Neomedievalism

Paul Raven @ 09-02-2010

The Rocinha favela, Rio de JaneiroWhile I’m on the subject of Bruce Sterling, here’s a brief piece he flagged up at Foreign Policya bleak prediction that the world is reverting to a kind of technology-mediated econo-political feudalism. Call it Neomedievalism:

The state isn’t a universally representative phenomenon today, if it ever was. Already, billions of people live in imperial conglomerates such as the European Union, the Greater Chinese Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the emerging North American Union, where state capitalism has become the norm. But at least half the United Nations’ membership, about 100 countries, can hardly be considered responsible sovereigns. Billions live unsure of who their true rulers are, whether local feudal lords or distant corporate executives. In Egypt and India, democratic elections have devolved into auctions. Delivering security and providing welfare aren’t just campaign promises; they are the campaign. The fragmentation of societies from within is clear: From Bogotá to Bangalore, gated communities with private security are on the rise.

This diffuse, fractured world will be run more by cities and city-states than countries. Once, Venice and Bruges formed an axis that spurred commercial expansion across Eurasia. Today, just 40 city-regions account for two thirds of the world economy and 90 percent of its innovation. The mighty Hanseatic League, a constellation of well-armed North and Baltic Sea trading hubs in the late Middle Ages, will be reborn as cities such as Hamburg and Dubai form commercial alliances and operate “free zones” across Africa like the ones Dubai Ports World is building. Add in sovereign wealth funds and private military contractors, and you have the agile geopolitical units of a neomedieval world. Even during this global financial crisis, multinational corporations heavily populate the list of the world’s largest economic entities; the commercial diplomacy of emerging-market firms such as China’s Haier and Mexico’s Cemex has already turned North-South relations inside out faster than the nonaligned movement ever did.

There are positive sides to a world where every man can be a nation unto himself. Postmodern Medicis such as Bill Gates, Anil Ambani, George Soros, and Richard Branson take it upon themselves to cure pandemics, run corporate cities, undermine authoritarian regimes, and sponsor climate-saving research. But the Middle Ages were fundamentally a time of fear, uncertainty, plagues, and violence. So, too, their successor. AIDS and SARS, terrorism and piracy, cyclones and rising sea levels — it is no longer clear how to invest in the future, or what future to invest in. Figuring out how to respond to this new world will take decades at least. The next Renaissance is still a long way off.

Well, colour me vindicated – this sounds a lot like the world I’m trying to describe when I batter on about the death of geography, the decline of the nation-state and the rise of the corporate entity as political liege… albeit a more succinct (and distinctly more qualified) version thereof. [image by fabbio]

Coming as it does from a publication whose focus is international diplomacy, the screed above takes a bleak view of this imminent new world order – if you can see your profession withering on the vine, it’s bound to make you a bit glum. But I’m not so sure the neomedieval world is going to be a worse place for everyone… or even the majority. To be honest, the majority of people will notice no major changes in their lives at all – the proper nouns in the newsfeed headlines will change, and the adverbs will become more inflammatory (if that’s possible), but it’ll be business as usual in the global favela.

For those of us sat comfortably in our current states of privilege, however, a lot of things will change… or at least they’ll seem to, because we have the luxury of time and curiosity to watch it happening. The first thing we’ll lose is certainty…

… those of us who still have any certainty left, that is. 😉


Writing the mega-corporation realistically

Paul Raven @ 22-04-2009

corporate headquartersJason Stoddard has gotten tired of stories and novels featuring shadowy and nefarious mega-corporations seeking to enslave the globe, and with good reason – it’s just not a realistic or logical thing for a corporation to do, and it’s becoming a modern iteration of the moustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash villain cliché. [image by victoriapeckham]

A corporation doesn’t care if you’re living in a 300 square foot studio apartment or a 6000 square foot McMansion. They don’t want to wipe out the McMansion dwellers, or elevate the studio apartment owners. They only care about one thing: that you buy their stuff.

For everything they do, they’ll have justification. There’s no hidden business plan with a top-line mission statement of “Destroying Civilization As We Know It.”

But there will be hundreds or thousands of decisions, all based on maximizing profit. Substituting cheaper ingredients: maximize profit. Use low-income countries for labor: maximizing profit. Driving smaller competitors out of business: ensuring growth, which maximizes profit. Extending credit to anyone: maximizes profit.

If they can make a bigger profit selling you a “green” condo and a Prius rather than a McMansion and an Escalade, that’s exactly what they’ll do. If they think they’ll make an even larger profit renting you an apartment and leasing you a bike, that’s what they’ll do.

