Predictions and Reactions

Prediction: In the current best-seller The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman writes that the latest world revolution is found in the fact that the power of the internet makes it possible for individuals to collaborate and compete globally. This scenario: By 2020, the free flow of information will completely blur current national boundaries as they are replaced by city-states, corporation-based cultural groupings, and/or other geographically diverse and reconfigured human organizations tied together by global networks.

Scenario 6 Responses

An extended collection hundreds of written answers to this question can be found at:

Overview of Respondents’ Reactions

There will be increasing opportunity for global success, and people will form allegiances to geography-neutral social and work groupings while maintaining a national and/or regional identity as well. Some inequities will continue to exist in regard to technology knowledge and access, and some nations and corporations will continue to try to restrict what people can accomplish online.

A great number of the people of China and India are using networked digital technology today to advance their economies and change the landscapes of their lives. These countries are held up as the prime examples, but many groups and individuals across the world are less isolated than they were just a decade ago, thanks to their leveraging of a relatively new tool called the internet. A commonly cited proof of this is India’s IT offshoring revenue, which totaled $17.2 billion in 2005, with more than 1 million Indian IT workers serving overseas customers.

While many thinkers recognized and wrote and spoke about the globalization brought about by networked communications before New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman published his best-seller The World is Flat, Friedman’s book brought issues tied to technology and the future to the attention of well-read people in the West. Where will accelerating social and technological progress take the world in the next 15 years?

Survey responses to this proposed future ranged from “this will never happen” to “it’s happening now.” A considerable number of respondents agreed with the primary thrust of this scenario: that national groupings are being displaced to some extent by reconfigured human organizations tied together by global networks – city-states, corporation-based cultural groupings, and/or other geography-neutral sets of people. As in most of the earlier scenarios, a significant number of people found fault in enough of this proposed future to disagree with it and many wrote elaborations that both agreed and disagreed with aspects of this future.

Hal Varian, an expert on economics and technology at the UC-Berkeley and consultant for Google,39 wrote, “I certainly agree that the Internet allows small groups to compete globally; in fact, I’ve written about ‘micro-multinationals’ as becoming an important force. But I think that such forces only work well in some domains. People will still be plowing fields on their own.”

“I agree [with the prediction],” wrote Anthony Rutkowski of VeriSign, a co-founder of the Internet Society. “The mechanism for doing this, however, is the Next Generation Network infrastructure, not ‘the internet.’“

Daniel Wang, principal partner with Roadmap Associates, wrote, “Much like tectonic shifts moved land masses long ago to form world geography, the online shifts we’re experiencing are reconfiguring the human experience to form a new world order – one without borders. Success, however, will depend on the accessibility to networks, and whether the flat world is going to be an equal-opportunity one.”

Luc Faubert of dDocs, president of Quebec’s Internet Society chapter and an ambassador to the World Summit on the Information Society, wrote, “Both types of associations are needed and will co-exist: a) a cross-border, interest-driven virtual communities; and b) local communities.

Gordon Bell, a senior researcher with Microsoft, noted an economic reconfiguration will result from this scenario. “In the intervening 15 years,” he responded, “there is going to be a very large financial reckoning as power is rebalanced.”

Marc Rotenberg, executive director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said politics are key. “Citizens may be less willing to allow the collapse of nation states if they believe that international organizations lack accountability,” he wrote. “The debate over the WTO is a precursor to the future.” Michel Menou, an information-science researcher who has worked in nearly 80 nations, wrote, “The decline of the nation-state is much more the result of the subversion of those supposed to represent and defend the common interest by forces that represent particular ones.”

Some project the possibility of turbulence and even violence.

Paul Saffo, forecaster and director of the Institute for the Future, responded, “I mostly agree, but strongly object to the Panglossian overstatement. This trend will continue, but the old order will fight back. National governments will aggressively defend their power, and corporate incumbents will fight dirty against networked challengers. I thus believe that the 2020 networked world will be a turbulent place, full of opportunity and real innovation, but also real risks. Friedman’s writings will take their place alongside earlier optimist tracts extolling the wonders of technologies-to-come that over the years touted the benefits of radio (1930s), television (1950s), and personal computers (1970s).”

