Couchiching Online
nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button
History Table of Contents
1996 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1996
Citizens of the Electronic Village: smartening up or dumbing down?

Looming Chaos or a New Birth of Freedom?

Vice-President, AT&T

[NOTE: Mr.Tipson's presentation was in verse, but time constraints did not allow him to read it in full. We are confident that "Couchiching-ons," (to borrow a Tipsonian phrase), will appreciate reading it in full]

This Session has been given as our organizing theme,
A question that for all of us will likely seem supreme.
And so, in partial answer, I have drafted this reply;
It's well-rehearsed (if not well-versed) to catch your ear and eye.

I'd like to probe the pressures which technology creates,
Through which communications change the sovereignty of states.
Just what is it about communications and computing,
Which causes global politics to need re-constituting?

And what, in turn, does all this mean for citizens like us?
What are we to make of all this "cyber-spatial" fuss?
Will it mean that nation states now have a nascent status?
What can we envision of the futures that await us?

I will try to offer an initial diagnosis,
As well as the beginnings of political prognosis;
I'll try to give my sense of what is going on around us;
(As citizens, we can't afford to let this stuff confound us.)
Because I think our future states — which values win or lose —
Depend upon the courses that we citizens will choose.

Technology and the Nation-State

Sovereignty's the notion of the nation in control;
A sphere of independence, an authoritative whole.
The sovereign state provides us with a rooted, ready reference;
A map of jurisdiction — a geography of deference.

1996, this old idea is obsolete;
It's not so much irrelevant, as stale and incomplete.
It misdirects and fails to capture basic permutations
About the context, contour and complexity of nations.

While sovereign states insist they must preserve their independence,
Politics, in fact, exhibit nation-state transcendence.
What states claim as sovereign, independent sorts of spheres,
Are narrower and more constrained in just the last few years.

Surrounded by competitors for loyalty and clout,
Governments pretend control they often do without;
Insisting on prerogatives more fatuous than formal;
Resisting recognition that these are no longer normal.

As if, like some old lobster, they had misconstrued the plot,
And hadn't yet perceived that they've been boiling in a pot.
Their temperature's been rising while they're driven to distractions,
Bombarded by the density of trans-state interactions.
And so their protestations often simply go to waste —
Their inner contents cooked and spiced to someone else's taste.

To what extent, we wonder, is technology the cause?
Are states reduced, like lobsters, to the shells without the claws?
Have states outlived their usefulness, their relevance and meaning?
Relics of our mental attics — overdue for cleaning?
In fact, I don't think states should be a subject of derision;
They still provide the strongest concentrations of decision.
But technologically, there is a set of innovations
That have been repositioning the governments of nations.

The first exploits the impact of the television screen,
Conveying not just how things look, but also what they mean.
It builds on the compelling pull of video devices,
And broadcasts the intensity of real events and crises.
Creating, in effect, a global village of voyeurs,
With skilful commentators as our cultural chauffeurs.
They give us instant access to the major world events.
And tell us, as we watch them, just what each one represents.

The second sort of network that's especially impacting,
Are those with which our eyes and ears do two-way interacting.
These days, from birth, we know the earth is wired up for voices;
But now we see, increasingly, a range of further choices.
The most dramatic version is the Internet for data,
Which hooks together users from an ever wider strata.
Add to data: e-mail, voice-mail, video and fax,
And networked places multiply where mankind interacts.

The third great innovation through the miracles of science,
Is that which renders portable your terminal appliance.
The miniaturization of the microprocessed wafer
Makes networks more distributed, accessible and safer.
When people can extend the times and places they're connected,
Their presence is expanded and their influence projected.
Both space and time enlarge without the sacrifice of sleep,
So, more and more, you get to choose the company you keep.

And last, by no means least, is the adoption far and wide,
Of user-friendly software through which knowledge is applied.
So even PC novices can organize their thinking,
And fit it into frameworks which are easier for linking.
These standardized approaches change the quality of work;
What used to take a group can now be handled by a clerk:
Documents and spreadsheets set in formats full of features
Are shared in just an instant with a world of other creatures.

In complex combinations this "computications" linkage,
Causes, what appears to us, as geographic shrinkage.
It tends to bring together those with like preoccupations,
Around a set of interests across a net of nations.
Each day the numbers grow who stretch this stuff for all it's worth;
Although it's still a fraction of the people on the earth.

