Thinking more about un-nationalness

[Note: this is a follow-up to my post a few days introducing the theme of un-nationalness.]

Krosno Odrzanskie, Poland. Dakar, Senegal. Greenwich, London. Uzice, Serbia. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Cardiff, Wales. Praia, Cape Verde. Edinburgh, Scotland. Derry, Northern Ireland. Blaegoevgrad, Bulgaria. Guadalajara, Mexico.

These are the birthplaces of the 11 who took the field in today’s Barclays Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Stoke City, two venerable English clubs. The starting line-up were born, on average, 1896.56 miles from Manchester. Which is the distance between Manchester and Ankara, Turkey. Which is in Asia.

Not one person born in Manchester made that starting line-up.

The goals were scored by men born, on average, 4106.32 miles away from Manchester, one from Cape Verde and one from Mexico.

Why is all this important? Because until 1982, when Arnold Muhren transferred to United, they’d never really fielded a “foreign” player, from beyond the UK and Ireland. [While some claim Carlo Sartori in 1967 as the first, I am led to believe his family moved to Manchester while he was a young child, and he came through the junior ranks as any other domestic child.]

Talent knows no borders, and Manchester United have done a good job garnering and harnessing global talent. As far as the club was concerned, it did not matter where they were born, or what nation they represented. What mattered was how they played football.

So the Manchester United of today is quite different from the Manchester United of a few decades ago. All made possible because of the relatively free flow of capital, and of labour,  across borders, not just in Europe but beyond: at least four of the players aren’t European; and the owners of the club are American.

For some decades now, it has been getting easier and easier to move money around the world, with the unintended consequence of making terrorism and tax avoidance easier. For some decades now, it has been getting easier and easier to move around as an individual, as the relative cost of travel has dropped and the need for talent has grown unabated. So labour and capital have moved more freely than ever before, creating an environment Ken Ohmae described vividly over two decades ago in his seminal book The Borderless World.

But it’s not just labour and financial capital that move freely nowadays; knowledge or “human” capital, along with relationship or “social” capital, also have this ability now.

Which gives governments a real headache. Because they want to lock in their “customers”, the people and companies that pay the taxes that allow them to exist. The traditional swords and ploughshares of government — regulation and taxation — are fashioned into the flowers of freedom, as companies migrate between regulatory and tax regimes at will.

This erosion of “national” power is happening at all levels: the state, the company, even the individual, as the tools of lock-in get diminished in scale and quality.

In choice there is power; the continuing evolution of the tools of communication and transportation have increased “customer” choice significantly, and out of this choice has come about the growth of un-nationalness.

In some ways it’s what I have been saying for some time now: many of the lock-ins of the past are being eroded: every artificial scarcity is opposed by an equal and opposite artificial abundance; over time the abundance wins.

As a result, new institutions, organisations and ways of working continue to emerge, built on un-national principles. Facebook, Skype and Twitter would all appear on a list of the top ten “countries” of the world; virtual currencies continue to grow apace, despite not being issued, underwritten or guaranteed by countries; money is borrowed and lent at micro levels; political funds are raised on the internet; soon, even law will be drafted on a collaborative basis.

New, un-national fora are taking centre stage, ranging from the World Economic Forum to TED to the Web Science Trust.

New un-national tools like the internet and the Web are entering their golden age, enabling amazing levels of communal activity and collaboration.

Historical lock-in models practised by governments and monopolies and monolithic hierarchical institutions are being dismantled while they sleep; the movement from analog to digital has shattered the erstwhile peace of the news, publishing, music and film businesses; education and healthcare are in range; and government will follow.

For many years now, people like Stewart Brand, Howard Rheingold and Esther Dyson have been writing about these changes. More recently, Clay Shirky, Don Tapscott and Doc Searls have been documenting the changes and explaining the rationale behind the changes.

But these are hard changes. So there is a reluctance amongst the changed to accept the change. Puerile pieces of legislation litter the landscape, as governments and incumbents seek to hold on to what they had.

But it’s over. Over. Because the tools of choice are in individual hands. And there is no master switch. By design.

Which means it’s time for all of us to understand more about the principles behind un-nationalness, underpinning the statelessness of today.

For starters, I think we should be considering these:

  • The Principle of Simultaneity: Un-national things happen at the same time everywhere; an un-national film is released everywhere and in all format in the same instant.
  • The Principle of Unownability:  Un-national things are owned by no one. In Doc Searls’ words, they’re NEA. Nobody owns them. Everyone can use them. Anyone can improve them.
  • The Principle of Emergence: Un-national things standardise through market adoption rather than by diktat or decree or regulation. There are no standards bodies to game, no lobby mechanisms, no palms to grease.
  • The Principle of Federability: Un-national things have to be built on the DNA of federation rather than the toxins of monoculture and monopoly.