Pekka Nikander of Ericcson Research and the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology, a past member of the Internet Architecture Board, also expressed concerns about aggression. “The hind side of this scenario,” he wrote, “is that the collapse of nation states and other existing power structures is unlikely to be peaceful, causing widespread low-intensity violence.”

Robin Lane , teacher and philosopher at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, responded, “It may lead to less conflict between nations. However it may also result in more conflict as it creates cultural interfaces that were not factors in people’s experience prior to high-speed international communications.”

Ted Coopman of the University of Washington wrote, “Friedman … missed the ‘democratization’ of mass violence. While there will certainly be mass cooperation and competition, there will also be the ability of heretofore ineffectual entities to project power in unexpected and disruptive ways. This will be especially true for those who hold totalizing worldviews. This will result in a constant, global, low- to medium-intensity insurgent warfare manifesting across all venues and using all manner of repertoires to further agendas or thwart others. This will not be an entirely bad thing, as cooperation and building affinities and alliances will be the keys to success, rather than coercion.”

Some say national divisions are too strong to disappear.

Many respondents said the established political systems in current world governments will resist major erosion and remain dominant. “Nation-states can control access to the Internet if they choose to,” wrote Joe Bishop, a vice president with Marratech AB. “I doubt that national boundaries will dissolve by 2020 unless we discover extra-terrestrial intelligent life.” Agreed Charlie Breindahl of the University of Copenhagen: “China is not going away by 2020.”

John Quarterman, president of InternetPerils Inc., responded, “Some countries, such as U.S., Japan and China, will remain sufficiently nationalistic that even with blurring they’ll still be distinct. Even in Europe, the EU project has had recent setbacks, and while national boundaries are more porous than they used to be, national feeling still exists. Blurred yes; completely, no.”

Barry Wellman, director of NetLab at the University of Toronto, wrote, “We still have bodies; we, states and organizations still have territorially-based interests (in the political sense of that word).”

Gary Chapman, director of the 21st Century Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin, wrote, “Nation-states are not going to go away, nor is nationalism.” And Fred Baker, chairman of the board of trustees for the Internet Society, responded, “Gee, I’d love to see world peace, but I don’t believe that the Internet alone will be able to accomplish it. Much of the thinking in The World is Flat is valid. However, I doubt that the Western notion of a nation-state will significantly change during my lifetime.”

Robert Shaw, internet strategy and policy adviser for the International Telecommunication Union, wrote, “The contribution and creativity of individuals has always been important, way before the internet, but what the internet offers is a mechanism that connects and leverages individual creativity and behaviour into a collective mechanism that both rewards individual excellence and joint efforts. Therein lie the benefits. The individuals continue to live in nations, societies and cities with their own value systems that are not going to be displaced by this behaviour.”

Alan Levin, a network architect and chairman of the South Africa chapter of the Internet Society, responded, “I partially agree, as national boundaries will be even more emphasized in those countries where there has been political resistance (explicit or inadvertent) to the information age. These countries will effectively become outdated islands of information poverty.”

Peter Kim, senior analyst for Forrester Research, wrote, “I think this is feasible, but not in the timeframe. Government regulation will slow the pace of this change as political constituencies fight to keep revenue sources local.”

A number of respondents take issue with the use of the phrase “completely blur.”

Most respondents see a great deal of the scenario as likely, but some took issue with the strong wording indicating that shifting social and economic groups will take the starch out of national boundaries. “Virtual connections will increase in scale, scope and importance,” wrote internet policy analyst Alan Inouye. “I disagree about the magnitude of this change by 2020 (e.g., don’t agree with ‘completely blur’). Physical relationships and communities will continue to be important. Nations have a lot of history, ideology and culture.”

