We have fetishized economics. Tomáš Sedláček

Drifting together

How much do online communities affect geopolitics?

Liberalism, as far as international relations theory is concerned, is the idea that lasting peace between different nation-states is achieved through economic and social interdependency, as well as the formation of international law. It is the counter-argument to realism (Realpolitik in German), the theory of international relations that assumes that interstate peace is the result of states (which in this case are federal governments) working to maximize their power relative to other states, leading to power alliances as well as armed conflict.

One unlikely holdout of liberalist support

Liberals support globalization and the spread of democracies, for they believe that these systems force countries into a state of cooperation. For this reason, they also support institutions such as the EU, the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO. But in a world where violence is on the rise and a post-Cold War America’s calls for free trade and democracy have left many disenfranchised, it’s beginning to look like liberalism will need some support from ideas and institutions that are a little bit newer than the Bretton Woods Conference if it wants to contend with the growing support for realist theory.

One unlikely holdout of liberalist support may just be the Internet. The Internet has never made it easier for human beings to immerse themselves in or utterly retreat from the topic of world affairs. While the immersion side has been intensely analyzed from iPhone journalists filming Egyptian protests to Libyan rebels using Google Earth to show NATO planes which bases to bomb, there’s little discussion about the other camp of people: those who use the internet not to better understand their world, but to create worlds of their own.

Although people who grew up without the Internet are likely to attribute its arrival to many of the modern world’s problems, younger generations are more likely to see the Internet as the solution. The unprecedented amount of international connectivity that the Internet provides is spawning communities that know no national borders. Online communities are becoming the platforms where an increasing number of people work, study, and even form relationships – something most civic institutions are largely ignoring.

Where politics barely has Facebook and Twitter figured out, the art world is already demonstrating the Internet’s intense reformation of culture on an almost tribal scale. Entire aesthetics have been developed and reimagined by digital artists interacting with mostly online followings. Teenage artistic prodigies such as David Marinos employ platforms such as Tumblr to interact with niche audiences and make stunningly unique artwork in the process.

Musicians, too, have made their mark. In 2014, the famous electronic musician Porter Robinson produced an album appropriately titled Worlds. Robinson claims that much of the inspiration for Worlds comes from the emotions he feels while interacting with video game environments as well as other human beings through the vessel of technology. Robinson, hailing from a small town in North Carolina, also claims to be a kid raised on the Internet. It turns out that he is also far from alone.

Encouraging integration

The success of Robinson’s Worlds tour, particularly at stops in small American towns, is in large part attributed to Internet-savvy fans under the age of 21 who deeply connect with his music and the online art-inspired visuals at his shows. Many of these kids have no regional accent, despite being from places like the rural south. They are more connected to online culture than the culture of the places where they literally live, and they adore their online realities. In a way, it’s the ultimate liberalist mindset. You have people who see themselves more as a part of a global network than they do of any city, region, or country.

It’s conceivable that as greater numbers of human beings grow up with an internet-centric cultural lens, very different values and priorities will accompany them. What must an American 13-year-old playing World of Warcraft with someone he knows from Russia think about the invasion of Crimea? We don’t really know. It doesn’t mean that war or suffering will be eliminated with trendy online art, but such things do increase the number of people forming social groups based on factors such as personal interests instead of factors like ethnicity, nationality, or religion. That alone is still huge.

The expansion of technology is moving the professional and personal lives of many people into ever more global spheres of interaction. Such interaction inevitably creates interdependency, and new subcultures that have little regard for citizenship or even physical location. At a time when the EU, an institution grounded in liberalism, is facing a nationalist crisis, liberals should be highlighting these trends as evidence that the Internet is not always a place that reinforces division, but also regularly encourages integration.

If the EU is to functionally survive in the long term, let us hope that the liberals are right.

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