I’ve been reading two books that haven’t usually been mentioned together. The authors – one pair from and heavily influenced by the tech industry – and the other from the foreign policy establishment end up taking positions that are somewhat opposite to where they would be expected.
Together the two books lay out a debate as to whether the Internet will have only a surface effect on government or be part of a fundamental change.
Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, and Jared Cohen, former member of the US Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff wrote “The New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses, and Our Lives”.
Despite its futuristic vision in parts, the book’s concept of government seems mostly to be stuck in the present, perhaps even the past. The authors’ view is that the Internet is “just a tool” that will be used by the nation-state and citizens to interact in much the way they have done so in the past couple hundred years – since the idea of a nation-state began to form. Their chapter on revolutions even has the dynamics of protest and revolution following old rules, with the Internet playing a supporting role.
But new tools are not always merely new means to old ends. They change things in fundamental ways. Consider the impact of tool making and tools on the evolution of the human species. Or, remember the succinct statement about television a couple decades ago by Marshall McLuhan: “the medium is the message.”
And then there’s Moisés Naim, former Foreign Policy editor and Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who wrote “The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be”.
“We know that power is shifting from brawn to brains, from north to south and west to east, from old corporate behemoths to agile start-ups, from entrenched dictators to people in town squares and cyberspace. But to say that … is not enough. Power is undergoing a far more fundamental mutation … Even as rival states, companies, political parties, social movements, and institutions or individual leaders fight for power as they have done throughout the ages, power itself – what they are fighting so desperately to get and keep – is slipping away.
“Power is decaying.
“To put it simply, power no longer buys as much as it did in the past. In the twenty-first century, power is easier to get, harder to use – and easier to lose…
“The decay of power is changing the world.”
Naim’s book makes a persuasive case that the Internet, along with other major factors, is fundamentally reducing the power of the nation-state and other centuries-old institutions. The tools are diminishing and modifying the nation-states, not merely being added to their arsenal.
©2014 Norman Jacknis