Sunday, May 05, 2013

States and nations 3.0: Microstates

For 10,000 years the arrow of social evolution has pointed upwards.

It's steered us into larger and more complex groupings, moving us from tribes, to chiefdoms, to nations and modern nation-states. All that might be about to reverse course as new micro-manufacturing and onsite resource-harvesting technologies shatter the necessities of mass infrastructure and economic interdependence that have bound us together within our modern states.

Upwards...for Now

As a species, our polities have grown since the end of the last major glacial period. They reached their apex in sheer size with the European empires of the 19th century. Those conquest states then fell apart during the first half of the 20th. While we've seen a revision to firearms-backed cheiftanships in some failed states, and a few pockets of longstanding tribalism remain in both hemispheres, nation-states are presently the dominant form of human collectives.

But what if that's not the case in twenty, thirty, or fifty years from now? What if the arrow of societal evolution continues the downward trajectory it tipped over with the death of European empires and the Soviet Union. Will we see high-tech city-states and cyber-democratic chieftainships take their place? Are self-sufficient villages and independent households whose inhabitants produce everything they need to live with 3D printers, hydroponics gardens, and local or family power-generation systems our future?

Nations were originally products of conquests that turned collections of regional chieftainships into larger, if often fractious countries. Later, the infrastructural, resource, and administrative demands of industrial economies transformed them into modern, bureaucratized nation-states. The byzantine labyrinth of roads, canals, courts, labor-mediation, licensing, social services, and professional police forces that make stable industrial societies possible were simply beyond the ability of markets or earlier forms of social organizations to provide. But what if future technologies did away with that interdependence and the accompanying necessity for broad state oversight?

What if technology from here on out makes us less rather than more dependent on one another?

It's not likely to happen at the moment. Many of the candidate technologies are in their infancy. 3D printing is developing quickly, but it's still nowhere near cost-effective for producing large structures or complex devices. Hydroponics and urban food production are still dependent on significant rural inputs and haven't achieved anywhere close to the necessary scale, and technology in general remains dependent on sprawling power grids for electricity.

Food, Power, Fabrication

As time goes on, however, and 3D printers continue to rapidly improve at manufacturing a variety of goods with just a few basic ingredients, households may become less dependent on factories and power grids. Particularly if the primary component of fabrication turns out to be carbon in the near future - which we're already using for everything from car to bike chassis, and are on the verge of manufacturing batteries and electrical systems with.

Carbon, of course, can be harvested from the air.

That might sound more than a little optimistic, but  trees have been pulling the bulk of their biomass out of the air for some 200 million years now, and only a truly massive scale. The production of leaves alone draws in some tens of billions of tons of carbon from the sky each spring, transforming it from gas to living solids.  

Additionally, we're learning to use bacteria to produce exotic and useful biological compounds. Bacterial biosynthesizers could pump out anything from plastics and exotic raw materials for 3D printers, to pharmaceutics compounds within desktop units.

Power generation could also be poised to become a lot more local. High-efficiency solar cells, wind turbines, fuel cell technology, and carbon-based supercapacitors for electricity storage could end the dependency of both cities and households on grids.

Urban and household food production through hydroponics, gene-engineered food plants, or vat grown-flesh could also break or reduce our current network of food interdependence. Amateur and professional city-based agriculture have already become something of a fad in recent years. Down the line, circumstances ranging from space program technologies used in attempts to establish long-term off-world habitats, the necessity of dealing with the kind of decades- or centuries-long weather upheavals that have accompanied past natural climate shifts could force us to learn how to grow food inside stable man-made environments. Then there's always the potential of a multi-year volcanic winter to upend up the world of food production.

Self-sustaining high tech towns, households, and cities make for attractive vision of the future. While this model may sound more than a little Utopian, it's worth keeping in mind that our species has lived in largely self-sustaining communities for most of its existence. The past three or four thousand years of trade networks and our recent hyper interdependence are something of an anomaly, and it remains to be seen if they're truly viable in long run. Especially when faced with some of the global or cosmic from-the-sky catastrophes our species as endured before.

