Will we ever be able to go off-grid again? What do we gain and lose if not? These questions came to mind as I was reading Anupam Chander’s Electronic Silk Road. The book is excellent. Indeed, these questions and the rest of this post’s ideas would not have come to mind had he not set out how the Electronic Silk Road operates and might operate. And my questions are perhaps prompted by a good book that addresses much and better still opens the doors to the next questions. Chander makes a strong case for benefits of a modern silk road where trust and trade work together and promote “net-work” which he defines as “information services delivered remotely through electronic communications systems.” This two way world facilitates labor shifted to Asia but also Google and Facebook spanning the globe with their services. His plea for new laws to address this change in trade makes sense. Our world of goods is fading to a world of digital things. Yet I wonder whether this new rule of trade maps to all the wonders we may want.
There may be unintentional irony here. Chapter One epigraph quotes Keynes “What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August, 1914!” Does trade stop war or at least make countries less likely to war against each other? Maybe. To get there Chander points out that, “the characteristics that permit net-work trade might be deployed to create a robust infrastructure for such trade: real-time information transfer, low information and other transactions costs, the ability of individuals around the world to collaborate, and electronic identification.” But the same systems that may promote trade can lead to greater surveillance and repression.
In other words, the recent spying amongst countries may be a good thing. I fear greater coordination amongst countries rather than friction. Chander calls this issue “Stalinization—the imposition of the world’s most repressive rules on cyberspace, in aggregated form.” He acknowledges this point at p. 197. Nonetheless this greater connection and improved grid may be inescapable. The idea that local laws must balance global over-reach does not appear to address what happens when the big boys agree. The electronic silk road thus seems to kill the romance of the silk road.
The Silk Road evokes adventure, the ability to test, change identities, and yet somehow trade worked. Failure on the Silk Road or even mistakes or cheating could be hidden by moving from the Road to some other country. In that sense, a modern system of trade on a global scale seems to defeat the room for play that Julie Cohen has described in Configuring the Networked Self. To where would one go to experiment, reinvent, and rehabilitate? Even with greater freedom to communicate things can go awry. A WTO response may be futile if all agree on bad behavior. Public shaming of corporations may mean little when they are forced to comply. To be clear, I agree with much of what Chander offers and have hope that the mitigation he offers will take it root. At bottom it may be a faith that discourse and debate defeats evil in all forms. Part of me thinks this idea is true. Part wonders whether we have come that far from the days leading up to World War I or II. If not, tighter understanding and trade may do less than both Chander and I hope. Then again Chander may be setting us up for the next step in his ideas. I certainly hope so.