Musing about 2011 and an un-national generation

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:

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.

Abject failure.

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.

13 thoughts on “Musing about 2011 and an un-national generation”

  1. I’ve gone to my fair share of web / tech / developer conferences in Europe and North America over the last few years, and have made many friends from doing so. I feel that I’ve made friends so easily, because I met people just like me, who do the same things I do, and work with the exact same technology I do, and often face the same problems I do.

    I’m 33 and have been online since I was 17. The generation behind me, who are just starting college, have never existed in a world without the web, or indeed mobile.

    When people have access to information, people and communities that they’re interested in, without traditional, physical borders, the world truly becomes global.

    Great post JP :)

  2. Over the holidays, I’ve been pondering statelessness in the context of virtual currencies. Starting to get this grocky feeling that we could be on the cusp of big, AmazonBay scale, changes in this domain. Currency and taxation have been comfortable fiefdoms of top-down control and revenue for countries. Mobility of money is making the model harder to impose. These fiefdoms are likely to be challenged in a significant way, don’t you think?

    Have a look at this decentralised, nodal p2p “crypto currency”:

    Lovely privilege to make your post part of my 2011 mental kick-off process today!

  3. “Un-national.” This spoke to me as well. I love my country – or the idea of my country – but the planet is shrinking in all the right ways. (As opposed to literally shrinking, which I think we might all agree would be a bad thing.)

    I don’t think our legacy governments are capable of serving a digitally mobile populace and this, combined with the fear of change (and loss of personal power), will lead to continued adherence to archaic citizenship restrictions.

    I am an American, yes, but I consider myself a citizen of the world. I have seen how the things we have in common make it possible for us to understand our differences and consider exposing others to this belief a top priority in 2011 and beyond. If there is one downside to making friends all over the globe, surely, it is knowing you may never meet some of them in person.

    Thought-provoking post. Thank you.

  4. JP – Excellent post and thanks a ton for articulating so well what is to many of my generation and demographic(Indian, from a technology background and reasonably well travelled) an unstated sense of having lost something(the strong identification with a National or regional culture) and yet curiously enriched(widened perspective, appreciation for world cultures, music, cuisine, people etc.) immeasurably.

    One does not always notice when this osmosis takes place. But it strikes you when you return back to base. All the fondness remains to the old familiar chaos of home, but with an unstated unease. The roots we left behind at every way station of our journeys call us ever so often.

    The examples you have quoted on applying national laws on un-national items are spot on on. Allow me to add one more. Take the iTunes when used with an Indian credit card. I cannot buy music, movies, tv shows. I can afford to buy them but am not allowed to.

    There are not many organizations that understand and truly get the needs of a Global generation. Hope your post wakes these people up!

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. @eamon, thanks for the feedback. @sasha yes I’ve been looking at virtual currencies as well. Do you know Michael Linton? @DE feel free :-) @brian glad you enjoyed the post. @mahesh every artificial scarcity creates an enormous market for artificial abundance, so the tools will get better.

  6. Being un-national for people is easy: when it means making new friends around the world; getting the lastest news directly from the ground; and buying items from the other side of the world that will ship to them in a matter of days.

    Even when people are at their most national – say supporting a countries’ sporting team – they’re really just trying to group themselves with what they consider are likeminded people. And, as we’ve seen online people will easily form groups with likeminded individuals, regardless of location – matching values and interests are more important than physical location, etc.

    Simplistically speaking, businesses enjoy being un-national, or multi-national. It’s the aim of most businesses to increase their market share to include the entire world.

    So, what’s the issue? Political control. It’s the politicians – or more accurately those leaders who have political control (sometimes church leaders) – who define themselves by the control they exert over a specific geophysical entity, and the people within it. They cannot relinquish this control as it would put them out of work, and deny them the power the need. Unfortunately, they also make the laws, and it’s this legislation which always gets in the way of un-nationalism: people cannot live anywhere, or be with anyone because of legislation; and business’ biggest hindrance in operating in different countries is the legislation in that region.

  7. True but also false.
    True: comments above, also I now communicate with people around the world who I haven’t met.
    False: as a South African trying to visit the USA or UK, my nation-ness is very clear – they won’t let me in without going through a long process of getting a visa, and paying a lot of money for it.

  8. @brett @simon @mahesh I have an Indian passport, it’s the only nationality I’ve ever had. To begin with, in 1979, *India* decided I could not visit Israel or South Africa, two countries I have enjoyed visiting since. And the last 30 years have been interesting, to say the least, when it comes to obtaining visas for travel, something I do extensively on business and for pleasure. My wife and children have UK passports.

    Like I render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, I have to obey the laws of the land; the land I was born in, the land I live in, the land I happen to be visiting. But that doesn’t alter my state of mind. Which is where un-national begins.

  9. Our global net seems to make us more aware of each other, and the geo-mobile makes us more aware of the local. As a result the very artificial construct of the nation-state seems to evaporate for the concept it is. Nations are concepts, but cities are undeniably real and literally grounded in the reality of day to day life.

    In my current work focusing on Placemaking it seems that cities are rising in value as nations seem to flounder in this transition (e.g. the US State Department’s double-speak stance on net tech for democracy at “home” vs. abroad). People don’t live in nations, they live in cities, towns, villages… actual places, and our relationships span the globe.

    A key meme for me in this is “follow me”.
    Most of us are more interested in following each other than we are interested in following a flag in jingoist fantasy that seems less and less real. You can read my short musing here:

    As a Third Culture Kid myself…
    … I’ve found that this idea, and that of Claude Grunitzky’s “transculturalism”
    … are ways to frame global identities for what they are rather what they are “un-“like.

    Great post, as you can see it really resonates w/ my experience.

  10. @daniel yes there’s a real think-local-act-global sense about all this, the “local” is the community you see, feel and touch, often your town or city or urban sprawl, and the “global” is the whole community you’re part of, the analog and the digital, the local and the far-flung. and there’s nothing in between the two edges, the high-touch and the low-touch, except for hybrids. so “national” is a hard concept to plug in. If cultural aspects and dimensions were purely national I might think differently. but more often than not they too are local in construct.

Let me know what you think