If nothing else, establishing long-term settlements elsewhere in the solar systems will eventually demand the ability for small to mid-sized communities to extract what they need to sustain themselves bodily and technologically from their local environment. Deployed on Earth, that same technology could transform terrestrial life into something both modern and much closer to the rural self-sufficiency that was long the norm for us..


Of course it's unlikely that we'll abandon living in nation-states without good reason. Especially since states have given us the most equitable distribution of political power and wealth ever seen outside of hunter-gatherer tribal life. An equality that comes without much of the instability and endemic violence associated with the tribal and chieftainship modes of governance.

That said, there are several possibilities that could drive the move to city-states and independent towns or rural regions.

The Internet

Just as the arrival of the printing press helped to break up conquest-based empires and aid in turning collections of princedoms and clans into nations -- as was the case for Germany, India, and Kurdistan among others -- the Internet appears to be strengthening regional and political-based identities, often at the expense of national ones. It's already helped to fuel political polarization here in the US. As regions continue to lose their ideological diversity and become associated with one pole of the political spectrum or the other we could see a push for each side to divest itself of the other's perceived cultural and legislative interference. At its extreme this could even include regional rural vs. urban splits. By way of example there are some significant differences politically between rural Northern California and much of the rest of the state, and similar disparities can be seen within other US states.

Then there is religion and ethnicity. The politics of ethnic, regional, and religious identities have already played a major role breaking up nation-states in the Post-Cold War world. Even Western Europe has its regional separatist movements, from Scotland, to Belgium, to Catalonia and the Basque country, to Brittany. That same drive toward smaller cultural communities appears to be accelerating in other regions around the world.

Related to that is...


There are plenty of individuals for whom self-sufficiency is an ideal here in the US. While I don't see that as being remotely practical in our complex and vastly interdependent present day economy, it may become a realistic possibility at some point in the future. If that's ever the case, I'd expect to see the emergence of some very passionate groups -- mostly on the right but some on the left -- working to roll back laws and regulations they see as a hindrance to self-sufficient communities. Or at least more so than their present day counterparts may already be trying to. Likewise, the technology of self-sufficiency could be a boon for ethnic and religious minority groups seeking independence for their traditional homelands elsewhere in the world, and drive them to adopt similar ideologies.

Surfing the Chaos

Another possibility is that nation-states might be too big and clumsy to adapt to what's on the way.

Technology is accelerating, and disruptive economic revolutions are coming faster and faster. The sixty-year period between our grandparents and great grandparents taming the formerly tumultuous industrial economy at the end of World War II, and the arrival of the disruptive early effects of the information revolution in the 2000s, was an eye blink compared to the long centuries or even millennia between earlier agricultural and paleolithic technology revolutions. At the moment we're still in what are probably the early days of the IT revolution, but nanotechnology and biotechnology are already drawing into sight. Imagine revolutions stacking up on top of one another, each one shaking up the rules of employment and investment. Each one making education and job skills obsolete so quickly that by the time laid off workers are done retraining they're once again unemployable.

Think about the kind of social upheaval that would bring about.

Faced with a single technological revolution it took nearly a century and a half of revolutions, street violence, activism, politics, and two cataclysmic wars before European social democracies emerged and were finally able to create stable industrial economies. Even in the US, where the open lands of the west served a social safety valve and a source of employment, labor violence and anarchist bombings and assassinations became issues from the 1870s up until the 1920s. Depressions and bank crashes remained problems until the 40s. The next time around societies might not have the luxury of a century or even decades to come up with answers.

Why? Increased firepower.

The industrial revolution placed tremendous power into the hands of small groups or even individuals. From compact explosives, to firearms that can kill dozens in just a few minutes, to cars bombs and or even unarmed hijacked airplanes, the power of an unstable teenager or a small cell of would be revolutionaries has never been greater. Additionally, cyberwarfare is generating software weapons that can be easily copied and operated by individuals and small groups. Weapons that have the potential to cause widespread disruptions to financial services and possibly damage critical infrastructure.

That's today, but what about tomorrow?

Biotechnology as well as nano and microbotics technology may ultimately continue the trend of distributing more destructive power to individuals through easily copied weapons of mass destruction. It's possible that in the near future desktop gene sequencers and garage 3D printers maybe able to churn out lethal pathogens and swarms of destructive microbots. It's not at all a comforting thought that the genome for Ebola is already available online, and there has been talk of posting the reconstructed variant of the Spanish Influenza flue virus as well.

