Meme War

The war between Canada and Denmark, covered briefly in the press, continues to be waged. It's typical of the news media -- and by that I mean blogs -- to reference a political event when it's new, link it like crazy, and then just forget about it.

Back in the early 1970s, Canada and Denmark signed a treaty dividing up the territories between the Queen Elizabeth Islands and Greenland in the Arctic Circle. Usually ice-locked, the area is rarely visited (although some feel the Canadian donuts-and-coffee chain Tim Hortons should build an outpost there). At the time of the treaty, the area seemed so worthless that both countries agreed they'd figure out the exact territorial boundaries at a later date.

That date seems to have arrived -- in large part because global warming may thaw the region and turn it into a passage for ships journeying between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In July the Canadian defense minister zoomed up to the Arctic Circle with two warships, stopping off to visit a small, uninhabited chunk of rock called Hans Island, located between Canada's Ellesmere Island and Greenlandian shores. Denmark was not amused. A huffy letter was dispatched from the Danish Foreign Ministry's Legal Service; Canada's government and citizens had a collective giggle over the Danes trying to claim what was obviously a Canadian island.

And then violence broke out on the Internet. First, some anonymous Dane took out a Google ad that popped up whenever somebody searched for Hans Island. "Hans Island is Greenland. Greenland natives have used the island for centuries," it read. The ad linked to a page at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs stating that Denmark was protesting Canada's claim to the island. Then a Canadian tech geek named Rick Broadhead took out his own Google ad -- it still appears if you search for Hans Island -- that says, "Hans Island -- Dispute. Negotiate? What for? Everyone knows it belongs to Canada." The link goes to Broadhead's Web site, where he sells ergonomic furniture. "Special discount given to all Canadians," the page reads. "Danish customers pay full retail."

If this is a war of memes -- ideas that spread virally, in this case via Google links -- then Canada is winning. Search for Hans Island today and all you get is Broadhead's ad plus several blog entries about it. But even the most persistent bloggers stopped caring about the war in late September, when the Canadian and Danish governments agreed they would revisit the discussion soon, in a serious manner. Meanwhile, Norway and Russia may also lay claim to the territory, especially if people discover natural resources in the Arctic shelf. The United States, of course, has said it considers the region "international." Translation: If it turns out to be valuable, everybody had better let the United States access it, or else.

The territorial dispute, which will have a very real impact on the ecology and culture of the region, has become a silly story about how Google ads are a great way to channel our patriotic fervor. The Smart Mobs blog quotes Broadhead as saying, "Eight cents per click -- or $200 a month -- is money well spent to assert our sovereignty in the north. Political battles are not fought solely in the press these days. They're fought on the Internet as well."

This is an absurdly shortsighted take-away message. Sure, politics are now part of Googlebombing, the practice of pushing your link to the top of Google search results. That's nice, but what gets elided in this banal "look what else is online" analysis is quite simply the real world. Political battles are not just the stuff of memes and Googlebombs. They are also the stuff of warships and environmental destruction and welfare budgets being turned into military budgets. And don't forget the killing part.

In the developed world, particularly peaceful places like Canada and Denmark, it's easy to joke about how all our disagreements are so civilized that they take place on Google and in stuffy letters exchanged between bureaucrats. Pundits -- particularly of the "cyber" bent -- love to say this means we're nearing a utopian singularity where suffering ends and universal wealth grows out of an economy based on the infinite resources of our ideas. Unfortunately, as my reference to killing was supposed to make clear, that's never going to happen. We are stuck in material reality, where we have bodies and desires and an ongoing need for food, water, and medicine.

Kalashnikovs are as cheap as Google ads, and in some places, more plentiful. Before we start congratulating ourselves for solving territorial disputes on Google, we might want to remember that and do something about it.

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