The true battlefront of the 21st century: Open systems versus closed systems

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11th, politicians and TV pundits have been searching for a model to explain the conflict we find ourselves facing. "New World Order" doesn't fit any more. "The Cold War" is long gone. Over the past few weeks, however, one idea has mentioned again and again to describe the global situation we face in the 'new' 21st century -- the clash of civilizations.

The phrase is actually the title of a Foreign Policy article written in 1993, and later turned into a book in 1996, by Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations." The main theory behind Huntington's work, in his own words, is "The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict (in the coming years) will be cultural." And the "fault lines" between the seven or eight major cultures in the world will be where the battle lines will be drawn.

One reason the theory is currently drawing so much attention is that it provides a tidy context for the post-Sept.11th world. Explaining our struggle as 'The West (us) against Islam (them)' enables politicians and pundits to create the 'other' always needed in any war (and finally something to replace the Soviet Union as the 'bad guy' in action movies) and as well as 'empowering' us to avoid looking at how we may have helped create the situation.

To be fair to Prof. Huntington, his theory is fair more complex and nuanced than is being presented in media reports. For instance, it recognizes that "Western arrogance" plans a key role in the clash of civilizations. It acknowledges that not all cultures act as monoliths, where all people speak as one. Even Huntington himself has said that what is currently happening in Afghanistan doesn't fit his model because we actually do have Muslim nations -- Pakistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, for example -- assisting us against the Taliban.

But politicians and TV commentators hate complexity and nuance, and love generalities and easy-to-digest theories, so it this more simplistic "us-versus-them' version of 'the clash of civilizations' that has become the foreign policy flavor-of-the-month.

As convenient as this theory seems, it ultimately falls apart for me (even the far more researched and credible version presented by Huntington). It is too narrow, conservative and simplistic. Yet is there a theory that provides a better look at the future world we face? There is, and I heard it articulated three weeks ago at the Pop!Tech2001 conference in Camden, Maine.

Pop!Tech brings together some of the brightest and most articulate people who work in the world of technology -- not to talk about ROI or venture capital, but to talk about ideas. One of the speakers at the conference was John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electrontic Frontier Foundation, Fellow at the Harvard Law School, former cattle rancher and lyricst for the Grateful Dead, and a thinker who has been called 'the Thomas Jefferson of cyberspace.' It's his theory of the conflict of open systems versus closed systems that provides the best context for the struggles we will face in the 21st century, regardless of what larger culture we live in.

Barlow told the gathering in Camden that as far back as 1991, he had written that the openness of cyberspace would create a great series of 'holy wars,' as local systems that would feel threatened about being embedded in a global system would push back. Many 'cultures' would find openness a significant threat. Then on September 11th, he said he had a realization -- that the 21st century would be one great struggle between open and closed systems across the planet -- systems of belief, of national organizations, of boundary conditions (both real and virtual), of the ownership of ideas, etc. And these struggles would be intensified by technology, which tends to undermine elites and move communities towards democratization.

For instance, Barlow pointed to the introduction of the Gutenberg press, a piece of technology that allowed many cultures easy access to ideas that encouraged openness. It produced, he said, conflicts that lasted from the Wars of Reformation to the end of the Second World War, because that is how long it took for these ideas to spread and forment. What happens to 'cultures', he asked, when in 2001 you can communicate an idea to millions of people in one day on the Internet that may have taken decades or centuries to reach them in the past?

I could not agree with him more. While there are definite connections between Huntington's ideas and Barlow's, Barlow's theory works more completely on several levels. First, it avoids the simplistic creation of the great 'other' to fill the role of bad guy, and correctly predicts the more realistic, complex nature of the struggle we are engaged in. But more important, it reminds us that the battles for the future are being fought all around us, not just on the mountainous hillsides of Afghanistan, nor on the fault lines between seven great cultures.

Whether the struggle is ecumenism versus fundamentalism, tolerance versus zenophobia, individual privacy versus government oversight, Linux versus Microsoft, open borders versus restricted immigration, Napster versus the Recording Industry Association of America, free speech versus censorship -- all involve situations where closed systems around the world have reacted negatively to a force that wants them to be more open. Who wins these struggles will determine what kind of 'civilizations' we and others have have, both locally and globally. And like Barlow, I believe that only by embracing openness can we create an 'ecosystem' diverse enough for all "life forms" to thrive.

Barlow expressed concern about our own first responses to Sept. 11. Our open, democratic culture responded to the attack of a closed sub-culture, he said, by becoming more closed itself.

"I don't think there is a better way for them to win then for us to become them," he told the conference.

No, the way we will win this battle is by being more open, not less. As Barlow said, "Life is created by difference, and it doesn't matter what that difference is." Only by being open to these differences, and not closed, will we win the longer struggle -- the real 'clash of civilizations' -- that is surely only beginning as we move into the 21st century.

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