One version of such networks is a culture of elites,
A sphere of influentials blessed with special ringside seats.
Business and financial types with capital fixations,
Focused on commercial and investment implications.

This sphere is "cosmopolitan" (whatever that may mean!),
Comprised of common symbols bridging cultures in between:
A worldly web of widely-held perspectives and presumptions,
Which tend to lead to similar behavioral assumptions.
Not only does this culture share a focus of attention,
But other neat accoutrements I don't have time to mention.
This common core of people using network-based transactions,
Establish global standards for most economic actions.

Our concept of reality itself has been impacted,
As if new laws of physics had been re-enacted
Changing both in space and time some basic facts of living,
Creating new imperatives — intense and unforgiving.
The norms of our connectedness are truly now in flux,
Shifts in how we see and sense the world become the crux.

But while we may be mesmerized by all this modern movement,
It isn't clear that all this gear will constitute improvement.
Computications networks have effects both sweet and sour,
Including underlying shifts in global wealth and power.
For just as there is promise in this network-based potential,
There also is a darker side, concrete and consequential.
We need to try to understand the value implications;
So that we can try to shape the future state of nations.

Computications and Politics

Computications changes tend to detour or devour
Four distinct dimensions — or determinants — of power.
Each involves an aspect of state sovereign obsolescence;
Let's see how computications changes them in essence.


Political identity is first to come to mind;
New impacts on our loyalties — those loyal-ties that bind.
Which of all the entities which call for our attraction,
Hitch to our identities and give self-satisfaction.

A plethora of candidates (but not just politicians),
Define for us agendas, values, programs and positions.
Movements, parties, interest- and religious-group devotions,
Compel intense commitments and enlist immense emotions.
Increasingly these come to skirt the boundary lines of states,
As people find a common cause which then cross-pollinates.
Non-state actors rival states for influence on some things,
(Though they are no less likely to do ignorant or dumb things.)

By changing how we see ourselves and what we value most,
Networks and computing change the program at its host.
The entity we think of as the "self" we represent,
Is creature of its context to a far greater extent.
And context has increasingly more network-based dimensions:
Networks as a series of reality extensions.
With every place accessible and every one affected,
No one is for very long distinct or disconnected.

As extensions of our egos grow diverse and more dramatic,
Allegiance to the nation-state becomes more problematic.
Our multiplied identities hold multiple attachments;
(Network-based technologies promote state-based detachments.)
Even ethnic loyalties become a lot more shallow,
As cultural development is faded, faint or fallow.
States become equated with their governmental functions;
Losing larger loyalties through love-of-land disjunctions.
Citizens start asking not what they can do for nation,
But rather what the state can do to justify taxation.
As pressure for performance makes demands that much more frantic,
Devotion to the nation-state becomes much less romantic.

Networks can facilitate not only what's constructive,
But also can empower those who'd rather be destructive.
Many people hate our liberal democratic cultures;
Sometimes we can sense the mordant movement of these vultures.

Oklahoma City called attention to militias,
Groups of para-militants with self-defense indicias.
At first, it's hard to fathom why they feel so under siege,
(I used to think they armed for just the swagger and prestige.)
But when we hear the kinds of information they've exchanged,
It's easier to understand why some act so deranged.
For if your only source was what they passed to one another,
Even you might grab a gun to self-defend your mother!

Conspiracies arise among a group of total strangers
Using mail on Internet as copy cat arrangers.
So evil spreads by word of Web (no need for word of mouth);
Each takes his turn, and churches burn, throughout the rural South.

And so computications can drive dangerous divisions;
Fomenting fragmentation in our values and our visions.
The very options they create for universal fitness,
Facilitate selectiveness in what we want to witness;
Which offers opportunities to narrower collectives,
To use these network options for much narrower objectives.


The second major change is in the measurement of worth;
A solvent with involvement each market on the earth.
Utility refers to how such value is devised,
Yet how we measure value has been radically revised.
New computications shift how mental work is weighted,
And how huge chunks of economic value are created.

Information content differentiates production,
Based on how much "knowledge work" goes in its introduction.
Which, of course, transforms all sorts of business operations,
Flattening the layers and the staffs of corporations.
Market pressures tend to show which functions still are needed,
So unproductive overhead is quickly superseded.

States are used to thinking they are economic wholes;
Independent managers of policy controls.
Choosing when and how to interact with other states,
Tying fiscal tax-and-spend to monetary gates.

