We are 7 years from the first online, digital nation.

Chinese industrialist and futurist Zhai Shanying predicts it’s only a short matter of time before even the nation state moves online.

Credit: BON cloud

I have just completed an experiment.

As I write this story, I am seated at a communal table with a dozen other workers. I have never met any of my colleagues before, and will never see most of them again. We are physically present in the Outpost coworking space on the tropical paradise of Bali. But our work is being carried out all around the globe.

One by one, I have just asked my cohort of coworkers where they are and what they are doing. Jenny, a Filipino graphic designer, is making wedding invitations for a client in Boston. Markus is a coder from Serbia contracted to a startup in Mountain View, California. Two dude-bros in back facing baseball caps are the founders of a blockchain solution for sports betting. The list goes on.

And on.

And on. No two of my temporary desk-mates are doing the same thing.

I’ve written before about digital nomads, the popular term for location independent workers. Back in 2013 I called digital nomads the new counterculture. What hippies were to the 60s, nomads are today. What Paris was in the 20s, Chiang Mai is now. But I think even I underestimated what digital nomadism was about to become.

Like the hippies of the 60s, digital nomads are going from counterculture to mainstream culture, but the transition that took the Boomers three decades is going to take the Millennial generation less than ten years. Since 2013 the blockchain revolution has turned digital nomads into a community of today’s most dynamic entrepreneurs and new businesses.

Today the location independent are more than a counter culture. We’re the first citizens of a new world. And we’re about to get our own nation.

Can our spiritual needs be met online?

Working in and writing about digital nomad communities has brought me into dialogue with some of today’s most dynamic futurist thinkers. And none more fascinating than Zhai Shanying, Chairman of Puhua Commercial Group, a thinker whose ideas make him, in my mind, a Marshall McLuhan for the 21st century.

Credit: BON cloud

The Media Is The Message, McLuhan’s most memorable dictat, is more relevant to the internet age than ever. Print media helped shape the nation state in the 17th century, just as broadcast media like television helped shape the mass society of the 20th century. Now here in the early 21st century, the internet is reshaping society again.

The internet is more real than reality. It’s a simple observation, that Zhai Shanying makes in his characteristically modest way.

“People’s demeanors in the real world tend to be gradually overcome and directed by the ideology of the online world.”

It’s an assertion that might have been difficult to believe even five years ago. But as social media like YouTube become more popular, we probably all know people whose personalities have been changed, their online lives take more and more of their attention.

“In the online world and virtual realms, people can find satisfaction for their spiritual needs.” Zhai Shanying talks with passion about the great power driving us into virtual worlds.

“Virtual life has unlimited extension and growth potential without physical restriction. The relationship between spirit and body will be completely reversed.”

Can our spiritual needs be met online? Zhai Shanying’s China has leapfrogged the rest of the world in technological development. Its citizens live their lives through their smartphones, even street food.vendors.demand mobile payment. For China’s Millennials in particular, online life is where fulfilment is found, with the “real” world taking up the least attention necessary.

The latest stage in our technological progression towards the virtual is the blockchain. Digital currencies and self governing contracts are only the beginning of the blockchain revolution. Thousands of “real world” industries, from life insurance to healthcare, are being moved into the virtual world via the blockchain.

Zhai Shanying predicts a chain reaction of events, many of which are already unfolding. As the productive forces of industry become increasingly virtual, most people — like my coworking colleagues today — will find that their survival is now dependent on virtual activities. In turn most commercial activities will cater to us in virtual spaces. Traditional economic structures, established businesses and institutions will collapse. The new wealth will all be held by those people invested early in the virtual and online world.

All as a consequence of the spiritual draw of the virtual.

Zhai Shanying calls his futurist predictions Ecological Nation theory. Ecological because the shift into virtual civilisation will reduce material consumption and save our environment. Nation because of his most radical idea. That the social structure that seems most central to so many of us, the nation state itself, will soon fall.

Citizens of Google, rejoice!

William Gibson famously said, “The future is out there, it’s just unevenly distributed.” For most people, citizenship of a digital nation still seems impossibly far away. When I need to explain the possibility to people yet to arrive at our unevenly distributed future-present, I ask a simple question.

If Google offered a passport that allowed you to live and work anywhere in the world, would you sign up?

Your Google passport would let you get on a plane to any destination in the world, stay indefinitely, and run your online business. What if it was more than a passport? What if you could be a citizen of Google? What if Google citizenship came with benefits, healthcare and a great pension plan?

And what if it was free?

Would you sign up then?

It’s a fun “thought experiment” that opens up a whole new way of thinking about citizenship. Just as Google is able to provide a huge range of free services by monetizing your data, it might offer everything a citizen needs, in exchange for unlimited rights to your biometrics of course!

It’s not hard to imagine a near future where the virtual nations of Google, Xiaomi, and Amazon compete for citizens as today they compete for consumers. Microsoft citizenship is cheaper but needs constant updates. Apple citizens pay more for everything to signal their elite status.

Zhai Shanying’s vision of the Ecological Nation is not limited to corporate virtual nationalities. Instead, China’s leading futurist thinker is offering the hope of a time, perhaps only a few years into our near future, when we are liberated from social structures where membership is enforced. We will move into the virtual societies that best meet individual needs, both material and spiritual.

The end of the nation state will be scary to some, and hopeful to others. But the Ecological Nation could be coming sooner than most of us expect.

Just 7 years, really?

Whether it’s 3 years, 7 years or a decade from now, all the parts are in place for the nation state to go virtual. When I look at the speed of progress on digital currency and all the other neccesary, I’d be amazed if the first virtual nation isn’t with us by 2025. Come back then, and tell me I’m wrong.

I tell stories about the future, technology and culture. Published by The Guardian, WIRED, BBC etc.