What if we had to add the end of nation states to the long list of upcoming disruptions? In the current context of deglobalization, the sovereignty of states has been reaffirmed, with, in particular, the emergence of governments expressing their willingness to reclaim their destinies. Yet these states, and all nation states in general, might in fact be more threatened by the digital revolution and meta-platforms that are increasingly able to stand up to them than by liberalism and globalization, as many would argue. In this first article, Gilles Babinet investigates these technology-induced sovereignty transfers.
The origin of nation states
An important part of our modern world was structured in 1648 by the Treaty of Westphalia, which defines nation states as the only sovereign entities to regulate territories that still represent countries today. This change of scale, which disintermediated local lords, was already the consequence of technological revolutions. The latter, among other things, allowed for the rationalization of the use of cannon, which could knock down any castle wall, thus rendering the rule of local potentates obsolete.
Several factors enabled nation states to establish their sovereignty on a long-term basis and to assert it through the precise demarcation of borders on a considerably larger area. These include military investments in a modern weapons system favoring the use of gunpowder, a postal organization facilitating a more centralized governance, public accounting limiting prevarication, more efficient management of monetary issuance, etc. To date, most armed conflicts have begun precisely because these borders were being challenged, thus demonstrating, if need be, that the notion of sovereignty is primarily linked to territories.
Nearly half a millennium later, at a time when techniques, information and its processing are being virtualized, one may wonder whether geographical space is still as significant. A progressive yet inevitable evolution seems to be taking place before our eyes. Some of the sovereign states’ small symbols are thus being assimilated by the private sector. For instance, mail went from being delivered by the French postal service La Poste to WhatsApp (younger generations do not use emails). Topographical maps, which used to be produced by public and military institutions, are now the commodity of entirely private actors, such as Apple or Google Maps. Data has become the most important raw material of our time, and only a handful of companies now hold unparalleled economic power and influence. These are the meta-platforms: their huge size allows them to constantly increase the amount of information they master, and thus to refine the algorithms they use to examine and analyze us.