There is much that students and practitioners of global politics can learn from cyberpunk. As a genre cyberpunk has been described by Bruce Sterling as a "combination of lowlife and high tech". But from the perspective of international politics, we might think of much of cyberpunk as a kind of techno-medievalism—a lumpy landscape of technology, tribalism, overlapping authority and sovereignty, and migratory identities.
Some of the classics of cyberpunk include the writing of Philip K. Dick, especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its film equivalent Blade Runner, William Gibson's Neuromancer, and Japanese manga such as Akira, which also became a major anime film.
Cyberpunk has successfully predicted many of the current dynamics of international politics: abundant and anarchical information environments, layered realities, the rise of media personalities as international players, the rise of tribal politics, and negotiable identities. Hopefully, scarier things found in cyberpunk will not come to pass—hyperinflation even in supposedly stable currencies, the breakdown of nation-states at an alarming rate, and the creation of walled and tribal city-states.
A classic cyberpunk, Neal Stephenson's 1993 classic Snow Crash, can teach us much about our evolving future. In the book, the United States has been carved up into separate territories by gangs, churches, the mafia, and corporations. Each of these actors competes against (and sometimes cooperates with) one another to control territory, create spheres of influence, and to protect themselves from emerging dangers. The federal government claims sovereignty over all of its former territory, but in reality, it is only one actor in a landscape of sub-state entities and can only hold a small physical footprint. But physical territory is not the only entity these actors concern themselves with. Many people spend much of their time in a place called the metaverse, where they interact through avatars. This was years before the internet or social media became staples of our daily life. Perhaps one of the most relevant themes of Snow Crash has to do with identity. Identity is depicted as precarious, fragmented, and negotiable. In a world with weak, non-existent, or failing nation-states, it can also be highly tribal.
How should we judge fiction vis-à-vis international political theory? First, like theory, we should judge it by its internal consistency. How much does the fiction obey the rules it creates for itself? And second, we should judge it by its relevance to the current world we live in. In other words, how much does the fictional world actually reflect and illuminate dynamics in the real world? Third, we should also ask in what ways the fiction surpasses theory (what I call explicitly stated theory, as opposed to the implicitly depicted theory of fiction).
Is the fictional world of Snow Crash internally consistent? In the novel, the United States is an anarchical territory mostly dominated by "burbclaves" (relatively well-to-do suburban enclaves) "franchulates" (franchises that control and compete for territories), narcotribes, city-states, and the rump federal government (that articulates the practices of a government without actually governing very much).
Does the fictional world obey the rules it creates for itself? For the most part, yes. There is certainly a tonal consistency that carries the book. However, one does have to wonder how vital infrastructures are maintained. It seems as if principles of greed, honor, and cooperation within anarchy keep the territory known as America together. But this reality seems tenuous at best sometimes. The absurdity of this future is often its draw and its plausibility comes from the rich details the author endows the book with. The world-building is so complete that mid-way through the book, the reader can start to anticipate how things will happen. But there are still lingering questions. Without a strong central government, how do airports continue to function? How do nuclear arsenals remain secure (enough)? And why is the United States, with only a rump federal government, still considered the “First World” by the characters in the book?
Second, is the novel relevant to the current world? Written in 1993, but forecasting many of the trends we see today—information overload and anarchy, tribalized worldviews, alternative currencies, and a new digital world—I would say the novel is extremely relevant. As is the entire genre of cyberpunk. However, since the novel is fiction and not theory or policy writing, the question could be asked: What wisdom, if any, can be pulled from this fictional world? To answer this question, we would need to go beyond the novel itself and ask another important question. How does the world become the world predicted in the novel? One key answer is the breakdown and hollowing out of public institutions. In the novel, the CIA eventually becomes the CIC (the Central Intelligence Corporation) and the federal government becomes a shadow of its former self. The irrelevance of these organizations opens up opportunities for the Mafia, narcotribes, franchulates, and Asian city-states like Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong (and its alternative currency Kongbucks). So, one possible answer to the question of what wisdom can be drawn from the fictional world is simple: restore trust in and renew public institutions.
And finally, does the novel surpass explicitly stated theory? My answer to this question will seem wishy-washy. I have always considered fiction as a superior form of writing because it can deal freely with the often blurred, curved, layered, and otherwise absurd aspects of reality. Fiction never has to smooth out the rough edges of the world. The very thing that makes it superior to explicitly written policy writing or international political theory, however, also leaves it lacking. An analytical interpretation of the novel—rendering it theory—kills much of what is unique and valuable in the world it has created, but at the same time makes it accessible to audiences with specific intellectual needs.
In short, you give up the rich fictional world to gain the theoretical one.
Which is more valuable? Well, like the hero of Stephenson's novel, Hiro Protagonist (yes, that really is his name), who travels between the metaverse and the real world to accomplish his objectives, I suggest that you become a frequent traveler between worlds to live the richest possible theoretical life (rich in Kongbucks, of course).
About the author: Daniel Clausen is a graduate of Florida International University’s PhD program in International Relations and an instructor at Nagasaki International University. His research has been published in Asian Politics and Policy, Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, and Culture and Conflict Review, among other publications.
But it’s difficult to think about value when we have no buoy for understanding it outside our traditional lenses: for example, our time, our job, and what others tell us they are worth in cash. This, largely, is the world’s paradigm for value so far. But understanding what value really means changes everything—and will be at the center of the decentralized revolution in global coordination that will unfold over the next decade. So, where do we begin?
