We are living through a period which is seeing some of the most momentous changes in human relations in the shortest time in history. Thirty odd years ago when we lived in Kenya and I was seven it was a big thing living abroad. Just the travel arrangements I remember seem like climbing Everest compared to today's era of mass international travel. Three stops, visas to everywhere, currency controls all over the place, expensive flights. Nowadays my father and stepmother seem to have few qualms about travelling to Durban for long weekends or shopping trips. We hear of people resident in Monaco and working three days a week in London, or people with a regular getaway home in Thailand.
Jon Snow, our university Chancellor, told us in one of his annual lectures once about when Sandy Gall, remember him, was out with the Mujihadeen in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet occupation, he would be given a camera, a notebook, a reel of film and told to come back in three weeks with an interesting story for the evening news. Nowadays we are in instant touch right around the world and news is relayed as it happens. I remember hearing that during Live Aid in 1986 stadia in South Africa and India had their first live international incoming broadcast from the concerts in London and the US and people remarking that it was really the first time they knew there were other people out there thinking about them.
When I worked in a Glasgow based Stock Exchange firm in the mid eighties we still had to book international telephone calls in advance to the US. Now the fight is about roaming charges because so many of us take our phones abroad with us – unimaginable back then!
But more than that, more significant than even that has been the internet. Coupled with urbanization which has seen us reach the point where more than fifty per cent of the world's population lives in cities, it means that given the right equipment that already exists and is enjoyed by many particularly in the more wealthy world, fifty per cent of the world's 6+ billion people could be in personal individual contact with any other anywhere around the world live. It's truly like waking up one morning in human history to find a whole new dimension – imagine living in a two dimensional world and suddenly discovering the third.
This has huge implications, epochal implications for the way we live, work, form alliances, invent, learn, trade, develop our common future and view the institutions that have served us till now. Governments and trans-national corporations have developed as intermediaries, as the contact point between whole nations of people who did not have direct access to each other in other countries as individuals. Even money, national currencies, are intermediaries, temporary stores of value that allow us to separate transactions by time and guarantee the creditworthiness of our counterparties in commerce.
I have a friend who has developed a pet theory of markets:
Market 1.0 – decentralised but disconnected – past – the local market with occasional trips to other local markets
Market 2.0 – centralised but connected – ending now – bigger, say national markets with intermediaries, governments and corporations, trading between these national markets
Market 3.0 – decentralised but connected – future beginning now – consumers and producers are ever more in direct contact with each other, the markets can be global and everyone can participate on the right network.
And this third, facilitated not by governments but by technology, and even sometimes in spite of governments, poses huge challenges. Challenges that can only go two ways – one way lies a massive increase in the power of the individual as opposed to the intermediary, whether governmental or commercial, the other sees those two huge vested interests try to prevent their loss of power or compensate for it with ever more draconian measures to place limits on this super-connectivity. Of course other, new intermediaries will emerge. Instead of being dependent on government to guarantee our ability to trade we may become dependent on a small number of global communications superpowers for granting us access to their networks. But the speed with which new ideas and inventions traverse and emerge from the ether will enable the individual to keep one step ahead of absolute dependency on a single supplier or a single technology.
And it's all eminently affordable. For half of what we spend as a single nation on our NHS each year, every single household in Africa could have a "One Laptop Per Child" type device and the infrastructure to connect to the outside world with it. Skype them altogether and they could be providing secretarial services to the rest of the world or selling their best quality coffee for full price to the small boutique blender who charges premium prices to his increasingly affluent western consumers. Think of the possibilities of four hundred million kids bursting with a will to learn suddenly enjoying all of the knowledge the internet can provide.
So, we have the potential to learn from each other without intervention, to trade with each other and to learn to make decisions about who to trust in trade without paying Nestle or whoever the middleman's cut for doing so. We don't even really need money – everything on eBay could be priced in Paypal Pounds for example and we could trade away without having to convert back into real 'currency' unless we had to buy something in an old fashioned retailer – and even then they'd soon learn to accept Paypals or Tescos or whatever.
Now, you may think this is all a bit far fetched, but I predicted, even if I didn't have the skills to capitalize on it, not only the Amazon business model (I tried to sell something similar to Blackwells in return for a job developing it in 1994) but also the Amazon marketplace that manages fantastically to match sellers of second hand books and so on!
Anyways, the point is, we always talk in Libertarian circles about being pragmatic to get our policies enacted, and that's all well and good, but we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. The world is changing, changing fast. The era in which big government and big corporations thrived because we needed them to be intermediaries for us is ending in the superconnected world that makes us, truly, a global village. And it will affect every policy area. We can either sleepwalk into a totalitarianism of governments and corporations who want to stop this progress in their own interests or we can help it along by showing people that a free world need not be a chaotic and dangerous place, that on the contrary, the more we know the other individuals in our global village the more we trust and care about them.