many people in the world – including Canadians – the unity of the state is not a carefree assumption. There have been three referenda on breaking up Canada in my lifetime. More to the point, this process probably wouldn’t start in places where the state is strongest (such as in North America); rather, it would start in places where it is weakest. Think Somalia, Egypt (at the moment) or Belgium (which has basically functioned for two years without a government and no one seemed to really notice). Maybe this isn’t a world with no state – but lots of little states (which I think breaks with our mould of what we imagine the state to be to a certain degree) or maybe some new organising mechanism, one which leverages local community identities, but can co-exist with a network of diffused but important transnational identities. Or maybe the organising unit gets bigger, so that greater resources can be called upon to manage new, network-based threats.

I, like most people find this world harder to imagine. This is because so many of our assumptions suddenly disappear. If not the state, then what? Who or what protects and manages the Internet infrastructure? What about other types of threats – corporate interests, organised and cyber-crime, etc.? This is true paradigm-shifting stuff (apologies for use of the word,) and frankly, I still find myself too stuck in my Newtonian world and the rules make it hard to imagine or even know what quantum mechanics will be like. Again, I want to separate imagining the future with its probability. The two are not always connected, and this is why thinking about this future, as uncomfortable and alienating as it may be, is probably an important exercise.

McWorldThe Internet Rewards the Corporation

One of the big assumptions I often find about people who write/talk about the Internet is that it almost always assumes that the individual is the fundamental unit of analysis. There are good reasons for this – using social media, an individual’s capacity to be disruptive has generally increased. And, as Clay Shirky has outlined, the need for coordinating institutions and managers has greatly diminished. Indeed, Shirky’s blog post on the collapse of complex business models is (in addition to being a wonderful piece) a fantastic description of how a disruptive technology can undermine the capacity of larger complex players in a system and benefit smaller, simpler stakeholders. Of course, the smaller stakeholder in our system may not be the individual – it may be an actor that is smaller, nimbler than the state, that can foster an imagined community, and can adopt various forms of marshalling resources for self-organisation to hierarchical management. Maybe it is the corporation.

During the conversation at FooCamp, Tim O’Reilly pressed this point with great effect. It could be that the corporation is actually the entity best positioned to adapt to the Internet age. Small enough to leverage networks, big enough to generate a community that is actually loyal and engaged.

Indeed, it is easy to imagine a feedback loop that accelerates the ascendance of the corporation. If our imagined communities of nation states cannot withstand a world of multiple narratives and so become weaker, corporations would benefit not just from a greater capacity to adapt, but the great counterbalance to their power – state regulation and borders – might simultaneously erode. A world where more and more power – through information, money and human capital – gets concentrated in corporations is not hard to imagine. Indeed there are many who believe this is already our world. Of course, if the places (generally government bodies) where corporate conflicts – particularly those across sectors – cannot be mediated peacefully then corporations may turn much more aggressive. The need to be bigger, to marshal more resources, to have a security division to defend corporate interests, could lead to a growth in corporations as entities we barely imagine today. It’s a scary future, but not one that hasn’t been imagined several times in sci-fi novels, and not one I would put beyond the realm of imagination.

The End of the World

The larger point of all this is that new technologies do change the way we imagine our communities. A second and third order impact of the printing press was its critical role in creating the modern nation-state. The bigger question is, what will be the second and third order impacts of the Internet – on our communities (real and imagined), our identity and where power gets concentrated?

As different as the outcomes above are, they share one important thing in common. None represent the status quo. In each case, the nature of the state, and its relationship with citizens, shifts. Consequently, I find it hard to imagine a future where the Internet does not continue to put a real strain on how we organise ourselves, and in turn the systems we have built to manage this organisation. Consequently, it is not hard to imagine that as more and more of those institutions – including potentially the state itself – come under strain, it could very likely push systems – like the international state system – that are presently stable into a place of instability. It is worth noting that after the printing press, one of the first real nation states – France – wreaked havoc on Europe for almost a half century, using its enhanced resources to conquer pretty much everyone in its path.

While I am fascinated by technology and believe it can be harnessed to do good, I like to think that I am not – as Evgeny labels them – a techno-utopian. We need to remember that, looking back on our history, the second and third order effects of some technologies can be highly destabilising, which carries with it real risks of generating significant bloodshed and conflict. Hence the title of this blog post and the FooCamp session: The End of the World.

This is not a call for a renewed Luddite manifesto. Quite the opposite – we are on a treadmill we cannot get off. Our technologies have improved our lives, but they also create new problems that, very often social innovations and other technologies will be needed to solve. Rather, I want to raise this because I believe it to be important that still more people – particularly those in the valley and other technology hubs (and not just military strategists) – be thinking critically about what the potential second and third order effects of the Internet, the web and the tools they are creating, so that they can contribute to the thinking around potential technological, social and institutional responses that could hopefully mitigate against the worst outcomes.

I hope this helps prompt further thinking and discussion.


This article originally appeared on David Eaves’ blog.

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Image Credits: ssoosay CC (BY), James Cridland CC (BY), Overig CC (BY)

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