Wednesday, July 31, 2013

States and nations 3.0: Mega states part 2

The modern nation-state emerged mostly in response to the upheavals and infrastructure demands of new industrial technologies. In the US, the process of political consolidation began during the Civil War to meet the needs of waging war on a massive scale. It continued on in the conflict's aftermath, during a thirteen-year attempt to end abuses of minorities by determinedly racist state and local governments. Almost a generation later, the turmoil of the industrial economy led to the creation of a layer of federal agencies to deal with currency instability, industrial regulation, bank collapses, consumer protection, and labor issues. Even more dramatic consolidations took place in the loose association of states that became Germany during the 1870s, and in feudal Meji Japan at the same time. Both were driven in part by ambitions to modernize and embrace the industrial economy, and both took notes from Britain's almost century-long industrial transformation.

Previously, we talked about transnational soft power organizations, like those that run the Internet, as well as global issues that could see the formation of similar groups who grow into powerful actors on the international stage. There are also other more politicized and centralized forms that future global or continental organizations might take.

Regional Confederacies

For close to half of its existence, the United States was referred to in the plural. The United States are negotiating a treaty with Great Britain. The United States have launched an expedition to combat the Barbary corsairs, and so on. There's a reason for this. The future nation spent its first decade as a loose confederacy of sovereign (and often quarrelsome) states, several of which predated the existence of the Union by a century, as largely self-governing British colonies. The maintenance of formal ties between the newly independent states in the late 1700s was driven in part by a desire to smooth the functioning of commerce, and also strongly motivated by worries of European military adventurism.

Fear of potential conflicts in a reordered near future world could provide a similar source of motivation for otherwise reluctant and independent states to band together. Conversely  a desire to avoid repeating devastating wars that have just come to an end has also served as a drive. Preventing a replay of the costly and tragic mistakes of the 20th century's first half was a major motivator behind the founding of the European Union, and its earlier economic- and coal-focused post-war predecessors. Another World War or the threat of one could bring about the creation of similarly large confederations and preventative pacts.

Imagine a Southeast Asian or Pacific version of the EU, created as cooperative defense and economic endeavor to offset heavy handed behavior by China in twenty years from now. Or as a response to a modernizing and outward-looking India in a couple of decades. Or one in South and Central America established rightly or wrongly in response to a perceived threat from the United States. Another possibility is a Pan-Arabic confederacy founded by activists and grimly determined politicians in the aftermath of a destructive internecine Islamic civil war.

Then there are the potentially disruptive issues discussed in the previous States and Nations article: the unregulated shadow banking economy, climate change effects, and high tech terrorism using cheap and easily copied weapons of mass destruction. These could serve as painful reasons for the creation of future confederacies or other tightly integrated pacts in which nation-states relinquish varying degrees of sovereignty.

Bio and Nanotech Unions 

Altering what it means to be human by creating individuals with enhanced physical and mental capabilities could prove to be hugely divisive. Artificial intelligences might have a similar effect, disrupting or radically altering economies and cultures.

Social and economic chaos created by the adoption of bio and nanotechnologies might also serve to drive the founding of continental or regional unions of states, further out in the future.  Likewise, the effects of nanotechnology could be so potentially destructive that many nations may want to outlaw the technology before it takes hold. Others might embrace both its risks and its transformative possibilities. Even a successful and peaceful transition to a nanotech economy and society by one nation may prove to be too frightening or disturbing for other cultures to tolerate - necessitating a banding together of like minded nations on the pro and anti sides of the issue. Or, nations that make the jump to the new technologies could find their societies and economies, and possibly even citizens so reconfigured that they require an intense degree of across the board cooperation to survive in a world of frightened baseline humans. Conversely, it could be unmodified humanity whose nation-states must mesh together to survive as an island of normality, or to compete with small clusters of transhuman states who live among them.

In a peaceful world, post- or transhuman collectives might organize geographically on the basis of shared goals and hopes for the future. On a more troubled Earth, the future could see the emergence of power blocks like NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and whose roots lay in ideologies created by the chaos of industrial technological transitions. Of course, with transfigured human beings, new means of interpersonal communications such as the ability to share memories or mind states may render any traditional notion of political collectives entirely irrelevant.

