Spatial Technology and Geographic Power after World War II: Is American Imperialism “Post-Territorial”?

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 3:10 PM
Salon C (Hilton Atlanta)
William Rankin, Yale University
The US hegemony of the post-Cold-War era has recently been described as a “command of the commons,” where American power relies on military supremacy in the non-territorial domains of sea, space, and air. This is an explicitly technological strategy (the commons is guarded by nuclear submarines, GPS satellites, and precision-guided missiles) that challenges the autonomy – and even the relevance – of territorial states. This paper explores this relationship between technology and territory by tracing the long history of electronic navigation systems, both American and European, from World War II to the widespread adoption of GPS in the 1990s. I make two arguments. First, spatial hegemony is not simply a question of US-military “command”: civilian actors are just as important as the military, and the most successful systems have been genuinely multipurpose spatial infrastructures that quickly exceeded their designers’ intentions. Second, these new technologies make even the conceptual division between national territory and the international “commons” increasingly problematic. Yet instead of seeing this as evidence of a “post-territorial” era dominated by new global networks, I suggest that we should instead expand our understanding of territory beyond the traditional ideal of bounded space.
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