And yet, as each decision is increasingly assailed,
Their spheres of independence are increasingly curtailed.
Just as banks and businesses are rated on performance,
Nation-states are subject now to similar conformance.
Though they may retain the right to choose which roads to take,
Others choose what economic difference that will make.

So when it comes to value and its networked forms of measure;
The future may portend, for some, a lot more pain than pleasure.
People who cannot afford technology adoptions,
May find that, in the future, they have many fewer options.

The danger is that just a few will share this cyber-wealth;
(We can't be sure this era won't be hazardous to health.)
Prosperity disparity may widen over time.
(Was Karl Marx really wrong, or was he just before his time?)

Currency devaluation, interest rate extortion,
Sometimes change the health of countries out of all proportion.
Both states and corporations can be simply out-competed,
Their leadership exhausted and their capital depleted;
Losers in the wider race to satisfy demand,
To those who have computications services in hand.


As value and identity are radically redone,
Our concept of security is likewise overrun.
By changing who we think we are and also what we seek,
We change our basic sense of what is strong and what is weak.
Technology expands our list of what most needs protecting,
So notions of security need careful re-inspecting.

Except for those who live within a site of civil war,
The classic threat of pitched attack is fading more and more.
Yet even as such threats to bodies politic recede,
Newer forms of wounds and blows can make those bodies bleed.
Violent crime and terrorism usually head the list;
Making use of networks like the making of a fist.

Security is fragile, so in order to secure it,
We sometimes find that we can only quarantine, not cure it.
But violence that's just cordoned off, confined instead of quelled,
Is often just postponed unless the causes are dispelled.
While global networks offer wide publicity and credence,
To those who have a cause and need a means of intercedence.
Networks give a global stage to maniacs and martyrs,
Who seek a name through sudden fame for rambling tracts and charters.

And so our state of readiness must now be on alert
For those not out to change the world, but simply make it hurt.
Perpetrators ponder in this global game of "chicken,"
Just how big a city they can bomb, or gas, or sicken.
Their thirst for "recognition" is their passion and their cause,
But they just want attention, not approval or applause.

While Hollywood promotes new breeds of brutalizing clones,
Training little Schwarzeneggers, Seagals and Stallones.
Who beat up on each other for their Reeboks, Keds and Nikes,
Acting out the violence that's inherent in our psyches.

Our constant cross-connectedness itself becomes the basis
Of broad redefinitions of the basic threats that face us;
For as our forms of value move to network-based solutions,
We multiply the hostages for "bit electrocutions".
Since huge amounts of data now require tight protection,
Our very vulnerability has shifted its direction.
Immense financial value for us millions of subscribers,
Is centred in the software code and focused in the fibres.
(These days, to be completely safe from sabotage or virus,
You'd have to do your documents on parchment or papyrus.)

And here, again, the state itself no longer can provide,
A sense of firm protection as these bits and bytes collide.
Some users even hide their bits with iron-clad encryptions,
Which gives police and counter-spooks cryptography conniptions.


Identity, utility, security revised,
Are elements as well of what authority's comprised.
They moderate and modify through cultural revisions,
The basic motivations for our deference to decisions.
What's changing now is not the formal civic institutions,
But all the outside pressures that attend their executions.

States have been, historically, decision-making centres,
Interest aggregators, often global representers.
But they were also, crucially, providers of protections;
Those who promised safety had advantage in elections.
As citizens lose faith in what the government provides,
Their willingness to lend support decreases or divides.

So spheres of governmental deference narrow in their scope;
Officials often feel like they are pushing on a rope;
Dealing with hostility from different groups of voters,
Which places extra burdens on the policy promoters.
Every key decision now gets scrutinized and scrubbed
Appraised by countless analysts (and actors voices dubbed).

With commentary "panel-ized" in journalistic panels,
Official acts are analyzed by talking heads in flannels.
Policies get "banal-ized," belittled or obscured;
Our ills are psycho-anal-ized, but seldom ever cured.
These talk shows and "Soap Oprahs" are like spectacles in Rome,
Brought with dish detergent ads directly to your home!

None of this, of course, is in itself to be discouraged,
Except that, all too often, only critics are encouraged.
Government is often given grief and not respect,
A tendency to always second-guess and cross-correct.
So any brave position of a public interest sort,
Is subject to this tendency to discount or distort.

