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Covid-19 is possibly caused by an attack on the body’s oxygenation system

There are some interesting observations on the Covid-19 disease revealing that it doesn’t appear to be normal pneumonia or ARDS (Acute respiratory distress syndrome), but a failure of the body’s oxygenation system, due to an attack by the virus on the hemoglobin, transporting oxygen and CO2 through the blood. Check the video below with observations made by a ICU physician in New York.
What is being observed is that the lungs of the patient seem to be mechanically ok, and that the problem manifests itself rather as acute high altitude sickness.
Here’s a scientific paper describing the situation from a biochemical point of view, hinting at a failure of the body’s oxygenation system when proteins of the virus attacks the hemoglobin and its function of carrying oxygen and CO2.
The conclusion is that ventilators, which are used to help lungs with mechanical work if the muscles are too weak, might not be very effective for treating Covid-19, or might even do harm, unless we find the cures that repair the oxygenation process, or stop the virus attack on this system.
Another hint is this AI-based study identifying three top risk factors for developing a severe illness in Covid-19 (and it is not age, sex or the things we would expect, but hemoglobin turns up again):
“A mildly elevated alanine aminotransferase (ALT) (a liver enzyme), the presence of myalgias (body aches), and an elevated hemoglobin (red blood cells), in this order, are the clinical features, on presentation, that are the most predictive. The predictive models that learned from historical data of patients from these two hospitals achieved 70% to 80% accuracy in predicting severe cases.”
If this hypothesis would turn out to be correct, there should be a possibility to cure the Covid-19 disease without ICU and save thousands of lives, before we will be able to develop a vaccine about 18-24 months from now.

Rough forecasts for Covid-19 in 12 countries (regular updates)

UPDATE May 11: All 12 countries in the forecast are now at about 5 deaths per million per day or lower, Sweden being highest and most behind. In the beginning of June, all countries will probably be at 1 death per million per day or lower. What will happen when lockdowns are being lifted is unclear though. Effects on severe cases should be seen within 2 weeks and on deaths within 3 weeks. 

On May 11, many European countries started to remove restrictions. After 2 months in lockdown, as in Italy for example, people seem to gather more than would be recommended. In the next 2-3 weeks we will know what effects this will have. A second lockdown cannot be excluded if numbers start increasing again.

Obviously it is important that we keep following the advice for limiting the spread of the disease. It’s not over at all, but we can do this together.

The curve for China is an estimated distribution of additional deaths reported on April 17 (see update May 4 below).

The last six days of daily deaths in Sweden is still being calculated in order to compensate for delayed reporting of deaths in Sweden. Accumulated deaths on May 11 was estimated to 3536, while the officially reported number was 3256. Daily deaths on May 11 was estimated at about 60.

Here are the latest charts for May 11 (click on the images):

 

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This blog post, which will be updated regularly, contains a rough forecast for the Covid-19 pandemic situation in 12 countries, with three data points:

  1. Daily growth of total deaths in percent (thin line to the left). Dashed graph is the forecast. UPDATE April 26: This graph has been eliminated since it doesn’t add much information.
  2. Number of deaths per day per 10 million inhabitants, average over 5 days (fat curve to the right). Dashed graph is the forecast.
  3. Estimate of total deaths per 1 million inhabitants, plus total number of deaths (numbers to the right).

NOTE: The forecasts are based on math only—I have no knowledge of epidemiology—and are very uncertain (the model is particularly sensible for sudden changes in growth percentage before reaching the peak of daily deaths).

The basis for the forecasts are a few real observations, with the model described further down in this post. The essential observation is that the growth of total deaths in percent starts high in all countries (40-50 percent) and then declines day by day (partly for mathematical reasons, partly for a decline in the growth of daily deaths). From this observation, the forecasts are based on the time series of the daily growth percentage in China and in some cases also Spain. See below.

The take-away of the observations is that it is essential to push down the daily growth of total deaths (by pushing down the spread of the disease). Note that a small difference in percentage makes a huge difference in the number of deaths over time. If we have 100 dead today and 20 percent growth, we will have 4,600 dead after three weeks. With 30 percent daily growth we will end up with 25,000 deaths! Which measures are most effective should be answered by epidemiologists.

 

This is the model for the forecasts:

The estimates in the graphs above are based on a few simple observations on the number of deaths from Covid-19. The number of deaths is used since this appears to be the most reliable data point. The number of “confirmed cases” is considered by many to be largely underestimated, due to many cases being asymptomatic, and the number also correlates mainly with the number of tests made, which can be seen in data from Italy.

The number of deaths is also more relevant to the healthcare system—it seems to be directly proportional to the number of persons in ICU (at least in Italy, by a factor of 1 to 5 or 6) which is the critical number for the hospitals. However, also the number of deaths may be inaccurate since it is unclear how many deaths related to Covid-19 are not registered, e.g. for people dying in their homes.

These are the observations:

  1. In all countries, the total number of deaths increases day by day by a percentage (exponential growth).
  2. In most countries, this percentage starts high (40-50 percent) and after about ten bumpy days it declines day by day, partly for mathematical reasons, partly due to a decline in growth of daily deaths (over time, the growth of total deaths will approach the growth of daily deaths asymptotically). Here is how this looked in China (click on the image):

And here are the percentage curves for 12 countries, starting from the day in each country for one death per one million inhabitants. Note how all countries eventually seem to follow the same slope and path for this curve:

The model uses this pattern, copying the time series of China for the daily growth in percent. 

E.g. if a country one day has a growth of total deaths of 17 percent, the following percentages below 17 percent from the China time series are used for the forecast. For one percentage at a time, the number of total deaths the next day can be calculated (as an estimate), and from this also the deaths per day for the next day. 

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Notes:

  • The number of daily deaths used in the graphs and in the calculations is an average over five days. 
  • For the calculation of deaths per inhabitants in China, the population of Wuhan (11 million) has been used.
  • France had a very long time from the first death to the second death. For easier comparison, the second death in France has been used as a starting point.
  • Countries covered in this post: China, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, UK, France, Netherlands, Germany, and USA.

Data Sources: https://ourworldindata.org/covid-sources-comparison, https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/, https://c19.se, https://lab24.ilsole24ore.com/coronavirus/, https://www.folkhalsomyndigheten.se/smittskydd-beredskap/utbrott/aktuella-utbrott/covid-19/bekraftade-fall-i-sverige/

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Earlier updates:

UPDATE May 4: All the 12 countries still seem to have passed the peak of daily deaths, although the situation is unclear for countries with the lowest number of total deaths per 1 million, e.g. Finland and Denmark. The long term number of deaths per 1 million in the USA still seems to remain significantly lower than in Spain, Italy, France and the UK. The graph for daily deaths in China have been updated, following an assumed distribution of the 50 percent increase in deaths reported on April 17. The number of daily deaths in Sweden for the last seven days is still being calculated, with total deaths estimated to 3051.

It is not clear whether the countries with low number of total deaths such as Finland and Denmark have passed the peak of daily deaths or not. On the other hand, Norway and maybe also Germany seem more clearly passed the peak. What will happen when these countries lift their restrictions will be important to follow since immunity might be lower.

The assumed distribution of daily deaths in China, including the 50 percent increase in total deaths reported on April 17 without information on when these deaths occurred, is close to the graphs for Italy and France, although with a steeper decline of daily deaths. The steeper decline agrees with the low number of daily deaths—mostly zero, occasionally one—reported lately by China.

The number of daily deaths in Sweden is being calculated to compensate for delayed reporting of deaths in Sweden. The total number of deaths on May 4 was estimated to 3051, almost 300 more than the officially reported number of 2769. The number of daily deaths during the last week was estimated to between 65 and 73.

The calculation is based on an observed correlation between daily deaths and number of cases in ICU.

Here are the latest charts for May 4 (click on the images):

 

 

 

UPDATE April 26: All 12 countries still seem to have passed the peak of daily deaths. Sweden has had a slight increase but seems to be at the end of the peak. Finland has had a strong peak but it seems related to delayed reporting. France, UK, Netherlands, Germany, and the USA all follow the forecast fairly exactly, although the peak of daily deaths for USA has been extended over the last days. Generally, all countries seem to see a slower decline of daily deaths than China. 

• It has been clear for a few days that all of the 11 countries, particularly those that have clearly passed the peak of daily deaths, have a slower decline in daily deaths than China (Wuhan) had. I can clearly see this since the forecast model is built on the daily growth factors of total deaths in China.

On the other hand, I have not been able to add the 50 percent increase in total deaths for China reported on April 17 since there is no information about when these deaths have occurred.

Adding the newly reported deaths over almost the whole time series, with an emphasise over the peak and after the peak of daily deaths, makes the decline in daily deaths for China more in line with European countries. But it would also mean that China still should see a few deaths per day, and that is not what China is reporting.

Either China had a higher peak and a much faster decline of daily deaths than European countries, maybe due to its very severe lockdown, or the recent reports of zero daily deaths in China is incorrect.

• The numbers for Sweden for the last six days are still being calculated since reporting of deaths in Sweden keeps being significantly delayed.

• Large peaks for daily deaths in Finland on April 21 and 23 are probably due to delayed reporting and have been slightly distributed in time.

• I have now eliminated the graphs for daily growth of total deaths since they don’t make much sense in the diagram any longer. I have also extended the x-axes (days from 1st death) in the diagrams.

See the latest charts for April 26 below.

For reference, here’s is my forecast from March 26, one month ago. It is interesting to note how close the forecasts for Italy and Sweden has been to the real curves, though you can clearly see the slower decline than expected in Italy. In contrast, the forecast for Spain was too high due to a very fast increase in daily deaths initially in Spain.

Here are the other most recent charts from April 26 (click on the images):

 

 

 

UPDATE April 19: All 12 countries seem to have passed the peak of daily deaths, including USA. Italy sees daily deaths declining again efter a few days at a constant level. The last six days of daily deaths for Sweden are still being calculated in order to compensate for delayed death reports in Sweden. Total deaths for Sweden on April 19 was calculated to 1734, and for April 20 to 1787, about 200 above the number officially reported. 

The number of deaths in Sweden is calculated from the ratio of cases in ICU to daily deaths, correlating this value with Italy. The calculation is compensated for this ratio being on average 26 percent higher in Sweden than in Italy (see update for April 12 below).

Note that the US seems to be headed for 176 deaths per 1 million inhabitants, which is significantly lower than in China, Italy, Spain, France, UK, Netherlands, and Sweden. Some news outlets report high numbers of deaths in the USA but don’t seem to take into account the large population.

Also note that passing the peak of daily deaths means that the country has passed the peak of new daily cases 2-3 weeks earlier. In order to get to zero, however, we still need to be careful to slow down spread of the disease—washing hands, keeping distance, staying at home when we are sick, not meeting elderly, and avoiding social meeting.

