Thursday, February 07, 2013

States and nations 3.0: Scale and the arrow of evolution

Topical Reading

The information age has yet to spawn a new type of human collective. No cyberdemocracies - vulnerable or resilient - for us so far, and to date no one has been oppressed by a totalitarian government built around intrusive software networks that treat human beings as peripheral hardware devices.

The lack of radical change isn't too surprising at this point. It's still early days by the standards of past agricultural and industrial revolutions. It took several decades for industrial technologies to generate the kind of catalyzing economic and social turmoil that rocked Europe and North America during the 1800s. Nor has it delivered radical new types of infrastructure comparable to rail roads and freeway networks, which greatly reduced the impact of geography and distance on commerce and travel.

With that said, there are signs of change on the horizon.

There is a growing acknowledgment that the previously stable middle class professional jobs are being lost not just to globalization, but to software automation, even as accelerating robotics continues to hollow out employment in manufacturing. We may already be facing an economy like those of the 1800s, in which the number of warm bodies outnumbers available jobs.

If economic-driven social upheaval or new infrastructure types--asteroid mining or local, 3D-printer based manufacturing, for example--necessitate making big changes to our societies, will we simply adapt existing nation-states to new realities, or will we remake our collectives, as our ancestors did during previous economic transformations? And if we create something new, will it be larger or smaller than the nation-state?

Past Arcs

Since the end of the last major glacial period, 10,000 years ago, until the latter half of 19th century, the arrow of societal evolution has largely flown upwards towards increased complexity and larger scales. Much of that growth in both populations and sophistication came from successive improvements in agriculture. Food surpluses supported growing numbers of people, and also made it possible for individuals to earn a living as non-farm laborers, craftsmen, and professionals. These specialists created infrastructure like roads, long distance canals, public irrigation projects, and a crafts-based manufacturing sub-sector within farming economies.

Several of these technological and food production shifts also helped to drive the creation of new types of societies. Early advances in agriculture and craft manufacturing helped move us from simple tribes to much larger chieftainships, and then to city-states with never-before-seen population densities and specialized governance systems. The industrial revolution gave us the modern bureaucratized nation-state, which is vastly larger and more complex than its predecessors.

While much of the increasing size of polities can be attributed to growing agricultural populations, some of it came from conquest. There are exceptions (usually involving protective mountain ranges or vast swaths of deserts or grass lands), but typically larger agrarian societies have conquered and absorbed neighboring pastorialists and hunter-gatherer tribes.

Industry at War

During the 1800s, those European societies that were absorbing the turbulent burnt of the Industrial Revolution gained a level of military power unmatched in earlier history. Some of these same nations had previously succeeded in subjugating many New World tribal societies and empires that been terrifyingly vulnerable to Eurasian diseases--such as smallpox and measles. Now, with reliable factory produced firearms and steam power they were able to conquer previously unbeatable chieftainships, city-states, and princedoms, in Africa, Central Asia, and Oceania, and even challenge much larger, long-established states in East Asia, such as China and Japan.

For a short span of decades, much of the world was ruled from London, Paris, and Berlin. During that period, this set of empires surpassed nation-states as the apex of human collectives in terms of sheer size--both geographically and as percentages of the Earth's populations.

The Arrow Pivots

And then they crumbled away, challenged by emergent nationalism among the conquered, and at home by changing norms and activism. Where previous empires of conquest had endured for centuries, those built in the 19th century vanished in a matter of decades.

Some scholars and pundits, like Robert Wright, have argued that it was the printing press that ultimately killed the multilingual empire. The ability of private groups and individuals to cheaply produce pamphlets and books helped to create common national identities. From the mishmash of German-speaking princedoms in Central Europe, to the tribal territories of Kurdistan and the patchwork subcontinent that would one day be India and Pakistan, individuals began to identify themselves less with regions and extended clans, and more with nations based on shared languages and cultures. Nations that would not let themselves be dominated by outsiders, and that unlike tribes and clans could effectively resist European conquerors.

The fall of Europe's empires, the disintegration of ethnically divided former colonies, and the implosion and subsequent crumbling of the Soviet Union and some of its Warsaw Pact client states created several discrete waves of larger states and empires breaking apart into smaller entities. At the moment, the most recent pulse of Post-Cold War devolution appears to have largely petered out, leaving a relatively stable constellation of nation-states punctuated by pockets of tribalism.

Up or Down?

Whether or not any new forms of human community emerge in the next few decades will depend on a combination of the new technologies and how they're employed. There are scenarios that could result in a scaling up of polities, a paring down, even a move towards extremes in which regions, cities, and vast international organizations supplant nation-states as the primary actors on the world stage.

In the next States and Nations article we'll go big small. I'll sketch how issues such as unstable international financial markets, the anonymity and potential destructive power of cyberwarfare, and an acceleration of the current proliferation of weapons of mass destruction could result in the consolidation of power on a global scale. Along with the classical world state, we'll take a look at the potential for confederations and federations of nations, as well a world dominated by nation-states sharing power with supranational entities.

After, that, we'll go small, and look at some scenarios in which 3D printing and localized power production has created a world in which city-states or even villages can be self sufficient.

Go to: States and Nations 3.0: Microstates

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