The old gatekeepers of power that guaranteed stability – from the sober Walter Cronkites of the old mainstream media who exercised editorial control to the Hosni Mubaraks who exercised repression – have been overthrown. (Though they feebly try to reassert themselves: The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who commands the world’s largest fleet of aircraft carriers and strategic bombers, pleaded over the phone to the Florida minister who posted the video – and who commands a miniscule congregation – to withdraw his support for the film.)
The conflicts of the future are thus going to be as much about the abundant cultural flows of the global information economy as about the scarcity of resources or the breach of territory. This is because contending values have been crowded into a common public square created by freer trade, the spread of technology, and the planetary reach of the media.
Only in such a world could a provocative Danish cartoon or a truly lame YouTube video on Muhammad inflame the pious and mobilize the militant across the vast and distant stretches of the Islamic world. Only in such a world would Chinese authorities seek to muzzle the artist Ai Weiwei only to find him in touch with the whole world through Twitter. Only in such a world would the Vatican pull out all the stops to convince the movie-viewing public that the fiction of “The Da Vinci Code” is not the same as eternal truth.
This global public square is the new space of power where images compete and ideas are contested; it is where hearts and minds are won or lost and legitimacy is established. It is a space both of friction and fusion where the cosmopolitan commons of the 21st century is being forged.