25 November 2020, by Anton Keet

In my introductory column, I mused about superficial complexity in the here and now. Through the lens of fast-moving, disposable information, plausible futures are a challenging prospect to foresee and this forestalls deeper thought about the “there and later” that lie over the horizon and beyond the meniscus of our full-laden glass of complexity. What are the future effects of finding ourselves in this superficially complex world? I don’t propose to deal with all of the probable scenarios (as if that was possible) – that would be being unfaithful to the Post-dated check ethos – just the scenarios that are currently interesting to me and hopefully also to you.

In this column, I want to explore the virtual walls that are likely to be built. To coin a phrase: Virtuwalls… I’ll show myself out at the end of the column!

It’s on or off. Or not.

It is always surprising that a lot of scenario development seems to discount the one common denominator to all scenarios: the traits of human beings. Even if your particular future features only androids, drones and robots, the fact is any scenario development is being imagined predominantly by a human being. Scenario development is a peculiarly human thing as a result. Added to which there are significant indications nowadays that software, whether in algorithm form or otherwise, reflects at least some of the collective traits and preferences of its human developers. Like it or not, a human-free future would still mirror the traits of human beings. While there are times when it seems that parts of the human race are energetically pursuing the extinction of humankind, we human beings and what makes us tick are always going to be inherent to any discussion about our futures.

It does seem that the mind of a human being gravitates towards the binary, it is a tool we have evolved to navigate the complexity we perceive in the world. We fight or flee. You’re right or wrong. Things are good or bad . They’re with us or against us. We’re inside or outside of the wall. The reality is hardly ever that clear and most human beings find themselves in the midst of two poles depending on what the issue at hand may be. We end up with mature democracies participated in by millions of human beings having two dominant parties. This is the democratic political system responding to its own limitations and our difficulty in relating to political parties’ messaging about complex policy positions.

In the days of yore, we built city walls to manage our own safety. In a very real sense, walls were there to protect us from the aggressively complex environment outside of those walls. City rulers and residents could manage a finite environment and a determinable number of competing interests by building a wall and regulating who and what entered or left those confines. Today, we have a not dissimilar endeavour in many parts of the world, most recently with the campaign position taken by Donald Trump vis-à-vis the Mexican border with the USA. To be sure, it’s a questionable solution to a problem that may or may not exist however the proffered solution found purchase with enough Americans to vote for the Republican (being one of two dominant political parties) presidential candidate. Trump, in a very simplistic and mostly misguided way, made it easy for his supporters to understand the world. He provides them with binary choices and the appeal of not having to consider complexity when your choice is either one or the other. The price of simplification: he or she who simplifies successfully determines the rules of engagement and interaction for their converts.

The rise of Virtuwall City States

Many of the populace cities of today have GDPs and populations equivalent to medium-sized countries. The market these cities represent provides them with an ability to negotiate within their own national geographical boundaries but also beyond those borders for their own bespoke benefit. They have access to large amounts of human resources and tax bases in relative proximity to each other and they have the benefit of encouraging infrastructural development on a scalable basis within their confines. “But COVID-19 has put paid to high density working and residential areas?”, I hear you ask. It’s a valid point – inevitably populace cities are still wider than they are high and they are not confined by actual walls. They have vertical and lateral space available to viably expand while adjusting to social distancing sensibilities but with the benefit of already being influential economic units. Neither is agriculture the express remit of rural communities relying on space as their agricultural currency. Protein sources are being successfully grown too. In factories. Near or in large developed cities.
And where there is a high incidence of people, they will do what people do as socially reliant beings – they interact more easily and innovation, as a consequence of more human interaction, will follow leading to concentrated resource development, market growth and more wealth creation. Added to which, nowadays, it’s easier for larger numbers of people to organize themselves into special interest groups. As the passage of goods and services from afar slows, and inflation sets in (you’re not going to getting that avocado toast as often anymore) closer protected circles will develop due to the proximity of city inhabitants needs being closer to them. With that the city of the future will elevate its influence and the protectionist impulse will gain purchase.

It’s conceivable that City States could develop their own currencies independently of the monetary unit of the nation state in which they exist. The City Sate may be the main value driver of a regional economy but the value of the monetary unit it currently uses could be both beneficial and detrimental to it if that unit is affected by factors outside of the Virtuwall. But what if your City Crypto traded against the US dollar or another cryptocurrency? The possibilities are myriad. The benefits of value creation of the City State could be less diluted for its virtual and real citizens.

Foreseeing a scenario of powerful cities acting autonomously in alliances or as antagonists is a scenario I am willing to consider [coming Post-dated Check loading…]. Maybe we all should.

Anton Keet is a lawyer, investment manager and a futurist. He is a member of the NK International team.