Technology and the laws of power

Is the tech industry partly responsible for the rise of Donald Trump? That’s what John Robb, who’s always worth reading, suggests in a series of recent posts, citing the great Nassim Taleb in support. His vision: “The nation-state as we’ve known it is rapidly hollowing out … this century’s spike in globalization, financialization, and technological change is gutting it…”

Robb argues that America is increasingly fragmenting into two opposed groups: the technorati, “a class united by global outlook, education, financial success, status, and technological adoption,” and the left behinds, “the supermajority of Americans getting creamed by the hollowing out of America.” And he quotes Taleb:

What we are seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for.

But wait, you say. They’re not talking about the tech industry, they’re really talking about the Establishment. Sort of! But — leaving aside the fact that the tech industry is increasingly becoming the Establishment, and vice versa — I’ve been arguing for some time now that as software eats the world, and leads to winner-take-most economics, it drags us all from Mediocristan towards Extremistan (to quote Taleb again.)

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Extremistan. Its overall output is likely much greater than that of Mediocristan. But it is a land of power-law economic distributions, in which a minority will do very well … while a majority will count themselves lucky to stagnate.

The tech industry and the Establishment are on course to be that wealthy minority, which Robb calls the technorati. The rest? They’re the left-behind. Imagine the inequities of present-day San Francisco as a microcosm of the future everywhere. That seems to be the direction in which we’re headed:

The Economist writes: “America’s most successful cities, states and firms are leaving the rest behind,” in a fascinating piece called “The great divergence.” What’s causing that divergence? Our move towards Extremistan. What’s causing that? Technology, more than anything else.

Even those not directly affected know that there is a new zeitgeist, a new Gilded Age, a new quasi-aristocratic class of the wealthy, privileged, hyper-networked tech elite, making six figures straight out of school, leaping from one plum job in one alpha city to another, exiting startups with millions or more.

Whether or not this class is theoretically accessible to everyone is irrelevant to those who know in their gut they’ll never join it. And let’s not kid ourselves: tech may be more meritocratic than some other industries, but it’s far from a perfect meritocracy.

Taleb rages at policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders … paternalistic semi-intellectual experts. (Which ought to make me uneasy, but fortunately, journalist-insider is a part-time gig for me, I spend my days writing software.) There’s no question that this rage has metastasized. But why now?

The self-serving Establishment has been focused on perpetuating itself for decades now. This sudden hunger for revolution “worldwide, from India to the UK to the US”; this upending of seventy years of American precedent by the Trump and Sanders insurgencies; why is this happening now?

Tech, again. There are no longer a handful of gatekeepers, readily influenced by the Establishment, who control all access to mass media. Now Facebook, and its users, exert profound collective control over the means of media distribution; now Trump can speak directly to his 6.8 million Twitter followers, without any filtering intermediaries.

This ongoing in-part-tech-driven “Great Divergence” is very apparent to those who are not benefiting. They hear the “paternalistic semi-intellectual experts” telling them what to do; but now they hear other voices, too, telling the left-behinds that they have been cheated, manipulated, betrayed; telling them that the status quo truly only serves the smug preening Establishment.

…Which is, to understate, not obviously wrong. So the fearful, hateful and/or authoritarian among them turn to Trump, or Marine Le Pen; the hopeful liberals turn to Sanders, or Jeremy Corbyn; but what they’re all really doing is turning away from the belief that the way things are can possibly work for them.

The interesting question is whether the tech industry will support and ultimately merge with the Establishment — or, put another way, whether technology will ultimately increase equality of opportunity for everyone, or will intensify and calcify our existing inequities. Call me an inveterate optimist, but I think the former is more probable.

Let me recommend to you a fascinating piece: “Minimum Viable Superorganism” by Kevin Simler:

If an alien film crew chose to feature our species in a nature documentary, they’d have plenty of spectacular superorganisms to choose from. Perhaps they’d spotlight the U.S. military, the most powerful superorganism ever to arise on our humble planet. Or the Catholic Church, a superorganism that’s managed to survive, with awe-inspiring continuity, for nearly two millennia. Meanwhile, impressive at smaller scales, the Boston Symphony Orchestra coordinates muscle movements to a precision of millimeters and milliseconds. And improv troupes like the Upright Citizens Brigade manage to arrange themselves into compelling scenes at the drop of a hat, all without any explicit coordination. Then there’s the superorganism responsible for the stable, secure, 20-million-line codebase that powers much of the world’s computing infrastructure — a loose affiliation of some 5,000 individuals, mostly strangers, who have somehow managed to assemble one of the most intricate artifacts ever built. As you might have guessed, I’m referring to the developers of the Linux kernel.

Politics is, to an extent, the art of creating superorganisms. Trump and Sanders have turned some of the vast masses of the left-behinds into “the Trump superorganism” and “the Sanders superorganism,” two entirely new beasts challenging the venerable Republican and Democratic superorganisms. But the key point is that new technology makes it vastly easier to create, connect, and inspire superorganisms … and to trigger hockey-stick hyper-growth in them when the conditions are right.

It seems probable that none of today’s new political superorganisms will win the day; that in the end, the Establishment will triumph once again. This time. But as we move ever deeper into Extremistan, as the left-behinds grow angrier and more numerous, and as technology continues to foster superorganism inception and hyper-growth, it seems to be only a matter of time before some kind of profound political transformation is upon us.