Tuesday, December 31, 2013

States and Nations 3.0: Global Democracy

The establishment of a hemispheric or global empire, with all of the bloodshed or at least repression that have accompanied earlier conquest states is one possible scenario for the rise of a successor model to the modern nation-state. At the same time, many of the factors we've looked at previously in this series leave room for hope for us and our children. Somewhere between the possible return and up-scaling of empires and a devolution of nation-states into micro-polities there are other less dramatic but still transformative possibilities.

A globe-spanning democracy is one of them.

Top Down or Bottom Up?

While out of fashion and far-fetched in the current age of widespread ethnic and religious strife, the kind of centralized top-down, UN-like model of global governance dreamed of by statesmen, futurists, and commentators during the aftermath of two World Wars in the mid-twentieth century could enjoy a revival if another global conflict or a planet-wide disaster threatens our species. Crises demanding an unprecedented world-wide mobilization, ranging from a rumbling super volcano and looming volcanic winter, to massive solar flare activity, chronic terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, or endemic recessions and depressions in a planetary economy that has become even more integrated, could all serve as catalysts for the kind of statecraft that would be needed to thread together a world of seven billion or more squabbling human beings.

Or, a kind of network of planet-scaled democracy could come from the bottom up. One possibility touched on earlier in this series are soft-power international organizations like those that run the Internet gradually taking on more and more governance functions in a near future where everything from file transfers to drug transactions have taken on a global character - or at least more than they already have over the past decade. Widespread destructive online terrorism and economy-destabilizing cybercrimes, or fiscal instability or planet-wide depressions triggered by offshore banks beyond the reach of conventional regulatory bodies could all serve as drivers for the aggregation of power in the hands of such organizations.

Eventually these institutions might surrender their leadership or at least oversight to varying degrees of democracy.


One of the more intriguing scenarios is as world in which 3D printing and other emerging fabrication technologies, along with automated resource gathering in the form of  harvesting carbon from the air, the cheap and easy biosynthesis of exotic materials using engineered bacteria, and advances in local food production, all obviate the regional infrastructure and regulatory necessities that created our present bureaucratized states. A world where the basics and even some of the luxuries of modern life can be produced with reasonable speed and effort at home might be an odd hybrid of local communities, city-states, and networked international soft-power organizations powered by Kickstarter style donations, user fees, or targeted taxes.

Not that I'm advocating for the demise of the nation-state. As mentioned in an earlier post, no other form of human polity has done so well in meeting the social challenges of industrial economies. Where states with low corruption hold sway, they've created an unprecedented level of broad prosperity, helped win and safeguard civil rights, and even more importantly, they've made possible a day-to-day freedom from the revenge killings, intimidation, and the kind of violent low-level resource struggles that have characterize much of our species' time on Earth.

Identifying Global

Democracy tends to function most smoothly in societies in which a majority of the population share a common culture or sense of identity. It can be rocky - famously and violently so - in places where such a unity is lacking. There are exceptions to this. The United States presently enjoys an almost non-existent level of political violence despite having a religiously and ethnically diverse population - in part because its settlement and founding period played out during a time of backlash against sectarian violence in what is now called the Western World. Even the past decade of polarization and political drift from the center has produced little in the way of violence.

Still, the current levels of religious and ethnic violence that plague some of the world's more diverse democracies would seem to argue against the global sense of identity necessary to a planet-scaled democracy taking root. Stable societal identities are either based on shared niche beliefs, blood, and traditions, or in some regions for the past century and a half, nationhood.

But nations, have not always been nations. Not in their modern sense as a unit of identity. It's only very recently in our time on this planet that humans have come to identify with nationality rather than a clan or village. Just as national identities gradually came into being over the past two centuries during the age of telegraphs, extensive road and canal building, and cheap printing presses, we may be witnessing the rise of nascent global identities with the generations growing up on the internet. These cohorts are coming of age in a world in which global brands and entertainment franchises are more pervasive than ever.

Not that this isn't the first decade in which such a vision has been brought up. During the dawn of the Jet Age there was similar talk as brand names in fast food, airlines, and automotive manufacturing became global icons. Fifty years on, we still don't have a global identity, but at the same time entertainment from anime to an international array of computer and console games, films, food, and coffee chains have achieved a significantly deeper penetration into everyday life. Daily communications between people living around the world have also become common. When I was a teen, talking with a  friend in Sweden was a dollar-per-minute phone call that I looked forward to all month. As an adult, I comment without second thought on Facebook walls of friends in Europe almost daily from here on the West Coast, and can participate in a mailing lists and discussion groups whose members live scattered across the planet.

Many of the present day commonalities of identity - shared entertainment, frequent recreational communications, and common-interest friendships - may become even more international in nature when a new generation of accurate, real time text and audio translation software breaks the language group barrier. Presently the bulk of online communications and cultural interchanges all take place within spaces that mirror the physical world's distribution of languages.  

