Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


the globalization of information: a discussion with Michael Geyer

Michael Geyer, professor of history at The University of Chicago, has published extensively on military history, the history of Germany and the history of globalization. This interview was conducted in Linz, Austria, in September 1998. Ian R. Douglas is director of the power foundation, <>.

by Ian R.Douglas

IAN R. DOUGLAS: In your view, Michael, what are the historical origins of the information age?

MICHAEL GEYER: Presuming that you’re talking about the information age as a globalizing age, the common understanding, or prevailing theory, places it in European expansion, however it explains that expansion. Quite a few people argue for a "European miracle"; a combination of technology, art and war that drives them out, into and over the world. Others, of course, equally prominent, think of capitalism. Yet others think of the Guttenberg galaxy; of print media as an incredibly mobilizing phenomena. In short, they put the origins somewhere in the 14th century, in the 15th century: the classic papers about art, and the journies of discovery. Then a certain military edge. There is a great deal of talk in early modern studies about how European military practices were imitated in East Asia, and so on and so forth. I’m very skeptical about. This is not to discount that something very, very crucial happened to Europe. I think a crucial element is that Europe for the first time proved for the first time capable of defending itself against outside agression. So the pivotal dates for me are the defeats of incursions from inner Asia, and of course the defeat of the Turks before Vienna, 1688. Those are pivotal dates. At that point you could say that Europe was indeed defendable against any outside interference, and was already moving outward. Except that the same thing of course happened with the Russians—I don’t think you can place them in Europe at that point, but they are then moved by their own rulers, and the kind of dynamic of the European system into Europe. And certainly you cannot—and this is the other early modern European history that is really glamorous and interesting and exciting—you clearly have to see that the Chinese are expanding quite as dramatically. Now the Chinese do something odd; they don’t go the maritime route. It is done, but they basically withdraw. But they do expand, dramatically, into the 17th, indeed even into the 18th, in Asia. So what you have is a parallel formation of fairly grand land-based empires—the Chinese, and the Russian empire; the Ottoman empire would have to be put in there as well, though it collapses, then the Persians—these are all very expansive empires. Then the creation of some kind of oddity; that is indeed maritime empires.

So once you see that as a kind of parallel struggle I think you get further than simply thinking of European expansion into the world. But altogether I think that’s the wrong way to start the history of globalization as the kind of foundation for global information society. I think that story starts much, much later. It starts sometime—it’s hard to place, you know—but it starts, if you like, in the middle only really of 19th century, I think—at a point when there really is nothing more to discover. There are, of course, bits and pieces of Africa which are entirely to themselves, as there always places which are entirely to themselves. But basically the world is known. The world is integrated. And the world is in a dense system interacting as a whole. And what that does is something very striking. It creates for the first time a kind of "earth space" that is no longer simply earth space in which distant powers act on their own and occaisonally interact, but in which they are pushed together so tightly—like the Russians and the British along the Eurasian sea—they are pushed together so tightly that for the first time there is something like the challenge f global governance. Now this challenge is handled entirely by states, mind you. That’s important. But very distinctly what happens in one part of the world—let’s say Samoa in 1880—affects all parts of the world. And that condition—when politically something which happens in one part of the world, or socially or economically, affects all other parts of the world—is the condition of globalization, whoever and whatever handles it.

The second element that I would consider very, very crucial is the very rapid spread of communications and transport. That is, the construction of sinews that allow the kind of interaction, and facilitate the interaction to happen. Now we know this is a very one-sided thing. You know the famous example—later on—of the telephone cable, that if someone in Australia wants to call someone in South Africa—both of course being white—it can’t happen, you understand. This indicates exclusion; a massive exclusion of the majority of the world. Still if you want to call from Australia to South Africa you call via London. You don’t go straight from Australia to South Africa but you go all the way north, to the metropolis, and down again. So it’s that kind of metropolitan system that emerges there, but still. What emerges is a network that links the world in terms of communication. Effectively within a system of power which is defined by metropolitan empires you can reach every part of the world. Circuitous way, but it’s a way.

After this, I think the first regimes of international governance are in order to facilitate exchange, which is made possible by transport. You have to find, very pragmatically, the rules and regulations that govern exchange. You have to have a basic notion of property. Property in which two sides have an interest. There is the famous French colonial sense of imposing property relations on Algeria. They define what their territory is as the British do in India. That’s one kind of property; it’s the state defining territory as real estate. But if you want to trade, then the trader in India—however hard pressed he is; the merchant in India, or the producer in India—must have a sense that his property has some worth, even if it’s very little. You have to have a sense that you must be able to buy into the system. Otherwise it will be of no interest to you. You could be enslaved to work; but that’s not how the system works. There must be some sense of rules emerging, of a common language, however unequal, that applies to two or three people involved the exchange business. There must be financial regulations that ensure that one side gets paid if the other side pays. There must be insurance that guarantees that if you pay your money you actually get the product, ad that if you provide the product you get the money. So what you have emerging there, very rapidly, in the mid-century—really rather rapidly (and it’s very understudied)—is a system, if you like, a common language, or a common law, based on what we understand as markets, and their essential proprietors. Mind you, what historians—particularly critical historians—have emphasized is the unequal nature of that market. That is basically and fundamentally true, though you can debate it forever. But the point, in terms of globalization, is of course recognizing the inequality, recognizing at the same time, within that inequality, there emerged ties, rules and regulations, that bind, and in which several parties have interests. Now, I think that kind of system—that’s what we call, in very inappropriate terms, markets (inappropriate because we then think of three abstract individuals who exchange according to some functions, rather than a very finely woven system of understandings and codes of behaviour which are reinforable, of course, by law, by police forces, by your future profit expectations, and so on)—spreads very rapidly, and it spreads globally. And that for the first time creates something like an interconnected world. In my rendition of information society—which has nothing yet to do with media, but has to do with the formation of a network of exchanges which is built essentially around transport—that is the origin of the information society. Transportation is the origin of the information society, in an odd way, though the transportation revolution and the information revolution which happens a century later have o be kept apart. Still, it starts out with the transportation revolution.