While we’re on the subject of capitalist economics, ethics and prosperity, here’s Matt Ridley at Wired UK explaining why robber barons always end up on top – it’s because they find ways to make things cheaper for you, the consumer:

It’s still happening today. Wal-Mart, Aldi and Ryanair won their market shares by ruthlessly charging us viciously lower prices. And here lies a cause for optimism in the midst of this recession. Even though jobs are being lost, houses repossessed and firms bankrupted, the underlying deflation caused by innovation is still going on – indeed, on the web, it’s accelerating. All over the internet, people are dreaming up ways of making things available to you more cheaply, more conveniently, more copiously and more quickly. That is what will cause prosperity to return one day.

That’s a brave op-ed, given the current econo-political climate, but I suspect he’s at least half right. However, I was somewhat amused to note that Ridley’s masthead note says he was a non-executive chairman for Northern Rock for three years; make of that what you will. 😉


Capitalism 2.0

Tom James @ 16-04-2009

plant_curveFlaneur and creator of the black swan theory Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written an engaging article for Edge describing the principles of what he calls Capitalism 2.0:

1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small. Nothing should ever become too big to fail. Evolution in economic life helps those with the maximum amount of hidden risks – and hence the most fragile – become the biggest.

2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains. Whatever may need to be bailed out should be nationalised; whatever does not need a bail-out should be free, small and risk-bearing. We have managed to combine the worst of capitalism and socialism. In France in the 1980s, the socialists took over the banks. In the US in the 2000s, the banks took over the government. This is surreal.

Taleb’s highly bombastic style may not be to everyone’s liking but I rather enjoy the iconoclastic tone of both The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness. Both are highly recommended – especially as they have direct relevance to thinking about the near future.

[image from James Jordan on flickr]


Resilience economics – Jamais Cascio’s 2020 vision

Paul Raven @ 01-04-2009

skyscraper construction siteJamais Cascio has been doing what futurists do best – speculating on the near-term changes that need to be made to haul our asses out of the economic hole they’re in and, hopefully, ensure we don’t end up stuck there again.

Of course, the web is full of people doing the same thing, making pretty much every website (this one included, to be fair) a shower of competing ideas and ideologies (of varying degrees of sanity). What’s interesting – and perhaps more reasonable – about Cascio’s approach is that he isn’t adhering to either of the standard polar opposites of socialism and capitalism; he’s attempting to synthesise the two in this report from an imaginary future a few decades away:

Traditional capitalism was, arguably, driven by the desire to increase wealth, even at the expense of other values. Traditional socialism, conversely, theoretically wanted to increase equality, even if that meant less wealth. But both 19th/20th century economic models had insufficient focus on increasing resilience, and would often actively undermine it. The economic rules we started to assemble in the early 2010s seek to change that.

[snip]

Decentralized diversity (what we sometimes call the “polyculture” model) means setting the rules so that no one institution or approach to solving a problem/meeting a need ever becomes overwhelmingly dominant. This comes at a cost to efficiency, but efficiency only works when there are no bumps in the road. Redundancy works out better in times of chaos and uncertainty — backups and alternatives and slack in the system able to counter momentary failures.

Some food for thought there, no? It’s informed by the networked and distributed technologies which surround us, but lacks the idealistic tang of utopian thinking… and compromise seems like a good idea from where I’m sitting, at least.

And while we’re talking about major upheavals to the way we do stuff nowadays, how about open source healthcare?

… in healthcare, state intervention artificially skews the model of service toward the most expensive kind of treatment. For example, the patent system encourages an R&D effort focused mainly on tweaking existing drugs just enough to claim that they’re “new,” and justify getting a new patent on them (the so-called “me too” drugs). Most medical research is carried out in prestigious med schools, clinics and research hospitals whose boards of directors are also senior managers or directors of drug companies. And the average GP’s knowledge of new drugs comes from the Pfizer or Merck rep who drops by now and then.

[snip]

In an open-source healthcare system, someone might go to vocational school for accreditation as the equivalent of a Chinese “barefoot doctor.” He could set fractures and deal with other basic traumas, and diagnose the more obvious infectious diseases. He might listen to your cough, do a sputum culture and maybe a chest x-ray, and give you a round of zithro for your pneumonia. But you can’t purchase such services by themselves without paying the full cost of a college and med school education plus residency.

That’s a bit more extreme (or at least more detailed and close-focussed) than Cascio’s vision, but they both depend on a degree of decentralisation, with local systems picking up the slack where national institutions have failed. Given the increasing urbanisation of the world’s population, maybe devolving some governmental systems to independent local nodes would provide the flexibility we need to deal with these times of rapid change. [image by mugley]


Social capitalism: The bail-out index

Tom Marcinko @ 23-01-2009

grammSounds like it might have been a bit of business from a novel by Bruce Sterling or Charles Stross:

Nasdaq OMX Group said on Friday it will launch options trading on its three-week old Government Relief Index, which tracks the performance of companies bailed out by U.S. taxpayers.

Heroic Randian capitalists — masters of the universe, if you will — will save us.

[Image: Tony the Misfit; story tip: Atrios]


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