Things Falling Apart

More than nine years ago, Jim Rosenau and I wrote a chapter* on the potential disruption in world politics, due to the tech revolution. This was an ongoing theme in Jim’s work, but we were challenged to come up with a more rigorous defense of his claims.

The gist of our argument was that the spread of the Internet and related technology would drive challenges to entrenched authority. We saw this as especially important as more of the developing world’s people came online. We said those challenges — in culture, society, and especially politics — might well remake the world in ways we cannot now recognize.

We pointed out that many people compare the Internet to the telegraph — an information technology that did not much affect world politics. We said that was fine as a bottom parameter, but the top parameter — the most change we can expect — is likely to be something akin to the printing press. This part was my main contribution to the chapter.

The printing press drove changes that ultimately reshaped the world. Within a hundred years of its introduction in Europe, the Reformation kicked off in Europe, destroying the Catholic Church’s political hold on that continent. A hundred years after that, the Peace of Westphalia ushered in the modern international system — which then was spread from Europe to the rest of the world.

In our guess of its impact, Jim and I saw the Internet as probably closer to the printing press than the telegraph. But we believed the first real disruptions were still a generation away, and that the United States would remain relatively stable until those changes began to affect the world around us. We were long on the timing and wrong on the source, but otherwise we are right: this is much closer to the higher order changes we predict.

We underestimated the consequences of our own country coming online. The changes we forecast are exactly the changes that drove this last election — except that instead of happening among young people in Brazil and India, they happened here among mostly older people. Part of the problem is that Jim and I were both optimistic: we felt that people are generally decent, and the technology is generally helpful. Jim died in 2011, and I will admit to second thoughts.

While the concerns that drove President-elect Trump’s supporters are seen as retrograde — closing borders, ending free trade, etc. — the challenge his campaign posed to established authority is forward-looking, in the sense Jim predicted. The distinction between the cargo — old — and the vessel — very new — is crucial here, and matters in our response to his Presidency.

There is now, I think, a sense among those who did not vote for Trump that if only we can get him out of there, we can get back to normal. With respect to our institutions of authority — the vessel — this is possibly dangerous: normal was the old way. Normal was not working. It will not work again.

Jim and I did not offer concrete advice for U.S. governance then, but I will now. The authority structures we have built over the last hundred years or so are out of date. They must be made more transparent and more accountable. While this is true of our government, it is also true of our political parties. In fact, that change has to begin with the parties: we need our parties which not only promise change, but embody it in their internal form and function.

If the backlash against Trump only serves to reinstate the Democratic party as is, we will be back to square one. If Trump’s presidency is simply co-opted by the Republican party as is, we will be back to square one. The problem will still exist — and the pressure will continue to build. Not to defend Trump in any way, but it might — just might — be better that we go through this paroxysm sooner, rather than later. The later it comes, the more severe it is likely to be.

The challenge to authority has begun sooner and with more disruption than Jim and I predicted — at least in this country. Were he alive, I think he would view this election with a mixture of marvel and dismay. But he, more than anyone, would see it for what it is.

It is the first tremor of something new in the world. And none of us can yet say what, exactly.

*The chapter was later – much later – published in Governance, Regulations, and Powers on the Internet.

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