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Ian Bremmer at the Eurasia Group has been talking about Technopolarity throughout 2022 and has amped up the discussion in recent months.
Bremmer’s hypothesis is that big technology companies and their leaders will create power structures that will challenge the powers of governments. I was reminded of the different ‘country franchises’ that populated the future America of Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash. Snow Crash envisaged a Randesque libertarian hellscape with no power centre.
The biggest technology firms are designing, building, and managing an entirely new dimension of geopolitics. In this new digital space, their influence runs deep, down to the level of individual lines of code. They’re writing the algorithms that decide what people see and hear, determine their economic and social opportunities, and ultimately influence what they think. Individuals will spend more time in digital space in 2022, at work and at home. Much of this time will be spent in the “metaverse”—an emerging, more immersive version of the web where all the problems of digital governance will be magnified. The metaverse (or more accurately, multiple metaverses) in turn will increasingly rely on economic systems based on decentralized blockchain platforms that governments are already struggling to control.Bremmer, I., Kupchan, C. (January 3, 2022) Risk 2: Technopolar World. United States: Eurasia Group.
Aside from the power of the metaverse, Bremmer & Kupchan largely got things right. The Eurasia Group positioned technology giants along three axes. The degree to which the companies matched the following archetypes:
- National champions.
In general, Chinese companies were national champions, while their American counterparts were predominantly globalists. The European Union has attempted and largely failed to bring a degree of control, curbing the excesses of technology companies.
China has cracked down on companies that it felt was too big. The digital space itself has a Randian view of global leadership, ignoring the consequences and the responsibility of their power.
Algorithms as destiny
Bremmer’s initial thinking on technopolarity was focused on the role of algorithms underpinning online services. More recently, he has focused beyond platforms to look at the nature of ‘artificial intelligence’ and its ability to upend geopolitics.
As far back as 2012, Facebook had conducted a study in ’emotional contagion’ by altering the news feeds for 700,000 users and it was all completely legal. The feeds were changed to reflect more positive, or negative content – to see if seeing more sad messages makes a person sadder. The experimental subjects were not given any warning and their emotional state was by analysing changes in their language on the platform.
And I am not even pointing out the effect that social media can have on its audiences in general without experimentation.
Elon Musk’s Technopolarity
Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk; brought the concept of Technopolarity to life. In the book Isaacson discusses decisions and actions that Musk made over the Ukraine war. Musk because of his personal concern about Russian escalation, disabled the Starlink service covering occupied Ukrainian territory to disrupt Ukraine’s military efforts including marine drones. So Elon Musk essentially made a decision that directly affected US defence efforts to support Ukraine. It could have even resulted in the destruction of American military equipment donated to the defence of Ukraine.
Musk has had conversations with Vladimir Putin like he was a head of state and even the US government has been careful about how they deal with him.
“Even though Musk is not technically a diplomat or statesman, I felt it was important to treat him as such, given the influence he had on this issue”Colin Kahl, former under-secretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon
Kahl’s attitude to Musk is at odds to the fate of former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio who went to jail after he was found to be a barrier to the NSA’s domestic surveillance plans, in particular the MAINWAY database. Nacchio was convicted of insider trading. Nacho’s successor also held outing after 4 years, discussions with the NSA went nowhere. A quick trawl of Twitter history would be enough to find evidence to put Musk on trial should the US government wish to do so. What’s happened to government power in the decades since Nacchio went to jail?
The New Yorker went on to describe Elon Musk’s power as ‘shadow rule‘. Musk isn’t elected. He isn’t even responsive to his shareholders. His Twitter account is a testament to his mercurial nature.
What’s more concerning for US government wonks is that Musk’s Tesla mega factory in Shanghai leaves him exposed to manipulation by the Chinese government. For instance, they could pressure him to turn off Starlink across the Pacific adversely affecting Taiwan, Japan, Australia and US forces in the region. The Ukrainian experience suggests that Musk would not hesitate to put American lives on the line, or see Taiwan handed over the horrific barbarity of Chinese invasion.
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