China: On April 17, the Hubei Province issued a “Notice on the Correction of the Number of New Coronary Pneumonia Cases Diagnosed and the Number of Diagnosed Deaths in Wuhan” in which it reported 1,290 additional deaths that had not been previously counted and reported, bringing the total number of deaths in Wuhan from 2,579 to 3,869, an increase of 50%. These number have not been added to the model, assuming that the added number of deaths are fairly evenly distributed of the time series and thus essentially not changing the daily growth percentage in China, which is used as a basis for the forecast for other countries.

See the latest charts for April 19 below.

 

 

 

UPDATE April 16: The forecast for Sweden is still difficult to make due to delayed death reports. I still use an alternative method for estimating deaths the last six days (se update April 12 below), but the forecast is a bit lower now and Sweden still seems to have passed the peak of daily deaths. France and the Netherlands struggle to get passed the peak. Italy’s daily deaths don’t decline as fast as in China. The forecast for USA is significantly increased due to rising daily deaths. 

Charts for April 13, 14 and 15 are added below without comments.

The latest charts for April 16:

 

 

 

UPDATE April 15 without comments:

 

UPDATE April 14 without comments:

 

UPDATE April 13 without comments:

 

UPDATE April 12: The forecast for Sweden is significantly increased, putting Sweden at the peak of daily deaths today. A different model is used for Sweden in order to compensate for an obvious delay in reported deaths for the last six days, and it is obviously highly uncertain. Several other countries have a lowered forecast which may be due to delayed reports of deaths during Easter (see charts below).

Explanation of the new estimate for Sweden:

In the last few days there have been several indications that the data for deaths in Sweden are not complete.

  1. The shape of the curve showing daily deaths has been more pointed compared to all other countries.
  2. The decline of the growth of total deaths has been quicker than in any other country.
  3. The growth percent of total deaths has fallen to a value lower than in any other of the twelve countries except China and Italy which are far ahead in time.
  4. The ratio of cases in ICU to daily deaths is suddenly much higher than in Italy, where the value has been fairly stable along a certain curve, and also much higher than in Sweden only a week ago.

This all indicates that reported deaths in Sweden for the last days are below the real value. Since reported deaths have been delayed regularly during weekends in Sweden, and since Easter falls this weekend, the delay is expected, also by the health agency Folkhälsomyndigheten which expects real data on Tuesday April 14 or later.

For this reason, I have used a different model to calculate an estimate for daily deaths in Sweden for the last six days. The estimate is based on the ratio of cases in ICU to daily deaths. In Italy where both data series are available, this ratio started at about 12, reached its minimum of about 4.5 at the point where daily deaths reached its maximum, after which it started increasing again. The peak of cases in ICU was reached about one week later.

Comparing these values with Sweden, the cases in ICU seems to reach its peak about one week from now, on April 19, and the ratio of cases in ICU to daily deaths appears to reach a minimum which is slightly higher than in Italy, about 5.5. Using these values, it is possible to estimate the number of daily deaths from the cases in ICU. The number of daily deaths appears to reach its peak today, April 12, at 92 (the graph is slightly lower, showing an average over five days). This forecast is obviously highly uncertain, but it fits better with the other countries.

The lowered forecast for several other countries—in particular France and UK—my also be due to delayed reports of deaths during Easter.

 

 

 

UPDATE April 11: The forecasts still seem stable. All 12 countries, except USA, seem to be at the peak of daily deaths or having passed the peak. The model indicate that USA could possibly reach the peak within a few days, even though this might not seem we would expect. 

The forecast for Sweden also seems stable but is somewhat uncertain since the time series from the health agency, Folkhälsomyndigheten, is updated daily with several changes in data points more than a week ago, and with the value of the last day often too low due to delayed reports from local health regions.

The number ofta daily deaths in Sweden is probably around 65-80 at the moment. Tomorrow I will try to adjust the forecast based on the number of people in ICU, comparing with Italy that has much more data available.

 

 

 

UPDATE April 10: Situation relatively stable in all 12 countries (see charts below). 

 

 

UPDATE April 9: Sweden still seems to have passed the peak of daily deaths. In the UK, daily deaths keeps increasing, pushing the peak a few days ahead and raising the forecast for total deaths. Also for the US, the forecast keeps increasing. 

This highlights that the forecast from this model is highly uncertain and sensible for small changes in the growth of the number of total deaths, before the peak of daily deaths is passed.



 

UPDATE April 8: Sweden seems to have passed to peak of daily deaths. Daily deaths in USA and Germany keep increasing.

The forecast for Sweden depends much on how the data is reported. The Swedish health agency Folkhälsomyndigheten has reported a delay in registering of deaths. With the numbers of daily death redistributed over the passed weeks by Folkhälsomyndigheten, the forecast for Sweden has changed significantly to a lower level.

 

 

 

UPDATE April 7: Among the 12 countries being covered here, most now seem to have passed the peak of daily deaths, and the rest being a few days from the peak. 

 

UPDATE April 2: (see this blog post: Update on Covid-19: Sweden remains below Italy, Spain’s forecast greatly improved). At this point, the forecast for both Sweden, Italy, and Spain was close to what we can see in more recent updates as of April 19, i.e. 17 days later:

 

UPDATE March 28: This forecast showed a significantly lower curve for Sweden. The reason was that death reports in Sweden started to become delayed, and the reported number of deaths at this time was much lower than real numbers.

 

UPDATE March 26: This was the first update that I published (see this blog post: Covid-19: We have to push down daily growth below 10 percent). Comparing with more recent updates, as e.g. April 19—i.e. over three weeks later—you can see that the forecast for Sweden was fairly accurate, for Italy it was a little too low, and for Spain too high. Still it gives a hint of the model being quite useful:

 

Update on Covid-19: Sweden remains below Italy, Spain’s forecast greatly improved


 

In an earlier post I tried to give a picture of the situation of the Covid-19 pandemic in Italy, Spain and Sweden, on March 26. Here’s an update from April 1st.

Note that I’m not an epidemiologist, but I know mathematics and I’m showing what the data might tell us.

The forecast is based on a simple observation: In ALL countries, the TOTAL number of deaths grows by a certain percentage each day, just like interest on interest on the money in your bank account (exponential growth). And in ALL countries, the daily growth starts high—about 40-50%—and after some initial bumps it decreases day by day (while the total number of deaths obviously continues to increase). From this observation, you can count ahead, using the time series of percentages from China.

For Italy, this has proven to be a good match. The number of deaths per day peaked 34 days after the first death, exactly as I expected. The final total number of deaths is likely to be about 20,000 or about 340 per one million inhabitants, not far away from China (Wuhan) with about 300 deaths per one million.

Looking at Sweden, the forecast indicates that we are still on a lower curve than Italy even though we haven’t yet chosen to implement a full lockdown. It is noteworthy Sweden’s curve is higher than Norway’s, while Denmark which implemented severe restrictions on March 11 has now the same increase in total deaths as Sweden, and the UK, in lockdown since March 23, has a significantly higher increase in deaths than Sweden, even though it should be a week ahead with a lower increase by now.

The forecast for Sweden, however, is HIGHLY uncertain, as you will soon see from the case of Spain below. Until the number of daily deaths has reached its peak as in Italy, things may still change very much from one day to another.

But if the situation in Sweden continues like this, we might possibly be able to keep the virus spread under a certain control, as I noted in my last post, through an early implementation of a number of recommendations—wash your hands, stay at home if you have symptoms, work from home if you can, avoid meeting people, avoid visiting the elderly. Plus a series of favorable conditions in Sweden when it comes to limiting infections—less spontaneous social life, less daily integration between generations, and a tendency to do what the authorities ask us to do for a common good (which might all be seen as not so desirable from other points of view).

On top of this, Sweden is now tightening the recommendations, emphasizing the importance of keeping distance to people, both indoors and outdoors etc.

For Spain the situation looked far worse than in most countries, but it has improved significantly in the last few days, and the country seems to be reaching the peak of daily deaths right now. Why? Because the percentage I mentioned above has dropped significantly faster in recent days than in Italy and China. Interesting!

You might think that it could be explained by the Spanish lockdown being more efficient than the Italian. But I believe no-one would say that it has been more efficient than in China!

Thus, the steeper slowdown of the increase of deaths in Spain must be due to something else.

One possible explanation is herd immunity (due to lots of people being infected without symptoms, maybe 100x more than the confirmed number of cases) which in that case is slowing down the spread of the virus (and consequently the increase of deaths) more efficiently than the lockdown. A rapid early spread of infection, as happened in Spain, would then lead to the slowing effect from flock immunity being achieved earlier and stronger.

The topic of immunity is important since it will decide whether we will be able to safely lift restrictions without new clusters being formed when the first wave of infection has petered out at the end of May, or if we will have to go on with regular restrictions until we have a vaccine, about two years from now.

We will know this for certain only when we start using antibody tests, which are now being developed, with plans for large scale testing starting in some countries in a few weeks from now.

The tests we are using now only indicate whether there is an ongoing infection or not, while antibody tests will let us know whether an individual has had the infection or not.

But even if there would be immunity, we still don’t know how long immunity lasts, and if a second infection could actually hit those who have been infected before even harder, as is the case with certain viruses such as Dengue.

Summing this up:

  1. There is still a lot we don’t know about the Covid-19 pandemic, apparently not even how effective lockdowns are. But we know that we have to slow down the disease enough to let the health care system handle all sick people. Be safe and respect all recommendations!
  2. From the topic of immunity, we could possibly conclude that very severe lockdowns at an early stage in a country might actually put the inhabitants in a worse situation from a health point of view (apart from the economic costs and the psychological strain on people) when the second wave of the virus arrives. Many expect the second wave to arrive after summer. The second wave of the Spanish flu, for example, was more deadly than the first, and countries severely infected by the first wave appear to have been less devastated by the second.
  3. From China (Wuhan), Italy, and maybe also Spain if the steep slowing continues to improve the forecast, there is some indication that the total number of deaths seems to gravitate around 300-350 per one million inhabitants.
  4. We can also expect that in about two weeks from now—in mid-April—many countries in Europe will reach the peak of deaths per day, and at that point it will be a little easier to make forecasts.

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Note: The number of deaths per day in the graph is an average over five days. In Sweden, the numbers of deaths over the last week has been distributed slightly (following exponential growth) since the Swedish health care regions have reported that the registered number of deaths had been delayed for some days and that the delayed numbers were accumulated on April 1st and 2nd.

Data Sources: https://ourworldindata.org/covid-sources-comparison, https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/, https://c19.se, https://lab24.ilsole24ore.com/coronavirus/.

Covid-19: We have to push down daily growth below 10 percent

How is Sweden doing in the Covid-19 pandemic? Will we manage without a lockdown, in contrast to many other countries?

The short answer: Possibly yes, IF we continue to slow down the spread of infection.

The long answer: Let’s have a look at what the curves tell us.

Firstly: The number of total confirmed cases does not say much. This number correlates mostly with the number of tests done in a country. Furthermore, it is well accepted that the true number of total infected may be much larger. The number of confirmed cases is the tip of an iceberg.

