The inevitability of global government

Paul Raven @ 02-06-2009

United Nations, GenevaMichael Anissimov found an intriguing (and rather odd) post by one Britt Gillette, which argues that a single monolithic global government is not only possible but inevitable, and that the driving force will be the rise of molecular manufacturing technology:

Imagine a scenario in which a single individual in possession of unrestricted technology and resources could conquer the entire world. This will be our world in the era of molecular manufacturing. With such high stakes and an almost infinite number of potential threats, the world population will require some means of defense. And that defense will require around-the-clock, ever-present surveillance of the world at large.

A system of safeguards will have to be constructed in order to prevent emerging nation states, terrorist groups, and individuals from breaching the peace. A single global government will go a long way toward eliminating military conflict, as there will be only one military power with a unified purpose. However, in the era of molecular manufacturing, competing militaries could rise quickly, and to prevent a loss of its governing monopoly, a global government will have to deploy unprecedented measures.

This surveillance could be “god-like” in scope – seeing everything, hearing everything, and knowing everything. Imagine “nanodust” – nanoscale cameras and listening devices as plentiful and as difficult to remove as common, everyday dust. MM will enable the construction of trillions of these sophisticated devices at negligible cost.

It’s quite a lengthy post, looking at trends in political detente and weapons stockpiling since WW2 to justify the argument. Beyond the paragraphs quoted above it gets all Bible-literalist, but there’s some genuine logical thought going on before Gillette invokes a themed short-story anthology of dubious editorial provenance as a guide to future inevitabilities, and Anissimov concedes the validity of molecular manufacturing as a game-changing technology:

… MM will not arrive tomorrow, and probably not in the next decade (maybe in the next two), but if it does, I believe that global government is indeed probable, whether you like it or not. Go read Nanosystems. Even if MNT is implausible, hijacked ribosomes would still give rise to exponential manufacturing, so even “soft machines” could lead to the ability to build millions of missiles in less than a couple years. The crucial effects are the exponentiality and programmability.

I’d go with global government being plausible, but I’m not entirely sure it’s the most likely scenario. Personally, I tend to think that governance will become radically decentralised as the nation-state concept finally dissolves; molecular manufacturing would accelerate the erosion of geography that communications technology has already begun. Much as in the original comic books version of Watchmen, I think the only thing that could unite the planet into a single body would be an external existential threat on an equivalent scale to an alien invasion – and I don’t consider one of those to be very likely at all! [image by lilivanili]

That said, I think a global framework based on communications that allows local governments to interact with each other on an equal footing is fairly likely – as well as more appealing than the thought of some bureaucratic behemoth spanning the planet.

But I’m aware that’s not a majority opinion – so what do you lot think? Is a single global government inevitable, and would such a thing be desirable? What would be its causes, and what would be its flaws?

Swine flu – panic, precautions and practicalities

Paul Raven @ 27-04-2009

flying pigWelcome to the 21st Century, wherein you will be informed of potential disasters more quickly than ever before… and, quite possibly, in indirect proportion to their actual threat. Unless you’ve been ignoring digital media completely for the last two days, you’ll already be aware of the swine flu outbreak in Mexico – but how much do you really know, and how much of that is actually useful? [image by aturkus]

New Scientist is a good place to start for a factual overview of the swine flu situation:

Should I worry about this flu?

That depends on two things: how severe the flu is, and how far it spreads. Its severity is still unknown. Those who died in Mexico were young adults who don’t often die of flu, so we know this virus can be serious. But it isn’t always bad: the cases picked up in the US were mild. Outbreak investigators are now trying to find out how many people have had the virus, and how many of those were seriously ill, to get an idea of how bad it is.

In other words, panic is not only unproductive but as yet unwarranted, despite being amplified by Twitter, whose rapidity and limited bandwidth is spreading fear faster than facts. Of course, there’s always some humour to be found in the darkest of situations.

That said, this is a serious situation and there is the possibility of a global pandemic, though without access to hard data it’s impossible for anyone to really assess the likelihood in anything more than hypothetical terms… which is doubtless why the conspiracy theorists are having such a frenzied field day.

But it’s grist for the mills of thinkers with a less alarmist bent, as well:

Swine flu, we could say, is a spatial problem – an epiphenomenon of landscape.

I’m reminded here of a point made recently by geographer Javier Arbona. Referring to the increasingly popular and somewhat utopian idea that, in the sustainable cities of tomorrow, agriculture will have returned to its rightful place in the city center, Arbona asks: “Did everyone think that so much lushness and farming envisioned in the city aren’t going to open up new Pandora’s boxes of infectious diseases and sanitation problems as we come into contact with more manure, more bacteria, and more wild animals that we urbanites are not at all ‘naturalized’ to?”

