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The Clash of Digitalizations

January 25, 2010

If you haven’t already realized that non-governmental organizations are more important to global politics today than governments themselves, you might be a member of such a government.

I agreed with Francis Fukuyama’s argument when I first read it, when it seemed certain that liberalism would win the hearts and minds of the peoples across the globe.  Liberalism’s hands-off approach to governance allows peoples to be happy, productive, and peaceful, even if it also allows them to become fat, stupid, and lazy in the process; either way, that’s what peoples want. It still seems to me that liberal, capitalistic democracy has no legitimate, explicit ideological opponents remaining to challenge it for supremacy in the eye of the weltgeist; even Samuel Huntington would have agreed that legitimacy was not a reason religious or cultural fundamentalism would clash with Western civilization.

Implicit in liberalism, however, is the principle of non-interference and non-coercion in individuals’ behavioral choices, which is where Fukuyama and Huntington diverged.  Fukuyama thought that the United States, as the world’s sole remaining superpower, would idealistically lead the world in spreading its unquestioned political philosophy without the need to force anything since free-market Capitalism would provide such an alluring carrot that politics would bend to accommodate it (note: China is both a prime example and counterpoint to this thesis).  Huntington more accurately predicted the violent disagreement that certain factions would provoke on behalf of various idiosyncratic ideologies of the world.  Security concerns have always remained the main bump in the otherwise smoothly paved road.  We’ve known that national security and individual freedom were forces locked in opposition since Thomas Hobbes pointed out that man’s infinite capacity to fear will incline him to trade away ultimate authority in exchange for security.  Of course, even free governments don’t always make the bargain above the table when the massively invasive behavior is largely unperceived.

Regardless of all of the activity by governments, it is apparent that today the majority of all networked peoples interact with internet entities and each other much more often than their own governments, even if those governments still hold a monopoly on physical force.  In a liberal society, non-governmental units almost necessarily rise in cultural importance relative to the supposedly non-interfering state, especially when facilitated by the increased connectivity, freedom of communication, and availability of information allowed through networks.  Those peoples and organizations can and do shape their own policy agendas in light of their rise in importance relative to state actors.  When the entity is particularly important to the way people live (i.e., Google), their foreign policy is potentially more relevant than any state’s.

Yes, this post has been building up to the fact that the relationship between Google and China is starting to sound like the climax of a mobster movie (China: “You said you’d help me hide the bodies!” Google: “I didn’t sign up for this, man.”).  While Google had been complicit in erecting the Great Firewall of China, as long as there was a buck to be made (or many billions for that matter), the minute Chinese hackers started making Google feel unsafe, Google took a stand for freedom.  Fortunately for democratic peoples, freedom of information usually coincides with the huge-money interests of the network economy: Fukuyama’s point crystallized in the digital age.  Of course, China is refusing to politically back down, even in the face of huge connectivity losses for its citizens or losses in authoritarian control for its government.  It is revealing of the shift in the locus of political action from states to organizations, though it may be made to appear otherwise, that the most relevant political action that could be taken by the United States has been to simply back Google’s policy up by nodding our heads (of state).

The great irony in all this is that the only reason Google’s architecture was subject to attack in the first place was because the United States had demanded its own backdoor–you know, for national security.

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