Esther Dyson of CNET Networks, former chairman of ICANN, responded, “I disagree with ‘completely.’ Moreover, if anyone can be successful, then those who are not successful (by whose definition?) must be responsible for their own failure.” Adrian Schofield, of South Africa’s ForgeAhead, an ICT research and consulting firm, responded, “Although I agree in principle, there remains sufficient misguided nationalism to maintain borders between people – despots and dictators will still be in power.”

And David Weinberger, a writer and teacher at Harvard’s Berkman Center put it this way: “The world is flat, but it’s also lumpy. We cluster together. Geography is one powerful attractor. So are interests. We’re capable of maintaining many sets of relationships simultaneously.”

Howard Rheingold, author and internet sociologist, wrote, “I disagree with the word ‘completely’ here, but I agree that Friedman’s ‘flatteners’ add up to a powerful force. I would also point out that the global economic flows enabled by communication infrastructure are highly dependent on cheap petroleum when it comes to moving matter around. That could change overnight.”

Glenn Ricart, a member of the Internet Society Board of Trustees, responded, “The phrase ‘completely blur’ probably goes too far, but it’s fair to say that new non-geographical allegiances will become as important and probably more important than today’s geographical communities. However, note that in addition to being connected with like-minded people, I also need to have economic intercourse with complementary groups. Hence, although I’m a Ph.D. computer scientist and will want to connect with the same and equivalent world-wide, I also want to connect with farmers who grow and will ship me great produce. The real world counts because I still can’t get fine dark chocolate to appear from my wireless PDA. In fact, I suspect I’ll spend a minority of my time with like-minded people of all types (cultural groupings, etc.) and the majority of my time with complementary people and groups.”

David Clark, a senior research scientist at MIT and one of the original architects of the internet, responded, “I agree, except that I don’t think national boundaries will be replaced. They will continue to play an important role. But it will be less unique. National identity will continue to be with us.”

Technology writer and consultant Fred Hapgood took issue with the timing of the scenario. “It will all happen, but the right date is closer to 2120 than 2020; national cultures run deep,” he wrote.

Corporate-based global groups draw fire from some respondents.

Concerns were expressed over the chance that business-based groupings with an emphasis on bottom-line financial goals will become too strong. “The Internet will open worldwide access to opportunities for success; it will also open ways for many dysfunctionalities,” responded Alejandro Pisanty, an officer of ICANN. “Corporation-based cultural groupings may actually be one of the most destructive forces if not enough cultural, relational, and bottom-up social forces are built up. This does not detract from the prediction that a lot more people than today will have a good life through extensive networked collaboration.”

Peter Nieckarz Jr., of Western Carolina University, wrote: “It will not be city-states so much as it will be corporations that become the sovereign entities transcendent of geographic space.”

Andy Williamson, managing director for Wairua Consulting Limited and a member of the New Zealand government’s Digital Strategy Advisory Group, wrote, “I suspect there is likely to be a huge backlash against the global corporatisation of the world and commodification of culture. I also do not see a free flow of information, given the current attempts by many to control it. However, localised and topical tribalism (and multi-tribal affiliations) seem likely to rise.”

Scott Moore, online community manager for the Schwab Foundation, responded, “There was a time that one could literally connect a computer to the internet and be on – now one must register the IP connection, which means such a connection can be denied. It is not freedom when a corporation or government holds the key to the cage.”

Mirko Petric of the University of Zadar in Croatia wrote, “It can be hardly expected that current national boundaries will blur completely by 2020, but it can be predicted with a great deal of certainty that corporate-based power will continue to exert its influence, relying on the possibilities offered by the new technologies – not only the internet but also beyond it. In any sort of prediction of this kind, some room should be left for cultural forms that will be a reaction to this state of affairs.”

Sam Punnett, president of FAD Research, sarcastically replied, “The corporation-based cultural groupings will still be called countries in 2020.”

Where do nations stand in the current networked world?

