Tag Archives: William Gibson

Towards a borderless society

He goes to the kitchen window and seems to be looking out, but then he points to the round transparent ventilator fan set into a six-inch hole in one pane of glass. “We don’t have those things. They’re everywhere, here. Always have been. I’m not even sure what they’re supposed to do.” “They’re part of the mirror-world,” Cayce says. “Mirror-world?” “The difference.” “My idea of a mirror-world is Bangkok. Asia somewhere. This is just more of our stuff.” “No,” she tells him, “different stuff. That’s why you noticed that vent. They invented that here, probably, and made it here. This was an industrial nation. Buy a pair of scissors, you got British scissors. They made all their own stuff. Kept import expensive. Same thing in Japan. All their bits bits and pieces were different, from the ground up.” “I see what you mean, but I don’t think it’s going to be that way much longer. Not if the world’s Bigends keep at it: no borders, pretty soon there’s no mirror to be on the other side of. Not in terms of bits and pieces anyway.” His eyes meet hers.”

Pattern Recognition

In William Gibson‘s “Pattern Recognition”, fictional character Hubertus Bigend is someone that I can relate to in the way he envisions the world: borderless. Unfortunately, borders are still prevalent in our world as amedee puts it, after trying to purchase the Tron:legacy soundtrack:

I tried to buy the Tron:Legacy soundtrack by Daft Punk on http://tronsoundtrack.com/, but that website didn’t accept my VISA card. I was also unable to fill in my country (Belgium).
Then someone pointed me to the UK site: http://tronsoundtrack.co.uk. That site is sold out, and it doesn’t offer the download only version. By the way, different websites for different countries = usability failure.
Then I turned to Amazon. I tried .com, .co.uk, .fr, but all of them said that I couldn’t buy the Tron:Legacy soundtrack because of geographical restrictions.
What the… ??? How ironic is this: one of the main themes of the movie is about openness and freedom of information, without any borders. But in the global community of the second decade of the third millennium I cannot spend my hard earned money because of restrictions imposed by outdated, medieval concepts like borders.

The Pattern Recognition fragment above, talks about a “mirror-world”. Hereby Gibson acknowledges a locational-specific distinction in a manufactured object that emerged from a parallel development process, for example opposite-side driving or varied electrical outlets. A typical example would be Japan. It’s an island, that used to be far less connected to the Western world before the Cold War. But throughout the postwar period, Japan’s economy started to boom. Japan embarked on a prolonged period of extremely rapid growth, led by the manufacturing sectors. It rapidly caught up with the West in foreign trade and quality of life. Japanese people are actually good in copying stuff, giving it their own twist (Japanese style). Even today, Japan is still so different from the rest of the world, but because it’s so “mirror-world” and opened up, it has become the world’s fourth largest exporter in the world.

It occurs to her then that the meal has been entirely free of toasts, and that she’s always heard of a multitude of them are to be expected at a Russian meal. Perhapss it’s a meal in that country without borders that Bigend strives to hail from, a meal in a world where there are no mirrors to find yourself on the other side of, all experience having been reduced, by the spectral hand of marketing, to price-point variations on the same thing.

In a mirror-less world I think nations are becoming of less importance. More particularly, I believe un-nationalness, a term introduced by JP Rangaswami, can spawn a more open, more connected and thus better world. I want to write down these emerging ideas in my wary head.

The other day I needed to get access to a clients knowledge base. In modern times, we do this by raising a ticket through the Help Desk. The workflow: dial the call center, explain your concerns, and the first line support analyst will deal with it and route your call accordingly. Well, I found out that my call would be handled by a team in Costa Rica. “Costa Rica, bloody hell!” was my immediate reaction. These practices are however very common sense in a multinational company. People of different nations are able to work together thanks to the democratization of information and communications technology and English is the langua franca.

