The rise of the eNation
The nation-state, argued Bill Thompson at the Web@20 event that launched the Digital Revolution project, is an outdated phenomenon. The World Wide Web is engendering trans-national identities based on communities of practice not tied to traditional forms of governance, he claimed. This revolution is powerful and is changing our politics at such an unprecedented speed that it will topple traditional social structures.
I agree with Bill, at least in part: we are seeing new governance arise that cuts across political borders, constitutions and dogmas by using the websites and web communities that we increasingly interact in. However, I don't think the nation-state is in decline; rather, it's evolving, and it is wont to suffer the same shortfalls of its physical counterparts.
World wide governments are struggling to keep up with the changes that the Internet communication technologies have brought to long-held concepts of ownership, control, propaganda, conflict and civil liberties. Meanwhile, new virtual world orders are developing with transparently political agendas. Take, for example, the e-Nation known as eBay.
Stick with me here. The auction marketplace has worked hard to become an autonomous nation. First, it is independent of any one system of regulation. Second, using the template of a philanthropic Guatemalan village project, eBay daddy Pierre Omidyar and his colleagues have created a loyal citizenry by fostering and nurturing a community using an internal social feedback system that has encouraged the development of trust between its members (whuffie, for Doctorow fans). It continues to reward its most committed participants in return for their loyalties, and, benevolently, has allowed for the development of smaller sub-communities.
Third, as well as its social capital, eBay also has its own economic capital: PayPal. Gosh, that was a clever purchase; by creating its own currency, it distanced itself from international trade regulations and raised itself above any law. Well, at least for a short while. Clearly, its transnationalism has come under scrutiny from international tax collectors because it is, essentially, a way for people to sell things without customs or duty taxes.
Fourth, eBay has its own communications system in Skype. Although that relationship is set to end, for the time being it remains an un-regulated layer of autonomy. Finally, the nation of eBay has a justice system that serves the needs of its citizenry, supporting their right to swift and independent action.
So, in sum, eBay has fostered the sense of dedication amongst its community members: a common identity that transcends national borders. Its centralised government, based in eBay HQ in San Jose, California, works on behalf of the populace, ensuring that the health of the system is maintained and that its citizens are happy. It has unified itself under a currency, it provides telecommunications, it offers a justice system. Sounds like a nation-state to me.
OK, OK, I admit it: eBay is a stretch. But there are many other virtual nation states that map more closely onto our offline social systems. Online games like World of Warcraft are ruled by game gods who provide for the populace, regardless of whether they are Horde or Alliance; similarly, virtual worlds like Second Life have celebrated economies, criminal courts and their own telecommunications.
But the one thing that is common amongst all of these new nations under the Internet is that, despite many of their revolutionary ideas of horizontal governance, they are ruled by benevolent dictators who have the ultimate power to flip the switch.
So tread lightly, fellow revolutionaries. For our rulers may be benevolent now, but may eventually succumb to the corruption that often dogs the powerful, and we desperately don't want them to pull the plug.