The number of deaths is a better measure. It is easier to count, although even this number may be too low due to many deaths resulting from the virus infection not being attributed to Covid-19.

The number of deaths is also more relevant to the healthcare system—it seems to be directly proportional to the number of persons in ICU (at least in Italy, by a factor of 1 to 5 or 6) which is the critical number for the hospitals.

Just like the spread of the disease, the number of deaths is growing exponentially, i.e. with an increase by a certain percentage every day. Like interest on interest in the financial world.

Note that a small difference in percentage makes a huge difference in the number of deaths over time. If we have 100 dead today and 20 percent growth, we will have 4,600 dead after three weeks. With 30 percent daily growth we will end up with 25,000 deaths!

Thus, it is very important to keep the growth down.

The graphs above is a mathematical simulation that I have done based on the number of deaths so far, for China, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. The dashed part of the curves is a very uncertain forecast based on the numbers from China.

All the curves initiate on the day of the first death is each country, for easier comparison.

The thin curves on the left represent the daily increase of deaths expressed in percent. They have been declining gradually in China and Italy since the introduction of the lockdown (marked with a round dot). The decline could be due to the lockdown, but possibly also to herd immunity (se remark below).

The fat curves to the right represent the number of deaths per day, per 10 million inhabitants (in the case of China, the population of Wuhan, 11 million, is used).

We can observe that the daily number of deaths stops to increase when the daily growth drops below ten percent. BUT this is only true if the growth of daily deaths continues to decline with the same pace as in China and in Italy (otherwise, a constant daily growth of ten percent obviously leads to increasing deaths per day).

We can also observe the steep increase in daily deaths in Spain, which depends on a slightly higher daily growth. Spain has been slower than China and Italy to push down the daily growth, and it is not yet below ten percent, meaning that the number of daily deaths is still growing fast (the top of the forecast curve is outside the diagram).

Daily growth of deaths is reasonably correlated with the spread of the disease, or in other words with the true number of infected cases.

Now, the question is, will the mild measures in Sweden be enough to push down the spread of the disease, also pushing down the daily growth of deaths below 10 percent?

A number of favourable aspects have already helped us to keep the growth down initially (as we can see on the thin blue growth curve for Sweden):

  1. Culturally, Swedish people have a tendency to do what they are asked to do for the common good, and we started relatively early with these behavioural recommendations, warned by Italy: Wash your hands, stay at home when you have symptoms, work from home if it is possible (and in Sweden it often is possible thanks to stable internet connections), avoid social contexts (some would claim that this comes naturally to us in Sweden…), protect the elderly by not meeting them etc.
  2. We are reasonably helped by younger demographics compared to Southern Europe, and it probably also helps us that there is less daily contact between generations, traditionally.

BUT will this be enough to keep pushing down the daily growth below ten percent? Or will we need a lockdown too? (We are about 19 days after Italy, so a lockdown at the same point in time would be on March 28, 19 days after Italy’s lockdown on March 9. That is tomorrow).

Only the epidemiologists know this.

What I have shown here is the maths describing the connection between daily growth in percent, and the culmination of daily deaths.

The simple conclusion is that we MUST slow down daily growth further.

We can do it together!

Remarks:

  1. For the forecast of the thin curves (the dashed part of the curves) I have used the values from China of daily growth of deaths in percent, starting with a value that is closest to the last observed (real) value of daily growth in each country. The forecast part of the fat curves is a calculated result of the development of the thin curves.
  2. The forecasts, especially for Sweden which is very early on the curve, are HIGHLY UNCERTAIN.
  3. An important uncertainty in Italy is what will happen when the disease starts spreading more in the southern parts of the country.
  4. In China and in Italy, the decline of the growth after the lockdown has been approximately 10 percent per day. NOTE, it is not percentage points per day, but percent per day. E.g. if the growth one day is 20 percent, the next day it will be 18 percent, and the next 16.2 percent and so on.
  5. The decline in growth in China and Italy after lockdown seems to be a result of the lockdown. BUT it could also depend on herd immunitya slowdown in the spread of the disease due to a large part of the population being infected (largely without symptoms) and being immune. Since no one knows the true number of infected, we cannot know this yet. Only when antibody detecting tests have been developed and used broadly we might get an answer. Or, if we can observe that the infection does not tend to start spreading again in the Hubei province (if we can trust data provided by China), we could conclude that there is a fairly high immunity. However, what indicates herd immunity as an explanation is the fact that the decline in growth starts immediately when the lockdown is implemented. If the lockdown would be the main factor for slowing the growth, we would see a delay of at least a week for a decline in daily growth of deaths to show up.
  6. Data sources: https://ourworldindata.org/covid-sources-comparison, https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/, https://c19.se, https://lab24.ilsole24ore.com/coronavirus/.

Here’s why meetings and events are becoming increasingly important

Many seem to agree that meetings and events are becoming increasingly important today. But exactly why are they becoming more important? Our gut feeling goes a long way to answer the question, but if we want to make the right decisions in a world that is changing at an accelerating pace, it may be good to understand the causes.

And the best way to get this understanding is to look at the big picture. That is my experience after many years of analyzing how technology changes our lives and our society.

Let’s start with digitalization, which is arguably the strongest driving force of change in our time. Everyone talks about it, yet it remains vague to many people.

The easiest way to understand digitalization is to look at other major technology shifts such as the wheel, the printing press, the steam engine and electricity. They all created previously unknown opportunities, which led to new ways of working, new business models and a changed everyday life. We simply adapted.

What makes digitalization special is that this technology shift alone creates so many new opportunities compared to previous major technology shifts. With digital technology, we’re not only able to manage and communicate information very efficiently, we can also copy everything that is digital at almost no cost. In addition, we can spread it to the world with one click, and to top it all, we do it from pocket to pocket!

Driving megatrends

This leads to a number of megatrends that everyone notices, although many might not reflect on how these trends form.

One example is the increased focus on customer experience, arising from the fact that the whole world is competing for your attention. As a result, we have raised the bar for what we regard as a high-quality service or product. Consequently, more effort than ever is needed in order to keep the customer’s attention and to offer something that is attractive.

Another example is the trend of purpose—that profitability is no longer enough to run a successful company. This trend is influence by that fact that it has become increasingly possible for individuals to make a difference globally—with a good idea, a little code and a few servers on the internet. A couple of decades ago this was almost unthinkable. And if we canmake a difference, then of course we want to.

There are many other examples—I usually talk about the 13 different faces of digitalization which together are driving a powerful change in our society and in our lives.

Everyone talks about AI

Added to this is artificial intelligence, AI, which everyone talks about too, but which might seem even more vague than digitalisation, and perhaps also a bit threatening.

The truth is that AI has made impressive progress in recent years, but that the technology is still nowhere near a human-like consciousness in a machine. Today’s AI systems are above all impressively good at learning and recognizing patterns in all forms, including complex patterns such as behavioral patterns.

However, in contrast to humans, AI has no understanding of cause and effect. For example, an AI system may be able to accurately assess the risk of rain based on the appearance of the clouds, but it has no idea that the rain is coming from the clouds.

In practice, AI is therefore good at predicting things, and at performing all kinds of routine tasks—not just manual work but also mental, within areas ranging from administration to research, but only in narrow niches.

Can AI take my job?

So, will AI steal your job? Not really. Rather, AI allows us to automate a variety of tasks that many people perceive as boring and time consuming. We’re getting a digital colleague that provides effective help in our work, meaning that we humans can focus on what AI is still very bad at doing. Mainly, this is about four areas:

  • creativity of all kinds
  • the ability to motivate and convince others
  • empathy and compassion
  • ability to see context and opportunities for collaboration.

Would you say that any of these aspects possibly relate to meetings with human people?

If we add the powerful development driven by the 13 faces of digitalization, it is clear that we find ourselves in a changing world where people are needed more than ever—to be creative about how we can adapt and seize new opportunities, and to focus on everything typically human that AI can’t do for us.

Develop human aspects

Meetings with people are then essential. That is where we learn from each other and exchange ideas. It’s where we develop our human aspects in relation to each other. And it’s where we shape the role of humans in a digitalized world.

Certainly, digitalization can make meetings better—helping us to share information more efficiently, letting people collaborate better with digital tools, managing administration in a more automated way, extending communication before and after the meeting, etc. In short, there are plenty of digital opportunities.

But what’s fundamental—in all industries—is not to be seduced by the possibilities of technology, throwing out the baby out with the bathwater. Or in other words, to forget all human experience and skills that sometimes express themselves as a gut feeling.

When it comes to meetings and events, such skills are absolutely essential. As you can see, the gut feeling is right—there are a number of reasons why meetings and events are more important than ever.

And in case anyone would be wondering, you can say you heard it from a digitization expert—who would love to tell you more.

Ten reasons that the future is happening right in front of you

Obviously we don’t know anything about the future. And bothering about the future is not what you’re doing all day. Yet, you want to be prepared.

So ask a futurist. But not even a futurist will know. So what could the futurist tell you? Well, to look around at what’s happening. Because the future is happening now, right in front of you. And the work of a futurist, like me, is trying to really see what’s happening in front of us—although we often don’t notice it—and to understand what implications these things might have.

Because every so often we look back and say: “Why didn’t we notice? It was right in front of our eyes!”

So here we go—ten reasons that the future is happening right in front of you. (This is the condensed version. If you want more I’ll be glad to give a talk as a speaker to give you a better understanding of where we’re heading and how your organisation can prepare).

