Intersecting Currents of Change

There’s an occupational category called “futurist,” which involves attempting to guess the likely future based on extrapolations from current trends and their interactions. Now, many people can spot the major currents of change in our time. It’s when a number of those currents intersect, producing all kinds of whorls and eddies and butterfly effects, that things get complicated. Sometimes when trends intersect they reinforce each other.

For example, our era is characterized by two considerably overlapping contradictions or fracture points. First, we’re in the early stages of historic transition from a social organization dominated by large, centralized, hierarchical institutions like corporations and nation-states, to a world of small, self-governing units connected together horizontally through networks. Things like Anonymous, Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, M15 and Syntagma, and what’s going on right now in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt, are vivid illustrations of this trend.

The forces of hierarchy and authority are doing their best to co-opt this change where they can’t suppress it, using “intellectual property” and other state-enforced monopolies to enclose technologies of small-scale production and networked communications within a corporate-state institutional framework.

But second, the old hierarchical forces of corporations and states constitute a global system of power (Bob Marley’s “Babylon System” is as good a name as any) with the United States — the world’s Sole Remaining Superpower — as its enforcer. The main function of the U.S. and its alliances is to guarantee global corporations “rights” to extract the resources they need from the global periphery without land and mineral resources falling into the hands of the local population, and to guarantee that goods outsourced to sweatshops in China and Vietnam are sold only with Nike trademarks slapped on them. The U.S. supports so-called “Free Trade” accords whose main provisions are intellectual protectionism (the WIPO World Copyright Treaty, the Uruguay Round TRIPS accord, and more recent treaties further strengthening them) so that information — the natural marginal reproduction cost of which is zero — can be enclosed as a source of enormous rents by Microsoft, Disney et. al. The United States, in short, imposes a world order aimed at guaranteeing that no production can take place without permission from our corporate overlords.

Things get interesting when the first contradiction (between the old hierarchies and the self-organized networks which are supplanting them) is reinforced by the contradiction between the World Hegemon and dissident states or rival coalitions of states. There are many states which, as states, are clearly committed to maintaining the old system of domination internally — yet they desire to expand their independence at the expense of the United States or exert more power of their own over natural resources and markets.

So we have secondary powers like China and Russia attempting to form counter-coalitions against American hegemony, and we have dissident states like Iran and Venezuela resisting American power, and encouraging other small states to resist. Over the last decade or so, for example, the U.S. almost totally lost control over South America — the original core of its empire.

What happens when these trends interact? Sometimes, improvements in networked communications and cybernetic technologies reinforce the shift in military balance of power from the United States and its allies to dissident regional powers (e.g. a whole host of area denial technologies like smart mines, improved air defense systems, highly accurate anti-ship missiles, drone jamming, etc., that make it harder to project power overseas). Sometimes states, in attempting to undermine rival states’ control of their domestic populations, create liberatory technologies that undermine not only their rivals’ power but their own. For example the Tor router, originally developed by the U.S. military to aid dissidents in countries like Iran, now undermines the NSA’s ability to keep the American domestic population under surveillance and the proprietary content industries’ ability to prevent file-sharing.

Networked digital uprisings in other countries (the Arab Spring, M15, Syntagma, etc.), even when they have generally been more or compliant with the American neoliberal system, make them less reliable in support of that system. The networked activism in the EU, responsible for the unprecedented defeat of the ACTA copyright treaty, is a good example.

Iceland shows signs of intent to set itself up as a world haven for information freedom — among other things, possibly hosting whistleblowing sites like Wikileaks.

And now, in the case of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, we see dissident states like Ecuador — hardly a principled advocate for information freedom — aiding American advocates of information freedom purely out of geopolitical interest. Snowden’s revelations of European governments cooperating with the NSA in spying on their own citizens, and revelations that the US had wiretapped EU offices in the U.S., call into question Europe’s future willingness to cooperate as closely with the U.S.

So everything that happens, it seems, inadvertently furthers the cause of freedom.

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The Anatomy of Escape
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