In 1994 I was asked to moderate a panel discussion at a professional conference. It was a rather routine task. I was to read a set of papers in advance of the conference, introduce the panelists and facilitate a discussion among participants. As I prepared, I was interested to learn that two members of our panel had collaborated on a paper and were attending the conference all the way from Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
At about this time, I was offered my first corporate e-mail account. It was quite primitive by today’s standards. For those who remember the early days of electronic communication, before the advent of Windows-type operating systems, this was a rather crude text-only version of internet-based communication.
An e-mail arrived one day with a name I did not recognize at first, but upon reading the message I realized it was from one of my new Dutch colleagues. It was the first international e-mail I had ever received. The panelist was suggesting that she wanted to electronically send me a copy of the paper I was to read. This was to be done by something called FTP (file transfer protocol). She explained how this would work, and with a little help from the IT staff on my campus, the paper magically appeared on my screen. This was so cool. The electronic delivery was more interesting than the paper.
I was truly impressed by the speed and convenience of an electronic document, and could begin to imagine how this would impact the future. Fax machines were supplanted very quickly and e-mail attachments soon followed as a preferred method. Social networking has now taken us to a whole new level. All this has occurred in less than 20 years.
What I did not understand at the time, however, was that this technology would begin to reshape the world, calling into question the future relevance of national borders and established boundaries of human communication. Today it is nearly impossible to mediate or moderate global communication.
The National Intelligence Council produced a report in December of 2004 for its 2020 Project. This document, Mapping the Global Future, projects global conditions likely to be in place by the year 2020 (GPO Stock 041-015-0024-6; ISBN 0-16-073-218-2). The impact of technology is described as follows:
Today individual PC users have more capacity at their fingertips than NASA had with the computers used in its first moon launches. The trend toward even more capacity, speed, affordability and mobility will have enormous political implications; myriad individuals and small groups — many of whom had not been previously so empowered — will not only connect with one another but will plan, mobilize and accomplish tasks with potentially more satisfying and efficient results than their governments can deliver. This almost certainly will affect individuals’ relationships with and views of their governments and will put pressure on some governments for more responsiveness. (p. 75)
Growing connectivity also will be accompanied by the proliferation of transnational virtual communities of interest, a trend which may complicate the ability of state and global institutions to generate internal consensus and enforce decisions and could even challenge their authority and legitimacy. Groups based on common religious, cultural, ethnic or other affiliations may be torn between their national loyalties and other identities. The potential is considerable for such groups to drive national and even global political decision making on a wide range of issues normally the purview of governments. (p. 77)
The internet, in particular, will spur the creation of global movements, which may emerge even more as a robust force in international affairs. For example, technology-enabled diaspora communications in native languages could lead to the preservation of language and culture in the face of widespread emigration and cultural change as well as the generation of political and economic power. (p. 77)
If these forecasts are accurate, then affinity and affiliation may begin to have a more profound impact than we would anticipate. Some of the most common manifestations of these affiliations are found in arts and culture, recreational interests and entertainment. Those with shared interests are finding each other and forming virtual communities. Many of our professional sports teams have decided to form “nations” that cross the geographic boundaries of the typical fan base. But does this foreshadow something more profound?
We are witnessing the formation of communities that transcend traditional loyalties in national citizenship or political ideology resulting in increased regional and global tensions. This kind of realignment presents increasing challenges as relationships rooted in history, language and culture are no longer located geographically, but nurtured and developed globally through technology. If identity is no longer associated with lines on a map, but through affinity and affiliation, how will this impact our understanding of a society?
The news from Tunisia this week reminds us that the power of affiliation, supported by technology, can usher in more profound change than we can imagine.