  1. Everything is going faster and faster. You have probably noticed. But make no mistake, it’s a long term trend which as been going on for billions of years. And there’s nothing stopping this acceleration, simply because people are increasingly connected, and because we just cannot stop inventing. So remember—anyone who thinks that we might pull the brake and slow down the pace of change will be disappointed. However, we can still shape the future. So let’s talk more about it.
  2. Digitalisation is changing all conditions for what we do. Sure, digitalisation is a driver for change, but so has other technologies been. True. But the thing is—digitalisation changes the conditions for what we do in so many ways we almost cannot understand it. It’s not like the wheel, the printing press, the steam engine, or electricity. It’s so much more, letting you do basically anything more efficiently and smarter, mixing these things, copy them, and spread them to the world, pocket to pocket, at almost zero margin cost. Try to get the implications of that!
  3. We’re building horisontal networks at global scale. If you think about it, this has never happened before. Everything we have been doing at large scale through history have been hierarchical. And then suddenly we can build flat networks and communicate across the globe, peer-to-peer. Just look at what happened with news distribution that used to be hierarchical with editors etc. Then came news through social networks, and you know what happened. Very few had anticipated this. Most people thought that everyone would get access to the truth through the Internet. What happened was that everyone got the means to spread their “truth” across the globe. And this is just the start.
  4. Everything can be measured. Ok, so what’s new? We’ve always been measuring. Well, the new thing is that essentially anything can be measured like it was never measured before, in real time. Even the endings of episodes of tv series. And how machines are behaving. And how you’re feeling when you’re driving. And what illness you might have based on your breath. And we can analyse all these measurements and adapt our offerings, our actions, our strategies etc according to what we learn. Which means that you have to do this, unless you want to become irrelevant.
  5. The customer is more spoiled than ever. In what way? Well, simply because it’s possible to reach the world with whatever you want to offer, and because customers all over the world therefore have access to tons of stuff that they never could access before. So we raised the bar for what we think is good—if it’s not good enough we just go to another site. Meaning you have to do everything you can to keep the customer’s attention. It’s a war, and customers just won’t settle with less than excellence. This is why the customer experience is more important than ever.
  6. Sharing requires new business models. Why? Because sharing on digital platforms is so much more efficient than business as usual. This is what drives the shift from owning to accessing—of music, digital infrastructure, transportation, and more. So you’d better consider what sharing can do for your business.
  7. We can make a difference. Just ten or twenty years ago, very few people could make a difference at a global scale. Basically only global corporations and states had that power. Today, a few people with a good idea, using the Internet and cloud computing can make things that really change the world, even without aiming for profit. Wikipedia and Open Source Software are just two obvious examples. The consequence? People want to make a difference. People want purpose. Just ask millennials. Profit is not good enough.
  8. Everything can be mixed. Sugar and egg? No, I’m talking about digital stuff. Anything that have been digitised—quite a few things today—can be mixed with a few lines of code. Twenty years ago that was almost unthinkable. Today it’s a piece of cake, and probably the biggest unexplored source of new services and products. Just throw in some new data, a new game application, a new industry connection, or a new communications channel in the business you’re running, and you’re off in a new direction with new opportunities. Every day!
  9. AI can do stuff so you can focus on other things. You’re hearing about AI every day. No, it’s not human-like, yet. Far from it. But AI has made huge progress in the last few years when it comes to learn things that only humans could do, and it performs even better than humans. Playing advanced games. Optimising energy consumption. Interpreting chest X-rays. Distinguishing a fake smile from a real one. Translating. Answering questions. Predicting customer behaviour. Knowing what you like. Etc. But only in narrow niches. The fundamental take-away for businesses is that you just need to let machines take over everything that they can do so that humans can focus on the only thing that matters—customer experience. Simply because every new player in your field will do so, and if you’re not, you’re done.
  10. Humans will become more human. It’s easy. Since machines can focus on what machines are good at—boring, repetitive, and dangerous tasks—humans can focus on what machines are not so good at (yet)—creativity, capability to convince and motivate, empathy, and context and collaboration. In other words, human stuff. So if we let machines do what we’d rather not continue doing, we can focus on becoming more human. Or: work is for machines, life is for people.

Then there’s the eleventh point: Machines will become… Well, I have some ideas, but I could talk more about that in a speech. Just a hint—try to imagine machines becoming better at communicating with each other and at sharing their knowledge and their experience.

So, did you think that the future will be more or less like today, just with a few more gadgets? Now, maybe not so much. These ten points are not small changes. Then add the first point again—it’s going faster and faster.

OBVIOUSLY there’s an immediate conclusion: Without increased efforts for sustainability everything will go out of balance. Sustainability is therefore the most important aspect if you want to prepare for the future. Fortunately there are ways to solve the global warming, and a new compact, cheap and carbon-free energy source is part of the solution. But that’s another story.

If you want to hear more, don’t hesitate to contact me for a speaker engagement!

The Future of the Nation-State

How the nation-state can find a way through digitalization. 

 

Note: This essay is published as chapter 17 in the book Digital Transformation and Public Services: Societal Impacts in Sweden and Beyond. The book is the final report from The Internet and its Direct and Indirect Effects on Innovation and the Swedish Economy—a three-year research project funded by The Internet Foundation in Sweden (IIS) and led by Professor Robin Teigland, whom I had the great pleasure to collaborate with in this project, as well as with editor Anthony Larsson.

An e-book edition of the book can be downloaded for free from Amazon, and a pdf version can be downloaded from Taylor & Francis.

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1   Introduction

It is commonly recognized that the Internet and digital technologies are bringing about a fundamental and sometimes disruptive change to businesses, society, and the lives of individuals (Kenney, Rouvinen and Zysman, 2015). The overall phenomenon is often referred to as digitalization, whereas the process of effectively adapting to digitalization is called digital transformation.

This chapter aims at investigating the potential future of the nation-state in the context of change brought about by the Internet and digitalization. Will the nation-state go through a process of digital transformation, altering its characteristics to be more in line with the conditions of a digitalized world and with the changed expectations of its citizens, maintaining their support? Or will it be completely disrupted and potentially replaced by some other organizational structure, better adapted to meet the future demands of people and organizations living together on our planet, in a world shaped by digital technologies?

 

2   Methods

The underlying theory that will be used in this chapter is a framework called the innovation loop, developed by the author, loosely inspired by evolutionary theories, mainly the concept of natural selection and the survival of the best adapted1 by Charles Darwin, and the theory of how innovations diffuse, presented by Everett Rogers in his seminal work Diffusion of Innovations (Rogers, 1962).

Figure 1 The innovation loop
Source: Model by the author.

The basic principle of the innovation loop (see Figure 1) is that evolutionary steps in the biological system can be compared to human inventions and that, in a generalized sense, the evolution not only of species but also of technology, businesses, and society can be seen as a result of natural selection and survival of the best adapted – be it organic beings, individuals, products, services, processes, organizations, or societal structures.

A natural phase of the loop to start looking at is the point of an invention. Although human inventions are mostly made through human thinking, while biological evolutionary steps occur through random variations such as mutations, both are based on previous steps, and both, if favorable, diffuse gradually.

Biological evolutionary steps diffuse through inheritance and natural selection and human inventions through individuals’ varying tendency to adopt them, as described by Rogers with concepts such as early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.

When a favorable evolutionary step or an invention reaches a certain level of diffusion, it starts changing the conditions for everything in the surrounding system. This is most notable for larger evolutionary steps and larger inventions, with examples ranging from sexual reproduction and sight to the wheel, the printing press, the steam engine, and the Internet.

As a consequence, organic beings, individuals, and organizations will have to adapt to the new conditions, and those who are best adapted will be the most successful. This is arguably also valid for products, services, and structures, which are being adapted by humans according to changed conditions. The adaptation process is similar in the biological system and in the innovation system, especially regarding behavioral adaptation, and it is effectively described through the concept of natural selection.

One recent example could be a person adapting to the availability of an Internet connection, starting to write emails instead of letters and searching for information on the web instead of in libraries and books.

It is worth noting the importance of diversity in the process of adaptation – the less diversity, the less variety of ways to adapt. Moreover, the less variety of ways to adapt, the higher the risk of weak points being shared by various, multiple entities in the system. This would in turn make the system, as a whole, more vulnerable. To a certain extent this is also true for the diffusion phase, and altogether this is arguably the fundamental reason for striving for increased diversity of all sorts in all systems and in all situations since change and innovation occur continuously everywhere.

Once the initial adaptation process has been established, an extended form of adaptation takes place. This phase consists of various types of experimenting, for example, combining the initial invention or evolutionary step with others already existing in the system, or exploring opportunities to build inventions on top of the initial one. Humans do this through innovation, while nature uses random variations such as mutations. Since this phase leads to new inventions, it completes the cycle: innovation, changed conditions, and success of the best adapted.

An example of the last phase would be the combination of the Internet and of commerce, paving the way for E-commerce.

A few more observations can be made regarding the innovation loop:

  • It’s not a serial process. Many loops are running in parallel, interacting with each other.
  • The result of each cycle can be described as increased self-organization and increased efficiency. This can be better observed looking at a large time span, billions of years back. Early life started with single-celled prokaryotes that evolved into multicellular eukaryotes, then into plants and animals – animals through reptiles and mammals, into apes, eventually walking on two legs, gaining intelligence, and evolving into homo sapiens, inventing the spoken language, agriculture, the wheel, the written language, the printing press enabling the scientific revolution, the steam engine enabling the industrial revolution, electricity, telephone, radio, the Internet, the World Wide Web, the smartphone, and further inventions now being developed. Unless there is a divine power influencing this evolution, what we are looking at is one single self-organizing system. Although the smartphone should hardly be considered the “crown of creation,” efficiency is steadily increasing in the meaning that what can be achieved with a certain amount of energy, resources, and number of organic beings has never been more than today.
  • The pace of change is constantly increasing, which can be concluded noting the time span between early evolutionary steps, for example, about two billion years from eukaryotes to prokaryotes, and comparing it to the time span between recent major inventions, for example, about 17 years from the World Wide Web to the smartphone. Ray Kurzweil has proposed an explanation for this increase in pace of change in his essay “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” where he argues that “Evolution applies positive feedback in that the more capable methods resulting from one stage of evolutionary progress are used to create the next stage. As a result, the rate of progress of an evolutionary process increases exponentially over time. Biological evolution is one such evolutionary process. Technological evolution is another such evolutionary process” (Kurzweil, 2001, paras.11, 15, 16).
  • The evolution described by the innovation loop will arguably continue, resulting in increased self-organization and increased efficiency at an ever-increased pace of change until it potentially fails because of lost stability, for example, due to failure to balance available resources with consumption and recycling of resources.

The framework of the innovation loop will be used in this chapter to analyze the roots, the construction, and the development of the nation-state from the perspective of change brought about by inventions. Specifically, it analyzes the future evolution and the fate of the nation-state under the influence of the Internet and digital technologies – arguably the most important field of inventions of our time. The invention-related analysis will be integrated with ideas and findings on the topic of the future of the nation-state presented in a number of articles and academic papers, and with opinions and ideas expressed in personal interviews with a series of people throughout April 2018 to May 2018.

 

3   Results and discussion

 

3.1     Definitions

Essential to this analysis is a definition of the nation-state. There is some common confusion about the use of the terms nation, state, nation-state, and nationalism. The definitions that will be used here are that nation is a cultural term referring to a body of people bound together by certain aspects that give them a sense of unity, making them feel that they have something in common and differ from other people; state is a political term, referring to a body of people who live on a definite territory and are unified under a set of institutional forms of governance, which possess monopoly of coercive power and demand obedience from people; and the nation-state is a merger of the two terms, implying that politics and culture support each other (Lu and Liu, 2018).

It must be noted that although nation is a cultural term, what gives people a sense of unity does not have to be a common history and a culture derived from a common descent or ethnicity. The source of unity might also be democracy and a common political will where the members have equal rights. These two approaches are commonly called the ethnic approach and the civic approach (Hutchinson, 2003; Lu and Liu, 2018).

This is also why the nation-state is not immediately related to the concept of nationalism, which could be seen as a strong emphasis on the ethnic approach of the nation, often better explained by the term ethno-nationalism.