A Global Identity

Many of the issues outlined above could also help bring about the creation of a single global state. The UN was founded by the wartime Allies to help prevent future World Wars and to win the ongoing conflict against the Axis powers. Another such massive and destructive global conflict, or world-altering bio-nano issues, or a sufficiently large and daunting challenge, like dealing with an incipient super volcano eruption and its threat of a multi-year volcanic winter, could provide an even more ambitious impetus towards global collectivism.

Still, at this point in history it feels unlikely that even events on this kind of scale by themselves would lead to a replacement of our current states. As mentioned earlier in this series, the nation-state is the new tribe. Throughout much of the world it's the polity that most individuals accept as a major component of their identity. Which isn't surprising, as many present day nation-states emerged in regions of shared language, culture, and ethnicity. Conversely, many failed states and several of the nations plagued by ongoing internal strife were created as forced amalgamations of disparate peoples by the European imperial powers.

Any future global state would likely be in part the product of a dissolution or weakening of current national identities. There are a couple of factors that could bring this about.

More globalization: You can now find Starbucks across the world, from Vienna to Shanghai. That's a state of affairs that's been around for a little less than a generation. A hundred years down the road, assuming the current trend of homogenization continues, national identities may well erode to be a good deal more porous, as the universal presence of the same companies and goods sinks in. Tomorrow's middleclass cell-phone wielding, anime-watching children who grow up on the internet may feel they've got more in common with one another, even though they live in places as diverse as Austin, Bangkok, Guangzhou, and São Paulo than they do with the working classes of their own nations. In part, that might stem from all of those places having become increasingly similar, but also from transnational online subcultures that they've participated in from a young age.

The language barrier falls: Right now the Internet is a largely opaque collection of lingual blocks. Data frequency mapping of emails and messaging on the net produces distribution maps that look familiar to most linguists, with the vast majority of communications taking place between people who share the same native language.

The Internet, in a practical sense, is not all that international. Or at least not near as international as it could be. Technology may well change that. As translation software continues to improve, it's possible that people may be able to interact in real time by text and possibly even by voice, without the fear of their words coming across as crude or inadvertently hilarious. Such a new era of communications might well see the creation of websites with a global audience, providing new venues of interaction. It could also enable the rise of truly international sub-cultures. Consider a world in which North and South American, Chinese, European, Japanese, and Russian goth teenagers can all interact without a language barrier. Should future global political movements emerge, they might also be international in this environment in a way that their 19th century forebearers (labor, radicalism, abolitionism, anarchism, Post-Enlightenment liberalism, socialism) could have only dreamed of.

An even more global economy: If the current trend of an ever-more integrated and interactive global economy continues, the sheer volume of required on-line and even face-to-face communications could contribute to the erosion of national identities. Especially in a world in which global economic issues dwarf those of nations and regions.

While a corrosion or disappearance of national identities might be difficult to imagine, it should be kept in mind that they are relatively new creations. For much of the past two thousand years most humans have either identified themselves by tribal or clan associations, or the region in which they lived. Long-range travel was infrequent enough, and dialects strong enough, that even in the princedoms and city states that would one day become Germany and Italy, people could have a hard time making themselves understood outside their native region, talking to others who spoke what was nominally the same language. Getting information across often involved either Latin or the courtly version of German or Italian, or a traders dialect. While they often saw themselves as the subject of a king or other ruler, kings and kingdoms came and went as wars played out, and most viewed themselves first and foremost as the inhabitant of a particular town or portion of the countryside. A similar dynamic held true throughout much of the rest of the settled, agrarian world. That would not change until a gradual combination improved roads and canals, large national armies, printing presses, increased literacy, and above all increased frequency of travel helped bind together people who already shared confederacies of related dialects, religions, and other cultural traditions. A similar process could play out sometime in the future with either a global polity in a heavily globalized world, or with the species itself.

