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Brislen on Tech: RIP the nation state

Paul Brislen, Editor. 26 February 2021, 11:25 am

It's a shame really. I quite enjoyed being part of a parliamentary democracy.

It gave me such a sense of belonging, of working together for a common good.

I could picture the world we would leave to our children as a world with better infrastructure, better support for those at the bottom of the heap, better water and food security, better rules around what you could do as an adult.

Having grown up in a world where all sense of control was missing from my life (kids in general don't have a lot of control, kids in the UK in the 70s certainly felt a sense of hopelessness and by the 80s the combination of economic downturn, liberalisation of regulation, the Irish Troubles spilling over literally into the streets and gutters and of course the ever present "limited nuclear exchange in Europe", there really wasn't a lot of focus on the future, to put it mildly) it was really nice to feel we could make a difference and champion a change. You know, be in charge of our own destiny as much as any person can be.

Loose Change.jpg

It started really with the Mad Parliament of 1258 where for the first time the King gave away some of the power he wielded to his privy council - the first real parliament. They weren't elected so much as chosen because they wouldn't kick up much of a fuss, but it was the start.

It took a while to catch on though - it took another 400 years until the Bill of Rights of 1689 (or 1688 depending on which time line you follow) and the shift in power to an actual freely elected parliament that would do the governing while the monarch did the monarching (mostly looking pretty and turning up in gardens for parties) - but catch on it did and now around the world it's pretty much the gold standard as far as governing nation states goes.

So why am I telling you all of this? It's because I suspect we're coming to the end of the nation-state as we know it and are entering a world of corporate governance that we're frankly ill prepared for.

Today, thanks largely to the Apollo programme's need for small computers, we have lots of small computers and a network that allows us to access a frankly astonishing amount of data from wherever we might be. We can share religious texts, games, books, songs, movies, spreadsheets and databases (these two are not synonymous, ok?) and so much more.

We can share trivial nonsense and we can share vitally important, life-saving information. We can also tell lies and soon we'll be able to do this using video and audio content that is virtually identical to the real thing.

But we've given away a large proportion of our control over the companies that enable such things to those very companies, and while we have regulations and laws, we have little political will to tackle these giants head on.

Instead we have a natural move towards monopoly positions by some of the most scalable companies in the world - those that exist in the datasphere. Google and Facebook in particular have cornered the market for information in a way nobody else has ever managed. That the market regulators have not jumped up in arms already is something of a miracle and probably relates to the generally-held belief that this was all a bit of a lark and wasn't hurting anyone seriously that characterised most of the tech explosion from about 1999 until very recently.

Cory Doctrow has a very interesting piece on why we should have regulated these companies many years ago and that now it's really a bit late to be trying to manage them. Australia has tried, and is being heralded as a success for "forcing" Facebook and Google to negotiate with news outlets and to pay them to publish links to their content.

I don't really see it as a win. Facebook and Google have agreed to hand over what is, for them, not much more than petty cash in exchange for the ability to continue operating in the way they have so far. No regulation to speak of, no oversight, no changes to their algorithms that bring in so much money. No control, not even any tax to speak of.

These corporates have the ability to influence markets, help incite riots, break obscenity laws and can turn off news feeds at the drop of a hat. They can encourage genocide and they get away with all this and plenty more without any real interruption to their business models at all.

No single government will ever be in a position to make lasting changes to these businesses. They're not bound to one territory, they're not reliant on the natural resources of one location. They're not significantly tied to one tax regime or one jurisdiction. They can pick up sticks and relocate without missing a beat and because of that they're immune to the consultations of the geographically-bound nations they sprang from.

I suspect we can safely say we are leaving behind those pesky laws and regulations and all that goes with it and moving beyond to a new world order. What we can't say with any certainty is what that will look like or how long the transition will take.


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