While many people replied that 2020 will find us in a mostly positive place where national boundaries are disappearing thanks to cross-cultural communications, a number of the survey respondents dismissed this scenario, using words and phrases such as “Pollyannaish,” “Nice dream,” “Piffle” and “Get real.” Perhaps they are familiar with another recent book, Who Controls the Internet? (Oxford, 2005) by Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu.

The authors, both American law professors, describe how political and economic interests have come into play over the past decade in making the internet a much less “open” place than it was in the early 1990s. They dispel any notions that John Perry Barlow’s free “civilization of the mind in cyberspace”40 might still exist, and even go so far as to say that a “geographically bordered internet has many underappreciated virtues.”

Their main argument runs like this: “Citizens want their government to prevent them from harming one another on the internet and to block internet harms from abroad. Companies need a legal environment that guarantees stability in the network and permits internet commerce to flourish. The bordered internet accommodates real and important differences among peoples in different places, and makes the internet a more effective and useful communication tool as a result.”41

Goldsmith and Wu write that corporations and governments are working in concert to solidify their power, using the architectures of the internet and the law in addition to leveraging the sort of economic coercion seen in China’s internet oversight and censorship.

Governments that wish to exercise control threaten a loss of access (this equates to a loss of corporate income) if internet companies don’t follow their wishes in regard to censorship, the sharing of the personal computing records of protesters, and/or the sending of “tracing” packets out on the network to identify the location of wanted users. Network tracing technology and geo-identification was originally developed to help all nations fight online fraud and other crimes, to help certain nations retain their cultural identity (France is a leader in this regard), and to help corporations and other groups share information selectively on a regional level.

Goldsmith and Wu write that today’s “bordered internet reflects top-down pressures from individuals in different places who demand an internet that corresponds to local preferences and from the Web page operators and other content providers who shape the internet experience to satisfy these demands.”42

They maintain that if the trend of the past decade continues, the internet will continue to be more regulated at various levels (to fight crime, build trust in the system, etc.), and control of content will be easier to exercise, to positive and negative effect.

Those who prefer to see the glass half full might want to read An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths, by Glenn Reynolds (Nelson Current, 2006), or The Only Sustainable Edge: Why Business Strategy Depends on Productive Friction and Dynamic Specialization, by John Hagel III and John Seely Brown (Harvard Business School Press, 2006). Reynolds says accelerating advances in technology will increase individuals’ empowerment at an accelerating rate over the next few decades. Hagel and Brown say, “The acceleration of capability building will shift our individual and collective mind-sets from a worldview that focuses on static, zero-sum relationships to one that focuses on dynamic non-zero-sum relationships … This new worldview emphasizes the importance of the evolution of local ecosystems.”

While the United States has been a juggernaut of innovation and it has owned the world’s biggest economy for a long stretch, analysts have seen the pendulum swing over the last decade. A great deal of this is tied to the ways in which people have been using networked communications to open new opportunities and markets; the enhanced connectedness brings it all together. A recent Goldman Sachs report projects that China will have the largest economy in the world by 2045. Clyde Prestowitz writes about this in detail in Three Billion New Capitalists, his book about the influence of increasing participation in the global economy of people from India, China and the former Soviet Union.

In his response to the 2020 scenario presented in this Pew Internet survey, Amos Davidowitz of the Institute of World Affairs and Association for Progressive Education wrote:

“The nation-state is an invention of the industrial world that allowed the most efficient management of resources both material and people. The information age needs the flow of ideas, the political form always follows the economic need. We will see a flattening of the nation-state in Western society. In third-world countries and networks of ethnic grouping such as the Arab world, we will see a desperate attempt to hold onto the framework as is. We cannot forget that Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia lost many years, due to imperialism, to work through the various aspects of nationalism. It took Western Europe a thousand years and two very bloody world wars to work out the kinks of nation, culture, country, resource. The future is brighter since the source of wealth is no longer based on carbon, such as oil, minerals, land, which are limited – but based on information and creativity which is limitless.”