“Civilizations do fail. We have never yet seen one that hasn’t. The difference is that the torch of progress has in the past always passed to another region of the world. But we’ve now, for the first time, got a single global civilization. If it fails, we all fail together.” Tim O’Reilly, The Rise of Anti-Intellectualism and the End of Progress
I stumbled across this quote from Tim and thought, “Is the very idea of a single, global civilization so audacious that it just might be crazy enough to be real? Have we as a species cohabiting this round piece of rock and gas evolved to a point where the walls that keep us aligned to flags and borders are disintegrating?
It’s a fascinating concept to explore, one full of deeply important notions of what actually constitutes ‘society’
Let me say outright that this is not a thesis of global anarchy. Nor is it meant to be a rehash of Thomas Friedman’s controversial book, “The World is Flat.” What it is, is an observation — my observation — that we are on the precipice of a monumental shift in how civilization’s organize and operate. A shift wherein the arbitrary barrier of time dissolves. Where the shackles of location are removed. Where a new societal contract forms: one where people no longer align by man-made geopolitical borders, but, instead, by common ideas, interests and values.
Whereas Friedman sees the world through the lens of nationalism and competition, I think there’s a larger change happening.
Today’s political boundaries make no sense: they are the outgrowth of royal treaties, conquest, and the misuse of resources. We should start with the natural ecological unit — the watershed — and replace the notion of provinces (US states) with those. I for example, live in the Hudson River Watershed. Locale is still relevant, so people still would be tied to San Francisco, or Beacon NY. And regionalism is still meaningful, but not necessarily the way today’s borders fall. And finally, we need to consider the world and its resources as a shared commons, and not spoils to be owned by the fortunate or wealthy. – Stowe Boyd, How the Postnormal Era Will Change Everything
It’s an observation that surfaces deep thought by people smarter than I’ll ever be: What are the geopolitical implications when future generations see themselves as members of a global, not national society? Will future generations live in a world that looks more like today’s Internet than a world defined by lines on a map? Will stock markets fall to global digital currencies? Will a common digital language overtake English as the lingua franca connecting us?
Like I said, big questions for big brains.
My goal is not to answer these questions, but to force us to think. To put our current belief in how the world works in a place that may not feel comfortable. It may even scare us a bit. I don’t think for a second that this is a topic that has a final answer. It is an evolutionary discussion. A discussion that forces us to re-think current economic and societal constructs. A discussion that makes us consider change in things many hold unchangeable.
When I started thinking about this topic, the concept of a fundamental change in the way the world works never even came into my head. It began, believe it or not, with a Thursday call from HR. You know those calls: the “company has changed direction and your role is no longer there” calls. It’s the life of a corporate rebel. In fact, if a corporate rebel does his or her job right driving the change they were brought in for, it’s a guaranteed call. Some would call it failure; those in my line of work? We call it success.
It was that call that spurred me to open my own consultancy, effectively freeing me from the shackles of time and location. As my own boss, I was able to work when I wanted, where I wanted. Technology allows me to stay connected from planes, trains, automobiles…and beaches, boats and bars. I’m no longer confined to timezones.
That’s an interesting concept, I thought. The idea that time and place no longer matter. Technology has made it so that clocks and timezones are, for the most part, irrelevant. Planes and Skype have reduced the requirement of location. Technology has created the most mobile generation in human history.
“Part of my generation’s identity is that we are the most interconnected in world history. Growing up with the internet has taught us that we are a community, not a group of individuals” @yeahbuhwha?
The Wright Brothers – perhaps as much as the inventors of the Internet – created a true global network.
Today, we even have fly-in housing.=
Imagine what this looks like once people like every corporate rebel’s idol, Sir Richard Branson, make commuting from New York to Shanghai as easy as driving across town to the office?
Or when Google launches its planned armada of blimps.
Alas, I quickly discovered I was not alone in my thinking about time and space.
As my good friend and former IBM colleague Tim Blair pointed out, time has been eroding for decades. IBM was doing Java applet work on a 24/7 basis as far back as 1996.
And Chris Lund, a guy I’ve known since kindergarden who oversaw the logistics and engineering of one of the U.S.’s busiest waterways for the Coast Guard, explained that:
“One of the first lessons the military taught me was the concept of the 24 hour workday. It’s nothing new for first responders and other shift working people. Sometimes I had day watches, sometimes I got up at 11pm for the 12-4 watch, sometimes (a few too many) I was up all night handling an emergency. The modern reckoning of time is a result of the railroads and telegraph. Prior to that, people observed Noon at their own specific locations because it is something very easy to determine (watch the sun rise and when it stops and starts falling – voila -that’s noon). So, although it may seem like time is now becoming irrelevant, for many industries, it hasn’t been relevant for years (other than to account for how long one worked).”
And then a former Apple and Microsoft developer, Reed Mangino, gave me an education in the economics of both time and location:
“If you were a NYC dweller in 1914 and wanted to speak, in real time, with someone in The City By the Bay (SF) your only option was to endure a grueling 84 hour train ride for an inflation adjusted price of ~$1500 (and that was for a one-way ticket). Note: the average yearly US income in the 1910s was roughly $800. But in 1915 the first US transcontinental phone call was made (NYC to SF). Today, for all intensive purposes, there is zero cost barrier to global communication.
What is the result of subtracting Cost from the communication equation? As Cost approaches zero Time approaches infinity (that doesn’t mean we have infinite time… it means that time itself is the barrier). Thus, Time is the only physical barrier to ceaseless global communication and we, via social contract, have incrementally began to agree that the value of Time (used to delineate periods of work and leisure) must be sacrificed.
