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Do We Need a World Government?
Elon Musk's Starlink is damaging our view of the night sky. And no one can do anything about it.
Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.
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This week, I heard news of strange sightings in the night sky over London.
The mystery was quickly solved. And it inspired this reflection on global challenges, the technology revolution, and new forms of government for the 21st-century.
Elon Musk co-hosted Saturday Night Live this week.
In the days leading up to the show, the big story was what his appearance might do to the price of Dogecoin. In the event, it fell.
Hours before Elon took to the stage in NYC, though, his name was being spoken by citizens in London for a different reason. That night, a series of Londoners went to Twitter to ask the same question: did anyone else see that weird line of tiny lights trail across the sky tonight? What the hell was that?
The answer lay, again, with Elon. Musk’s Starlink is a project to deliver internet connectivity anywhere on the planet via a network of satellites in low-Earth orbit. Starlink has quietly been launching those satellites for three years, and now people – in London and all over the world – have started to notice the silent, ghostly satellite-trains moving overhead.
Starlink will bring fast, affordable internet to parts of the Earth, including rural areas in the US, that remain unconnected.
But there’s a problem. Astronomers have long warned that the proliferation of satellites is combining with growing light pollution to fundamentally transform our view of the night sky. The issue, they say, is bad enough now; there are 6,000 satellites currently in orbit. The US Federal Communications Commission has given Starlink permission to launch 12,000 satellites, and Musk says the end vision is for 42,000.
Satellites reflect light from the sun, casting a hazy glow into the night sky that impedes our view of the universe that lies beyond. What’s more, says the International Astronomical Union (IAU), when a satellite passes through the view of a telescope it can ruin the image, scuppering highly expensive scientific work.
So, what to do?
Two weeks ago the IAU made representations to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). But COPUOS can only make recommendations, which Starlink will be free to ignore. To change the law would mean renegotiating an international agreement that’s now over half a century old: the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.
With Starlink rapidly launching new satellites, the astronomers behind a recent IAU report on the issue fear that there’s nothing they can do. Pretty soon, our view of the night sky will never be the same again. Starlink is agile; global governance is not.
‘The mechanisms in law that might have allowed us to avoid this, those wheels turn so slowly that by the time we get to any consensus on a policy solution, this is all going to be over,’ says John Barentine, one of the authors of the report.
The night sky, and the view of the universe that it allows, is an inheritance that belongs to all of us. The obscuration of that view is important in its own right.
But the conflict between Starlink and the IAU is also a signal of a deep question that confronts us in the coming decade. We face a series of challenges that are, as never before, planetary in nature. And right now, we don’t have the global governance frameworks to cope with them.
The pandemic demonstrated how a globalised world can deliver powerful networked shocks. Few would argue that our response, especially at the start, was optimally coordinated. Meanwhile, the emergence of megalithic online platforms that wield a new form of socio-corporate power – Facebook, Google, Amazon – demands a far more coherent global response.
The Starlink issue is another example to add to this troubling list. The entire sky – our sky! – is Starlink’s canvass, and its satellites are proliferating fast: hundreds have launched this year alone. But the only institution that can act is stupefying slow, and lacks any real power.
And above all this, of course, sits the apex-predator planetary challenge, which is global heating.
How should we respond?
Some advocate for a strengthening of the liberal world order built in the wake of WWII. In the early days of the pandemic, for example, former UK prime minister Tony Blair called for the World Health Organisation to be given more power to direct the response of nation states. Arch-liberals such as Blair want to see a world governed by supra-national, liberal organisations such as the EU, the UN, and the World Bank.
Meanwhile Francis Fukuyama, the political philosopher who wrote 1992’s The End of History, recently argued that increased cooperation between nation states is the best way to address global challenges in the 2020s.
When it comes to dealing with the challenges we face, strengthening existing global institutions and enhancing cooperation between nation states would no doubt help. But consider the Starlink situation, and you get a bracing view of how the world has outpaced our thinking on how to govern it. Don’t forget, Musk’s designs on space go far beyond worldwide internet; SpaceX is a private corporation with a plan to colonise Mars. Do we want this momentous undertaking to fall under the control of a single billionaire? If not, how do we manage that?
This is all to say: the Starlink problem is a powerful reminder that in the 21st-century, we need new frameworks for governance. And at the heart of those frameworks must be a new accommodation between the local and the global. In the wake of the pandemic, many will want to strengthen the local networks and resources that act as a refuge when global networks fail. But we must also find new frameworks of global governance if we’re to manage the next pandemic, and deal with the other planetary challenges we now face.
On this front, one idea:
The internet revolution has woven a magic all of its own when it comes to delivering hyperlocal, hyper-personalised experiences under the banner of a single, global platform. So far, though, that magic has found expression mainly in the form of corporations that farm our attention and sell it to advertisers.
The next iteration of the internet, sometimes referred to as Web3, will be built on decentralised systems. We talk often about the ways those systems can empower new, decentralised versions of Google, Facebook, and other online giants. But Web3 opens another possibility, too. That is, for decentralised platforms that allow for new forms of democratic global governance. Platforms that allow people a greater say in the running of their locality, and do so under the banner of a shared, democratically established set of values and practises. It’s a vision of a new, global form of people power.
Could the next platform to change the world be some strange cross between a decentralised social platform, an NGO, and a worldwide political party?
It’s a long way from where we are now – from the sleepy COPUOS and institutions like it – to a decentralised world governance platform. The political challenge is huge. But the technologies that make such a platform possible are emerging into view. And the need for new answers is vast.
Look up when you’re next outside at night, and you may see a Starlink train pass overhead. Take a moment, when you do, to reflect on the message they’re already sending us. We must put the technology revolution to work to evolve new forms of global government. Or the technology revolution will govern us, instead.
Thanks for reading this week.
Elon Musk will continue to launch his satellites. This newsletter, meanwhile, will continue to track the story.
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I’ll be back on Wednesday with another New Week Same Humans. Until then, be well,