It’s Not a Good Idea to Forget About the Null States

In the technocratic, information-driven world of my Centenal Cycle novels, “null states” is a technical term for the remaining nation-states that are not a part of micro-democracy and refuse to allow access to the global bureaucracy of Information. It comes from the old computer science term for when a field doesn’t have any data in it: neither yes nor no, empty. For the people in Infomocracy’s future, accustomed to immersive surveillance and data, the remaining nation-states are blanks. They are easy to forget about and it’s easy to imagine they don’t affect the interconnected governments of the micro-democratic system.

As our heroes find during the period covered in Null States, however, their system doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Countries that they don’t know anything about can engage in wars that threaten the pax democratica and send refugees over the micro-democratic borders. (In micro-democracy, where population increase is a good thing, refugees are welcomed and indeed courted by most governments, but this is still an impact that can’t be ignored). These vestigial nation-states may not fit into the world order, but it’s still not a good idea to forget about them.

In the novel there are also other places that, while not technically null states, exist on the margins of the world system. In a literal sense, less is known about these places because there is less surveillance infrastructure, but they are also marginal because less attention is paid to them. Once again, this is not typically a good move.

Like most of the political science in my books, the idea of null states came from looking at the real world. First, it seemed unrealistic to imagine that the entire world had converted to micro-democracy, even twenty years into its existence. Governance trends come and go in waves, blanketing parts of the world and missing others. And there are many parts of the world and groups of people that are excluded from our current international system.

One group that I’ve written about already is that of stateless people. Denied citizenship for any of a number of reasons—loss of documents, rejection by home government, loss of country—stateless people are stuck without rights or protections, often unable to travel, uncounted, and not afforded even basic rights. It’s not a group that gets a lot of attention, which is why I’m donating a part of my earnings from Null States to the Institute for Statelessness and Inclusion.

But there are other null states in our world too. Many refugees are not considered “stateless” because they do have citizenship in the country they fled, but since they are prevented from returning—by the dangers of war or persecution—they don’t have access to the protections or status of national affiliation. During the last Olympics refugees formed a team of their own, a virtual nation composed of exiles from all over the world.

Other people hold citizenship in a state that (they believe, and are often right) does not protect them or their interests. This is the source of most of the separatist movements in the world: groups of people who believe that, even in a democracy, they will always be pushed to the margins. It’s not surprising that most of these groupings are based on ethnicity, language, or religion; after all, most of the official state-making over the last century and a half has been based on one of those things. Sometimes, either through lack of control by the nation or its willingness to cede some power, these groups are able to form proto-states of more or less autonomy. Think of Catalunya, Palestine, Scotland, Iraqi Kurdistan, Quebec: they have some powers of self-administration, but still lack the recognition and rights of nations in the international system. Limited autonomy can have benefits, offering the shelter of a larger economy and developed government system, but still, when we think of the world and its parts, these sub-units often disappear into national stereotypes.

In some cases the possibility of independence is much more tenuous, as in Darfur, or the fact that their ethnicity crosses multiple borders makes it much more politically unwieldy, as in the case of Kurdistan. These ghost countries live in the imagination and hopes of their hypothetical citizens, a tantalizing suggestion of what could have been if the pens of the underqualified foreigners drawing borders had fallen differently.

Some countries have de facto independence but no international recognition of that fact, as with Taiwan. Others manage to transition from separatist movements to de facto governance to even being admitted into the formally recognized club, as South Sudan and Timor Leste have recently. All too often, though, these countries find what some of their older colleagues like Yemen and Belize and Moldova have known for decades: formal recognition may accord certain privileges, but they can still be ignored on the world stage. Schoolchildren all over the globe have never heard of them. Tourists stop in and then claim to have discovered a hidden gem. U.S. presidential candidates can laugh at their names and forget their heads of state. Most of all, they can be bombed, cheated, and exploited with impunity.

This is of course not a surprise, and it’s not new. The dynamic has been around at least since Thucydides, who wrote that “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The counterpoint, however, is that the world has always been interconnected and it is growing more so. From the economy to the environment to the examples that shape our narrative disorders, what happens to the weak affects us all. Best not to forget the null states.

Malka Older is a writer, humanitarian worker, and Ph.D. candidate at the Centre de Sociologie des Organisations studying governance and disasters. Named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015, she has more than eight years of experience in humanitarian aid and development, and has responded to complex emergencies and natural disasters in Uganda, Darfur, Indonesia, Japan, and Mali. Null States, the sequel to Infomocracy, is available September 19th from Publishing.


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