Next up: Global Empire

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Eight minutes of the awesome

A space shuttle launch, as seen from the point of view of a solid rocket booster, and with some amazing sound quality. The screaming of metal contracting, and the breathing that is the last of the solid rocket fuel outgassing during the "graceful tumble" phase on the edge of the atmosphere, just before the plunge back in, is especially intense. Whoever the audio engineers are, they did some masterful work capturing something of the sheer violence of leaving the atmosphere, and then the long drop back to the ocean.

via NPR

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Awesome short SF film

Wow. Cole Drumb nailed it with this animated short. It's an awesome four minutes of frenetically executed cyberpunk, falling somewhere between Aeon Flux and Akira. NSFW.

via IO9

If you like it, you should totally head over to YouTube, give it a thumbs up, and otherwise help build the online buzz.

Also, I was floored to hear the voice of EDI from Mass Effect leak through at the end. Sure enough, the reality warping post-human lady in the film is voiced by actress Tricia Helfer of Battlestar and Mass Effect fame. Apparently Ms. Helfer is your go to if you need a voice for a sultry cybernetic organism.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Hacking the brain: Embedded meaning

Yesterday, while poking around on YouTube, I came across a gorgeous visual music piece that pretty much nails what it's like inside my head on those good days when words are just flowing off my fingertips. Spheres and rays, and shifting colors, all rotating and dancing in response to the intensity and tones of the strings in Max Richter's "Infra 5." It gives an impression of all the interconnected variables in play while writing, especially when working on fiction, and most especially on a novel. All those elements acting on one another to produce a cascade of effects and evoked emotions with their own rules-driven choreographies and a little randomness thrown in.

Of course someone else might not see that all. At least not on their own without having it explained to them. Even then they might not see the likeness. And there's no actual information embedded in the display of shapes and motion. At best just an evoked impression of similarities.

She sighed and fell onto the bed like an autumn leaf tumbling from a tree branch. The car's tires shrieked like death itself as the vehicle skidded to a halt, just inches away...

Like, like, like.

But what if we could tweak our minds to embed and read information in a complex visual display like those dancing cosmic spheres, as automatically as our brains already do with spoken words and sentences. There's hardly any conscious thought involved on our part once we've learned a language, and we also do so to a lesser degree with visual symbols like written words. Though those take much longer and far more effort to learn than their spoken counterparts. Imagine if you could tell everything you needed to about a song by seeing a complex and reactive array of shapes and colors and light, and appreciate the song as fully as if you'd heard it just then. It could create an entirely new type of perspective and reveal new information or emotional responses not available to most people. Like flying above one's hometown for first time, an experience that creates a novel appreciation of scale and distance, and allows an airborne viewer to see patterns in buildings and traffic that are otherwise invisible while on the ground.

Other Brain Stuff this Week

Chimps, Orangutans Have Human-Like Memories - Wired Science:

'via Blog this'

In other news, there are articles popping up around the science news-o-sphere about a study that reportedly proves some species of great apes have human-like, highly integrated autobiographical memories. In other words, that they have a recall of past situations they've experienced, rather than just a recollection of objects and entities and some loose associations and spatial relationships between them. To remember navigating a maze you don't necessarily need to recall the experience of running through it - of all the emotions, and textures, and the floor beneath your feet, and what you were thinking about. All you need is the ability to recognize a few landmarks in relation to one another. In fact, we human beings use that same form of abbreviated memory more of than than not.

Ah!  Right at that corner.

This intersection looks familiar. Left here. 

After reading up on the study, it doesn't sound like there is conclusive evidence to definitively say that chimps and orangutans remember past situations, and not just elements within them.

That's not to say they don't. It's just a lack of cinching empirical data at this point.

The wetware behind autobiographical memory is a fairly recently evolved systems, with its roots potentially grounded in an older predecessor system. It's one that we use to reconstruct situations we lived through: the visual cortex rebuilding the sights, and its finished signals talking to the frontal lobe and the other sensory cortices like smell an audio-processing as they work together in tandem.

The large apes are our closest remaining kin, with big brains filled with some nifty and fairly new wetware. So it's possible they've either got an autobiographical memory system similar to ours. The Japanese snow monkeys I once worked with, living in large family groups, certainly had an immense recall of all things related to social situations and the behaviors of individuals. My suspicion, though, is that when it comes to the apes the matter won't be conclusively settled until we'v mapped all the pathways of our autobiographical system and compared it to the grayware within the heads of our cousins.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Military roundup: Thirteen years on

The Army has changed hugely since I left it. Some of it's organizational, but much of it is tactics and equipment refined by over a decade of combating insurgencies. Some of the new gear is positively science fiction. Or at least it would have been seen as science fiction prior to 9/11.