Let’s start with gold.
Gold is an inherent value. When backing a market, gold allows us to grow a balanced economy well into the trillions. But why does it allow for massive stable markets to form around it? It is gold's permanence that creates stability. We understand that gold will always have value, because it is inherent in all of us, not just in one part of the world, but everywhere, not just today, but tomorrow and for the long haul.
In the 1930s when the gold standard was removed, we learned that the U.S. dollar didn’t need gold to back its economy to flourish. We learned that it was just a symbol for U.S. citizens to decentralize their coordination around the United States economy.
It turns out, common agreement is a philosophy for building shared economy.
And so it seems inherent value is a marker for us to begin exploring what the future could look like—a future beyond gold and the existing realm of credit. And so what else has inherent value? Is education as valuable as gold? What about healthcare? What about a vote that can’t be tampered with? What about an ID that can’t be stolen or erased? What about access to nutrition or clean water? You will find value everywhere you look.
It turns out, we’ve already done the legwork necessary to uncover the most elemental inherent values: The Sustainable Development Goals are commitments grown out of the drive to bring to life basic tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the closest possible social contract we have to a global, common agreement.
We’ve already agreed.
Our agreements are grounded in deep value centers that are globally shared, but undervalued and unfulfilled. The reason for this is our inability to quantify intangible value. All of these rich, inherent values are still nebulous and fragmented in implementation—largely existing as ideals and blueprints for deep, globally shared common agreement. That is, we all agree education, health, and equality have value, but we lack common units for understanding who and who is not contributing value—leaving us to fumble in our own, uncoordinated siloes as we chase the phantoms of impact. In essence, we lack common currencies for our common agreements.
Now we find ourselves at the nexus of the real paradigm of Blockchain, allowing us to fuse economics with inherent value by proving the participation of some great human effort, then quantifying the impact of that effort in unforgeable and decentralized ledgers. It allows us to build economic models for tomorrow, that create wholly new markets and economies for and around each of the richest of human endeavors.
In late 2017 at the height of the Bitcoin bubble, without individual coordination, planning, or the help of institutions, almost $1 trillion was infused into blockchain markets. This is remarkable, and the revolution has only just begun. When you realize that Blockchain is in a similar stage of development as the internet pre-AOL, you will see a glimpse of the global transformation to come.
Only twice in the information age have we had such a paradigm shift in global infrastructure reform—the computer and the internet. While the computer taught us how to store and process data, the Internet built off that ability and furthered the conversation by teaching us how to transfer that information. Blockchain takes another massive step forward—it builds off the internet, adding to the story of information storage and transfer—but, it teaches us a new, priceless and not yet understood skill: how to transfer value.
This third wave kicked off with a rough start—as happens with the birth of new technologies and their corresponding liberties. Blockchain has, thus far, been totally unregulated. Many, doubtless, have taken advantage. A young child, stretching their arms for the first couple times might knock over a cookie jar or two. Eventually, however, they learn to use their faculties—for evil or for good. As such, while it’s wise to be skeptical at this phase in blockchain’s evolution, it’s important not to be blind to its remarkable implications in a post-regulated world, so that we may wield its faculties like a surgeon’s scalpel—not for evil or snake-oil sales, but for the creation of more good, for the flourishing of commonwealth.
But what of the volatility in blockchain markets? People agree Bitcoin has value, but they don’t understand why they are in agreement, and so cryptomarkets fluctuate violently. Stable blockchain economies will require new symbolic gold standards that clearly articulate why someone would agree to support each market, to anchor common agreement with stability. The more globally shared these new value standards, the better.
Is education more valuable than gold? What about healthcare or nutrition or clean water?
We set out in 2018 to prove a hypothesis—we believe that if you back a cryptocurrency economy with a globally agreed upon inherent value like education, you can solve for volatility and stabilize a mature long lasting cryptomarket that awards everyone who adds value to that market in a decentralized way without the friction of individual partnerships.
What if education was a new gold standard?
And what if this new Learning Economy had protocols to award everyone who is helping to steward the growth of global education?
Education is a mountain. Everyone takes a different path to the top. Blockchain allows us to measure all of those unique learning pathways, online and in classrooms, into immutable blockchain Learning Ledgers.
By quantifying the true value of education, a whole economy can be built around it to pay students to learn, educators to create substantive courses, and stewards to help the Learning Economy grow. It was designed to provide a decentralized way for everyone adding value to global education to coordinate around the commonwealth without the friction of individual partnerships. Imagine the same for healthcare, nutrition, and our environment?
Imagine a world where we can pay refugees to learn languages as they find themselves in foreign lands, a world where we can pay those laid off by the tide of automation to retrain themselves for the new economy, a world where we can pay the next generation to prepare themselves for the unsolved problems of tomorrow.
Imagine new commonwealth economies that alleviate the global burdens of poverty, disease, hunger, inequality, ignorance, toxic water, and joblessness. Commonwealths that orbit inherent values, upheld by immutable blockchain protocols that reward anyone in the ecosystem stewarding the economy—whether that means feeding the hungry, providing aid for the global poor, delivering mosquito nets in malaria-ridden areas, or developing transformative technologies that can provide a Harvard-class education to anyone in the world willing to learn.
These worlds are not out of reach—we are only now opening our eyes to the horizons of blockchain, decentralized coordination, and new gold standards. Even though coordination is the last of the seventeen sustainable development goals, when solved, its tide will lift for the rest—a much-needed rocket fuel for global prosperity.
“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair.” —George Washington