I have come to the conclusion that the four pillars JP is talking about, really come to mind when I start thinking about the concept of un-nationalness. Let me start with the first principle: the principle of federability.  If I needed to identify myself with a nation, it would be Belgium. Right, that small country which claims to dispose of the capital of Europe: Brussels. After the parliamentary elections from 13 June 2010, our nation still has no formal government and negotiations are currently deadlocked due to disagreements between the Walloons and Flemish.  “It’s complicated”, that would be right to say, but with indifference you cannot do much. Truth be told, it’s kind of contradictory, but I don’t feel much “affinity” with “my country”. The fact that most of us, including our national soccer team, does not know the national anthem by heart, speaks for itself. Our king, Albert II, nicknamed “Bert Bibber” (Bert The Shaker in English), is not to be taken serious either. Even if he recently raised serious concerns, requesting our preliminary government to write new budget in order to calm worries the nation will be unable to meet its budget goals. Such a motu proprio from the king is unseen, but frankly speaking: it doesn’t have much impact. And in fact, the vast majority does simply not care much. At this moment in time, I feel more affinity with expats (I am one), nomads, gypsies and Third Culture Kids then with the people from my own country or neighborhood. Living abroad for about a year now, I don’t feel homesick. No, I have grown up with the Internet and the Web, hardcore bands and Hollywood movies. I’m biased, but the truth is that I really  am a product of a diversity of cultures, covered by a large number of values and beliefs, represented by what I am today. Supply me with an internet connected device, and I am able to do my work from anywhere, communicate with anyone.

As the above paragraph suggests, I am not really proud of my country. I do not know such thing as national pride, let alone that I feel connected to my home country. However, I do know that we are famous for our Belgian chocolates,  Brussels waffles and for the record, French fries come from Belgium. We too have some world renowned and very diverse beers that are brewed with love. One of those beers is Jupiler, a pale lager. The name “Jupiler” comes from its place of origin, Jupille in Belgium. But what does it really mean, made in Belgium? The company that sells the beer, Anheuser-Busch InBev is even no longer “purely” Belgian after the InBev merger with Brazilian Anheuser-Busch. Besides, aside from the chemical industry, there is not so much to export in Belgium. In contrast, we import “mirror-world” products as Gibson would put it. The company’s headquarters is still in Belgium, Leuven, though. For how long and to what extent will traditions still stand?

Another intriguing case is IBM. In 2010, IBM employed 105000 workers in the U.S., a drop of 30,000 since 2003, and 75000 people in India, up from 9000 seven years previous. Soon, it is very likely that IBM is an Indian company in terms of workforce. Why? Because IBM is a global company that wants to increase profits by cutting costs on resources, and people in the BRIC countries are relative less expensive to the rest of the world. But think about Coca-Cola or McDonald’s. These are brands, tight to the United Stated, but not in a way that a water bottle of Spa can be traced back to the source of Spa in Belgium. In fact, in the Netherlands, Spa is a generic name for mineral water, the same as coke is a generic name for the famous soda drink. All of these things are not owned by a nation. Hence, the principle of Unownability.

The third principle is called the principle of emergence. For instance, consider foreign food. I don’t need to travel to China for Dim Sum or to Vietnam for Pho. In Flanders, Asian restaurants have been present during the 60s and 70s, when Asians started to escape their countries due to economical or political reasons. Slowly, these kind of restaurants can be found all over the world. Another pillar: that of emergence.

The last pillar,the principle of simultaneity, is self-explaining. JP talks about the fact that  “Un-national things happen at the same time everywhere; an un-national film is released everywhere and in all format in the same instant. DVDRip”. Things are occurring at the same time. Information spreads across the globe.

Having said the above, I think un-nationalness is undeniable.

But the status quo is slightly different. Governments are locking us in as JP explains:

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.

But the governments customers are getting more powerful.

