Certainly the visible — America’s poisonous relations with North Korea, with Iran, with the Palestinians, and the dangerous vacuum created by Trump’s America-first retreat from the world — looks dire. Pax Americana has had a good run but cannot be convincingly backed or projected by a self-doubting power.
One stab at defining such an invisible force that I find persuasive has been offered by Philip Howard, a professor of Internet Studies at Oxford University. He has coined the term “Pax Technica” to define the vast web of internet-connected devices that, together, create a network of stability.
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Just as Smith’s “invisible hand” alluded to the unobservable market forces that lead to equilibrium in a free market, so Howard’s Pax Technica (the title of a book he wrote) evokes the cumulative stabilizing effect of the tens of billions of connected devices forming the Internet of Things (IoT). There is, simply put, too much connection in the world today to allow space for outright destruction, even emanating from Trump.
Implicit in this theory is a radical reordering of the nature of power. Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and Pax Americana depended on the military might of sovereign governments. Pax Technica shifts the source of stability to what Howard calls an “empire of connected things.” National authorities are less influential than supranational connected platforms and the private corporations behind them.
I mentioned Myanmar. It is a poor country that, in the space of a few years, has acquired tens of millions of Facebook users, joining the more than two billion users (including about 1.3 billion using it every day) who constitute Facebook’s global town square. In some form, all these people in Myanmar, however rudimentary their lives, have initiated an involvement with the world, and acquired some flimsy stake in stability.
Of course, we are beyond the naïve view that the internet would liberate us all. It’s clear, from China and elsewhere, that technology can be used as much to curtail freedom as to spread it, as effectively for surveillance as for fostering free speech.
It’s also clear, from Russia’s successful intervention in the last United States election, that Facebook can be a vehicle for propaganda and for the blurring of the line between truth and falsehood. Everywhere, social media is transforming society in ways that may look alarming. Mobs are more easily mobilized. Mainstream political parties are imploding. Democracy is more direct but also more driven by extremes. Trump himself is a product of this transformation.
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Under Pax Technica, there will be advocates of open systems and closed ones. There will be fierce competitions for influence. There will be nationalist and nativist reactions against the supranational apparent across the world today. There will be a reordering of societies — and possibly their increasing fragmentation — as Facebook traps people in what Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, recently called “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops.”
But there will also be the hard-to-measure investment of every owner of those billions of devices in a world of connectedness of which war is the enemy. Trump has come to power at a moment when power is increasingly passing out of the hands of governments. That may be even more reassuring than his incompetence.
Palihapatiya suggested Facebook has forged a world of “no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation.” Trump, of course, reflects that. But I think Facebook, on balance, also limits the devastation he can wreak.