Discover more from A User's Guide to History
A world without borders?
What would the metaverse mean?
A recent posting noted that many, perhaps most, wars in history have involved control of territory. Implicitly at first, explicitly for the last several centuries, territories have been marked by political borders. These days borders are defined with great precision; an individual anywhere on the terrestrial surface of the earth is almost never in doubt as what nation or state that individual is in. (Borders at sea are fuzzier.)
Informally at first, more formally over time, borders denoted the extent of government control. Fugitives from the law and refugees from political oppression—two groups that often overlapped—appreciated that crossing a border could save them. The Underground Railroad carried escaping American slaves over the border into Canada, from which they couldn’t be legally retrieved. In The Sound of Music, the Trapp family and governess Maria flee Nazi-held Austria for Switzerland, singing their way across the Alps.
Borders didn’t always provide refuge. U.S. Army soldiers under George Crook chased Geronimo into Mexico; American troops snatched Manuel Noriega from Panama for prosecution in the United States. But actions like this were exceptions that had to be explained away.
Yet individual allegiances have not always heeded geographic boundaries. For centuries Catholic popes in Rome held greater influence with believers than secular rulers did, by virtue of their perceived power to close the gates of heaven to heretics and lesser transgressors. Religious rulers of other faiths have sometimes exercised similar sway. More coherence was ascribed to the order of Freemasons than it actually enjoyed, yet the Masons sometimes did put their fraternal brothers ahead of their countrymen. Communists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries preached loyalty to the international proletariat over ties to bourgeois national governments.
Modern technology poses a new threat to the hegemony of territorial governments. Social media permit the organizing of like-minded people without regard to geographic location.
Governments are paying attention. In the United States and many other countries, the internet is monitored to prevent the recruiting and mobilizing of terrorists. The authoritarian regimes of China and North Korea have attempted to recreate geographic boundaries in cyberspace, often in the name of counterterrorism but with the purpose of suppressing dissent of any sort.
Talk of a metaverse must give the cybercops shivers. This is partly because nobody knows what a metaverse might consist of, and the forces of order reflexively dislike the unknown. But imagine virtual worlds where individuals aren’t bound by geography and proximity, where inhabitants and visitors make up their own rules and expectations. Such worlds could play havoc on the current status quo.
Cryptocurrencies are a step in this direction, and police forces and central banks are at wits’ end what to do. At present crypto has to be converted into actual currency to be of much use, and vexing technical issues dog blockchain technologies. But it is hardly out of the question that within a decade or two a parallel monetary system—beyond taxes, beyond law—could come into being.
Money in the modern sense is more a service than a substance, and other parts of the service economy are becoming similar resistant to borders. Companies in America and the United Kingdom have long placed call centers in India, the Philippines and other countries with Anglophone workforces. Programming languages have become a comparable lingua franca, allowing software components or whole applications and systems to be written wherever the cost per value is best.
Goods and people are harder to digitize and therefore will be the last things to break the grip of geography. But globalization has already made many goods effectively transnational, and renationalizing them entails costs. China’s government experiences fewer constraints in imposing or absorbing these costs than most Western governments, but unless China reverts to the kind of autarky that characterized the communist bloc during the Cold War, its borders will remain porous.
The final frontier will be the personal one. Conceivably individuals will create avatars that are as immaterial as information, and the world they inhabit as resistant to control as the internet. People, as opposed to avatars, will still have to eat and drink and presumably work for a living, but if people find the metaverse more appealing than the actual world, they might spend most of their time there.
The Chinese government is already worried about the hours Chinese children spend on video games and has moved to curtail them. Plenty of parents in America and other countries do the same on their own. But the allure of the metaverse might be much more powerful, and adults are harder to police than children.
Could there be new countries—virtual countries—in the metaverse?
Suppose the conservative and liberal parts of America become so exasperated with each other that they demand a divorce. Compared with 1861, when a compact geographic portion of the United States broke away, a divorce today would nearly impossible geographically, for liberal cities are found in conservative states and conservative counties in liberal states.
But what if Red America and Blue America were virtual countries? Suppose they voted separately and lived by separate laws. Already people send their children to different schools; Red America might rely more on private schools and Blue America on public, but neither would be required to pay for the other’s. Already people choose their own internet providers and mobile phone carriers; in Red America and Blue America they could choose separate public or private suppliers of electricity and gas and collectors of garbage. They might even have separate police services, just as private corporations and some neighborhoods have private security services.
Immigration policies might be harder to separate, but it wouldn’t be impossible for Blue America to be more permissive and Red America more restrictive. Immigrants would have to choose which virtual country they sought admission to, and obey that country’s laws.
In Red America abortion might be forbidden or sharply restricted; in Blue America a woman’s right to choose would be safeguarded.
National security would require some agreement but less than one might think. In the age of the metaverse, when physical assets are less important than virtual assets, cyberwar might well supersede physical war as the dominant mode of conflict. Red America and Blue America could each have its own Department of Cyberdefense. For physical security they could form an alliance or simply go their separate ways.
Already Republicans and Democrats are sifting themselves into separate communities; Red America and Blue America would represent an extension of this ongoing tendency. It might well turn out that Blue America is largely urban and Red America rural. Blue America could be an archipelago nation, with transit rights across Red America. And the rural Red Americans could visit the cities without the expense of having to support them.
At the moment, the idea is merely a thought experiment. It might be a bad idea. But World War I was a bad idea, and it happened. Forewarned is forearmed.
Besides, the nation-state—the identification of a people with a tract of territory—has had a long run, and nothing lasts forever.