The classic expression of this is the Gold Standard. The Gold Standard is a "self-governing" system. It’s not quite as self-governing as it looks, but still. In essence it is—it is not just one government dictating exchange rates, but it is a system of calibrating equilibria that enforces codes and behaviours—which brings together everything I said so far—into, indeed, the first global system of governance. It’s a self-regulating system, it’s a discriminating system. There are parts of the world in, and parts of the world out. And when you’re on the out, you have a real hard time. And there are parts of the world that want to become more central. And there are some parts of the world that fall back, and some parts that want to get out. The big counter-movement is autarky—the effort to really self-enclose yourself, and think you can do it on your own: you don’t need the rest, you don’t need exchange. In any case, the Gold Standard seems to me—if anything—the first articulation of a global regime; of a powerful global regime. Notice here—let me just re-emphasise this—a global regime is never universal. It never pertains to everybody—it just does not. Of course we learn from our philosophy courses that global is universal. But universal simply means something which is applicable to everybody due to certain inalienable rights it pertains to everyone, even if it’s a joke. Even if you know that it doesn’t. But, in fact, it ought to. Like certain rights; inalienable rights. Globalization never presumes that it belongs to everyone. Globalization slices out, irrespective of territory, a grid within the world. Organizes it according to systemic mechanisms. That is, mechanisms that are not centred in one actor, like a universal monarchy. There is no monarch on top of all of this. Rather, you find self-regulating and self-reinforcing systems, facilitated initially by transport. And the important, indeed the key instrument, is law. Law, however, not to be the capital ‘L’, constitutional law, but law as a series of guidelines, practices and mutual interests. They can be reinforced, of course, but the reach of reinforcement is limited. Both sides have to believe in property to make it happen. It’s the difference too from a kind of empire/colonial state where only one side has to agree what is property, in order to snatch it from the other.

So—your question, which you asked a while ago! What’s the origins? To recapitulate: many people think it is Western expansion. I think it is not. That expansion is part of a series of empire formations. What makes globalization happen—what is the kind of start-up phases of globalization—is that in mostly commercial interactions systems of exchanges emerge—unequal ones to be sure—that link all parts of the world in a commercial network which is reinforced—or upon which is superimposed—a slightly different grid: a system of financial exchanges. The third point, which I haven’t mentioned, is the migration of people. It’s a very different scape—it’s a very different map that you get. But with transportation you get, of course, tremendously accelerated migration of people. With that you get for the first time a kind of intersecting, a kind of lateral influencing—or horizontal influencing—of cultures. Of course you always have that. Anthropologists tell you this happens for ever and ever. But the density of the event—where you have interactions, where you have hybrid cultures—that begins at that moment. It begins at the same time: early to mid- to late 19th century, on a massive scale. So I think that is the first moment of globalization.

Now, if we fast forward this—and as I said this is fundamentally based on transportation—to the late 20th century, much happens! Okay, so I’m the big story teller! (laughs) … Much happens in that century, right? You come to the second moment, and you do wonder how suddenly things begin to accelerate again, in rather remarkable fashion. And for a long time people wondered what this might be: what makes this whole thing move. There is still some big disagreement about this, but basically I think that what you can say—with some certainty—is that much as transportation becomes global and cheap in the 19th century, information— that is, transport of messages, data, and of cultures—becomes global and very cheap, and instantaneous. Now, this doesn’t happen in one moment. But it happens remarkably fast—and we’re not at the end of it; we’re really quite at the beginning. But, you know, within twenty years—starting in the 60s into the 70s; on the basis of inventions that had been around of course—we get through a system of telecommunications (that is, the combination of computers and communication systems—telephones, wireless and wired systems) a density of interconnection that is phenomenal. It allows for the first time to link in real time all parts of the world in one ongoing communication system. We have to think of this genuine real time, although Australia is 12 hours ahead of us, or behind us, or whatever it is and wherever you are. It’s still in real time. You get instant decisions. As a result you not only have the CNN phenomenon where you have instaneous presence of all parts of the world—if journalists hit it it mostly means there’s a war there—but you have now systems of great power. Again, financial markets primarily, which are integrated 24 hours around the world. They key moment was when currency trading became integrated 24 hour-global. Security trading became global. Stock markets became global. And that they basically took the link out of various centres of capital. That not only did finances become global, but think about people now. There’s a long debate about if actually migration has dramatically accelerated, or if this is not just a jaundiced view. I think it has accelerated but I don’t think it is the most important phenomenon because one does underestimate the degree of migration in the 19th century, but what has changed is that the people who now migrate are in instant and permament contact with the people back home. So in some way they leave but they don’t leave. That’s a big difference.

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