Courtesy of wikicommons

Body Armor: Didn't have it until Kosovo, when us scouts and other combat arms soldiers preparing to head there were issued the Ranger Body Armor system. Now, just about everyone has armor capable of stopping a 7.62 Kalashnikov round. That definitely beats the old flak vests, which would arrest shrapnel, but just slow down and add more flesh-cutting ballistic tumble to a bullet.

Open aimpoint sights: Most of my time in the Army I fired using the same kind of iron sights I'd grown up plinking plastic army men with in Nevada. Then, a year prior to leaving the Army, I got to fire with an open aimpoint scope on an M4 carbine. A big fat tube with a red aimpoint dot at the center, the new scopes do not provide magnification. Rather they allow a shooter to keep both eyes open, instead of closing one, or keeping both open but focusing on the front sight post, or any of the other classic techniques - good and bad - that limited peripheral vision and generally took up concentration that should have have gone to targets and the environment. Just look, see, and be aware of that red dot superimposed in your field of vision so long as as you maintain a good cheek-to-stock weld with the weapon.

Public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
 AN-PEQ laser system: Night fire used to much, much tougher than daylight engagements. Then came the rail-mounted infrared laser systems for the M4s and squad weapons systems like SAWs and M240s. Invisible to the naked eye, but distinct through helmet-worn night vision devices, the AN-PEQs pretty much took the work out of marksmanship after dark. Sweep the beam across the battlefield, touch it to the target, and that was just about that. I hit 40 for 40 the fist time I shot using the system on a range. No wonder insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq quickly conceded the night to US forces.

Public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The XM-25: It fires explosive rounds that airbrust over enemies hiding behind walls or inside foxholes. Laze a windowsill and fire through the window; the round will detonate a meter or two inside the room, midair, rather than expending most of its energy on the far wall.

It pretty much negates cover for anyone in range. So more than likely sometime in the next decade or so infantry combat will transition to emphasising concealment and staying hidden during firefights, as fixed defensive positions and built up structures lose much of their protective value. If that's not science fiction-ish, I don't know what is.

So why is this a future thing? Because the present day XM-25 is too big, too bulky, and carries too few rounds to be worth toting on the battlefield. But as the technology matures and lighter variants are incorporated into existing systems like rifle-mounted grenade launchers, vehicle-born grenade systems and chainguns, expect some significant shifts in battlefield dynamics.

Sensors: Prior to 9/11, the scout platoon I was assigned to in Germany had almost nothing in the way of long-ranged night vision systems. There were some broken thermal sights for TOW missile launchers that dated back to the end of the Cold War, which the theater arms depot had long stopped accepting for maintenance. The only 'functional' long range systems we had were some heavy and ungainly Vietnam-Era night vision rifle scopes. They let us see a good distance out on bright, star-filled nights. Anything less, and they were strictly close range, not much better than the night optic devices strapped to our helmets.

A lack of optics that could see far in reduced visibility conditions meant that at night, and even during good deal of daylight hours, it was necessary on foot or on a vehicle to get well within range of enemy weapon systems in order to conduct good reconnaissance. While there's a lot to be said for the arts of stalking, and dismounted and mounted infiltration, it's not necessarily the most timely way to go about gathering information in the age of fast-moving mechanized warfare - even if you can see things from the ground that are invisible or difficult to spot from the air. 

But now...
Public Domain, courtesy of the DOD
The Long Range Scout Surveillance System is a package of optical systems - night and day - bundled together with a laser range finder, and a GPS for pinpointing targets. And it's got Long Range in its name for a damned good reason.

I still drool every time I see one. Jeez, the toys the kids have these days... 

Other sensors include a proliferation of thermal and forward-looking infrared systems on a variety of platforms.

