This is the seventh in a series of a dozen essays based around my new Map of the Social Age for 2019. The map illustrates some of the key areas i’m looking at this year, but is not definitive: this is iterative and cumulative work. Today, the notion of nation, and new models of citizenship, as we explore the mechanisms of engagement in society at scale.
The Social Age is presenting us with new models of social organisation, new mechanisms of belonging: emergent structures of power that exist beyond the old footprints of the physical Organisation, and geographically defined nation states. The rise not simply of large companies, but of ‘transnational’ Organisations which exhibit many of the traits of historic nation states, and whose future trajectory is far from certain, but certain to be far from normal. They are disrupting the very notion of ‘nation’ itself, both in terms of how we ‘belong’, and how we are protected.
To what do you belong? I am a citizen of the United Kingdom, which gives me both legal protection, a geographical home, and a set of cultural norms to which i am expected to subscribe. Citizenship tends to fall as a backstop to the everyday, not something we necessarily think about, but certainly something we take for granted. But the notion itself has been remarkably fluid over time and, i suspect, is evolving fast in the context of the Social Age.
Citizenship is a membership status: you can be within a country, but not be a citizen, whilst, conversely, when i travel to the United States, i am still a citizen of the UK. Unless the United States confers citizenship upon me: citizenship is not necessarily binary, some countries permit dual citizenship, so you can concurrently be a ‘member’ of two states. But not all: some are incompatible, and taking one will cause you to lose your original status.
On occasion, a State can lose it’s country, when a regime is displaced or a country is annexed, leaving people with citizenship, but no physically defined state. A ghost of a state.
In law, nobody can be left Stateless: we have to belong to somewhere, or something: a country cannot remove your citizenship unless you have (or are eligible for) citizenship of another state.
The origins of citizenship go back to ancient Greece, and the emergence of the polis, the ‘city states’, which were both physical cities, and political institutions (‘politician’, ‘police’ and ‘policy’ all deriving from this common root). But whilst ancient in institution, citizenship itself has always been remarkably fluid, and often a matter of convenience, a tool of power for the dominant caste. A mechanism of deliberate exclusion: you could be ostracised, cast out, castaway.
Today, you can already by a digital citizen of Paris, or Estonia, but this is largely a definition of a service offering provided for a subscription.
My premise for including ‘New Citizenship’ in the map of the Social Age for 2019 is this: that historic nations are losing relevance in the face of evolved models of membership to transnational entities that provide more than simple utility. They are spaces to belong.
You could argue that ‘nations’ have originally been defined by two key elements: the constraints of geography, and the limitations of communication systems. Distance has been defined by how far a horse can ride, before it meets a mountain, and communication has been constrained by the limits of how far we can see, or stretch a cable. But today, distance is largely eradicated (we can get pretty much anywhere, fast), and communication is essentially synchronous and democratised (whilst historically it was ‘hard’ to communicate long distance, today it is ‘easy’, so where limitations exist, they are limitations that are imposed: somebody does not want you to talk to someone else, so they block it. The limitations of transport and communication are now largely political or financial, not technical.
I wrote a piece last year, called ‘Citizen of Apple, State of Lego’, exploring what may emerge, beyond the notion of nation.
I’ve used the term ‘Transnational’ to describe an entity, an Organisation, but of a fundamentally different type: these are the infrastructure providers of the new and emergent world. They are providers of utility, for sure, but also more than that: they are often entities to which we belong, in a meaningful way. When someone sits behind their MacBook in a cafe, they are making a statement beyond simply function. Brand is, of course, exactly this: imbued meaning, meaning which is created, and invested, in the inanimate. Or in the individual. Our emergent tech leaders hold power well beyond the functional role they serve within a hierarchy: they are the priests of the new religion, often heading up their own cult. They are politically powerful, and not simply within a system of established politics.
I might argue that the Transnationals represent a dominant, emergent, new mode of social organisation, one which may supersede geographical nations as the primary anchoring space. We may be a citizen of brand before we are a citizen of state, not least because whilst States provide functions of utility, brands provide functions of self actualisation, and identity.
In the old world, there was a contract: Nations provided security, and utility, in exchange for taxation, and the bonds of citizenship (conformity). But in the new world i am spoilt for places to engage: subscription is the new mechanism for provision of cultural input, security is privatised, or digital, and nobody cares about utility beyond plain function: we care more about whether it’s ethical and sustainable than we do about whether it works. We have been spoiled by reliability to a point where the market has moved on.
It was telling that, in the first months of Trump’s presidency, when we saw a certain rolling back of liberal civil rights, it was the so called ‘Sanctuary Cities’, and States, as well as the Transnationals like Apple and Google that said ‘we will protect you’. As politics in the national realm falls to bipartisan conflict, from billionaire cabinets, it’s no wonder that new mechanisms of unity will emerge.
At a practical level, this is important for Organisations to understand, because the engagement that we hold, from staff, and from customers, is of a new type: it’s a willing investment. It’s a discretionary engagement. And it may increasingly form a real type of power.
New citizenship relates to other key aspects that we have explored already: the Organisation as a belief system (and citizenship the honour that is conferred when you ‘believe’), ‘trust’ as the glue, held within society.
But will the fight be one sided? Will nations fight back? Well, they already are: taxation, regulation, competition law, these things are all tools of the state used to regulate behaviour. But will they win? Harder to say: at a time when the economy of the Transnationals outstrips many smaller countries, as well as much of the invested engagement of society being in the emergent cultural inputs of Game of Thrones and Apple, it won’t be an easy fight.
Possibly ‘nations’ will retain ownership of the battleground, but lose the actual war: just look at the recent battle over whether Amazon would locate a second campus in New York. This is not just a story of bricks and mortar: it’s a battle of identity and culture.
The crux will come when the emergent Transnationals really reground their power in the established geopolitical sphere: not new products and services, but new models of culture and engagement. For example, not retailing within known models of shopping, but redefining our relationship with ‘stuff’, not competing in known transport networks, but redefining transport, not competing with hospitals, but redefining our relationship with our own health. These are not known evolutions of a known space, but rather foundational shifts.
Education, health, transport, banking, these will all fall to emergent models: diversified ecosystems of technology, performance enhancing, offered as experience, offered as alters of belief. And as they shift, the shift will be increasingly global, interconnected, rapidly evolving, and challenging to older models of power that are grounded in their physical location, and ownership of infrastructure, at a time when infrastructure is fragmenting, personalising, and distributing.
The old model of ‘tax for security’, ‘membership for utility’, is being outpaced by ‘subscription to culture’, and ‘artefact as identity’.
Many of us will end up a citizen of multiple states, each bringing utility, some holding belief, many impacting culture.
What you need to know:
- The old notion of ‘nation’ was defined by communication and transport technologies that have evolved.
- The emergence of the Transnationals is a new form of Organisation and hence power.
- If States abandon their primary function of security, and adopt one of utility, then they may be superseded by entities that are belief based, and welcome engagement.
What you need to do:
- Maybe nothing… perhaps Nations will triumph and control the Transnationals through regulation and tax…
- Or maybe you need to focus on engagement, and recognise how much of it is held within invested belief.
- Perhaps this map is not yet clear, but pick up a new lens, and look at the world around you. What is really still the same?