shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
The Future of Europe Lies In Email

The future of post-national Europe is standing in line in London. A new
shop has opened opposite London's Victoria rail Station, with a line out
the door from noon to night, selling the most addicitve product on
earth: connection. The shop, a cybercafe on steroids called
easyEverything, takes the traditional approach to cybercafes ("Like a
real cafe, but with terminals") and turns it on its head ("Like a
college computer lab, but with latte.") In return for providing
travellers with hundreds of terminals and cheap, accessible internet
access, easyEverything has been rewarded with an unexpectedly huge flow
of the under-25 set travelling across Europe, and these travellers
are all using easyEverything for one thing: HotMail.  Thats it - almost
no one is surfing, buying, listenting, or any of the other things the
Web is being hyped for, just thousands of people sending tens of
thousands of emails a day, 24/7. The messages are short -- 'Here's my
phone number, here's my itinerary' -- and the turnover of customers is
high, but the message being sent out via these digital jungle drums is a
'Map of Cool', a traveller's atlas of Europe.  The subtext of the
messages is "London is good right now. Glasgow is good right now.
Frankfurt is lame, but Prague is cool...", on and on, a vast interactive
'Let's Go' produced in real time, and with far more accuracy than the
commercial travel guides.  This may seem like nothing more than a
holiday pastime, but this kind of information moves markets, and is the
key to transforming the European Union from a free trade zone into a
real country. 

The EU is the test case for the effects of the Internet on government.
No other multi-national region of the world has gone so far to
dismantle national broders. Within the EU there are no passport
checks, no customs checks at internal broders, and no barriers to work
- any citizen of any of the 12 EU countries can work in any other EU
country without needing a visa. Things that Americans take for
granted, like being able to move 3000 miles for a job, are available
to the citizens of the EU for the first time. In other words, the EU
has most of the trappings of a country except the citizens, and the
citizens are being produced at places like easyEverything. The people
sending their email there are Europe's first post-national generation,
its first Internet generation, the first group of people who can move
from one country to another if they hear that life is better
elsewhere. The willingness of this generation to ignore national
identity is going to confound their elders, the people who have grown
up convinced that sentiments like 'The Germans are efficient and
humorless, while the Italians are undisciplined and fun-loving' have
an almost genetic component.  Nationality matters less than economics
- the Internet generation is going to behave more like customers than
citizens.

There used to be a story in the automotive industry that went this way:
in the 1980s, American car manufacturers made expensive gas guzzlers,
while the Japanese made zippy little bundles of automotive efficency.
Lesson? Japan good, America bad. Then in the 1990s, the Japanese got
sloppy and smug, while the Americans re-tooled and re-engineered, and
the advantage switched to Detroit. New lesson? America good, Japan bad,
the opposite of the old lesson. This is the official history, anyway,
but there is another, simpler interpretation, one that doesn't require
belief in a pair of opposite lessons in subsequent decades. That
interpretation is this: people buy the cars they like best, and don't
care about nationality. 

The reason that this simpler interpretation is not the official
history is that a global market is terrifying to people, or at least
to people who make cars for a living. Detriot's "Buy American"
campaign was proof that producers thought that nationality could - and
should - sway consumer choice more than quality and price, but those
days are ending.  Patriotism is the last refuge of an unprofitable
business. We are so used to seeing markets through the filter of
national borders that its hard to see what the emerging global market
is going to look like, but the behavior of the Internet generation in
Europe will show us its outlines.

The current cohort of European under 25s have several important
characteristics that make them immune to cheap nationalism -- they are
the first generation whose parents didn't live through WWII, and they
are richer, more mobile, and speak better English (the official second
language of the 21st century) than any generation in history. Add to
this that they are comfortable with the internet, that they can work
anywhere they like, and that places like easyEverything are springing up
to satisfy untapped demand for communications, and you get a generation
of rootless cosmopolitans, people who are unimpressed with arguments
that they should tolerate unemployment, or high prices, or limited
horizons, simply in order to defend national characteristics that boil
down to little more than a preference for different kinds of cheese. 

This emerging European generation will run into a great deal of
hostility from the status quo --a continent that has erupted into war
twice in this century will give up its borders uneasily and unevenly
-- but the transformation is inevitable. 'National culture' is just
another way of saying 'arbitrage opportunity'. The internet has
created the biggest referendum on the ability of government to satisfy
its citizens in the history of the world, and governments that fail
the test will see their citizens vote with their feet. As the world is
increasingly divided into EU-like free trade arrangements -- NAFTA,
OSEAN, OAU, MERCOSUR, CARICOM -- the free flow of information about
jobs and prices across those borders will accelerate the transfer of
power to supra-national entities, and the loyalty of citizens will go
with it.  This period has only just begun, and it will have a long
time to go before the post-national generation is in power, but you
can start to see what the world will look like in a 25 years while
standing in line at Victoria station.



Write clay@shirky.com with questions or comments.

Mail a copy of this essay:

Enter the email address of the recipient. Multiple addresses should be separated by commas.

Add your own message(optional):

Your name:(optional)

Note: Your name, and your recipient's email address, will only be used to transfer this article, and will not be stored or used for any other purpose.

Send the article URL only
Send the article as HTML
Send the article as plain text

shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source