Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Bruce Sterling on the evaporation of collective illusions

Bruce Sterling suggests that the collapse in confidence in financial institutions may only be the tip of the iceberg. He then lays out some other collective illusions which risk evaporating in 2009. Among others:
Intellectual property. More specifically, the fiat declaration that properties that are easy to reproduce shouldn't be reproduced.

Declaring that "information wants to be free" is an ideological stance. A real-world situation where information can't be anything but free, where digital information cannot be monetized, is bizarre and deeply scary. No banker or economist anywhere has the ghost of clue what to do under such conditions.

Intellectual property made sense and used to work rather well when conditions of production favored it. Now they don't. If it's simple to copy just one single movie, some gray area of fair use can be tolerated. If it becomes easy to copy a million movies with one single button-push, this vast economic superstructure is reduced to rags. Our belief in this kind of "property" becomes absurd.

To imagine that real estate is worthless is strange, though we've somehow managed to do that. But our society is also built on the supposed monetary worth of unreal estate. In fact, the planet's most advanced economies are optimized to create pretty much nothing else. The ultimate global consequences of this situation's abject failure would rank with the collapse of Communism.

National currencies. What do these odd numismatic relics have to do with today's roiling global economy? There is no national currency remotely strong enough to resist persecution by speculators. They're all potential bubbles — panics in the making.

If cash becomes king, what happens when market forces smash the cash? Was that inky paper really, truly supposed to be worth more than real estate, or unreal intellectual property, or shares in productive companies? Why should anyone honestly believe that local treasury departments are somehow more credible than global bankers? What on earth were people thinking? Flee for the hills!

The Westphalian system. Why are so many great military powers losing a war in Afghanistan? Afghanistan isn't even a nation-state, yet it's defeating all comers. Why do we even pretend to have nations these days? Hollow states, failed states, non-states... The European post-state!

No flag, no currency... People no longer have to believe in these effigies. Why do they persist? The benefits of believing in nations are slim. The planetary slum-dwellers of failed states may find the rollicking life of a Somali pirate far more attractive than the hard work of state-building. The nation-state is torn from both above and below. The global guerrilla and the Davos globe-hopper are cousins.
Sterling also points out that the creeping demographic crisis of vastly expanding ranks of the elderly, and the environmental catastrophe portended by exploding atmospheric carbon levels both hang out there like grim reapers from the future. His prediction? The same as Small Precautions, namely that Hurricane Katrina was an epistle from the future.

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