Thought experiments aside, the sensible thing to do is ignore anything repeated in hysterical terms by media outlets with a reputation reputation for sensationalist reportage, while making sensible and proportional preparations for the worst. Although at time of posting it is currently missing (in what is presumably a Wired CMS brainfart – ZOMFG kover-up kkkonspiracy!!!1), Bruce Sterling has an uncharacteristically level-headed and sensible analysis of the true global extent of the threat (in short: compared to the ongoing AIDS pandemic, swine flu at its worst will be a picnic); in the meantime, Charlie Stross links to some genuinely useful practical advice:

Oh, and if you want to know how to ride out a flu pandemic, Jim MacDonald explains how to tell flu from a cold, what you should have in your home in case you catch the flu, and how to wash your hands. Pay attention at the back: I don’t want to be needlessly alarmist but knowing how to wash your hands properly might just save your life.

The panic and hype around swine flu is certain to get louder before it gets quieter, especially once the daily tabloids take up the slack after the weekend, so let’s all try to keep a level head. Life can get messy, but it’s not a Michael Crichton novel.

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.


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.


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]

Global collapse? What global collapse?

Paul Raven @ 27-03-2009

Apocalypse later?Futurist Brian Wang has had it with the doom-mongershe’s pretty sure there’s not going to be any global collapse, and he’s got a list of reasons why. Here are just a few:

1. Efficiency, conservation and an energy plans can be enhanced beyond current levels with minimal strain. There has been partially voluntary reductions in energy demand during the credit crisis. 10% reductions with minimal effort and 20% reductions with more austerity.

OK, seems reasonable.

5. In regards to global warming and environmental concerns:

  • a rapid switchover to totally clean power would stop the air pollution of coal and most oil and would greatly reduce any additional CO2
  • geoengineering can be used to reduce global temperatures if necessary
  • if the beliefs of climate change being from man-made sources are right then we are already geoengineering by accident as a side effect of our industry. It will be cheaper and easier to geoengineer to cancel those accidental side effects with intentional reversal efforts

Well, possibly, but geoengineering is a very speculative field indeed, as noted yesterday. And how are you going to defeat the political inertia on energy source changes?

9. Financial doom scenarios

  • Mandated resets of debt forgiveness, re-issuing script etc… can be used to reboot a country or a financial system
  • People and systems for production would still exist even if there was 1000 trillion in debt

Yes, but where’s the motivation for those hungry and desperate people going to come from?

Wang’s points all make sense, but they all seem to assume the presence of a strong and clearheaded global or national leadership which, most importantly, hasn’t lost the respect of its subjects or its power to organise them into productive and efficient units.

Wang frequently compares these potential responses to war-time mobilisation efforts, and as regards the scale of effort needed that comparison has validity. But I’m not so certain about his confidence in the psychology of a mobilisation of that sort; before his list, he says:

One thing of note is that most people usually think that Hitler and Stalin were bad guys for killing or causing the death of about 100 million people. Most of the civilization die off scenarios are that level of death each and every year for 70 years. 1000 times the number of deaths in the holocaust. Why is there the belief that significant mitigation efforts would not be made ?

Because political rhetoric is more easily focussed on an enemy with a face, perhaps?

The problem with existential threats is that they’re hard for our fundamentally selfish and short-range psychology to focus on. When you’ve not got enough to eat, your first priority will be filling your stomach, not saving the world. Mobilising people on the scale of nations takes a government with its people’s ear and trust, or at least their obedience under pressure… and with exception of some of the more totalitarian regimes on the planet, those are in short supply at the moment, and likely to be more so as the number of tangible existential risks increases, in my opinion. [image by sashomasho]

What do you think – would the world come together in the face of a genuine extinction event, or would it be every man for himself in the last days of civilisation?

Screw optimism – this is a global guerilla century

Paul Raven @ 10-02-2009

guerillas on the marchJohn Robb isn’t going to give you the news you want to hear. Nope, sorry – the Depression scenario has already emerged fully, and the results are not going to be pretty as we transition into a new politico-economical era in its wake:

A global depression, in and of itself, isn’t the end of the world. However, it can set in motion unexpected events (black swans) — as in how the last depression catalyzed WW2. The revisionist effort to this economic collapse isn’t likely to be a surge in ideology or nationalism. Instead, we can expect an organic realignment as small groups of people form new primary loyalties (either to violent manufactured tribes or resilient communities), slot themselves into open source movements, and challenge a wheezing group of incumbent nation-states. This is a global guerrilla century.

So, not exactly a rosy outlook… and a poke in the eye for the Positive Manifesto school of sf, perhaps. That said, there’s plenty of starting points in Robb’s material for the more dystopian-leaning writer to tackle! [image by Keith Bacongco]

But what do you think – is Robb looking at a worst-case scenario and seeing Mad Max re-runs, or is he being generous with the possibilities of civilisational collapse?

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