Internet Effects: Declining Significance of Nation-State and Government

The 21st century—certainly since 2007 with the emergence of the smartphone and cloud computing—is the Internet Age; a time in which the Internet, with attendant hardware (e.g., computers, smartphones, and sensors) and software (e.g., the cloud, Google, and  apps), dominates all aspects of human life and activity, including the nation-state and government. The Internet prevails because its omnipresence and effects make it the most efficient way to acquire, increase, improve, and use information which, in contrast to previous times, is a more important resource for solving problems in production, retail, journalism, banking and finance, healthcare, education, communication, governance, as well as for solving problems in science, mathematics, sports, human relations, and in any other activity.  As Werk, updating Marx, phrases it: “first land, then capital, now information”.

The nation-state, said to be sovereign, and usually revered (“god bless America” comes to mind) is, in fact, not sovereign.  Its power within its own territory is, and has always been, less than total, secondary in many matters, and less in the remainder is shocking—and, even scary—only to those (a declining number, thankfully) deluded by the Westphalian fiction of nation-state sovereignty, initially concocted in 1648 by Henri II d’Orléans, duc de Longueville, and other no-longer-eminences in the Treaty of Westphalia. The non-duped know that nation-states never have unlimited power—but always depend on, and share power with, other institutions, organized interests, and individuals inside and outside the nation’s specified geographical area.

Even more than a thousand years before Henri and friends phrased the Westphalian fantasy, it was understood that the state’s power was curtailed by, often reliant on and, in some circumstances, overwhelmed by the power of the institutional church. It’s also documented and acknowledged that the power of the nation-state is usually significantly reduced when not superseded by economic factors, conditions, and developments.

Today, the nation-state is known to be a mixture, not of any two powers, but of many and that production processes (e.g., manufacturing) and institutions, such as corporations and banks, within the state’s borders, as well as numerous other internal non-state actors (interest groups, thirty-one types of 501 organizations, professional associations, and so on) restrict their actions. In addition, external forces, such as globalization, external non-state actors—for instance, transnational corporations—and most significantly, technological developments, such as computers and the Internet, make the nation-state an obstacle to solving problems, vulnerable, contribute to its collapse and, in many important matters, reduce it to irrelevancy.

The manifestation and actor of the nation-state, government—traditionally relied on for problem solving (and much more)—is another institution in the Internet Age as irrelevant as the nation-state. Its power and, thus, actual significance, are reduced by the same sorts of developments that preclude nation-state sovereignty, including, and most recently, the Internet. Government is at odds with our electronic, global, reality and has become an obsolete “horse and buggy” institution.

More specifically, government processes, structures, and personnel are not suited to obtain the amount and type of information required for problem-solving. The information that’s need is online but  because governments can acquire, at best, only a part of it, they suffer from information deficit.

Governments are also deficient because they are losing capacity—e.g., sufficiently qualified personnel—to perform. They contract out, privatize, and join with other organizations for functions and programs they formerly performed mostly by themselves. Although governments do less than they used to, they’ve never acted alone, never had the capacity to adequately deal with issues and problems. What’s new today is that the universal scope and penetration of the Internet have made the ineffectiveness of governments more extensive and more clearly recognized.

Even governments based on popular elections and representation cannot do what needs to be done, for example concerning environmental destruction. “The atmosphere has no vote in the next US election” depicts government’s inadequacy on this issue. Representative institutions, such as the US Congress, are  “out of business”.  Actually. it’s been known for years that “the era of representative [government] was drawing to a close”. (Kavanagh, Times Literary Supplement, 2001)  Nor can representative governments increase taxes to fund needed environmental or other programs because they’ll be voted out of office if they try. No taxation without representation has been replaced by no taxation. Intakes from user fees, lotteries, bake sales, and online philanthropy make up for some budget losses, but are always short for problem solving.

Also waning are voting and electoral systems that determine membership in legislatures, chief executive offices, and numerous courts. Voting is, at best “anemic” and, actually, superfluous in reference to problem solving; it’s just playing in the electoral sandbox, and, as Jaffe editorializes, “[w]ith each day, it is harder to see how the vote of a citizen—or an elected official—makes much of a difference”.  Many agree and now habitually do not vote. Political parties join the ranks of the mostly irrelevant, in part because of rampant nonvoting, but also because the Internet has become the more effective way for politicos to garner votes and money.

Government laws and regulations, court decisions, executive orders, and all other official pronouncements, edicts, and rules decline in effectiveness. They can’t keep up with technological developments: “Talented engineers [technologists]”, says Rusbridger, “will always be ahead of the laws”. The same is true for government oversight. Governments can’t effectively oversee even when they want to (which, in many cases, they don’t) because they lack sufficient and relevant information, as well as technological understanding.

In the Internet Age, all aspects of government and everything associated with politics, including protest and activism, are of declining significance for problem-solving. “Politics”, McLuhan points out, “offers yesterday’s answers to today’s questions” and although some “answers” generated by political processes and governments result in modicums of amelioration, politics is about power and the rewards of office; including, of course, money, and government–we need to remember–is not primarily about solving problems but, rather, promoting policies that generate support for government officials.

We shouldn’t rely on government, elections, demonstrations, and the like to solve problems.  Rather, we need to build open Internet networks that focus on solving the problems we’re interested in.  A few examples of open Internet problem-solving networks are: Wikipedia, Peer-to Patent, Zooniverse, and, InnoCentive.

As the Stones tuned, You Gotta Move–to the Internet–if you’re going to solve problems.




About georgebeam

George Beam is an educator and author. The perspectives that inform his interpretations of the topics of this blog–-as well as his other writings and university courses -–are system analysis, behaviorism, and Internet effects. Specific interests include quality management, methodology, and politics. He is Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Public Administration; Affiliated Faculty, Department of Political Science; and, previously, Head, Department of Public Administration, University of Illinois at Chicago
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