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The futurist: The psychology of borders


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In the beginning life was simple, just land and people. No borders, no restrictions and no governments breathing down everyone’s neck.

Over time, cultures formed around a common language and geography determined many aspects of lifestyle. As an example, people who lived next to the sea oriented much of their life around fishing, while those further inland spent more time hunting and farming.

Traveling from one region to the next was difficult and dangerous. Before the time of Gutenberg’s printing press, the vast majority of people lived and died within 20 miles of where they grew up because they didn’t have access to reliable maps.

Later, as populations grew, we began to see the need for more sophisticated societies. At the heart of these advancements were cities adding conveniences like streets, water systems, protection from lawless individuals, and justice systems to add a sense of order to all those advancements.

As years progressed, cities banded together with towns and villages nearby to create better systems, form geographical boundaries and promote common interests. These groupings of cities became countries, and governments sprang up to manage and organize their interests.

Countries were formed around a common geography, common languages and common systems like currency and transportation.

The term “nation-state” came into play in 1648 with the treaty of Westphalia. This was an important turning point because countries transitioned from rouge protectorates to cultured political systems that recognized each others borders and were empowered to make deals with other nation-states.

Since 1648, countries, operating as nation-states, have become the most powerful entities on the planet. With large militaries to defend their interests and advanced monetary systems to build infrastructure, countries have become complex organisms with self-adapting properties.

However, when Internet started providing borderless connectivity, we began seeing national systems transition into global systems. As the need for borders became less clear, traditional ways of defining a country began to erode and the value of citizenship, less defined.

While countries struggle to maintain their role in the global community, people, as citizens of these nation states, are becoming far more mobile, wanting to be less confined by systems, rules, and geography.

So what comes next? Are we on the verge of yet another shift in global entities?

Understanding Where Weve Come From

The nation-state will be 367 years old this year.

Political scientists have spent countless years refining the difference between the terms “nation” and “state.”

Generally speaking, a nation refers only to a socio-cultural entity, a union of people sharing culture and language (or languages).

A state refers to a legal/political entity that is comprised of: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) a government; and d) the capacity to enter into relations with other states.

Even though most leaders of countries today tend to oppose adding new nation-states to the mix because it disrupts the status quo, new entities pave the way for non-traditional thinking, new approaches to systems and infrastructure, and far more experimentation.

The Psychology of Borders and Reasons for Crossing Them

Borders create an un-natural impediment to the natural flow of human migration. People are both pushed and pulled across borders, and there are literally hundreds of reasons for each.

Some of the push factors include not enough jobs, poor living conditions, desertification, famine, political persecution, slavery, forced labor, poor medical care, war, loss of wealth, natural disasters, pollution, death threats or desire for political or religious freedom.

Pull factors are similar but from a different mindset. They include things like more job opportunities, better living conditions, more political and/or religious freedom, better education and medical care, family connections, and better chances of marrying the right person.

Six Ways in which Borders Have Become Less Meaningful

In 1950, 50 million people a year crossed national borders, last year it was 1.4 billion or nearly one out of every five people.

As numbers continue to climb, most customs and border patrol jobs will be automated out of existence. International rules based on corporate privilege like telecom’s roaming charges, tariffs, and tourism tax will soon lose their standing. Virtually every border-crosser has money, and the more welcome they feel, the more likely they will be to spend it.

Here are six ways that border significance will continue to decline.

1.) Global Awareness - As our access to the Internet improves, global awareness grows exponentially. Friends and family routinely post travel summaries on social media as they bounce from Kuala Lumpur, to the Tango Islands, to Aruba, and Timbuktu.

On the academic front, researchers who release reports in Moscow, Tokyo or Singapore are having their finding read by people in Mexico City, Helsinki and Belgrade 10 minutes later.

This level of awareness is unprecedented and ripe with opportunity.

2.) Transitioning from National Systems to Global Systems - When we look at early systems such as written communications with Phoenician cuneiform, Mayan numerals, or the systems that had to be in place for engineering and building the Egyptian pyramids, it’s easy to see that system thinking has been around a long time. But global systems are a more recent innovation.

The most obvious advantage to global systems are the efficiencies they create.  As an example, when a person who has spent their life hunting and fishing for food is able to walk to a store and purchase food, they suddenly have far more time in their life to do other things.

Similarly, when a company that has struggled to deliver product to the other side of the world can begin working with FedEx who provides painless global delivery, the company suddenly has time to focus on other critical problems.

Global systems now include currency exchange, stock trading, e-commerce, news services, postal delivery, voice and text communication, social media, time zones, measurement systems, GPS, mapping services and the Internet.

Future global systems will include things like accounting standards for publicly traded companies, global currency (Bitcoin), genealogy systems, patent systems, ownership authorities for personal ownership and standards for ethics.

3.) Language - Google Translate is an online service that does a reasonably good job. The system built by Franz Och at Google over the last decade can now support translation between 80 language pairs. In 2013, Google said that Translate served an average of 200 million people every day.

4.) Currency Networks - The 2009 introduction of Bitcoin was the first of many cryptocurrencies, each of which is pushing the transition from national to global currencies. What most don’t realize is that the wealth transferal networks created by cryptocurrencies is far more valuable than the currency itself. These currencies enable instant exchanges between national currencies (i.e. USD to Euro or Yen) with virtually no risk and very little expense.

5.) Global Transportation - In 2014 there were over 5.5 billion passenger flights around the world, a 4.9 percent increase over the year before. As air travel becomes more ubiquitous and available, we are seeing an increasingly fluid society

6.) Telepresence - For those who still find borders to be a painful barrier, telepresence has become the popular workaround. With near-perfect visuals and an in-the-room audio and sensory feel, this technology short circuits the cattle calls at the airport and replicates physical presence in virtually every way except for having a beer at a local pub afterwards.

Next: Six Ways in which Countries are Becoming Dysfunctional

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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