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?
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.
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
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