Public domain, courtesy of US Army
Drones: So you may have heard rumors that people have been sticking sensors and weapons on unmanned aircraft (technically remotely piloted vehicles rather than drones), and flying them over battlefields during the past ten years. OK, you've probably heard a lot more than rumors. The Army has gotten its own remotely controlled ground systems, used for everything from exploring caves in Afghanistan to disarming roadside bombs in Iraq. 

Networks: The Army has fielded a plethora of battlefield networks over the past few years. Everything from the Blue Force Tracker location system; the voice, email, and visual information sharing networks of the Army's Stryker brigades; to the very lean and mean networks created by special operations soldiers using modified Android phones.While there have been some stumbles, for the most part the new networks have drawn rave reviews from soldiers, and allowed for enhanced unit agility, operations tempos, and intelligence sharing. An example of this is the ability of Stryker force commanders to gather intelligence during raids, then plan and quickly execute improvised followup missions using networks to distribute new mission-specific map graphics and other visual aids, without the need to pull in subordinate unit commanders to conduct a time-consuming face-to-face meetings. This has been a component of the fusion of operations and intelligence functions that I've written about previously, which may ultimately prove to be as much of a military transformation as the adoption of mechanized warfare. 

Public Domain, courtesy US Army
Automated defense systems: A combination of automated weapons, sensors, and a network,  the Army's Kraken (a.k.a the Combat Outpost  Surveillance and Force Protection System), generated several cheesy journalistic headlines when deployed to Afghanistan to help defend one of the last US forward operating bases during the ongoing drawdown. The advantages and disadvantage of such a system are fairly straight forward. Machine vigilance and unflagging attention vs. reliability issues, false alarms, and the idea of giving a computer system the ability to make shoot, no-shoot decisions. Nothing sticky or tricky there. Still, this is one technology package that I foresee a lot more of in the near future.

In Hindsight

Most of the new gear has added to or extended the capabilities of units and individual soldiers. Still, not all of the new equipment was well received or even beneficial. In some cases it was lethal to the wrong people. The adoption of the digital camouflage ACU uniforms cost American lives. Light in color, the one-pattern-fits-all 'universal' camouflage stood out badly in many environments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Marines refused to adopt them, and units belonging to the Army's special operations community shunned them outside of garrison for the sake of their soldiers' lives. Eventually new MultiCam uniforms, close to the Marines digital print uniforms, were adopted for units headed down range.

Additionally, methods and tactics sometimes lagged behind in critical areas, especially in Iraq, where the Army found itself in the middle of an intense urban insurgency throughout much of the country. One of the more tragic of these was a failure to develop and promulgate an effective set of checkpoint procedures early in the war. The combination of suicide bombers, vehicle-born explosives, dense populations, and the inability to spot bombs until just seconds before an attack, led to numerous checkpoint shootings by American soldiers. While some units developed methods and equipment packages individually, widespread adoption of an effective system wasn't put into action until the implementation of General Petraeus' counter insurgency strategy. Prior to then, dozens if not hundreds of civilians were killed, adding to the anger and fear directed against American soldiers by the civilian population, and hindering the effort to combat al-Qaeda in Iraq, as well as sunni and shia militias.

As Iraq fades in the Army's corporate memory, and Afghanistan quickly winds down, it will be interesting to see which sets of tactics and methods linger, and which are forgotten. The Army has been notorious in the past as an institution that actively forgets anti-insurgency doctrines in order to focus on the kinetic force-on-force battles that define the organization in the eyes of many of its officers and NCOS. Whether the lessons of the two recent wars will remain incorporated in doctrine and training or be otherwise preserved remains to be seen. The new technologies and gear, however, almost certainly embody the start of a shift that will transform the military as much as industrial technology did during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

X-47B Makes Drone Carrier Landing

Video: X-47B Makes First Ever Drone Carrier Landing | Defense Tech:

'via Blog this'

It still boggles my mind that the Navy is leading the way in  researching air combat drone technology, while the Air Force is sitting idly on the sidelines, sending out a request for proposals for a manned 6th generation air-to-air platform. Then again, considering that the Air Force failed to field a full contingent of its 5th gen fighter (a plane with a toxic air filtration system responsible for at least two crashes), the rampant cost overruns of the joint services ground attack plane, and that the organization utterly choked on delivering a low-altitude anti-insurgency attack craft in time for either of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (the latter being the longest in US history), I guess no one should be surprised.

