Frontiers of a Virtual Empire

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If something like the ancient Roman Empire were around today, what would it look like and how would it function? Where would it operate and what would be its objectives?

At its peak in 117 C.E. the Roman Empire covered over five million square kilometers, stretching from Hadrian's Wall in England in the north, to North Africa in the south. It comprised 21 percent of the world's population at that time. Today the same geographic region incorporates 48 nations. In this environment, trade was able to flourish at a level not seen in any other pre-industrial society, limited only by the boundaries of that era’s land transportation technology.

However, as the frontiers of the empire expanded, its institutions became less effective and it became vulnerable to external attack. In 285 C.E. the emperor Diocletian split the Empire, signalling the beginning of the end for Rome's imperial rule. 

One of Rome's primary objectives was imperium sine fine ("empire without end"). Yet that empire had defined boundaries. Today, however, advances in technology have created a global village where geographic distance is irrelevant and where communications and commercial markets truly know no bounds. Although the term "global village" came to prominence in the 1960s, it is a concept that has taken on a deeper significance with recent advancements in technology.

We may draw a parallel between the dominance of the Roman Imperial system and that of digital infrastructure, but the capacity of the Internet leaves the Roman Empire in the dust. Its speed and spread makes Rome look positively sluggish and small. Today, approximately 40 percent of the world's population can go online from their homes, a figure that compares to less than 1 percent in 1995. Internet access is truly global, and digital infrastructure is not subject to the kinds of geographic strain that, in part, eventually caused the Roman Empire to collapse under its own weight. 

The only boundaries of the virtual empire are those of the technology. These boundaries are being pushed every day and—as was true for Rome—the frontier of development goes hand-in-hand with commerce.

Recent advancements include programmatic ad buying, where software automatically buys advertising space in the digital environment; artificial intelligence (AI) powered robots (bots) that can chat online with users as friends or customer service agents; and the ability to pay for goods with the swipe of a phone, without having to enter a PIN (personal identification number).

Programmatic ad buying is intimately linked to bot technology. As bots learn what the user likes, from restaurants to taxi services, the opportunity grows for advertising to become increasingly individually tailored. The level of interaction and control that the system can achieve with each user is beyond anything that could have been dreamed of during the height of the Roman Empire.

Despite the impressive technological advancements available to today’s merchants, the convenience and security they claim to provide inevitably play to our own flawed, greed-based desires. The result is the hard-wired circuitry of a virtual empire, to which we are already intricately bound. All indicators only seem to point toward closer and closer integration in the future.

Unlike the Roman Empire, this virtual empire is not subject to the infrastructure strain normally caused by expansion, it has already achieved world domination. It is also laying the groundwork for a system that is a far more automated, increasingly removing the element of human conscience.

While the virtual empire lacks an emperor, it is interesting to note that Rome also had an "empire" long before it had an emperor. The primary edict of the Roman Republic was that Romans should rule themselves. As American classicist Clifford Ando puts it in a 2011 Oxford Handbook essay, “Rome thus had, rather than was, an empire some centuries before the arrival of Augustus on the throne.“

So what lies ahead? Increasingly, the questions for us may become: Do we have any choice but to be a part of the virtual empire? And is there any future hope of an alternative system for a world so captivated?

DANIEL TOMPSETT