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The limits of global connectivity

The idea that everyone and everything is networked is an ancient one but now a thoroughly pervasive way of describing the world; it is a commonplace that influence, wealth, and ideas shape the unfolding of human history via increasingly dispersed and vertically organized arrangements.  Two essays in the new (January/February 2009) Foreign Affairs, written from drastically different perspectives, offer accounts opposed not because one lacks optimism (to the contrary, both are exceptionally hopeful for America’s prospects) but because one takes measure of the opportunities created by a globally networked society while the other emphasizes its perils.  Bill Gates, in an essay presumably penned before he knew he would continue working as heads of the Pentagon, talks about the security challenges posed by a “new age” where unconventional insurgencies will require both military and diplomatic flexibility.  And, in an essay that clearly sees the cup as half full, Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, argues for the wonderful benefits that can accrue to a smart America in a “networked century.”  Where Gates emphasizes how the globalized context enables instantaneous and network-destroying threats, Slaughter is more attuned to the ways a networked world create the possibilities for collaborations where the United States can assert its more hopeful cultural worldviews without shouldering the full price or institutional risks.

Many recent events have evoked the downsides of globalization, where small coordinated attacks can cripple or derail whole societies even as globalized media coverage brings small acts of resistance or terror to worldwide attention.  The attacks on Mumbai were a vivid reminder that the potential targets of attack (in this case tourist and religious centers) are almost innumerable; the same outcome might have been attained by attacks on any of the world’s major hotels, shopping centers, schools, or churches.  The recent arrest of the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout has also brought into view the shadow circuits of arms selling and the secret networks of commerce that often allow rogue governments to purchase almost anything they can afford.  Bout was said to have sold military hardware to everyone from the Taliban to Latin American revolutionaries to Hizbullah and even perhaps to rebels in Chechnya.

Or one might also take note of the alarming uptick in documented piracy over the past twenty years.  The recent episodes off the African coast, where Somalian pirates have been attacking cruise ships and cargo vessels (about a week ago the United Nations Security Council extended its authorization allowing countries to enter Somalian waters to intercept pirates), also show how globalization provides ready resources for nongovernmental organizations (whether legitimate or criminal) as much as for governments.  While the reported number of pirate attacks has been declining since 2003 (445 in that year, 263 in 2007), the enterprise is centered around the anticipation of pure profit, pirates regularly demand hostage payments, and it looks like the long term decrease may be reversed when the final statistics are reported for 2008.  A report issued recently by Chatham House argued that the Somali pirates are clearly aiming to raise cash for attacks on the Somali government and on behalf of some radical Islamic groups.  And a report from the London-based International Maritime Bureau says the average demanded ransom is in the one million dollar range.

Piracy is described by Homer in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and even then the difficulty of identifying naval heroes from villains was well recognized; Homer said it was hard to distinguish because “both set off in their long ships to distant shores to plunder and kill.  The difference… seems only to be their god-given fate.”  Today those who think about globalization might, following Tony Blair and Bill Clinton and the broader discourses of neoliberalism, note that all this simply illustrates the inevitability of opportunity created by globalization, which in turn suggests that good governance should be aimed not at ending globalization but channeling its in more socially beneficial and just ways.  But the powerful structures of opportunity and potential profit created by global financial networks should also serve as a cautionary note against those inclined to see international regulation as easily set in motion.  Such international consensus offers cold comfort to the victims of Victor Bout’s arms sales or the Somali pirates who move, watched but mainly unimpeded.


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