With these changes and impending changes, we could soon see the emergence of age cohorts identify more with a world civilization and economy than the nation-states they reside in. Here in the present day US, we still have attachments to the states we live in, but our identities for the past century or so have grown more bound up in the nation than the region. Eventually the nation-state's hold could recede, much as the local states' did starting in the late 1800s in favor of a larger level of culture and social organization as a natural response to scaling up changes in economic and social institutions.

Or not 

This scenario is based on a continuity of current globalization and technology trends without significant interruption or catastrophic disruption. The Western World on the eve of World War I was similarly bound together by the threads of international finance, an international scientific community, telegraphic communications, and steamships. The level of economic and even cultural integration was seen as being so high that several pundits declared that a conflict between the great powers had become impossible.  In the aftermath of the war and its follow up conflict, it wasn't until the early 1970s that global trade reached its Pre-World War I tonnage. An online war fought with malware that exploits the interconnected nature of the Internet could have a similar, debilitating effect on communications and cultural interchanges for years into the future.

A global identity could also be complicated by ethical shades of gray. Most of the participants in these trends of daily international communications, mutually beneficial economic transactions, and common entertainments are members of the middle and upper classes. It's possible that tomorrow's suburban and urbanite children in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Eastern and Western Europe, Japan, Korea, Mexico, and the US could end up having more shared interested in common with one another in a post-language divide world than they do with the working classes whom they live alongside in geographic space.

All kinds of potential tensions and conflicts could open up along those fault lines.

Idealists and the Weight of History 

If a successful global democracy sounds a little too rosy as an outcome for current trends, consider the following. If you're reading this blog (according to the Google Analytics at any rate), chances are you live society given form and shape by well-meaning statesmen and dedicated activists during the past two centuries. The sacrifices of soldiers may have won or preserved your liberties depending on where you live, but it was the idealists who invented and gave your society almost all the positive attributes you enjoy, if not appreciate, today.

If you're a citizen of a democracy, the governance structure that rarely intrudes on your daily life was dreamed up by amateur intellectuals, professional clergy, and natural philosophers from the late 1500s into the 1800s. It's one that leaves you free from the whims of kings, secret police, the medieval or Roman-like public execution and torture of political dissidents, and involuntary terms of military service spent in pursuit of conquest. Governance by rule of law rather than cliques of nobles grew from collection of visions dismissed by realists and cynics alike, but which slowly became our reality through long struggle and cultural evolution. The realization of this family of dreams may not be perfect - we have a ways to go as far as protecting minority rights or maintaining the degree of widespread economic property enjoyed by two Post-World War II generations - but it's a system of political liberties and freedom from scarcity that most of humanity over the past 100,000  years could barely have believed possible.

Such organized hopes and visions from the  past make up much of our lives today, even if we normally lack the historical perspective to appreciate that fact. Likewise, what we strive for in our societies today and envision for the coming generations can help shape events and outcomes for the better long after we've departed this Earth. Whether that means supporting visions of the next form of society as a global governance network, or a mega state of egalitarian flavor, or local, self-sustaining communities successfully riding out the next wave of technological challenges, idealism is a powerful current in history that cannot be dismissed when looking forward.

Next up, the final article of this series: States and Nations - Transcending Cultural Evolution

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Year In Music

Somehow I missed this understated 80s-flavored science fiction film when it came out, but I've gotten copious millage out the soundtrack since discovering it. Some of the best fiction and technical writing sustainment music I've had to work with in several years.

And at long last VNV instantiated another album.

Crystal Castles, who also helped to keep the writing music queue full of sustained intensity.

The local music scene here in Portland continued to offer sublime minutes.

Speaking of Portlandia...

And there was more Amanda Fucking Palmer, also at long last.

At at really long last, almost sixteen years after their previous studio album, Mazzy Star - who are the soul of rainy days and dream-like reveries - reappeared. Despite all the meanwhiles gone by between projects, Seasons of Your Day is nearly a perfect continuation of their sound. A natural evolution that feels like it's been three years and not almost two decades.

Max Richter's Infra was an achingly good journey of modern composition. Particularly "Infra5". That track is everything you've ever wished Classical music was.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Historiography: Near and far views

For somewhere in the mid-twentieth century...history at last blends into the clamorous world of current affairs. Time's locomotive slows and the broad horizons of the past are obscured...Gathering up his cherished omniscience, the historian must get down from the air-conditioned express with its tinted windows, cross the tracks, and elbow his way aboard a slower, noisier train whose windows have no glass, and whose doors are never closed.

With nose pressed against a knobby reality, the historian soon makes a disconcerting discovery: He has just been downgraded to the role of an observer, just another one of those contemporary chroniclers whose testimony he has so often found wanting... 
~John Keay, India: A History

Keay's observations on the differences between the field of history and the study of current affairs are bang on. The big sweep of events in motion is almost entirely without clarity when we're caught up in the swelling tsunami that is historic change. The shapes and currents only becomes clear with the receding passage of years. In many ways journalists and current affairs analysts have the unenviable job of trying to drink this ocean of swirling and murky data through the straw of limited perspective, with only a very finite amount of time in which to gulp it all down and process it.

