The Great Digital Paradox

A paradox, by nature, is hard to grasp.  It is a self-contradictory statement that at first seems false, or misleading. George Bernard Shaw’s most famous paradox is that ‘youth is wasted on the young’. This is seemingly contradictory for how can youth be wasted on those who are youthful? Shaw was of course referring to the fickleness of time, to the fact that the young always long to be old while the old wish to be young. Above all, he suggested that the young fail to appreciate the vigor and the possibilities that are availed to them. These are only recognized with the passage of time.

Last week I found myself confronting another paradox. I received an email from an American high school student writing a paper on the future of the Metaverse. She asked whether the Metaverse will be truly global and, if so, will the world become more global in orientation. My response was that the more global the Metaverse will prove, the less global the physical world will be. And the more local the Metaverse, the more global the world will become. This answer alludes to the great paradox that underlines digitalization- the more digital technologies facilitate globalization; the more political and social forces oppose globalization.

In nature, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The first two great waves of digitalization- the internet and social media- facilitated the process of globalization. It should be noted that globalization is not some natural process that like the sea has its own current, or like gravity has its own inertia. Globalization is an American, and perhaps “Western” project, a set of policies and organizations that hope to integrate the world into one global economy spearheaded by the US.   

The internet and social media help speed this process along. Digital technologies blur boundaries, transcend borders and bring with them revolutionary spirits and ideas. Nations have found it hard to stem global information flows which produce a global consciousness. Some such as China, Russia and Iran have attempted to create national “splinternets” on which information is tightly monitored. Yet tech savvy youngsters in all three countries can overcome such obstacles and partake in global conversations becoming members of a global community. Indeed, some Twitter or Facebook users may feel they have more in common with their online peers than with fellow citizens.

Tech savviness is not wasted on the young.

Globalization, being an American process, is inclined towards certain norms and ideals. Chiefly that of free market capitalism, so long as the free market does not crash due to the insatiable greed of Wall Street. Yet the supposedly American values of free speech, equality and human rights are also woven into globalization. There has always been the claim that the internet and social media are democratic by nature. The internet makes information and opinion more accessible while on social media every user is transformed into an advocate that can promote his/her worldview opposite all other users. Networks of users may even join forces and become more vocal than states, and equally effective in promoting their agenda. Of course, the early vision of the internet is somewhat removed from the reality of Facebook in which influence can be bought, reach can be purchased and influence can easily turn to manipulation as algorithms reign supreme.

The response to the internet and social media, which have dramatically altered all aspects of daily life, has been equal in force. Throughout the world we have witnessed the resurgence of nationalism as politicians frame “Globalists” as an existential threat to the nation state. Nationalist leaders in the UK, US, France, India, Israel, Poland, Hungary and more have drawn a line in the sand. One is either a “Globalist” or a nationalist, a term no longer feared. The nationalist is the one willing to resurrect a great mythical past when his/her country adorned the trappings of an Empire. Be it the British Empire, the French Empire or even the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. History is thus summoned to the present while the present is forced to conform to the past.

Much like this mythical past, the “Globalist” does not exist. He is a mythical creature that has taken on legendary proportions. When the “Globalist” touts the benefits of free movement, the nationalist warns of hordes of immigrant workers. Not since the sacking of Rome have hordes played such an important role in politics, even if it is an imaginary one. While the “Globalist” advocates multilateralism and a global good, the nationalist promises to chart his/her nation’s independent course. To “unleash” his/her nation’s full potential, to break the shackles that bind the fates of states. When the “Globalist” speaks of obligations, the nationalist decries burdens. While the “Globalist” supposedly supports liquidity, the nationalist admires rigidness. When the “Globalist” speaks of empowerment, the nationalist finds nothing more than political correctness and coercion. As the “Globalist” is willing to accept, the nationalist is eager to reject. If the “Globalist” sees grey, the nationalist turns color blind explaining the world in black and white.

Hindu nationalism, vaccine nationalism, economic nationalism or just plain nationalism- these are the political and social reactions to digital technologies that enable the global to take shape and manifest itself daily.

So, here we arrive at the inescapable digital paradox. The more digital technologies become embedded into daily life, the greater the number of nationalists across the world. The Metaverse does not yet exist. But if the vision of the Matarese is that of a global space, occupied in real-time by a global public, then the wave of nationalism will only surge ahead washing over many countries and many shores. Yet, if nations develop national Metaverses, with one promoting Kpop and another a virtual tour of Hogwarts, then the tides may turn, nationalism may subside and the physical world may adopt a global outlook that prioritizes shared, global interests.   

It is, perhaps, a potent reminder that the digital and physical realms do not exist independent of one another. Rather, the digital and the physical impact one another in a dynamic fashion leading to new configurations of power, identity and politics.  

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