The nation-state of the internet

The internet is a community, but can it be a nation-state? Its a question that I have been pondering on and off this year, what with the rise of digital nomads and the deeply libertarian ethos baked into parts of the blockchain community. Its clearly on a lot of other peoples minds as well: when we interviewed Matt Howard of Norwest on Equity a few weeks back, he noted (unprompted) that Uber is one of the few companies that could reach nation-state status when it IPOs.
Clearly, the internet is home to many, diverse communities of similar-minded people, but how do those communities transmute from disparate bands into a nation-state?
That question led me to Imagined Communities, a book from 1983 and one of the most lauded (and debated) social science works ever published. Certainly it is among the most heavily cited: Google Scholar pegs it at almost 93,000 citations.
Benedict Anderson, a political scientist and historian, ponders over a simple question: where does nationalism come from? How do we come to form a common bond with others under symbols like a flag, even though we have never and will almost never meet all of our comrades-in-arms? Why does every country consider itself special, yet for all intents and purposes they all look identical (heads of state, colors and flags, etc.) Also, why is the nation-state invented so late?
Andersons answer is his title: people come to form nations when they can imagine their community and the values and people it holds, and thus can demarcate the borders (physical and cognitive) of who is a member of that hypothetical club and who is not.
In order to imagine a community though, there needs to be media that actually links that community together. The printing press is the necessary invention, but Anderson tracks the rise of nation-states to the development of vernacular media French language as opposed to the Latin of the Catholic Church. Lexicographers researched and published dictionaries and thesauruses, and the printing presses under pressure from capitalisms dictates created rich shelves of books filled with the stories and myths of peoples who just a few decades ago didnt exist in the minds eye.
The nation-state itself was developed first in South America in the decline and aftermath of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Anderson argues for a sociological perspective on where these states originate from. Intense circulation among local elites the bureaucrats, lawyers, and professionals of these states and their lack of mobility back to their empires capitals created a community of people who realized they had more in common with each other than the people on the other side of the Atlantic.
As other communities globally start to understand their unique place in the world, they import these early models of nation-states through the rich print culture of books and newspapers. We arent looking at convergent evolution, but rather clones of one model for organizing the nation implemented across the world.
Thats effectively the heart of the thesis of this petite book, which numbers just over 200 pages of eminently readable if occasionally turgid writing. There are dozens of other epiphanies and thoughts roaming throughout those pages, and so the best way to get the full flavor is just to pick up a used copy and dive in.
For my purposes though, I was curious to see how well Andersons thesis could be applied to the nation-state of the internet. Certainly, the concept that the internet is its own sovereign entity has been with us almost since its invention (just take a look at John Perry Barlows original manifesto on the independence of cyberspace if you havent).
Isnt the internet nothing but a series of imagined communities? Arent subreddits literally the seeds of nation-states? Every time Anderson mentioned the printing press or print-capitalism, I couldnt help but replace the word press with WordPress and print-capitalism with advertising or surveillance capitalism. Arent we going through exactly the kind of media revolution that drove the first nation-states a few centuries ago?
Perhaps, but its an extraordinarily simplistic comparison, one that misses some of the key originators of these nation-states.
The nation-state of the internet
Photo by metamorworks via Getty Images
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