Six Billion Nation States

January 10, 2008 at 9:22 am 1 comment

When Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world”. I’m sure he knew he was right in theory only; that his vision of “world moving” was forever beyond the physical reach of individuals. Yet he was perfectly correct in another sense. Individuals, by applying the right technology in the right way, can move the world.

In many ways this is an observation of the obvious, or at least it should be. The category of human achievement we label as “technology”, is nothing more than a collection of tools leveraging every aspect of human ability: Cars, trains, planes and ships, leverage our ability to move; Microscopes and telescopes leverage our sight; Hydraulic pumps leverage physical effort; Computers leverage every aspect of the mind, from reasoning to memory … The list goes on, yet people are continually and genuinely surprised when individuals achieve what was once achievable only by corporations, industries and Nation States.

Technological progress continually increases personal ability. It makes us more capable than those who went before us. Even more powerful than the companies, infrastructures and governments they erected to increase their capability.

A transportation example: I’ve visited more than three dozen countries, crossed the Atlantic at least 200 times, and traveled a great global circle twice. A century ago, I would have been the envy of Presidents and Kings. Today this achievement is practically without merit. I barely qualify as an elite frequent flyer.

Immersed in capability, we lose sight of what technology has made possible. Constant acquaintance with the amazing, immunizes us against awe.

Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; because contempt requires conscious recognition. Familiarity breeds apathy, even ignorance of the wondrous. Once upon a time, only governments and big business could send a message around the world. Today the most disadvantaged of us, the homeless, own cell phones. Ho hum.

Because of this dramatic increase of leveraged ability, individuals can now compete with corporations, even industries. The almost exhausted example of Napster… an application developed by two students in a dorm room on a personal computer, placed the multi-billion dollar music industry at the edge of a precipice in less than a decade.

Even the loosely organized Fourth Estate is challenged by an individual’s ability to communicate on a global scale. Matt Drudge and his Drudge Report was as much a legitimate news source during the Clinton scandal, as the New York Times or the Washington Post. Personal Web Blogging by individuals has awoken and is considered as much a reasonable source of news and opinion as the major distributors, by a generation disenchanted with these traditional media channels.

This ability to leverage is not restricted to the domains of commerce. The world’s largest military machine is at war with an individual and his relatively small network of like minded ‘ associates’. Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, and author of “Losing Control – Global Security in the 21st Century” (Pluto Press), acknowledges this shift in power when he recognizes: “the capability for relatively weak groups, whether states or sub-state actors (italics mine), to be able to exercise political violence against advanced urban-industrial states.”

There is a growing awareness that through their increased ability to wage war, individuals can demand equality with the Nation State. Given the current world stage, it is difficult to argue they haven’t already succeeded.

Our shared fear is that these individuals will gain control of WMD. This acquisition immediately elevates them to the status of world powers. The military experts have even coined a perfectly appropriate term “Asymmetric Warfare”… while it was meant to describe those situations where smaller forces apply their strength against the weakest defenses of stronger forces, it aptly describes any situation where governments must devote their full attention to the attacks from what were once considered gnats.

Nor is the ability to wage war totally dependent on mere acquisition of ready made WMD. We now have the ability to create WMD in the back room. Specifically the weapons of biological, and chemical warfare. Germ warfare has always been an option, it’s nothing new. Poisoning a well, contaminating a food supply or distributing infected blankets are all low tech, historical versions of modern biological warfare, accessible to anyone with malicious intent, but technology has once again, raised the ante.

A team of researchers, at the University of New York, led by Dr. Eckard Wimmer have assembled a viable Polio virus from tailor-made sequences ordered from a supply house. Their ‘blueprint’ came from the Internet. According to one of the researchers, Jeronimo Cello, “It was very easy to do.” While the more dangerous viruses we know of are more complex, and therefore more difficult to assemble, the researchers admit that constructing such viruses is a distinct possibility.

As stated in the beginning, none of this should surprise us; these developments merely echo the trend of democratizing political power. Kingdoms once concentrated the power to shape and change the world in a single individual, now all individuals can move the world. Today we’re all Heads of State.

Archimedes’ lever, much to his eternal surprise, is now a common reality.


Entry filed under: blogging, Change, Communications, Future, innovation, Leaders, Leadership, Life, Management, Problem Solving, Technology.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. seesshootsandleaves  |  January 10, 2008 at 10:41 am

    “Familiarity breeds apathy” – this was Martin Heidegger’s point in Being and Time when he discussed things being “ready-to-hand” – they are thought of simply as “stuff to use” and we no longer allow them to be present to us and make us wonder. (He also pointed out that when we allow, for instance, our razor to become “present-to-hand” we will probably cut ourselves shaving, because the flip side of the situation is that being present causes our attention to wander from the task at hand to the bigger picture.)

    One of the traps we find ourselves in is that we have narrowed our horizon to functionality. “What does it do?” and “What do you do?” are our questions. We don’t spend time asking “How did this come to be?” “What are we missing?” or “Where else could we go from here?” – think about your last meeting and what happened to the bright new hire just out of school! – and while this functional approach has allowed us to multiply our efforts it has cost us dearly, from no longer noticing that our business policies have ruined the very communities we live in to families being subordinated to the needs of organizations.

    Once the lever does its job and tips the load, it is very hard to return. But return we must, or what we are doing will come to a crashing halt when all the realities we are ignoring catch up and over-run it.


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