Also, the state can be related to the two approaches. The ethnic approach argues that people’s trust in the state derives from deeply rooted cultural values that are learned from an early age, leading to an interpersonal trust, which in its extended form builds trust in the state. The civic approach, on the other hand, maintains that the trust in the state is built on the performance of political institutions (Lu and Liu, 2018).

 

3.2      Origins and development of the nation-state

Looking at the nation-state from the perspective of innovations, its early roots can be considered to go far back in human history. Spoken language – one of humans’ first and most important inventions, which is believed to have evolved between 50,000 and 200,000 years ago – changed the conditions for human interaction by introducing the oral tradition. This is arguably an important base for human culture and thus for building culture-based communities, which in turn are a building block for the nation according to the ethnic approach.

The invention of agriculture from about 10,000 years ago brought people closer together in villages, and a reasonable adaptation might have been improved methods for defining property and for resolving disputes. Another communications technology, written language, which was invented about 5,000 years ago, probably helped in that matter. This could be seen as the early roots of the state.

Going ahead in history, there are different opinions among scholars whether the nation was formed as a consequence of the state or the contrary.

Early forms of modern states from the 13th century and onward are by some considered to have been formed through war, where warfare contributed to an increasingly centralized administration in order to impose taxes and enforce order (Hutchinson, 2003). Centralized and more complex administration was also developed due to improvements in agriculture productivity, which made it possible to sustain larger populations. Inventions and discoveries in other areas such as political economy, mercantilism, and cartography further strengthened the state, all leading to people in nations being more united, thus indicating that the nation emerged as a result of the state.

On the other hand, inventions such as the printing press gave rise to increased literacy, strengthening of national languages, and sharing of common knowledge, tales and culture, while it also led to increased reliability of trade for example, through the spreading of knowledge of techniques like double-entry bookkeeping, all entailing an increased interconnection between people, potentially building a sense of unity, which in turn could support the state. This consequently suggests that the state was built on the nation (Anderson, 1991).

Regardless of whether the nation led to the state or the other way around, or  a combination of both – which might seem reasonable – another observation remains: inventions in fields such as warfare, agriculture, printing, trade, and communications all changed the conditions for people and society. Consequently, people and society had to adapt to these changed conditions in ways that gradually strengthened both the nation and the state.

The merger of the two, that is, the nation and the state, and the subsequent establishment of the nation-state in its modern form, is commonly considered to be a result of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 (Schwartzwald, 2017). Until then, many different powers, religious as well as civic, had an overlapping authority on nations, territories, and populations. The essential outcome of the Peace of Westphalia was that states were guaranteed sovereignty over a nation, its territory, and its population, thus forming a nation-state, and that other states would refrain from interfering with internal affairs in neighboring territories, for example, by supporting foreign co-religionists in conflict with their states.

The resulting international system of independent and sovereign nation-states has been compared to billiard-ball interactions – an anarchical society of external interactions between states (Thompson and Hirst, 1995).

From an internal perspective, it did not matter in this system whether states were empires or based on homogenous nations or if they were autocratic or democratic. But again, inventions influenced the evolutions of states. It has been argued, for instance, that improved communications technology – roads, rail, and the steam engine – made it technically possible to bypass local leaders and impose direct rule as opposed to indirect rule, thus ending the age of empires (Hechter, 2001; Hutchinson, 2003). Reasonably, other communications technologies – printing, telegraph, telephone, and radio – over time reinforced this trend. Such technologies also supported the spreading of information and the evolution of democratic systems. And, in fact, democracy is often considered to have given legitimacy to the sovereign power of the state, replacing a sovereign autocrat or king, eventually including citizens and binding them together and thus strengthening the nation-state (Thompson and Hirst, 1995).

Representative governments could also create uniform national systems for administration, education, and public health, again supporting increased inclusiveness and homogeneity of the population. During the 20th century, states also acquired the means to manage national economies– through state planning in the Communist world and by Keynesian measures in the Western world.

This is seen by many as the final glorious days of the nation-state before its demise under the pressure of globalization and digitalization. One early blow to the logic of a world composed by independent and autonomous nation-states was the end of the Cold War in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and when US President George H. W. Bush and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met at the Malta Summit, making declarations of cooperation and peace. Already the Cold War in itself, emerging as a result of nuclear weapons technology, had destabilized the idea of independent nation-states, since the devastating power of nuclear weapons had made it essentially impossible for nuclear powers to win a war. The prospect of a nuclear conflict was unthinkable destruction on both sides, and thus the idea of settling disputes with war in the anarchical system of independent nation-states became impassable.

Yet, a nuclear attack remained a palpable threat and a possible scenario for many during the Cold War, making states necessary. With the end of the Cold War, however, this argument became more diffuse, while the effects of an increasingly global economy gained more attention.

A common view since then, summed up by the term globalization, is that in a global economy, market forces are stronger than any nation-state. Capital is mobile, while labor is not, meaning that capital moves where the conditions are most favorable, forcing nation-states to compete by providing such conditions. The nation-state thus has had to give up some of its autonomy and sovereignty – the exclusive power to independently manage instruments such as national labor rights and monetary and fiscal policies. From this perspective, nation-states are becoming to the world what local authorities used to be to the state – providers of desired conditions for attracting businesses without the power to shape economy or employment within its territory.

This view, at least in its most far-reaching form, has been contested, for example, in the article “Globalization and the Future of the Nation-State” (Thompson and Hirst, 1995). The authors admit that there is some truth in the globalization view – states are less autonomous, they have less exclusive control over the economic and social processes within their territories, and they are less able to maintain national distinctiveness and cultural homogeneity.

Thompson and Hirst (1995) argue, however, that the changes are not as profound as they may seem for a series of reasons, among them that the number of genuine transnational companies (TNCs) is small, foreign trade flows and patterns of foreign direct investment are highly concentrated to advanced industrial states and a small number of newly industrialized countries, the thesis that capital is moving inexorably from high-wage advanced countries to low-wage developing countries is inaccurate in aggregate, and the evidence that world financial markets are beyond regulation is by no means certain.

An example of the last point is a series of international investigations, blacklists, and measures against tax havens in recent years, in order to reduce tax avoidance, estimated at £506 billion each year (Boffey, 2017).

Thompson and Hirst (1995) also argue that the reduced autonomy of the nation-state doesn’t deprive it of an important role in a global system of governance. Instead, because of its relationship to territory and population, the role of a nation-state is pivotal as a source of legitimacy for transferring power both “above” it and “below” it – above through agreements with other states in various international organizations and bodies, and below it through a constitutional balance within its own territory among central, regional, and local governments, and also with publicly recognized private governments in civil society.

According to Thompson and Hirst (1995), nation-states can do this in a way no other agency can, because they provide legitimacy as the exclusive voice of a territorially bounded population. They admit that such representation is very indirect, but that it is the closest to democracy and accountability that international governance is likely to get.

 

3.3      The impact of digitalization

In the last decades, global mobility of technology has been added to that of capital. With the broad diffusion of the Internet, technology and information are vastly more mobile than they ever were before.

From the perspective of the innovation loop, a few of the major changed conditions brought about by the Internet and by the first wave of digital technologies are that:

  • Computer software can be used to effectively manage, process, and analyze most kinds of information and contents, making an increased level of automation possible.
  • The cost of a digital copy is essentially zero – thus, once information, processes, contents, services, products, or even weapons have been digitalized, they can be copied at large scale at a minimal cost.
  • The whole world can be reached with one click, not just with a phone call as through the telephone network, but with basically anything that can be digitalized.
  • Once products and services have been digitalized, they can be mixed with other products and services much more easily than ever before.
  • The Internet connects people peer-to-peer across the world, which means that horizontal structures for human activity, as opposed to hierarchical or vertical structures, which have been the norm for thousands of years, are becoming functional at a large scale.

Among the consequences or adaptations to these new conditions are:

  • A major change in business models with a general shift from owning to accessing and from products to services, since what is digital can be copied almost infinitely and what is not digital can be shared efficiently on digital platforms (often referred to as the sharing economy), with a subsequent concentration of users to a few large digital platforms through the network effect2
  • An increased reliance on horizontal structures such as social networks and informal networks for knowledge and news distribution, with partially unexpected effects such as trolling and fake news
  • An increased focus on purpose in human activities – for example, in businesses where purpose may become as important as the basic requirement of long-term profitability – reasonably as a consequence of the opportunities the Internet offers for horizontal collaborative work with significant global impact at a scale that was only attainable by states and global corporations a few decades ago, for example, Wikipedia and open-source software
  • An increased focus on customer experience since it is easier than ever to launch a product or a service offering with limited resources, targeting the whole world, and since this entails intensified competition for people’s attention and steadily higher expectations among users and customers for ease, convenience, and transparency
  • The emergence of a fourth military branch beyond Army, Air Force, and Navy – a cyber-warfare branch, along with a generally increased focus on cybersecurity in businesses and in society, as a consequence of the growing possibilities to perform highly effective cyberattacks, ranging from criminal activities aiming at economic gain, to state-supported activities with the purpose to inflict damage on enemy countries

The collective term for these phenomena is digitalization, whereas the ways in which businesses or public entities or agencies adapt in order to remain competitive and relevant in a digitalized world is often called digital transformation.

Although digitalization is regularly perceived as an established and stable ongoing process, it can be argued that it is only at its beginning, noting that most organizations, private or public, only just started their digital transformation.

Furthermore, before the first wave of digitalization has even reached its full power, a second wave is emerging with technologies such as AI and machine learning; natural language processing and cognitive computing, with effective voice interaction and human-like dialogue; the Internet of Things with networks of sensors and actuators – being to AI what our senses and limbs are to the brain; advanced automation also mastering mental work; and blockchain-based applications distributing a range of services and structures, potentially eliminating the need for controlling bodies and institutions such as banks, governmental agencies, and even courts.

Combining these technologies, the second wave will bring changed conditions that are difficult to anticipate, to say nothing of people’s ways to adapt to such changes. As mentioned before, the pace of change is also increasing, which gives a hint about further inventions adding up to a third wave, and a fourth, and so forth.

The main question that this chapter aims at addressing is whether it will be possible for nation-states to remain relevant through digital transformation, and in that case how, or if they might be disrupted or become obsolete and replaced by some other structure for governing the world’s populations and territories.

To understand how the nation-state can adapt to digitalization, it may first be useful to establish what the nation-state offers that is adaptable. From the initial definition, we find that the nation-state provides unity, a territory, and a form of governance. Through its institutions, it also supplies a number of services.

Out of these four aspects, both services and governance can be effectively adapted from a digital transformation perspective. Unity, in contrast, could be considered to depend on second-order effects of digital transformation, while territory is a physical aspect that turns out to remain important in a digitalized world. This will be discussed later.

Adaptation of services in a digitalized world involves not only services offered by the nation-state itself. Also, services offered by alternative providers must be taken into account, since digital technologies and the Internet, as noted before, make it possible for service providers to target the entire world, even with fairly limited resources.