But damn, what happened? Once upon a time, not all that long ago, this was an institution known for its competency and getting things done under near impossible conditions. Now it can't even successfully deliver a new fleet of aircraft,  or pursue the most relevant lines of new technologies. And this is one of our key players for the coming decade or two in the Pacific? Yikes.

At this point the only thing I can say is, Go Navy! Someone has to be responsible for taking us into the future.

Update: July 16

U.S. Air Force buys 20 propeller-driven attack planes | Killer Apps:

'via Blog this'

Well, it looks like the Air Forces at long last was finally able to purchase existing counter-insurgency attack plans in order to hand them over to the Afghan air force. Better late than never...I guess?

Friday, July 12, 2013

Artificial Chromosomes

How Artificial Chromosomes Could Transform Humanity:

'via Blog this'

The popular science fiction website I09 has a thought provoking article up on adding an artificial 24th pair of chromosomes to the human genome to serve as a platform for genetic enhancements. It's a cool idea, though I'm not sure how that would affect having offspring with other humans born with the normal 23 pairs.

Running government like the Internet

An outstanding short talk on incorporating apps and crowdsourcing software into government structures. That, and possibly remodeling government so that it resembles the open model used to run the Internet. One of the most interesting aspects to this ongoing debate and evolving body of ideas is the notion of treating government "not as an ossified institution, but as a means for collective action" at a time when crowdsourcing and social media have already made collective action on a local level easier and cheaper than ever before. Particularly when it comes to allowing people with similar interests and levels of motivation to find one another.

While human politics isn't likely to change baring some major biotech or gene engineering innovations, the IT revolution is opening up all sorts of possibilities for new structure of governance. Of new and potentially streamlined forms of all the bureaucratic machinery that actually gets things done, from defense to sewage and roads and schools. Previous technological revolutions gave us hierarchies of professional priests who doubled as scribes and mediators; medieval courts with kings and appointed nobles versed in administering law; and 19th century-style bureaucracies made possible by industrial organizational methods and manufactured goods like typewriters, telephones, telegraphs and trains. Software, social media, and digital networks hold similar transformative possibilities for us in the present, if we care to use them and start in the long and sometimes bumpy road of evolving a governance system to match our new technological age.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Cross Sections of Bullets

Look at These Amazing Cross Sections of Bullets | Wired Design |

'via Blog this'

Some pretty photos that show the internal complexity of modern munitions. That, and highlight that strange and often troubling relationship between aesthetics and weapons.

A relationship that still bothers me at times.

There are number of weapons systems that are beautiful. Both the elegance of a simple and ruthlessly functional appearance, and also conceptually. Military systems do not exist in a vacuum of ideas. Instead they fill evolutionary niches within the ecology of platforms whose coverage of the battlefield can be divided up among many different functionality concepts. Direct fire and indirect fire. Assault or squad support. Smart or dumb; aimed and single shot; or area and surpressive fires. Manpack, man-carried, light, heavy, vehicle born / mounted. Anti-armor, anti-personnel, anti-material, soft kill, hard kill, non-lethal, anti-riot, area denial.

Once you know how to see a battlefield in terms of low- and and high-friction maneuver corridors, zones of cover and concealment, communications dead zones and electronic warfare high grounds, all those different types of weapons become tools to shape underlying dynamics of the battle space. Rather than passively accepting effects that the physical and electronic terrain of the air and ground impose, you can tweak and actively play them against the enemy to generate some truly negative synergies. Perfect Storms in a bottle, which come about through the precise application of force delivered through an optimized vector. That in itself is a thing of beauty in the right adrenaline-fueled life-and-death context.

Then again, as mentioned above, weapons do not exist in a vacuum, and the relationship between their beauty and the rest of the world is a disturbing one once you've seen them in action. There are effects that are permanent and unalterable by further human agency, or largely untouchable by mitigation or attempts at remediation. My time spent in the Balkans let me observe some of those, and how earlier ones had rippled down to haunt subsequent generations.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

States and nations 3.0: Mega states Part 1

Once a part of the Post-World War II political landscape, the idea of a global state has largely vanished from serious discussions in politics and science fiction over the past few decades. Still, the overall long-term trend for the past 8,000 years has been towards larger and more complex human societies and governance structures.