In my opinion the question then becomes: is the “value” (a hugely amorphous term in this context) of constant communication greater than the value of how we get to appropriate our time, e.g. do I give up a Saturday afternoon with my family because that it is the best/only time I can talk to a global counterpart?”
So, there’s a nice historical component to this time thread. But could there also be a future counterpart?
That’s when a cycling partner of mine, Joel Skyzer, better known for his knowledge of local breakfast eateries, dropped this brain nugget:
“On the topic of time compression, I find it interesting that speed is the catalyst for the state change of mass into energy, and that as speed increases time slows down. Somehow in my peanut brain I conclude that increasing velocity eventually turns everything to energy and time stops…Big Bang. In light of recent findings that the expansion of the universe is speeding up, not slowing down, this makes some sense.”
Clearly, something is evolving in this time and space. So, already treading water in the deep end of the brain pool, last week I attended Eric Norlin’s Glue conference and mentioned this topic to one of those big brains, a guy named Mehdi Medjaoui who runs a company that uses technology to help data flow between applications. He took Joel’s future-think even deeper:
“In quantum physics we talk about states of atoms…the fact that you can be in many places in one time.”
As Spicoli or Bill and Ted may have said, “Whoa! Dude!”
Yet from a biz perspective, the reality of time’s handcuffs eluded me. Too many people define their worth in terms of an annual salary. My problem isn’t with the salary part of that phrase, it’s with the annual part. Business isn’t time-based. It ebbs and flows constantly. People limit their opportunities when they erect false barriers based on arbitrary walls of time.
Millennials get this. They are the first pure generation of digital nomads. A generation that appears to value culture over cash. It’s this new entrepreneur class — unburdened by time and place, emboldened by a seemingly greater sense of their role in a global community — that, to me, is the spark igniting the shift toward global citizenry. Not multinational corporations, as one would expect.
But where is this shift coming from? I think there are five forces driving it:
- Mistrust of traditional institutions. Not sure there’s much to elaborate on here. Though it does seem to now be a global mistrust focused on the growing influence of business on government.
- Easy access to tech. Driven in large part by the advent of cloud computing and cheaper devices.
- Fluid movement between borders. Not only aviation infrastructure, but also a yearning for cultural experience, coupled with a more globally-dispersed economy.
- Truly global communications. Cheap calls around the world. Increased telecommunications investment in Africa. The global net is becoming global.
- A common global language. The language of the Internet is becoming the language of the globe.
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized this shift wasn’t about business at all, but about society. It became a realization of something John Locke said: “Communities self form around ideas, interests and values.” That’s what we’re seeing. That’s the Big Bang of the demise of the nation state.
We can see it gestating in the Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring movements. And, perhaps most visibly, in its most vile form: terrorist organizations. Terrorism doesn’t have a nation state. It self-aggregates around a belief. Its citizens are bound by something that supercedes traditional physical and political boundaries. Location for these organizations is dispersed around the globe. In many cases, where a person was born is no longer a requirement for citizenship.
I am in no way advocating any of these movements. I am simply highlighting them as pre-pubescent examples of the dissolution of the nation state.
“Governments are too focused on democracy and rule of law. On Google Island, we’ve found those things to be distractions. If democracy worked so well, if a majority public opinion made something right, we would still have Jim Crow laws and Google Reader. We believe we can fix the world’s problems with better math. We can tear down the old and rebuild it with the new. Imagine Minecraft. Now imagine it photorealistic, and now imagine yourself living there, or at least, your Google Being living there. We already have the information. All we need is an invitation. This is the inevitable and logical end point of Google Island: a new Google Earth.” — http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2013/05/on-google-island/
And how do we know the nation state is dissolving, that this shift is happening? One only has to look at the state reaction to Bitcoin and Anonymous for early proof. Governments are freezing funds belonging to large Bitcoin exchanges. Has Bitcoin become the first legitimate threat to a broken and vulnerable global banking system? Does the distributed army of Anonymous and its success represent a threat to established military powers as wars become digital?
The nation state as we’ve known it is dissolving. Sovereignty is under fire. And that, as I stated at the beginning, opens new, uncomfortable lines of thinking:
- What does it mean to be a citizen of the Globe, not a state or country?
- How does a world of dissolving nation states operate?
- How do governments and businesses adapt in a world they no longer control?
- Or as Eric Norlin points out: do we go the opposite way toward some sort of hyper-localization?
I’ll leave you with a quote from Joel:
“Nationalism…Certainly one of history’s great tools for driving human behavior, outperformed only by religion in global history morbidity stats. In the land of egoic insanity, one must cling to such concepts to maintain identity. Without them, the center does not hold. With them, man is pitted against man in a fight to the death not over scarce resources needed to support life – but over man made scarcity that supports artificial wealth and unnecessary deprivation.”
Rajendra Sisodia, Conscious Capitalism.
Stowe Boyd, How the Postnormal Era Will Change Everything
Richard Florida, In Praise of Spikes
Stowe Body, We’ve Entered the Volatile Postnormal Stage of History
The Economist, Move Over
Mat Honan, Welcome to Google Island
Reddit, If the world was a massive supercontinent like Pangaea now, how would humanity be different?
Duncan Geere, Google blimps will carry wireless signal across Africa
Wiki Summaries, The World is Flat
Reddit, What countries do you think will still exist 1000 years and why?
Laura Petrecca, All work and no play? Mobile wipes out 8-hour workday
Timothy B. Lee, Four Reasons Bitcoin Is Worth Studying
Thomas L. Friedman, It’s a 401(k) World
Keith Bellows, The Passport is the New Diploma
JP Rangaswami, On habanero dosas, platforms and makers
BBC News, Global Flight Path Maps