And every state assertion, each official stipulation,
Is fodder for the rankest sort of crass manipulation.

Officials now are always under scrutiny or siege,
And "public service" loses its appeal and its prestige.
Citizens see governments as problems, not solutions,
Questioning the value of long-standing institutions.
And that, in turn, makes volatile our democratic core,
As citizens don't join the game; they're (too) busy keeping score.

Solutions to our further problems may not get developed,
Our institutions overcome, our energies enveloped.
Networks and computing may not link but just disperse us,
Facilitating culture wars by those who love to curse us.
In fact, a growing danger, as we contemplate our maps,
Is that some states' authority will simply just collapse.
Governments may fail to make computications handy,
Giving in to gridlock, as their gears grind dry and sandy.

Deprived of social capital, the kind that's built on trust,
States can go ballistic, or go bonkers, or go bust.
Governments can fall apart, unable to deliver,
As criminals and anarchists just sell them up the river.
Like Haiti and Croatia, who aspire to be lobsters,
They become the province of the warlords and the mobsters.
(At times like these it almost seems their future and their fate,
Is less like lobsters in the sea than lobster on the plate.)

States, like some old generals, may keep fighting long-lost wars;
Resorting to protectionism, closing old barn doors.
Brooding over boundaries, perpetuating quarrels;
Preserving their prerogatives, or resting on their laurels.

Sovereignty can then become a self-fulfilling trap,
A boundary line that marks each mass of misery on a map.

By circling up their wagons, states have often misapplied it;
Like swimming in a lobster trap and getting stuck inside it.
This form of stunted statehood is more vacuous than valid,
A sickening proposition — like leftover lobster salad.

Global Politics

By now, this probably sounds like too much abstract hocus-pocus,
So let me take us back to our objective and our focus.
All this speculation fundamentally relates
To how technology affects the sovereignty of states;
And what this means for citizens confronted with these changes.
What should we be doing as our future rearranges?

A New Citizenship?

One very natural impulse is to try to put the brakes on;
To isolate those precious things we place the highest stakes on:
Cordon off our family, community, or nation;
Fending off the future protected isolation.

By turning off the telephone, the TV or computer,
We might seek to shut them out — or simply make them muter.
But this approach reminds me of an ostrich or a lemming,
It disregards the factors from which all this change is stemming.

In fact, the times demand a fundamental recognition,
That something very basic has reordered our position.
The values others place upon our assets and our service,
Can shift, without our knowing it, in ways that may disserve us.

Since governments no longer have the means for full protections,
Our duty can't be limited to voting in elections.
The folks we need to influence to make our values felt,
Are often those in other states with whom we've never dealt.

So rather than deflect effects or fabricate new fences,
We need to join with others in the forging of consensus.
Before our safety suffers and our destiny departs,
We need a different model in our heads and in our hearts.
A vision of a world that can incorporate these states,
But also works according to a set of broader traits.
And though this sort of vision helps to keep us all inspired,
Wishing will not make it so — we also must be wired.

Using new connections to achieve a new rapport,
Which, after all is what enlightened politics are for:
To find our common interests and pursue them all with fairness,
Which means that we must elevate new levels of awareness.

And here, I think, technology presents us with the tools,
To reconstruct our politics and redefine our rules:
Without foregoing loyalties we still feel to our nations,
Let's look beyond these lobsters to some larger life formations.

Global Decision-Making

We're used to thinking vertically when contemplating power;
Looking up above us for some force from which to cower.
But this perspective lacks a very basic recognition,
That power can be exercised from lateral position.
For even equal entities with inconsistent voices,
Find some "horizontal" ways to make collective choices.
Horizontal power (though less studied with precision)
Duplicates each aspect of a vertical decision.

This viewpoint now is critical for managing the earth,
And offers us the basis for a global sense of worth.
Decisions are composed of a recurrent set of phases,
Which we can enumerate in seven simple phrases.
Outcomes are determined in the course of working through them;
We need computications to improve the way we do them.

1. Insight and intelligence inform our inclinations
And frame our understanding of all problem situations.
The quality of any sort of policy decision,
Depends on information that's provided with precision.
But governments cannot alone do all this "show-and-tell."
They must depend, these days, upon their citizens as well.

2. Promotion is the phase that frames each possible proposal,
Presenting all the choices statesmen have at their disposal.
The range of the alternatives which give us basic options,
Presented to decision-makers ready for adoptions.
The critical component of decision-making tissue,
Is how we see our interests the framing of an issue.

