Can Technology Help Avert World War III?

European Straits #37

Nicolas Colin

Dear all,

This week I’m spending a few days in the Bay Area. I’m here mostly to meet executives at Facebook, which is a key partner of the Chair of Technology, Governance, and Institutional Innovation (TGII) that I’m co-heading at Sciences Po Paris.

But being here is also an opportunity to get to know singular individuals such as Watsi’s Chase Adam and 21.co’s Balaji S. Srinivasan. You all know Facebook of course, but if you know these other people, their work and their interests as well, you can see there’s a common thread here: how the power of ubiquitous computing and networks can be harnessed not for the worst, but for the better.

In truth the world is currently (and rightly) preoccupied with the possibility of Donald Trump kicking off World War III on Twitter. And there would be a cold irony in our technological ability to instantaneously connect everyone on the planet leading directly to instantaneous planetary destruction. It’s enough to keep you up at night—and to wonder if technology really is about shaping a better world.

But let’s look at it from another angle. We’ve entered an era when the ability to express and promote ideas is absolutely unprecedented. The age of ubiquitous computing and networks is leading us into a collective reflection on the future of democracy, work, business, the safety net, liberalism, society as a whole. And these reflections are so powerful that they may well allow us to bypass the new ‘world war’ that would otherwise be needed to design and install new social and economic institutions.

Because historically, nation states became legitimate powers only because they managed to respond quickly and decisively to existential crises—such as the US pulling itself out of the Great Depression in the 1930s and into winning World War II.

Without such existential crises, nation states would never have had either the agility or the legitimacy to pursue serious systemic changes and give birth to new institutions. Indeed as Carlota Perez has noted, a true crisis seems to be “the self-correction mechanism of capitalism.” And in today’s developed world, even a serious crisis that is not felt acutely enough and deeply enough (such as was the case with the slow burning/stagnant crisis of 2008) may not be able to trigger radical change by governments.

The institutions called for by the new age of ubiquitous computing and networks may not resemble anything we’ve seen up to this point. Thanks to the commoditization of communication and the decentralization of networked infrastructures, they could easily be supranational, even global. They are likely to first emerge in locations that are ‘developing’ rather than ‘developed’. And they will take advantage of global cities and universal needs, using entrepreneurial levers such as technology, an exceptional user experience, and data to overcome governmental inertia.

If successful, these global networks that are today exemplified in our collective consciousness by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube could be a way to circumvent capitalism’s need for crisis. Instead of facing a nuclear winter whose causes can be traced back to a series of early morning tweets emanating from Washington, we may be able to marvel at how entrepreneurs and technology brought together people with the same needs from Uganda to Uruguay and even the United States.

After all, it would not be the first time that non-state entities contributed to providing security to individuals and maintaining peace between nation states by relying on efficient sharing of information. I can’t help but be amazed by this quote of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation about the Rothschild family in the 19th century and how their financial trade, in a world deprived of international organizations, “functioned as a permanent agency of the most elastic kind”:

"The Rothschilds were subject to no one government; as a family they embodied the abstract principle of internationalism; their loyalty was to a firm, the credit of which had become the only supranational link between political government and industrial effort in a swiftly growing world economy… Haute finance was not designed as an instrument of peace; this function fell to it by accident, as historians would say, while the sociologist might prefer to call it the law of availability… [Yet] only the iron grip of finance on the prostrate governments of backward regions could avert catastrophe."

What if the key to maintaining peace in the 21st century concert of nations is non-state entities like the Rothschilds taking charge, this time making the most of ubiquitous computing and networks? This certainly looks like a promising mission for the likes of Facebook—if they choose to accept it.

You can read my 2016 paper alluding to this issue: Brexit: Doom, or Europe’s Polanyi Moment?

Also, I just published a new Scaling Strategy note: What’s a Tech Company?

Warm regards (from Menlo Park, California),

Nicolas