It's a realm that even brilliant historians dive into at their own peril.

The best exemplar of this, for me at least, is the scholar who first instilled the love of history as a field of study in me. Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was revelatory for a sixteen-year old in Nevada. A profound analysis of economic causes driving battlefield methods and outcomes in a five-hundred year span of European history, and written at a time when nearly all my teachers insisted that history was a collection of data from which no useful patterns could be discerned. Or if one could be seen, it always seemed to pigeonhole way too neatly on one side or the other of the political spectrum.

Not only did Kennedy manage to link a number of period economic indicators to military practices and outcome in ways that neither the Democrats or Republicans in my life wholly approved of, but he introduced in Rise and Fall a novel thesis for explaining Western Europe's surprising imperial ascension. Surprising, because Western Europe had spent nearly all of historical time lagging well behind much larger and more advanced Eurasian civilizations. Cities had been round for thousands of years elsewhere on the continent, but had only made the jump north of the Alps around 1000 AD. Even in 1492, with Spain poised to conquer much of the New World and Portugal on the cusp of bypassing the Silk Roads, all of Europe was still considerably behind in technology, military power, and continent-spanning cultural influence compared to Ming China, Europe's Islamic rivals, or the cultural power-house conglomerations of princedoms and  sultanates that would much later become what is now Bangladesh - India - Pakistan.

Kennedy's new explanation for Western Europe's rise to global power was that it was a product of geographic divisions. The land was so segmented by mountains, dense forests, and bisected by major rivers that no one was able to impose a centralized rule through conquest. And so Western Europe as a whole never fell into dynastic orthodoxy and technological stagnation. Elsewhere in the world, the crowning political and military achievement of forging a large nation out of conquests and absorption by Caliphs, Mugahl or Ming or Manchurian emperors, or Tokugawa Shogun aspirants, was followed up by the slow fall into imposed stasis and the rejection of new technologies or war fighting methods that threatened members of the ruling elite or warrior castes.

Fleets were scrapped, long-range exploration curtailed, firearms restricted, and disruptive philosophers or reformist schools of thought violently suppressed.

This geographic thesis is far from being the end all explanation of the last five hundred years of international power dynamics. Jared Diamond incorporated it as just one of several geologic and ecological factors in his famous Guns, Germs, and Steel. Other factors such as such Spain's gaining control of huge sources of South American silver at a time when the world's two largest economies, China and much of India, were moving towards silver-backed currencies, also impacted the course of events. Still, the idea of Europe's unconquerable geographic divides giving rise to its empire-building conquest states was both revolutionary at the time, and has proven durable in academic circles over the past thirty years.

I was also impressed by Mr. Kennedy's boldness when it came to looking forward into the future. When the Rise and Fall was published in 1987 he predicted on the basis of his historical analysis that the US was tipping over into a period of hegemonic decline under debt and military overreach, while Japan would continue its economic ascent. The Soviet Union could be expected to maintain its current levels of military and fiscal clout well into the foreseeable future...

Uh, well, shit.

Yes. Historians. Present. Peril.

It was astounding that someone had gotten the past so brilliantly right managed to get the very near future so completely wrong. At the same time it was hugely instructional. Looking into the question of how Kennedy made such a bad set of calls revealed a layer of faulty premises and bad assumptions, which in turn granted insight to just how often we people construct worldviews and paradigms out of such shoddy material. Or about how even good concepts can become a liability in other contexts. What works analyzing the past can be dangerous when attempting model the future.

Which isn't to say that History has nothing to contribute when looking at the present. Most of us have at best a nodding acquaintance with the histories of our nations, at a time when mainstream narratives on both the left and the right are hugely simplistic. Filling in the gaps in our knowledge gives the past a complexity that matches the present, and more fully explains how we got to where were at. Sometimes, the discipline of studying the past can even recast the present in a wholly new light, transforming a chaos of disconnected ideas into logical consequences living on a braid of interwoven causes and effects.

Next up: Getting the Past Right: Explaining the Now

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Utopia and Dystopia: Music

The future works upon us
As we all work upon it

~YACHT, "Utopia"

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Entanglement and Wormholes

You can't get entangled without a wormhole: Physicist finds entanglement instantly gives rise to a wormhole:

'via Blog this'

Image courtesy of  Allen McC under Creative Commons
via Wikimedia Commons
Apparently the quantum entanglement of particles and wormholes are both manifestations of the same underlying reality. Out universe is pretty damn awesome in a 'spooky' kind of way at its lowest scales of being.

Now if only such wormholes and connections were transversible by information...

ds2 = -c2dt2 + dl2 + (k2 + l2)(dθ2 + sin2θd∅2)

Equation courtesy of Wikipedia