Ordinateurs sans frontières

Lines on paper pre-1914

We are 100 years from the War To End All Wars and the ripples of this global tragedy still echo down through the century into our lives today. The boundaries drawn in 1919 as arbitrary lines on paper shaped all too many of the conflicts of the past one hundred years and are the root cause of many still in the world today.

Paul Mason, of Channel 4, recently asked the loaded question “How did the First World War actually end?” (Thanks to Jonathan Sugarman @WhistleIRL for finding this article). His view, and mine now too, is that it hasn’t ended. The guns stopped firing in Flanders, at Ypres and on the Somme at 11:00 am on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. It took just 26 days for hostilities to break out again, on December 7th 1918, in a squabble about the remains of the Ottoman Empire. Since then there have been 285 wars and only 26 days of peace.

As I was cycling to work this morning, listening to the excellent BBC series on WW1, I was thinking about the technology 100 years ago and tried to extrapolate what it might be 100 years from now. I had only fantasies. What about 20 years from now. Still only fantasies. How about just around the corner in the next decade?

Then it struck me that the peace trumpeted in 1918 might finally come soon from technology.

We are a planet of paper borders drawn decades, centuries, even millennia ago, but we live in an age of technology that flies across borders without passports or customs checks. Technology is eliminating meaningful borders despite lame attempts by national and local governments to enforce them. Being able to shop for the best price anywhere on the planet is empowering of shoppers and dis-empowering of corporations and governments. So why do we need borders any more?

Tribes (friends, family, colleagues, alumni, hobbyists, peers, factions) get together online more often than they ever did in person before the internet. Geography and (what we now would call) primitive communications constrained how we were able to participate in the governance of our lives. Representative government was created because we couldn’t all go to Washington but now we can (and do) comment on the issues of the day and participate and effect global changes.

Borders are becoming less and less relevant and the governments that enforce them more and more marginalized. Instead of fighting a losing battle against technology why not embrace it and exploit it.

So this is my prediction: Technology will continue to confound and frustrate governments who will bring increasingly draconian measures to bear on the use of technology across their borders. Technology will respond with innovative ways of operating that bypass and circumvent the restrictions. A breaking point will occur driven by over-regulation, overlapping-regulation and contradictory-regulation until  “de-regulation” will once again be on every tongue. Then there will be a free-for-all and much to exploit until we settle into a new era of commonsense, self-regulating use of technology across borders. Some borders will crumble (North Korea, China, USA’s isolation of Cuba) bringing chaos (and maybe tragedy) to them until they find a new equilibrium on a new world of information and access. Some new borders will emerge organically and transitionally (Catalunya, Kurdistan, one, two or even three new Ireland’s perhaps) based on affinity rather than geography. Cross-border, border-less communities will emerge and operate as quasi-states (Global-Jewish-State, Global-Islamic-State) and will be more representative of their communities as a whole than the narrowly focused, border-bound national governments they are connected to (Israel is not representative of Jewishness neither is Syria/Iran/Afghanistan representative of Islam).

My hope is that technology will empower individuals to define and act upon their affinities irrespective of the ancient and arbitrary lines drawn on paper. Technology enables border-less super-groups to emerge that are more successful in effecting change and combating injustice. Power in the hands of a few oligarchs, patriarchs or autocrats is diminished through the illumination that comes from technology’s light.

I’ve never yet seen a technology prediction that hasn’t been scoffed at one day only to find it trending the next. So it is with some trepidation that I stick my neck out here to suggest a future that flies in the face of human nature to cling to power at all costs. In many ways what I am suggesting is technology that is already here and already part of everyone’s daily life and the shift I describe is well underway.

But there is a major battle, perhaps even a war, coming between technology-openness  and controlling-power. We have seen the first skirmishes (Assange, Snowden). We have seen the first battles (Net Neutrality, Chinese censorship). The forces have not yet engaged all their might: they will.

So I’ll make one more prediction: For the first time in the history of warfare the victor will be chosen by the victims and not the protagonists. Victories will be measured by lines erased from the map. Casualties will be laws restricting free interaction and access and those people and corporations who wield power for their own sake and not “… of the people, by the people, for the people.”

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