3. Prescription is the time officials tell us what their choice is;
Making their selection from the range of people's voices.
Having heard the advocates presenting their entreaties,
They reflect decisions in new statutes and new treaties.
Or, at times, decisions are less solemn or less formal,
Practice which just looks to us as rational and normal.

4. Then, through invocation of the standards thus announced,
We suggest the ways to make prescriptions more pronounced;
Showing how the general norms fits concrete situations;
And pointing out the instances of major deviations.
It's often private citizens who shine the brightest lights
On ecologic damage or abuse of human rights.

5. Application time is when the rubber meets the road;
Someone in authority must actualize the code.
This stage at which the laws engage is sometimes done in courts,
But also can be done through state or agency reports.
General norms and standards must be carefully applied,
For justice that's undisciplined is justice that's denied.

6. To make these applications stick we have to have enforcement,
Based upon the consequence of widespread state endorsement.
Most nation-state behaviour in the governmental sense,
Reflects the state's endorsement of the goals it represents.
But major deviations must bring other state's resistance
In the form of sanctions or denials of assistance.

7. Appraisal of the outcome of decision applications
Is how we judge the value of all policy creations;
We might feel warm and fuzzy with fake standards on the books,
But law, like food, depends on how it sizzles when it cooks.
For inter-state decisions we need clear evaluation —
Heavily dependent on the use of information.

Each of these components enter into all decisions,
Even though they may not be what each of us envisions.
The question now is how they can improve in matters global,
And whether everyone agrees that would be something noble.

For, clearly, there are people who will feel a strong aversion
To what reflects, essentially, authority dispersion.
Many people can't conceive of power that's uncentred
Yet that is now a feature of the era that we've entered.
They see this view of politics as sovereign-state dilution,
Or worse, a form of global governmental substitution.

On Beyond Sovereignty

Yet less and less the matters in the global danger zone
Are those which can be managed by a single state alone.
We simply can't avoid the need for more collective steering;
Our balding institutions need some bold re-engineering.

For years, of course, the governments of states will still be prime,
But how they act and what they do will vary over time.
Since power now depends upon a wider set of factors,
Authority arises from a wider set of actors.

China and the USA must each pay their respect,
To citizens from other states whose values they affect.
The notions that state sovereignty can immunize state leaders
Should now be recognized as common interest impeders.
Those who cannot see that we must go beyond the nation
Are worthy of a creature with the brain of a crustacean.

What we need are statesmen who present much wider visions,
And lead us the effort toward political revisions.
Through cross-collaboration of diverse and focused teams,
Planning and consolidating specialized regimes.

( this, I think, Canadians have often led the pack,
For interstate diplomacy, you seem to have a knack;
Focussing concern on global commons and consensus,
Knowing these can often be our first line of defenses.
Through clarity on what it is we're trying to protect,
Canadians have had a disproportionate effect.)

We must adjust our focus on the problems that we share,
To maximize a world where there's awareness everywhere.
We need to learn and then exploit this stuff we call "net-working",
And rather than bemoan the changes, get in and get working.

Governments must use the basic power that remains,
To shed their shells for nervous systems, skeletons and veins.
Developing the muscle groups for close collaboration,
And learning, over boundaries, to improve their circulation.

These newer forms of statehood call for newer civic roles —
A wider range of citizen participation goals.
Global types of interest groups, well-organized and vocal,
Who aren't simply self-consumed and aren't merely local.

The citizens we need to find to help us such labours
Aren't just our closest friends or just our nearest neighbours.
As we use technology to help extend our egos,
We will soon develop lots of "virtual amigos".
By jogging down the Internet or strolling on the phone
At least we'll offer more than going bowling all alone.

So learn computications, and then teach your children well;
If not, you may consign them to a future form of hell.
Ignorant of what it takes to comprehend their station;
Functional illiterates, submerged by information.
Subject to all manner of political disorders,
Arising from decisions taken well outside their borders.

We must be global activists in matters that enmesh us,
To shape and share the values that make human life most precious.
Inherently, there's nothing inconsistent with this model,
Our challenge is cerebral, not medulla oblongatal.

Ordinary citizens, by aggregating views,
Can have enormous impact on which values win or lose.
For we must shape our future states before they shift and worsen —
Toward global public order and respect for every person.