So what kind of crises could drive the emergence of global or continental successors to the nation-state in the next century or two, and what might those new polities look like? Would they be akin to empires, or something wholly new? The emergence of new types of societies and styles of governance in the past has typically taken place when new technologies and organizational types allowed one group to conquer and absorb their neighbors. Or as a response to technology-driven social turmoil and infrastructure demands that markets and previous forms of government failed to address.

A crisis severe enough to see a transfer of political power from multiple nation-stats to a continental or global entity would either have to be earthshaking in nature or be subtle and gradual.


The nation-state is the new tribe. It's the level of organization that much of humanity identifies with - often because it's associated with durable ethnic and cultural identity issues. Low voter participation in European Parliamentary elections and the traditional reluctance of European voters to surrender national sovereignty to the EU during popular referendum votes is a case in point. At the same time,the EU appears to enjoy its strongest support in those European nations that suffered the worst violence World War II.

Shapes and Forms 

There are several forms that large post-nation state polities could take.

Transnational soft power organizationsAt present the the Internet is largely run by a series of non-profit corporations that have for the most part managed to stay out of the limelight. They work by having open world-wide memberships of individuals and organizations, and are governed by small boards. They also handle an array of fairly specific technical issues and have been adept avoiding major political controversies when possible.

In part they've managed to retain their independence and sidestep politicization because of the sheer complexity of TPC/IP issues - the stack of standards and protocols that allow computers to talk with one another through the Internet. The Internet is important enough that one one wants to break it (so far), and it's so Byzantine that the current world political order hasn't had the courage to mess with it. Of course it's also helped that these committees were in place well before the Internet was on anyone's mind outside a very limited slice of American academia.

Future infrastructural or regulatory issues might see the rise of similar committee-steered, open organizations that could overlap with the political realm. Particularly if they address complex issues with severe consequences that nation-states prove to be unable to grapple with in our globalized world. Given enough time and a gradual, creeping authority over highly technical areas that have an growing impact on economies and daily life, such non-profits and NGO entities might evolved into major centers of soft power or a transnational network of independent and highly specialized governance institutions whose competence with arcane but critical issues gives them a narrow but deep sway.

Among such issues are:

Transnational banking and the shadow economy. During past few decades of vast sums of wealth have been transferred into the off-shore banking sector. The figures appear to be in the trillions of dollars, and ranges up US$21 trillion according to some estimates. This tax avoidance has contributed significantly to US and European national debts, as well as being used for money laundering by terrorist organizations and organized crime. Additionally that wealth also appears to be largely stagnant, with little of it finding its way into investment. In other words it's a significant drag on the global economy.

If nation-state are unable to stanch the outflow individually they may find it necessary to establish an organization to combat or regulate this sector of the world's economy. Particularly if at some point off-shore banking contributes to a global economic-collapse or depression, just as unregulated banks did with national economies during 1880s and early 1900s, and deregulated ones did in 2008 in the US, Iceland, and Ireland. Or conversely, the off-shore banks themselves may end up demanding a regulatory body at some point if a bank within that loose network defaults due to internal corruption and causes significant damage to its peers. That, or if they suffer major, persistent losses due to cybercrime. It's an often forgotten fact here in the US that major corporations during the late 1800s were some of the loudest proponents of setting up federal regulatory agencies. That advocacy took place after a series of lethal incidents involving shoddy manufactured goods and spoiled processed foods tarnished the image of American products in the all-important markets of Europe at the height of European wealth and global power. Shades of toxic Chinese drywall and poisonous pet food anyone?

