Technology has never agreed with boundaries. Even the most detailed satellite snapshots of Earth show no borders. From the printing press to the airplane, the telephone to social media, technological progress has helped us transcend time and place. And when it hasn’t sent memes around the world, it has ignited revolutions.
We’ve grown used to technology’s subversive ability, but that is not the way it has always been. Far from overcoming borders, technology has more often than not been used to change them. From ancient Rome and China to the British Empire to the United States, the story of world history can be told as one in which those who harness technology prevail.
Until about 30 years ago.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, technological progress has been largely set apart from politics. Consumer demand, not affairs of state, drove society forward.
This benign neglect brought us tremendous benefits: smartphones, electric cars — the World Wide Web! Can we imagine making it through the last 18 months without Zoom, TikTok or Amazon Prime? But the tone has shifted as of late. For the first time in living memory, politics is perhaps the most important factor in the future of tech.
That’s why today we’re launching the TechCrunch Global Affairs Project.
After several decades of near impunity, the world’s tech titans are facing a rapidly changing political environment. European regulators hound tech multinationals on tax, privacy and monopoly abuses. Chinese authorities are clipping the wings of the country’s most powerful companies while restricting their foreign competitors. And in a politically divided United States, an energized antitrust drive is one of the few policy areas that has momentum — and bipartisan consensus.
This scrutiny comes as tech companies increasingly act more like nation-states than corporations. Facebook now has a judicial branch; tech tycoons have reached orbit, going where only governments have gone before; and cryptocurrencies pose the greatest threat to the monetary power of governments since the invention of money.
Meanwhile, governments are making supple use of technology for their own ends. Instead of giving aid and comfort to dissidents, tech is now being wielded to repress them. The recent controversy over Israeli firm NSO Group is only the latest example of dictators deploying sophisticated tools like ransomware to monitor their political opponents (or worse).
Tech might be a tactical tool, but it has become a strategic objective. Not since the U.S.-Soviet arms and space races has technology had such geopolitical salience. Huawei is only the most prominent example of tech competition as a proxy for geopolitics. From Taiwan to Sweden, Brussels to Beijing, tech policy and foreign policy are increasingly one and the same.
The truth is that from now on, the fate of states will depend more than ever on the technologies they hold. And the fate of technology companies more often than not will be intertwined with the states they reside in. Who controls the most advanced technology, experts say, will determine the world order of the 21st century. And after a multidecade free-for-all, the time for choosing sides has arrived for many.
So before we go any further, let me introduce myself. I’m a California native, a writer and policy wonk by background, who has lived in New York and spent time in Washington, London and Paris. I’ve been a speechwriter, worked at a major foundation, consulted for political campaigns and co-authored a best-selling book. While my focus is foreign policy and national security, I’ve also worked on a wide range of issues; at TechCrunch, I’ve written about philanthropy, trade, 5G and U.S.-China relations.
While I will occasionally contribute to this series, my primary role will be as curator and editor. We’ve invited some of the world’s leading experts and practitioners to share their thoughts on how technology is impacting their field. From cyber to drones, AI to the future of democracy itself, our contributors will take you through the latest developments in their field and explain how tech is helping them chart a course for the future. They’ll connect the dots, so to speak, between bits and bombs, code and COVID, networks and nations.
There are some elephants in the room. Competition with China looms large, but so does cooperation with allies. With COP26 coming up in a bit more than a week, climate change — and the tech sector’s ability to make an impact — is vital. Understanding how technology’s power to bolster or undermine civic discourse is essential if we are to preserve democracy and protect human rights.
This week, we’re starting with pieces on several topics not always considered in connection with technology. Matt Rogers, co-founder of Nest, writes about the role of startups in tackling climate change. Phil Levy, chief economist at Flexport, discusses what “decoupling” from China would mean for tech supply chains. And Robert Karanja of Omidyar Network explores the perils of digital ID — and how it can be implemented securely and fairly.
This series is an experiment, and like the best software, we aim to iterate. Please share your thoughts with us and send us your ideas. Our goal in the weeks ahead is to elucidate, inform and hopefully provoke a little bit too. I hope you’ll join us.