Imagine a world in which the agitators, anarchists, and Utopians of the 1800s had access to those kinds of weapon. To keep social tension down and reduce the chances of radicalization or violence among the well-armed disaffected, future polities may have to be able to respond far quicker and implement significant changes much faster than nation-states have demonstrated themselves capable of to date.

Economic and social stability might be a matter of constant adjustment, including the occasional rapid shift.

Why more agile?

Why would city-states be better able to respond? In part, smaller populations, smaller bureaucracies, and greater ideological homogeneity. With less chance of polarized political deadlock, a greater sense of shared communal risk, and smaller government agencies, city-states could have faster response times and decision-making cycles. Maybe not in the tactical sense of dealing with individual emergencies, but rather in the political arena of debating and adopting new policies, and having those policies accepted with a minimum amount of protest by the public.

In an age in which radical shifts, major educational curriculum revisions, and big infrastructural changes are the norm, smaller, faster, better might be a dire necessity.

Additionally, smaller communities on the level of city-states might be well suited for making use of cyberdemocracy. Direct participatory democracy on some level might be an important part of securing citizen buy-in when it comes to important decisions -- even if that direct participation is a Kickstarter-like network of funding and resource sites that private parties use to fund supplemental research or to supply independent troubleshooters.

Meanwhile, small towns or rural regional governments might be likewise agile, or they might be small enough and well enough out of the way to sit out the chaos on the sidelines.


Total food self-sufficiency might remain outside the ability of cities to meet for a long time to come. In that case microstates in which cities remain tied to the surrounding countryside in a web of mutual economic and political interdependence are a possibility. Regional identity here in the US, or shared ethnic and religious ties in other regions might also facilitate this structure.

Another factor shaping hybridized polities is the question of how much work would total self-sufficiency involve? Would the maintenance and operation of 3D printers and biosynthesizers, the  upkeep of a dwelling, and overseeing food production systems demand eight or more hours a day from two adults? Would one adult be able to meet all of a household's basic needs, allowing the other to work outside the home in a specialist field like scientific research or education? Or would self-sufficiency take place at the level of extended family or a neighborhood with shared resources and systems? Does total food independence mean being able to produce specialty items like chocolate at home, or is home food a strictly bland fare of tube-grown potatoes, tank-raised fish, and plain greens? If it's the latter, currency and international or at least inter-regional trade will surely continue to exist, along with opportunities for work outside the home to earn money.

Who knows, maybe cities will have chocolate co-ops or indoor specialty farms built on an industrial scale in old industrial parks.

There's also the question of if a home will ever be able to produce a car, or will there always be a need for major consumer goods manufactured outside households? How about medicine? Will expert systems and home synthesized pharmaceuticals ever replace medical doctors? That's hard to see in the near future of the next few decades, though with sufficiently advanced robotics -- both micro and macro -- who knows. It's possible that the road to total self-sufficiency for households might be a long and uneven one of decades, or it might never fully arrive, just draw closer and closer with greater degrees of independence and fewer required outside inputs in material, parts, and expertise 

Technological Tribes?

There are a number of aboriginal peoples whose members might like to create self-sufficient tribal or chieftainship regions in a world of microstates, towns, and rural alliances. Though that might also be complicated by the fact that many, like most American Indians in the US, live in cities, and might not want to give up the urban lifestyle that they're accustomed to.

How about people whose ancestors have been living in settled agrarian societies for hundreds if not thousands of years? I can certainly see the appearance of ideological tribes. People and families with a desire to adopt the egalitarian social structure of tribes and move out to the countryside to live in communes and co-ops. There's certainly enough hippy communities here in Oregon already. Living on self-sufficient ocean-going vessels that extract minerals from sea water is another interesting possibility that could provide a feasible nomadic lifestyle. That said, I suspect people seeking to live in small settlements will probably not self-identify as tribes. As cool as it might be to see us explore updated version of our oldest forms of polities, the term has connotations and meanings that most people living in nation-states do not associate with themselves. Not yet at any rate...

Next up: The History of the Global State

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