The ways in which governance may be adapted to digitalization, on the other hand, depends largely on the form of governance. Noting that democracy is considered to have strengthened the nation-state through increased legitimacy, the question of governance will here be focused on adaptation of the democratic process, although effects of digitalization on authoritarian states will also be discussed further down.

Hence, from a digitalization perspective, there are three important aspects of digital transformation of the nation-state – efficiency of services offered by the state to citizens, alternative providers of those services, and the structure of the democratic process.

1. Among the main services offered to citizens are health care, child/elder/social care, education, infrastructure, law and order, and defense, all paid for by tax revenue.

Like any other service, all these can be made more efficient through digitalization. This is necessary since the expectations of individuals and organizations are increasing, while tax revenues will not grow substantially. The increased expectations derive partly from people’s experience of the large range of various services offered online, with a significant increase in convenience and ease of use compared to only a decade ago, all at a low cost or for free (in exchange for access to people’s personal data).

In this way, people have an indirect understanding of the quality improvements and efficiency gains that are possible through digitalization, using, analyzing, and combining data flows; providing well-designed user interfaces; and so on, and they naturally expect the same improvements in public services. In short – the conditions have changed and public services have to adapt in order to remain relevant, which also goes hand in hand with the increased focus on customer experience brought about by digitalization.

In many nation-states, the digital transformation of public services is ongoing, but since these services are normally not exposed to market competition, there is not any immediate risk of being outcompeted, and the driving force for change must, therefore, derive largely from an insight among leaders and those responsible.

An example of a country that is considered to have reached far in its efforts to digitally transform its services is Estonia (Heller, 2017). Apart from many services being accessible online, three technology-related aspects creating conditions for the Estonian digital welfare state are:

  • A government-issued electronic ID for all citizens
  • The “once only” principle, which means that no single piece of data should be entered or collected twice
  • The governmental data platform X-Road, which links servers and systems to each other through encrypted connections

From a privacy and integrity point of view, it can be noted that any access to an individual’s personal data by a public officer or a professional is recorded and reported.

Besides improving services and making them more efficient, there are also discussions about the possibility for the public sector to partner with alternative providers from the private sector and with civil society. An example is the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (commonly known internationally as “SALAR,” or “SKL” in Swedish).3 Klas Danerlöv, Innovation Manager  at SALAR, refers to the demographic challenge, to steadily increased expectations among citizens, and to the need for working in smarter ways due to lack of resources already visible in budgets, and he discusses a change in definition of the role of the public sector, from producer to facilitator, collaborating with private service providers and with civil society in areas such as digitalized health care and emerging mobility solutions. He explains that such a change depends partly on legislation since today’s rules for procurement are rigid and prevent the public sector from cooperating with industry in a development-oriented manner. He also envisions that the fundamental responsibility of the public sector might become narrower, caring for exposed groups and for those not able to use digitalized services (K. Danerlöv, personal communication, April 16, 2018).

Regarding digitalization of national defence, it may be noted that with the emergence of cyber-weapons and of the military cyber-warfare branch, military activity is becoming increasingly digital since it is possible to inflict significant harm to enemy states by attacking essential infrastructure through digital networks and devices, with a minimal risk for human and material losses. Also, since it is also possible to make attacks without being directly exposed, it becomes less evident who the enemy really is, making warfare less effective for supporting national identity.

2. The aspect of alternative service providers goes further due to the Internet’s global reach. Such providers can essentially be located anywhere in the world and, depending on local legislation, provide their services to citizens of various countries on a global market. The same goes for nation-states that can offer services to their own citizens worldwide, through the Internet and through collaboration agreements with local or global providers.

Interestingly, nation-states can also offer their services to citizens of other countries, which they already do. Estonia offers an e-Residency – a kind of limited citizenship in the form of a government-issued digital ID available to anyone in the world, offering the possibility to easily start and run a business in Estonia, which is part of the EU (Republic of Estonia, 2014).

Quite obviously though, the digital ID is not valid as a physical identification or a travel document, it does not serve as a residency permit, and it does not grant its holder the right of physical residency in Estonia. This aspect, regarding physical territory, people’s physical movements, and the rule of law, will be discussed further below.

The concept of e-Residency is also related to private service offerings from alternative providers and to the question of how extended these offerings could eventually become. Let us say that a digital giant like Google, Apple, Amazon, or Microsoft puts together packages of social services such as online education, digitalized health care, cybersecurity, transportation as a service, and more, and combines these packages under the umbrella of a private digital citizenship – and in this way takes on the role of a private virtual state, PVS. At what extent would that be an alternative to a citizenship in an existing nation-state?

Essentially, this comes down to two considerations:

  • First, the PVS offering the services will probably not have its own territory, and thus it will have its head office in some jurisdiction, having to obey the corresponding legislation. Potentially, it could acquire e-Residencies like the one offered by Estonia, for local branches in countries offering this opportunity, thus adapting to the local legislation in each country.
  • Second, users acquiring private citizenship will live in other territories. Either they will have a citizenship and a residency in the corresponding nation-state or the PVS will have to enter mutual agreements with nation-states, defining matters for users such as residency, work permits, taxation, and also the validity of some kind of passport or other travel document issued by the PVS.

Both considerations highlight an opportunity for nation-states to systematically offer extended versions of Estonia’s e-Residency, targeted toward PVSs, paving the way for what could be called the State as a Platform, SaaP.

A PVS successfully concluding such agreements, attracting a large number of users, could be described as a popular state owning no territory, fitting into an often-cited pattern in digitalization: Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. Moreover, Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.

It also fits one of the main adaptations to digital technology mentioned above – a general shift from owning to accessing.

However, a citizenship is different from a taxi ride or a night’s accommodation. If Uber or Airbnb goes out of business, users might suffer a short inconvenience. But if this happens to a PVS, users might become stateless.

This would be acceptable only if there are a number of PVSs for users to immediately choose from, a situation that could possibly emerge after years of trial and error with pioneering PVSs offering services to early adopters who maintain their original citizenship as a back-up.

A number of PVSs for users to choose from would also in a way solve the issue with lacking democratic influence by citizens on a PVS. Since a PVS is a private company, it is essentially autocratic, being controlled by its owners who are not substituted through elections. If there are other PVSs available, users or citizens could simply “vote with their feet.“ If, on the other hand, one major PVS dominated, for example, due to the network effect, this would not be the case and the lack of a democratic process would become a serious issue.

Other aspects of the PVS scenario are economic, social, and political. Would PVSs paying for SaaP manage to provide citizenship and social services more efficiently than nation-states, at a lower cost than ordinary taxation? Or would they profile citizenship as a premium product for which people would be willing to pay more? If so, would such a selection be acceptable? Could PVSs over time become the partners that organizations such as Swedish SALAR envision, while nation-states take care of exposed groups? Or should PVSs, through international regulation, be obliged to receive all users, and if so, at what cost?

Adding to this is a final question – whether a PVS would need something corresponding to a nation, that is, a sense of unity among the users or the citizens, in order to survive. As will be discussed below, this is also a challenge for multicultural federations of nation-states, and for this reason, it’s not obvious that a PVS could ever reach the stability of a nation-state, strong enough to keep it united in situations of crisis. Rather, also with regard to the issue of lacking democratic influence, PVSs are more likely to be what they are – commercial entities offering convenient and attractive services, entities that may come and go, with a limited long-term engagement from the users.

However, the PVS model also exposes an opportunity for nation-states to adapt and remain relevant to citizens with a growing interest in a cosmopolitan set of values. Building on the kind of agreements that PVSs would have to enter with nation-states, such agreements could also be made between nation-states in a systematic way, similar to the roaming agreements between mobile telephone operators in different countries that allow their users to continue using their mobile  phone while traveling abroad, paying for the usage to their home operator.

In a corresponding way, citizen-roaming agreements between nation-states would allow citizens to move freely between the two countries, benefitting from social services and rights as local citizens, also paying local taxes and being answerable to local duties. It could be seen as an extended version of the freedoms in trade blocks such as the EU, with obvious challenges, not the least regarding interstate trust, but also with increased possibilities from an administrative point of view in a digitalized world, with conceivable digital entities such as clearing houses for citizen-roaming. As opposed to a PVS, a nation-state offering citizen-roaming would be able to provide long-term stability and democratic influence, but whether one model would be better adapted than the other to future conditions in a digital world remains to be seen.

Related to this topic, leaving the physical world behind, are virtual worlds, which could be seen as a kind of private virtual reality states. Existing only in virtual reality, there’s no need for agreements with states in the physical world nor for travel documents or for physical services such as health care, transportation, and so on.

Not providing for people’s physical needs, virtual worlds can hardly be considered an alternative to nation-states. They may, however, have a certain influence on real-world economies – substantial economic transactions are already made for virtual goods in virtual worlds such as SecondLife, and this may increase with improved technology for virtual reality. It is also likely that when virtual reality reaches a sufficiently high-quality experience, people will spend significant time in virtual worlds, both for work and for pleasure.

3. The third aspect mentioned above regarding the digital transformation of nation-states is the structure of the democratic process. Two issues emerge on this aspect.

First, there seems to be a possibility to effectively manipulate individuals’ opinions and world views through digital means, without people knowing it or noticing it. This would put democracy, as we know it, at risk.

Second, today’s democratic systems have not yet adapted to the way the Internet and digital technologies have changed the conditions for information distribution, making geographic distances essentially irrelevant from an information perspective.

The first issue – manipulation of individuals – came to general attention in  the late 2010s partly due to events regarding the company Cambridge Analytica. The company had reportedly collected massive amounts of personal data through Facebook, and built individual profiles from the data, relying on research in psychometrics. The profiles had then been used to expose individuals at a large scale through social networks to personally tailored political advertisements designed to activate a certain response, with the aim to move the electorate in a desired direction (Cadwalladr and Graham-Harrison, 2018).

Although not conclusively proved to be effective, the basic idea is in line with the capabilities of digital technology today – analysis of large amounts of data, personalization based on such analysis, and individual targeting through social networks, all at a massive scale. Exploiting the human nature with its fairly predictable responses to certain stimuli also seems to be viable, but possibly further progress has to be made – a few cycles in the innovation loop – until the method becomes effective.

Possible scenarios could include tuning the output from AI-based personal digital assistants or finely manipulating the search results of a large search engine – a plot that has been credibly described in the novel 11 Grams of Truth (Swe: 11 gram sanning) (Akenine, 2014).

Any such scenario becoming reality would be a significant threat against the democratic process and also to any nation-state that depends on democracy for its legitimacy.

One proposed model that could be resilient to such manipulation attempts is deliberative polling, which is a version of deliberative democracy, a term coined by Joseph M. Bessette in 1980, meaning that democratic decisions must be preceded by authentic deliberation – long and careful consideration or discussion – not just voting (Bessette, 1980). The idea behind deliberative polling, which was proposed by James Fishkin (1988), is that rather than having a whole population of relatively uninformed people make decisions in a matter, it is better to have a random, representative sample of the population make an informed decision after thorough briefing and discussion. Such a deliberative process normally takes place at a physical meeting during a whole weekend, with the model having been tried out in a number of countries in the world on various occasions (Center for Deliberative Democracy, 2019).