When humans have real choice, they choose where they work, where they live, where they pay their taxes, where they raise their kids, where they die.

These choices are increasing, despite the efforts of some governments and some corporates.

Historical structures, built on hierarchical principles, had choke points where control could be established.

Today it’s like trying to control air or space or the oceans. Un-national things.

Of course new toxins emerge, new dangers become apparent. Which is why we need the work of people like TED. Like the WEF. Like the Berkman Center. To delight us with what is possible. To warn us of the risks. To give us a forum for debate. And to ensure we have the freedom and the choice to be part of those debates.

Incidentally, if you want to see what happens at Davos, why not try and get invited there? Take part in the Davos Debates, there’s still time.

A coda. If you have the time, read The Kernel For This Blog, something I wrote nearly six years ago. It’s how I visualised un-nationalness at the time.

9 thoughts on “Thinking more about un-nationalness”

  1. Coming from a country where the national Cricket championship consisted of geographical teams which required residency (at least that is what it looked like) to a country where the sports team consisted of players having no relationship (past or present) to the geographical place seemed strange. It further puzzled me that people supported teams because they were the home team. But then something else happened. If I were not deliberate, instead of calling the city I was living in “Cleveland” I will call it “Madurai”. After a couple of moves, the place Cleveland got deprecated in my mind and it ceased to be “Madurai”. My rambling point is that just as we behave “un-national” there may be some force that is making us attach to “national” symbols. It is likely that a few generations hence, people may not have such strong associations.

  2. We are experiencing a quickening movement at the end of a long. slow transition in human affairs that began with the Enlightenment. Originally, institutions were naturally authoritarian: people ‘belonged to’ or were governed by them, whether organisations, guilds, or nations. The Enlightenment marked the emergence of the public sphere, in which individuals could participate by choice. Through the spread of education, information access and travel, participation rates have steadily risen to erode the authority derived from private or privileged knowledge – a process that has accelerated in our era. So command and control has now been undone, not because leaders are more enlightened but because no-one knows best (or can credibly claim to know best) any more.

    The consequences of no-one-knows best are threefold: 1) people have to learn to get along so that they can make sense of things together; 2) things get more complicated because many new forms of association become both possible and necessary; 3) power shifts from institutions to people, so that institutional purposes and operations have to grow from the concerns and interests of people rather than vice-versa. Un-nationality and un-organisation are therefore likely to be related phenomena.

    Since this is a profound and irreversible shift, we are in for some interesting times ahead.

  3. “And there is no master switch. By design.”

    Governments and big corporations are working night and day to implement master switches. The architecture of the internet was conceived by smart people but they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. Too late to ask Jon Postel, sadly, but I’d love to know what Paul Mockapetris would have done differently if he’d known what a political chess piece the internet would become.

    John Gilmore’s quote about the internet interpreting censorship as damage and routing round it is true up to a point, and it has forced the authorities to act in a blatently illiberal way to exert their control (domain seizures, commercial and legal pressure on service providers). They will push this as far as they can.

    We mustn’t assume it will be alright somehow. The price of a free and open internet is eternal vigilance.

  4. @aswath I agree. @ted absolutely, that’s why I write what I write. @dom these posts are part of that vigilance

  5. I don’t know why a post on Manchester United players got me thinking about the state of UK telecoms, but it did.
    I can see comparisons in the way that no longer can comms be controlled by the incumbent telco, and grassroots initiatives are springing up to deliver the game they have failed to. The Cumbrian initiative has definitely put the wind up BT wholesale. The world is shrinking thanks to the internet, and people are taking matters into their own hands. Plus ca change and cabinets are not the way forward, its the incumbent protecting its copper asset, but the grassroots have seen through it and will light the fibre to bring the future team players into the country instead of perpetuating the brain drain of talent.

  6. Being un-national is still the preserve of the elite. Economic theory supports the free movement of capital, goods and jobs, but not people. For every footballer, cricketer, exexutive, there are thousands of migrant workers, from Pakistan, Mexico, Turkey, Bangladesh, Somalia, Philippines and others, whose every movement is tightly controlled by governments. Only when people have the same gloal mobility as other resources will we have a truly un-national world.

Let me know what you think