Let me start with the influence of the first customer: multinational corporations. What I see is that institutions and trans-national companies are in charge now, and that the power of noble people like our kings, queens and lords are diminishing, as well as that of governments.  Indeed, multinationals can have a significant impact on government policy, through the threat of market withdrawal. For example, General motors withdrew from Antwerp in 2010. More precisely, on the 15th of December 2010, the last Opel Astra was assembled. Although the Flemish government had waved with a half billion euros  and had provided other means of support, it was not able to prevent the Antwerp Opel plant from closing. Buying or bribing companies to keep their establishments open has been proven to be a strategy that fails in the long term. Furthermore, market withdrawal often causes governments to change their policy at the ease of multinational corporations.

Another phenomenon is the lobbying that multinational corporations undertake. For instance, companies that have invested heavily in pollution control mechanisms may lobby for very tough environmental standards in an effort to force non-compliant competitors into a weaker position. Corporations also lobby tariffs to restrict competition of foreign industries.

So the government has become dependent of multinational, transnational or even communal institutions, corporations and efforts, and lobbying and market withdrawal only makes governments more weak.

The second customer is the individual. It has become increasily easy for individuals to protect themselves. Just think about one man: Julian Assange. I remember a piece from the Economist that clearly captures that idea:

Mr Assange, in his obsession with revealing secrets, has compiled a list of countries with generous whistleblower-protection laws. WikiLeaks’ multiple servers aren’t there to back each other up; they’re there to gather legal protections. Every server is subject to the laws of the state where it’s plugged in, so WikiLeaks routes every submission in a clever pattern to move it through each of these locations.

It’s telling that Mr Assange hasn’t placed his servers in some technically capable autocracy with a desire to thumb its nose at the world, say Iran or Venezuela. He needs liberal democracies. Their laws guarantee the safety of his information. And when trying to solve what looks like a digital problem, the best path is to consider where the problem is physically vulnerable.

The article states that what Julian Assange does, is pure civil disobedience. He breaks the law, but doesn’t publicly accept the consequence. Anarchists like him, who understand the system and are always on the outlook for finding flaws, will be the ones that are in control and can make a change. Increasingly, we are governed by ourselves, not by institutions.

However, there is another important thing to be considered: geopolitics. Policymakers will use geopolitics to protect themselves, and as such they can catalyze the importance of the nation to the people from an economical and welfare point of view, so that they become dependent of that nation. There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about nations that see Information Technology as a threat:

Information technology has been rightly celebrated for flattening traditional boundaries and borders, but there can be no doubt that its future will be shaped decisively by geopolitics. Over the past few years, policymakers around the world have had constant reminders of their growing dependence on—and vulnerability to—the new technology: the uncovering of the mysterious China-based GhostNet network, which spied on diplomatic missions around the globe; the purported crippling of Iran’s nuclear capability by the Stuxnet virus; and, of course, the whole WikiLeaks affair. Governments are taking a closer look at who is providing their hardware, software and services—and they are increasingly deciding that it is dangerous not to develop independent national capabilities of their own.

I always thought that it was all about services nowadays: truth be told, the money is in services, but the code, the software is just as critical and a political weapon.

And then there is another important concept to be considered: that of economic freedom.

Economic freedom is the fundamental right of every human to control his or her own labor and property. In an economically free society, individuals are free to work, produce, consume, and invest in any way they please, with that freedom both protected by the state and unconstrained by the state. In economically free societies, governments allow labor, capital and goods to move freely, and refrain from coercion or constraint of liberty beyond the extent necessary to protect and maintain liberty itself. Imagine living in a Canadian family and your daughter is living in New Zealand. You want to transfer some money to her to pay the tuition fee. Still it is going to cost you unnecessary transaction costs. Another example is that you still have to pay taxes even when you have left your country of citizenship. Or how absurd is it that you have to send an invitation letter before you can even invite your relatives?

Luckily technology is allowing us to drive change. The big shift will come from systems such as bitcoin, a peer to peer currency system that could topple governments, destabilize economies and create uncontrollable global bazaars for contraband. Transactions costs are extremely low, coins can’t be tracked, frozen or taxed. This is the pathway to economic freedom and eventually a border-less system. This is not just creative destruction, disruptive or world-changing. This is a whole new world all together. I can assure you that the transition to that new, decentralized world order will not be smooth.