The second issue – adaptation of the democratic process with regard to new conditions for information distribution – is connected with an often-expressed worry over a general decline in political activity and political interest in democratic states, particularly in younger generations. Although it is contested that Millennials are less politically active, it has also been found that a decline in voter turnout in established democracies during the last four decades coincides with decreasing levels of people’s personal interest in politics and a declining trust in traditional democratic institutions as vehicles for personal fulfilment and well-being (Dalton, 2016). This decline in interest and trust can be effectively explained by a shift in priorities and values of Western citizens. As people have begun adapting to a higher material living standard, they are increasingly prioritizing autonomy and individual lifestyle choices over more basic economic necessities and class divisions, while traditional forms of community life and interaction have largely eroded, giving space to individualism and social isolation (Ferrini, 2012).

More specifically, from a digitalization perspective, it has been found that improved digital infrastructure and increased digital freedom in a country have opposite effects on people’s trust in the state and their sense of unity as a nation, counterbalancing each other.

Improved digital infrastructure increases people’s trust in the state for providing effective tools and services, while it also brings about social fragmentation and cultural individualization, which weakens national identity. On the other hand, digital freedom strengthens national identity since offering everyone an opportunity to speak constitutes an essential feature of democratic fairness, and democracy is found to serve as an ideological link to unite people into a nation. But digital freedom also has a negative effect on trust in the state since no institution in an open and free society can escape criticism from some segment of society.

According to these findings, the nation-state can reach increased strength through digitalization only if there is a balanced development of digital infrastructure and digital freedom (Lu and Liu, 2018).

The same study also finds that as a country becomes more Internet-connected, people’s attachment to the nation-state tends to derive more from the universal appeal of democracy (the civic approach mentioned before) than from the particular appeal of ethnicity (the ethnic approach) (Lu and Liu, 2018).

Hence, the question we ask is how the democratic process could adapt with regard to:

  • Internet-based information distribution, which has made geographic distances essentially irrelevant
  • People tending to prioritize individual choices while yet placing great value on digital freedom and democracy as unifying aspects

It is probable that a democratic process offering citizens a more direct influence at regular occasions, from wherever they are located at the moment, would be a favorable adaption to such new Internet-related conditions.

One proposed model for democratic processes, which could fit this requirement, is liquid democracy, a system where voters can either vote directly or delegate their vote to other participants. Voters may select different delegates for different issues, and they are free to withdraw their delegation at any time. People who have received the right to vote for other voters can in turn delegate these votes to other delegates.

Even though this kind of voting system has roots going back to the 19th century, digital technology can help to make implementations of liquid democracy substantially more effective, flexible, and easy to use.

It is worth noting that digital voting through the Internet is generally met with significant skepticism, mainly for lack of transparency and for the risk of voters being exposed to coercion when voting at home or in other non-controlled environments. However, there are solutions to both these issues, which have been implemented, for example, in digital elections in Norway, but for such solutions to gain trust among voters, more time will probably be needed with successful experiments (Lewan, 2013).

Finally, regarding the aspect of the structure of the democratic process in a digital perspective, it can be noted that both deliberative polling and liquid democracy are in line with an increased reliance on horizontal structures and an increased focus on purpose, mentioned above as adaptations to new conditions brought by digitalization.

These three aspects of the digital transformation of the nation-state – efficiency of services, alternative providers of those services, and the structure of the democratic process – can be considered fields where the nation-state has to adapt in order to remain relevant to citizens or, in other words, successful.

A fourth aspect as a consequence of digitalization can be added – the issue of future taxation and revenue sources. Since one main part of today’s tax revenues comes from income taxes, the main question here regards the future of work. Recent progress in AI and machine learning, specifically in the field of deep learning, has shown that increasingly advanced tasks that only humans used to be able to perform can be automated, not only physical work but also mental work. In many cases machines even outperform humans, and there’s a general concern that machines eliminating human work will lead to high levels of unemployment. However, efforts at predicting whether AI and automation will eliminate more jobs than they will create, or the contrary, provide results pointing in all directions and differing by tens of millions of jobs only in the US, indicating that it is difficult to know which effect will prevail (Winick, 2018). It is also true that rather than eliminating jobs, AI and automation are expected to eliminate tasks within jobs, while jobs will be transformed to focus on tasks that humans still do better than machines, such as creativity, convincing and motivating other people, empathy, and fine dexterity.

Thus, whether tax revenues from income tax will decrease drastically due to unemployment is unclear, but it is certain that the future of work will be different than work of today. In the case that unemployment would rise significantly, solutions such as negative income tax or unconditional basic income have been proposed as solutions for distributing resources to citizens. As for an alternative tax revenue base, different forms of increased sales taxes are often suggested, with generous tax deductions for consumption that can be connected with present or future professional activity, ranging from equipment to investments in education, as an adaption to the trend of increased self-employment in the gig economy.

 

3.4      Threats from supra-states, localism, and cosmopolitanism

Apart from changed conditions due to digitalization that force nation-states to adapt, the most commonly discussed threat to the nation-state is perhaps the combination of supra-state and intergovernmental institutions such as the EU on one hand, and localism with claims of independence by populations such as the Kurds and the Catalans and by regions such as Scotland and Quebec on the other.

As for the EU, which could be seen as the most advanced attempt at a modern federation of nation-states, there are different ways to explain the main reasons for building the union, ranging from national interests of gaining influence by being members of a larger player in world politics and international economy, to an effort for peace and collaboration, or a step toward a European state. The main question, however, is if it would be possible to build a sense of national unity among Europeans – either through the civic or ethnic approach – strong enough to mobilize the population to collective action in a crisis. This is effectively contested by Hutchinson (2003), who notes that the EU does not even possess a common language, let alone a bank of myths, memories, and symbols to convey a sense of belonging in a community of sentiment.

Referring to the United States, Australia, or Canada as successful models for building multicultural federations is of limited relevance for Europe since these are countries founded by immigrants who have found a common identity in the willingness to build a new culture in a new territory.

From a larger perspective, looking beyond “immigrant nations,” it is also worth noting that what characterizes successful constructions of multicultural federations, as opposed to federations that keep suffering from fragmentation due to cultural divides, can be explained by three elements – first, building political alliances on already existing cross-cultural voluntary organizations, such as reading circles, trade unions, political clubs and so on; second, providing public goods in exchange for taxes across all regions of a country; and third, having a shared language with which individuals can communicate and converse (Wimmer, 2018). None of these could be considered viable for the EU, except maybe the second under the condition that a federal tax is introduced, which is a remote option as of today.

Rather than becoming a European state, the future role of the EU and other large federations is more likely to be in line with what Thompson and Hirst (1995) argue – trade blocks that, together with international organizations and bodies, can exercise some governance over international economic activities, labor market policies, social and environmental protection, and so on, based on legitimacy derived from national-states.

The threat posed to nation-states by localism is somewhat different. Although it might lead to a few more new small states, trying to build strong societies on a local homogeneous unity as an answer to what might be perceived as an increasingly hostile globalized world is essentially a dead end.

From the perspective of the innovation loop, it is undeniable that the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, multicultural, and diverse through steadily more efficient and pervasive communications technologies. Any attempt at modelling a society on cultural homogeneity and exclusiveness will therefore necessarily lead to a society that is less adapted to the changed conditions in the world, and thus less competitive. Furthermore, as already noted, the more a society becomes Internet-connected, the less people will feel attached to the nation-state based on ethnicity, in favor of the universal appeal of democracy (Lu and Liu, 2018). In other words, the wave of ethnic and nationalistic ideologies sweeping over the world during the mid-2010s – promoting harder delineations of national borders, tighter immigration controls, stronger trade barriers, stronger celebration  of national symbols and of authoritarian regimes, more idealized depictions of nationalistic history, and so on, entailing increased racism and nationalist xenophobia, could be seen simply as a temporary swing of the pendulum of history.

If the innovation loop is a valid model for describing the origin of change, the pendulum could be expected to swing back and forth around a center that moves along the trajectory of continuous innovation and of adaptation to changed conditions. In that case, it is just a matter of time before ethno-nationalist and isolationist ideologies will turn out to be unsuccessful as a way to improve the workings of the nation-state, which in turn will make the pendulum swing back toward more open, interconnected, and multicultural societies. However, the attempt at turning back the clock with nationalist and separatist values is understandable, not only because of increased migration, which is often the main reason for making nation-states more closed. Some view the world as increasingly divided into two categories of people – one cosmopolitan with mostly urban people, sharing an international set of values, interests, and culture, communicating globally and, to some extent, also travelling globally, and another category of more locally rooted people, typically rural to a larger degree, and less able to harvest the opportunities offered by an increasingly interconnected world.

Since the latter category could be considered less adapted to new conditions emerging in a digitalized world, wanting to go back in time to a situation with more closed nation-states – the billiard balls mentioned before – is a natural reaction. Another important reason making many people wishing for time to stop is arguably a general fear of the future, which is vague to many, for natural reasons. While the pace of change is increasing, most political leaders themselves have vague ideas about the future, and credible, long-term, positive visions for a future world are clearly lacking.

This is not to say that the opinions expressed by the second category mentioned above are not important. On the contrary, what is important, and in everyone’s interest, is keeping society united, learning from diversity, and helping everyone to take part in the ongoing digitalization process since high tensions in society will be unfavorable for everyone.

On the other hand, one may ask whether the cosmopolitan category has such values and motivations that people in this group would rather abandon the nation-state in favor of some global alternative state, such as a PVS, uniting, for example, people living in large urban environments across the world.

Anthropologist Ulf Hannerz (2004), investigating the nature of cosmopolitanism, sketches a wide range of different flavors and origins. The range of these flavors and origins stretches from the international elite working in global organizations, moving across the world, to a Pakistani villager, not particularly well-educated, but a member of a Sufi cult and formerly a migrant laborer in the highly mobile, heterogeneous society of the Gulf, there picking up a series of foreign languages. Hannerz further notes that cosmopolitanism has two faces; one side aesthetic and intellectual with a happy face, and one political side with a worried face.

He raises the question of whether there could be a “thick” cosmopolitanism, corresponding to the unity required for building a national identity, and without coming to an answer, he observes that while cosmopolitans are often seen as root-less, cosmopolitanism can also be seen as the “privilege of those who can take a secure nation-state for granted” (Hannerz, 2004, p. 78).

It is thus not obvious whether a growing cosmopolitan tendency could be seen as a threat to the nation-state, or even as a support. It’s also clear that the number of far-reaching ideological cosmopolitans in the world is dwarfed by the sheer number of involuntary cosmopolitans – international migrants – reaching 258 million worldwide in 2017, up from 220 million in 2010 (United Nations, 2017).

