Ten years ago when I first started teaching culture, law and policy of the Internet, I assigned Friedman’s The World is Flat. One of the attractions of this book was the wide-angle historical lens he offered as a framework into which to situate the Internet. First there were the absolute monarchs of Western Europe, the precursor to nation-states (think Isabel and Ferdinand forming Spain; Henry VII vanquishing the lessor lords to form England or Louis XIV the Sun King) and then the constitutional monarchies (Britain) and republics (France and, after independence, the United States). Then came the corporations, using the nation-states to colonize the world politically in search of natural resources (think rubber in southeast Asia, one simple example, for automobile tires). According to Friedman, the Internet was revolutionary because it was going to usher in a new era: the individual.
Ah, those early, heady days of John Perry Barlow and the Internet Declaration of Independence, where cyberspace transcended physical space and to which no laws need apply because the Golden Rule would prevail. Security incidents, fraud and abuse, crime and deceptions of all sorts, piracy and cyber-bullying threw the full portrait of human nature onto the Internet canvas.
I don’t teach Friedman anymore. Not only has technology outpaced the book (remember the ten “flatteners”? … so yesterday!) and there are so many other interesting books to broach (I am liking Data and Goliath along with everyone else), but his failure to analyze Internet business models resulted in a serious mistake in his framework. The individual is no more the future of either physical or cyber space than is the Man in the Moon. Corporations are still where the power sits. In fact, Internet corporations are the piece de resistance.
The most obvious reason for this observation is the old Henry Sutton line about why he robbed banks. (It is where the money is.) But I would like to dig a little deeper yet. Having a teleological streak (if you haven’t already noticed, Dear Reader), I cannot but help think that when nation-states fail and civil society collapses, it will be corporations (perhaps abetted by the emergent world-historical organized religions such as the Church of Latter Day Saints) that will be in a position to carry on civilization. Far-fetched? Spend some time in Rome and reflect on the long course. You may not come to the same conclusions, but at least you won’t be stuck in thinking that human nature has changed substantially and that on the train of history we are the last stop.
For the sake of the argument, bear with me a moment and assume my thesis. I ask you to do so because I have an underlying question to ask: In light of shifts in power from nation-states to corporations, what does it mean to be a global citizen? I am not the first observer to notice that international sets of national or ethic groups have more in common than someone from that group might have with the homeless people down the street in Delhi, Perth, Paris, Lagos, Sucre or Los Angeles. The burden that global wealth places on civil societies to correct is unsustainable. As corporations leap from one country to another, lured by low tax rates in countries that seek their own development but soon to be abandoned just as fast as they were struck, we have a large scale conundrum to address: how to pay infrastructure costs from an ever-shrinking global tax base? To bring the thought back to the present: Is there anything in this pattern that might help explain the squeezing of the middle class and the tightening of class distinctions in the United States?
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Internet.org, Google.org make a difference. Anti-poverty programs, inoculating children in African from common diseases, bringing devices, solar power sources and Internet connections to the developing world are all really important contributions to make, but I have my doubts that these philanthropic efforts are enough to address the wide-scale challenges that the seven billion and growing number of people of the world face. It is critical for us to think seriously about the meaning of global citizenship. Sustainability at every level from the environment to the attainment of fundamental rights requires purposeful commitments to a civil society that is separate from corporate life. So many efforts that go today by names such as both negative and positive rights, inclusion of previously disenfranchised categorical groups or the broad spectrum of accessibility that stretches across the expanse of physical, technological, economic or political landscapes are the provinces of societies grounded in the polis.
There is nothing wrong and everything right in Friedman’s trust in the notion of the individual. The correction of his analysis comes in recognizing that the Internet is not automatically going to create it. That recognition does not mean that we should not try, however. For whatever shifts the future will bring us, as citizens we have an obligation to do our best to preserve that tradition for the children who inherit the world we bequeath. The adjective might change from nation-state to global, but the noble concept of citizenship should remain a constant.
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading