Speaking of the State

US President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech played to mixed reviews last week. Some saw it as likely having a positive influence on relations between Americans and Muslims; others saw it as capitulation or appeasement by America in the face of an Islamic threat.

I have my own opinions on the subject, but what I find more interesting than the content of the reactions is the fact that both the speech and the reactions to it are arguably contextually archaic.

Of all the monopolistic activities which the state pursues, attempting to speak on behalf of large groups of individuals — to channel through a single voice some summary of their beliefs, sentiments, goals and aspirations — is quite possibly the most passe.

In Cairo, President Obama purported to speak, on behalf of 300 million Americans, to 1.3 billion Muslims. While some might characterize this as chutzpah, it sounds more like hubris to me.

There may have been a time when funneling this kind of communication through the bottleneck of a single spokesperson made some kind of sense.

Until the late 1830s, the communication of large amounts of information over long distances was unbelievably (to those of us looking back, anyway) cumbersome and expensive. Smoke signals and semaphore were slow in terms of the amount of information which they could convey; post riders could carry larger loads of information, but it arrived less quickly. And, of course, groups of people separated by vast oceans had to rely on slow ships to carry information hither and yon.

The telegraph made it possible to transmit information quickly and over a long distance, and the first transatlantic cable connected America and Europe for this purpose in the 1860s. At the receiving end, of course, further dissemination of that information still had to be done by town criers or newspapers.

The telephone made one-on-one communication quick and convenient; radio and television sped up the dissemination of information (you didn’t have to wait for tomorrow’s newspaper to find out what happened today), although that dissemination tended to run in one direction.

All of these technologies suffered from “bottleneck” problems: The number of input (“talking”) channels were limited, even more so than the number of output (“listening”) channels. Under these conditions, it was a given that the number of “speakers” would be much smaller than the number of “listeners.”

Naturally, the state planted itself in the middle of this situation in various ways. It seized control of some channels (radio and television frequencies) and doled out that control to favored patrons; it used its bully pulpit and prestige to control disproportionate … for lack of a better word, bandwidth … on other channels, such as the front pages of newspapers.

That’s the way things used to be.

Today, however, we are by almost any reasonable measure well into at least the second decade of the “Information Age.” The Internet is not just a two-way communication channel, it’s an all-way communication channel between the more than 1 billion people on earth who, as of 2005 (according to the newfangled Wolfram Alpha search engine — I’m boycotting Microsoft’s Bing), had access to it.

Those 1 billion people are capable of acting, and often do act, as the equivalent of “telegraph offices” for the people around them who don’t personally have access. They can send messages on behalf of people other than themselves, and they can deliver messages to people other than themselves.

The Internet revolution (itself, along with “Internet Age,” a term that already seems dated hyperbole as applied to what is now banal and everyday fact) has made politicians obsolete as instruments of communication. We don’t have to attempt to distill varieties of viewpoint and funnel them through single channel “spokesperson” bottlenecks any more.

Obama’s speech is an anachronism. It’s as jarringly out of place in 2009 as would be a web site selling tickets for travel by stagecoach. The nation-state, at least in its form of imposture as “the voice of the people,” is dead.

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