Happy New Year everyone.
If you haven’t heard of William Stafford before, you should try and spend some time reading his poetry. Stafford, who died in 1993, was made the US equivalent of Poet Laureate in 1970, and was known for his gentle, pithy style. A prolific poet, he is estimated to have written over 22,000 poems, though only a fraction are available in print.
One of my favourite Stafford poems is At The Un-National Monument Along The Canadian Border, shown below, a good reason to go out and buy a collection of his poems today:
If you like what you see above, there’s also a decent archives site you can find here.
There are many reasons for my liking the poem. Even now, years after coming across it, I can still savour every line. I must admit I have a particular fondness for the ending, the sheer power and imagery of phrases like “hallowed by neglect” and “celebrate it by forgetting its name”.
There’s also a tangential reason for my liking the poem. Stafford’s use of the word “un-national”, a word that resonated quite powerfully in me.
For many years now, I’ve been pondering what it means to be “global”. [As I’ve written before, I was born a foreigner: my name was alone enough to tell people in Calcutta that I wasn’t from there; my colouring and accent were enough to tell people in Madras that I wasn’t from there. And yet, as the name of this blog suggests, I am extremely fond of Calcutta, and consider that the city, and its people, played a critical role in forming and shaping what I am today.]
When I joined BT some years ago, the issue of “being global” came up in conversation with the then CEO, Ben Vervaayen. At the first meeting I ever had with him, Ben brought up the issue, asking me to consider carefully the distinctions between “international”, “multinational” and “global”. And, especially since it was a topic of some personal interest already, I obliged.
And where I got to that evening sometime in 2006 was this: that perhaps a key distinction between “global” and all those other words like “international” and “multinational” lay in the fact that it didn’t contain the suffix -national, that the essence of being global could not be defined in the context of nations. There was a born-foreignness to it, a statelessness as it were.
Some years before that, I’d had the pleasure of discussing some of this with friends and colleagues at Dresdner Kleinwort, particularly Sean Park and Malcolm Dick. Incidentally, if you haven’t watched it yet, you must see Sean’s 2005 AmazonBay video. Amazing. [Disclosure: I’m a venture partner with Anthemis Group].
Particularly around the time that Sean was creating the video, we spent some time discussing the “death zone”, the vulnerable space in the middle as businesses migrated to the extremes of global and hyperlocal; it was here that the conversation first meandered into the “stateless” topic, as we ruminated on the fact that quite a few of the institutions destined for the death zone seemed to be characterised by having national structures and ambitions.
Against this backdrop, I’ve been spending time thinking about the whole national-versus-stateless thing, particularly since it seemed to come up in so many of the areas I was interested in. Our laws and regulations and business practices are intrinsically so national in structure and intent that they get incredibly messy when applied to things un-national. Here are a few examples:
- The attempts, in the US, to patent the healing properties of turmeric, amongst others
- The abomination of region coding and its impact, for example, on Spielberg’s Munich
- The ironic case of copyright problems with cover illustrations for Friedman’s The World is Flat
- Problems with obtaining permission for use of sampled music
These are just simple, random examples that come to mind, where there’s a tension between national law and global products and services. National versus un-national, stateless, global.
More recently, some six months ago, Jay Rosen referred to Wikileaks as the world’s first stateless news organisation. Incidentally, while touching on the subject of Wikileaks: you must read Clay Shirky’s “half-formed thoughts” on the subject, covering some of the issues of international versus stateless.
While in India, I read Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, which deals with cyclical development in information and communications industries, sine-curving between closed and open. One of the things that struck me about the book was that each cycle appears to be described in the context of a single country. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s well worth a read. Take a look at Cory Doctorow’s review here.
The internet, the Web, the Cloud, these are essentially disruptive global constructs for many of us. The atoms that serve as infrastructure for these global constructs are physically located in specific countries; the laws and regulations that govern the industries disrupted by these constructs are themselves usually national in structure; the firms doing the disrupting are quasi-stateless in character, trying more and more to be “global”; emerging and future generations have worldviews that are becoming more and more AmazonBay, discarding the national middle for the edges of global and hyperlocal.
We are all so steeped in national structures for every aspect of this: the law, the governance model, the access and delivery technologies, the ways of doing business — that we’re missing the point.
Everything is becoming more stateless, more global. We don’t know how to deal with it. So we’re all trying very hard to put genies back in bottles, pave cowpaths, turn back waves, all with the same result.
And things are fraying at the edges. For some years now, I’ve been commenting on the internet, intellectual property law and identity, in the belief that these three “i”s are the foundation of the new, global, order. And of course I’ve tended to write about these things in the context of music and film and books and food, because those are the places where I see the cracks in the current foundations, as things move from analog to digital.
But it goes well beyond these. Take fundraising. It’s gone global. I love Causes, what it means, what it stands for, what can happen as a result. To me Causes is essentially global. Yet it has to have national collection processes, tax rebates, bank accounts. For most causes this dichotomy is fine, since so many causes are global. But what happens when you’re trying to raise political funds? Is an IP address a reasonable test of eligibility? Is physical residence?
The emerging generations want to use services independent of location of “origin” and location of “delivery”. Attempts to create artificial scarcity (by holding on to dinosaur constructs like physical-location-driven identity) are being responded to by a whole slew of spoofing and anonymisation tools; as the law becomes more of an ass in this context, you can be sure that the tools will get better.
For centuries now we’ve been learning about what happens when barriers to migration get reduced, as people, goods and capital flow more freely across borders. Countries haven’t disappeared as a result; but their powers tend to be modified to suit the borderlessness.
2011 is the year where we’re going to see this accelerate in new ways, as the implications of the copy-machine nature of the internet permeate every facet of our lives, including, but not limited to, government, business, health, education and welfare, rather than the traditional web-was-built-as-distribution-mechanism-for-films-music-and-advertisements hogwash. 2011 is the year we transform ourselves as we accelerate the move from things analog to things digital, as we continue the shifts from static to dynamic, from stabile to mobile, from on-premise to cloud, from individual to community….. and from international to global.
The un-national generation is here to stay. And they’re on the move.