Biological, nano-tech, and cyber-weapons. Technology continues to place greater and greater amounts of destructive power in the hands of individuals, small organizations, and even small nation-states that have traditionally lacked the expertise for home-grown weapons of mass destruction. Readers of this blog will no doubt be well acquainted ad nauseum at this point with issues ranging from Iran's ongoing assault on the US banking sector, to the destructive spread of biological and microbot weapons of mass destruction in an age of 3D printers and desktop gene sequencers and compilers. Should the worst come to pass, today's international black market for nuclear weapons material and knowledge may end up looking like a crude and clumsy precursor to tomorrow's ultra-efficient online trade of software designs for basement-manufactured WMDs. Both the League of Nations and UN were set up to prevent more wars between nation-states in the aftermath or closing phases of catastrophic wars that killed tens of millions. A wave of mass casualties from the use of cheap, near future weapons of mass destruction could provide the impetus for a transnational organization that targets non-state actors as well as states that hold such weapons.

Climate change: Our Earth is heating up. Glaciers are retreating and global temperatures continue to climb. Oceans are acidifying as they absorb a portion of an atmospheric carbon load not seen in over three million years; they're also rising due to both thermal expansion and melting polar ice. The overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence is that human industry and power generation are the primary drivers. While most of the current climate change models do not indicate a level of alteration that will threaten human existence or pose a direct threat to technological civilization, there remains the potential for much economic chaos and human displacement. Extreme weather events look set to continue growing more common, and the coastlines where nearly half of humanity lives are also likely to be subject to increasing levels of inundation. It's an issue that nation-states have lacked the effective will to address. It's also one that shows no sign of being tamed as developing nations continue to industrialize and many first world countries shift from nuclear to coal and other hydrocarbon fuel sources. As future generations deal with the escalating effects over the course of this century, transnational organization that either regulate greenhouse emissions or work to capture them are one potential solution.

Orbital issues: For decades space has been an area of intense international cooperation covered by one-off voluntary agreements and partnerships between nations, as well as an array of international treaties. This could intensify with the construction of habitats and asteroid mining stations in Earth orbit, as well as helium extraction facilities on the moon. One of the most pressing issues to deal with are the clouds of orbiting debris and dead satellites that pose a threat to inhabited structures. It's entirely possible that the future inhabitants of an Earth - Moon orbital halo could find their lives shaped more by a regulatory agency set up to ensure the safety of this volume of space than by terrestrial governments. As time goes by, that entity would be in a position to evolve into a confederacy of habitats or a kind of meta-state.

Networks and Diffusion 

One of the more interesting mid-range scenarios for me is one in which nation-states have largely atrophied and political power is primarily split between local and global entities. Major wars between nation-states that kill more people than car crashes (or epidemics prior to automobiles) have become increasing rare since World War II, and crime rates within most developed nations are so low as to be unlike anything seen before in history or pre-history. In large part this is because much of humanity now lives in nation-states and urban environments with professional police forces, as well as a web of international trade treaties and global markets that have ensured that nations no longer have to go to war to secure access to critical resources.

It might not feel like it looking at the news sometimes, but our species has hit a nadir of violence.

If the trend that brought us here continues, even as critical regulatory and major infrastructure issues increasingly grow beyond the practical comprehension of politicians, it's possible that a loose network of technocratic international agencies could end up handling important international issues of global trade, communications, space, and transnational terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. At the same time 3D printing and localized urban and home food production could undermine the economic interdependence that bureaucratized nation-states were created to manage. Our future could be one of planetary networks and local or regional cyberdemocracies.

Next up in States and Nations: Megastates Part 2
  • Continental confederacies
  • Global states and the software-driven erosion of cultural blocks
  • Empires redux 
  • Trans- and post-human mega collectives 

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The MERS plague

The Middle East Plague Goes Global - By Laurie Garrett and Maxine Builder | Foreign Policy:

'via Blog this'

A scary and frustrating article over at Foreign Policy about a recently emerged respiratory infection with a 50% mortality rate, and that spreads person to person. It also has a proven ability to infect hospital personnel despite safeguards. That lethality and virulence and the lack of any treatment is the scary part. The frustration is stems from the fact that apparently a Dutch research clinic that received a sample from some Egyptian scientists. The clinic then went on to sequence and patent the virus' genome. Now that patent is slowing down efforts to combat the outbreak by encumbering samples of the virus with legalities.

Just when I thought patent issues couldn't get any crazier...