The  increasing international migration thus appears as a stronger threat to nation-states, not only since it is a main reason for the backward-aiming forces striving for closed and isolated countries, poorly adapted for the world’s changing conditions. Migration is also likely to continue growing since the interconnectedness of the world lets information flow more easily, making the differences and the injustice in the world more apparent to everyone. This is further enforced since cultural homogeneity will be increasingly difficult to use by advanced states as an argument for exclusion, and closed borders will thus appear as what they are, a mere refusal of entry based on the lottery of birth.

Such a world order will become untenable, and it will remain a major threat  to advanced nation-states unless the differences decrease. Just like within Western nation-states, where improved communications technologies over time made a levelling of resources and opportunities between classes inevitable in order to avoid unsustainable tensions in society, it is unlikely that the world’s poor will passively accept their poverty, and a levelling of resources in the world will become necessary.

Apart from limiting the migration pressure on advanced nation-states, such a leveling would also strengthen the opportunities for the concept of citizen-roaming mentioned before, through improved conditions for interstate trust, and thus support nation-states in more than one way.

 

3.5     The rule of law

The final consideration to be made on the nation-state is the rule of law. A declining autonomy for nation-states to exclusively decide over internal politics does not diminish the importance of the state’s monopoly as a lawmaker in its territory. On the contrary, in a world that is more complex and interconnected on the one hand, and more individual and diversified on the other, the rule of law as a guarantee of stability, limiting the harm that individuals, companies, and the government itself can do, is of increased importance. The rule of law is also necessary for a structure of global governance to be effective, as a way for transforming international agreements into national laws and imposing such laws on the citizens. And although cities are often considered to be the main future actors of global collaboration since a majority of all people in the world now live in cities, nation-states are important for making cities and regional governments accountable according to the rule of law.

Apart from this, however, the rule of law is also a tool of power in the hands of the nation-state, which eventually comes down to the monopoly of coercive power and to the fact that, even in a digitalized world, all individuals have a physical body and all cables and servers that make up the Internet have a physical location.

The combination of the monopoly of coercive power and the control of a physical territory gives the nation-state a significant power over individuals and their movements, and also of the organizations they make up, which together with digital tools such as surveillance cameras, facial recognition, data analysis and so on, is strengthened rather than weakened. The power can be used by authoritarian states for control and oppression. However, also in democracies, even where the level of corruption is low, it remains a strong foundation for the nation-state to build its survival on, even when challenged.

We can look at the cryptocurrency Bitcoin as an example of such a challenge. Although the future of Bitcoin today is unclear, not the least for the unsustainable level of energy consumed by the Bitcoin system and for the low transaction speed, future versions might offer interesting opportunities for international peer-to-peer transactions without the need for controlling parties such as banks or financial institutions. Crypto-libertarians and/or crypto-anarchists,4 however, often consider Bitcoin one of the tools that could make the nation-state irrelevant, due to its distributed, noncentralized nature.

Also, the underlying database technology, the blockchain, may offer attractive distributed applications in a wide range of contexts, eliminating the influence and bias of controlling parties, but again, crypto-libertarians and/or crypto-anarchists see many of these opportunities as ways to subvert the state and its institutions.

Confronted with such a challenge, before it reaches critical levels, the nation- state could use the rule of law to effectively defend itself by drastically limiting the use of such applications. It is true that software applications through virtualization can be made to jump seamlessly in real time between physical servers across the world, but eventually, the ability of the state to reduce the usage is significant.

In the context of rule of law and digital technologies, a special note may be made on what could become a global competition between liberal democracy and digital authoritarianism (Wright, 2018). Digital technologies, in particular the latest evolution of artificial intelligence, have turned out to offer authoritarian regimes – for the first time in decades – a possible way to sustain long-term economic growth while controlling their citizens. China is by many considered to lead this development with large-scale Internet censoring and widespread surveillance through technologies such as face recognition, and with machine learning tools in combination with a “social credit system,” which according to the Chinese government will be rolled out nationwide for every citizen by 2020 (Munro, 2018).

Many AI-based machine-learning technologies depend on access to large amounts of data for training. Authoritarian regimes like China therefore have a significant advantage over liberal democracies in using such technology for analyzing and controlling citizens’ behavior, being able to access and combine people’s personal data with few restrictions and privacy concerns.

The official scope of the “social credit system” is to increase trust and to decrease the level of corruption and fraud in Chinese society. This is admittedly needed and some citizens also welcome it, but it is also clear that citizens will have limited opportunities, if any, to challenge the system.

It is an open question whether citizen control realized through digital authoritarianism will make countries like China more competitive and better adapted than liberal democracies to a digitalized world, but it is undeniable that China will give it a try. According to a recent report by the US government-financed democracy watchdog Freedom House, China is also actively spreading its methods and technology in this area to tens of other countries (Shahbaz, 2018).

Speaking against the success of digital authoritarianism is the aforementioned finding, that is, that the nation-state can reach increased strength through digitalization only if there is a balanced development of digital infrastructure and digital freedom (Lu and Liu, 2018).

However, as described by the innovation loop, neither democracies nor authoritarian states, will, in the long run, be able to resist necessary adaptations to new technologies changing the conditions for their existence; otherwise, they will collapse and be disrupted. Yet, the rule of law will give nation-states substantial capabilities to delay such a development, providing extended time for implementing change.

On the other hand, there is already another strong technology trend, apart from Bitcoin and the blockchain, hinting at a more decentralized model of society: local energy production with renewables such as solar and wind, but also with yet unexplored small-scale energy sources such as low-energy nuclear reactions (LENRs). If such energy sources over time can make wide-area power grids unnecessary, they will also bring the advantage of making societies less vulnerable to cyberattacks and cyber warfare, which typically target crucial infrastructure systems.

In a distant future, distributed technologies such as blockchain and hyperlocal energy production may one day provide the basis for a completely decentralized world order, akin to nature itself where all individuals and entities are independent of any state structure and free to interact globally, but where – in a difference from nature – an AI-based rule of law is built in to the decentralized system, limiting the harm individuals and organizations can do and thus avoiding the cruel aspects of the law of the jungle. However, it is only when humans may merge with machines (making it possible to transcend the physical body) that the power over physical territories will eventually lose its importance.

 

4 Conclusion

In an increasingly globalized, digitalized, and interconnected world, with mobility for capital and technology and for digital services and products, the nation-state is challenged but may remain a fundamental building block for governance and international collaboration. Nation-states are losing some of their sovereignty regarding exclusive control over economic and social processes within their territories, and they are less able to maintain national distinctiveness and cultural homogeneity. On the other hand, their role as a source of legitimacy for agreements made in international institutions, organizations, and bodies is becoming more important, as well as for ensuring accountability of cities and regional governments. From an innovation perspective, losing independence and gaining another role in an increasingly interconnected world can be seen as a natural evolution, being a consequence of steadily improved communications technologies through human history.

In order to remain relevant to citizens and to the world, however, nation-states need to adapt to new conditions posed by digitalization. These adaptations can be found in three fields – efficiency of services offered by the state to citizens, alternative providers of those services, and the structure of the democratic process.

Efficiency of services needs to increase through digital transformation, in order to address a combination of increased expectations and limited resources. The increased expectations derive partly from people’s experience of the large range of various services offered online, with a significant increase in convenience and ease of use compared to only a decade ago.

Alternative providers of social services may partner with public agencies that in turn may transform their role from producer to facilitator of services. Such service providers could also extend their offerings into a private virtual state eventually providing an alternative to traditional citizenship. However, since a PVS will depend on legislation in the nation-state where it is registered as a company, it will need to enter agreements with nation-states where its users live and work, and it will need to solve the issue of lacking democratic influence on the owners. Meanwhile, nation-states could offer services to PVSs through concepts such as State as a Platform, and nation-states could also make agreements with other nation-states for citizen-roaming, allowing their citizens to live and work in other countries.

The structure of the democratic process needs to adapt to decreased political involvement and to the risk of advanced manipulation of people’s opinions on one hand, and to the fact that geographic distances have become irrelevant on the other. Two possible models addressing those issues are deliberative polling and liquid democracy.

It is also found that the nation-state can reach increased strength through digitalization only if there is a balanced development of digital infrastructure and digital freedom.

Another question related to digitalization regards a future base of tax revenue in the case that AI and automation would lead to massive unemployment and to reduced tax revenues from income taxes. Although it is unclear whether automation will eliminate more jobs than it creates, an often-suggested alternative tax base is increased sales taxes, while alternative ways of distributing resources to citizens are negative income tax or unconditional basic income.

Nation-states are also considered to be threatened by a combination of supra-states, localism, and cosmopolitanism. However, since it will be hard for a supra-state to build a national identity strong enough to keep it united in crisis, the nation-state will likely have a role as a source of legitimacy for larger international structures, as mentioned before. Localism, on the other hand, will, in the long run, have limited opportunities to be successful due to the increasingly interconnected nature of the world. Specifically, with regard to ethnic homogeneity, it has been found that as a country becomes more Internet-connected, people’s attachment to the nation-state tends to derive more from the universal appeal of democracy than from the particular appeal of ethnicity. Regarding cosmopolitanism, it is not clear whether a growing cosmopolitan tendency could be seen as a threat to the nation-state, or even as a support. However, the increased number of involuntary cosmopolitans – international migrants – constitutes an increasing threat to nation-states, reinforced by improved communications technologies highlighting the injustice of the lottery of birth, and, eventually, the only way to remediate this threat is through a levelling of resources in the world.

Even though it is difficult to define a valid alternative that would threaten or disrupt the nation-state, the need for the nation-state to adapt as described above in order to remain relevant is urgent since digitalization is a process that arguably has just started and since the pace of change is accelerating. Not adapting is not an alternative since no entity can avoid adaptation to new conditions brought about by inventions without collapsing or being disrupted. However, the combination of the rule of law, the monopoly of coercive power, and the control of a territory gives significant power to the nation-state even in a digitalized world, which eventually comes down to the fact that all humans have a physical body and that the Internet is built on servers and cables that all have a physical location. This power gives nation-states substantial capabilities to delay any challenging development, providing extended time for implementing change.

 

Ethical considerations

The persons interviewed and named throughout this chapter (wherever applicable) have all provided their informed consent to appear in-text.

 

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank the following persons for providing their views on this topic in personal interviews through April and May 2018: Anders Sandberg, Carl Heath, Darja Isaksson, Jan Nolin, Jan Söderqvist, Klas Danerlöv, Leif Edvinsson, Matthew Zook, and Stefan Fölster.

 

Notes

  1. The term “best adapted” is a more accurate, and less problematic, representation of the source material than the popularly used term “fittest.”
  2. Network effect: a phenomenon whereby a product or service gains additional value as more people use it.
  3. Swe: Sveriges kommuner och Landsting.
  4. Crypto-anarchists or crypto-libertarians refer to people who use cryptographic software striving for total or a high degree of anonymity, freedom of speech, and freedom to trade.

 

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