David Rothkopf

Disconnected

As technological development shifts into hyperspeed, governments remain stuck in neutral.

Illustration by Matt Chase
Illustration by Matt Chase

The fabric of civilization is being rewoven around us. The very nature of life, work, and society is changing so profoundly that we are approaching a moment at which our old ways of thinking about the structures that sustain us may be seen as obsolete.

This happens periodically throughout history — think of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. Such eras often produce turmoil or upheaval, until leaders emerge who are able to help shape a new order for a new age.

The question today is whether our leaders are up to the challenge. Given their lack of grounding in the world’s most pressing scientific and technological issues, I fear many, if not most, are not.

Formerly disenfranchised populations are increasingly connecting to telecom, Internet, and other services. For instance, mobile-phone penetration was estimated to have surpassed 80 percent in Africa in the first quarter of 2013, according to figures published in 2012 by ABI Research. What’s more, it is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world. And though smartphone penetration in Africa is just 20 percent — pretty near global levels — it is expected to explode in the next few years.

Such trends mean that huge populations are connecting to one another and to communities worldwide. We are already seeing the implications in countless ways — from January’s flash-mob political protests in Brazilian malls, to the crowds that have amassed in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, to the success extremist groups have had in attracting recruits in Syria.

Connectivity, of course, does more than turbocharge and add volatility to political processes. Next year, Facebook will surpass China as the world’s largest organized community, and while China has an army, history, and culture all its own, Facebook users are not constrained by borders or societal fragmentation. Sure, Facebook is not a country, but what of it? Geographically constrained communities are so 500 years ago. There are arguably stronger ties (or the potential for them) among people who share political, artistic, religious, or other similarities across national boundaries than there are among people who happen to be born down the street from one other.

New technologies and widening access to them are linking and empowering people in other ways as well. Education, for instance, is becoming more ubiquitous and harder to limit to the few who can afford it. Of course, we also saw more clearly than ever in 2013 that technological change is transforming the way powerful actors — from governments to businesses to rogue groups — can capture and use information to their advantage. In the years ahead, we certainly will see that the most technologically enabled will possess ever-greater means of building wealth, keeping down their opponents, and exacerbating inequality.

The economy is another front where the rapid pace of technological change is influencing virtually everything. It is making employment available outside traditional workplaces and providing new opportunities for the disabled and elderly. But it is also changing the way jobs are created, helping to produce the "jobless recovery" with which the United States and other economies are struggling. As Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discussed in their important books, Race Against the Machine and The Second Machine Age, we are likely to soon enter a period in which considerably less traditional work will be done by human beings. Just as previous technological revolutions nearly eliminated entire classes of field workers, laborers, and craftsmen, the next wave of change will target white-collar jobs.

Economies are changing in other ways too. Data flows are becoming as important to competitive success as capital flows. Supply chains are changing dramatically not only because of shifting sources of resources and demand, but also because of manufacturing tools that, among other things, are creating new capacities for localized production. Technologies like 3-D printing, for example, may soon move some work from factories to local shops, even to homes.

Giant global companies are able to adapt better to these changes than are political entities, tied down to the land beneath their feet like Gulliver in Lilliput. My friend, the author Tom Friedman, talks about these companies "floating above" the countries that were once their domiciles. New technologies are starting to make it possible for entire communities of people to do the same.

This all suggests that traditional systems of social organization are increasingly ill-suited for our brave new world. Consider the law: Even flexible constitutions like that of the United States weren’t built to deal with the issues that would almost certainly be occupying the framers’ minds, were they alive today — like who owns the data we produce, what privacy rights we should have, and whether we are born with an inalienable right to access the Internet. Existing economic models, global alliances, and international institutions are just as poorly equipped for handling the tasks at hand.

Who works inside these systems is also problematic. Let’s take the U.S. Congress as an example, given that it is the top legislative body in the world’s most powerful country. Only 12 percent of Congress’s members have a background in science or technology, according to a 2011 study by the Employment Policies Institute. And based on my conversations with tech executives who regularly interact with Congress, just a handful of people on Capitol Hill truly understand the implications of the big data, cyber, and other technological revolutions. Turn the subject to how next-generation neuroscience and biotech developments will raise critical questions about how we deal with mental health, crime, extended life expectancy, bioethics, and health-care costs, and the number falls even further. "In many cases to zero," a professor at one of America’s leading schools of public health recently told me.

The challenge we face is thus two-pronged: The structures organizing the world are rapidly approaching their sell-by dates — the time at which they need to be refreshed, reconsidered, and reinvented — and the people who should be leading that process are among the least qualified to do so.

This can only be addressed by bridging the worrying divide between policymaking and technological development. Although it is encouraging to see some familiar faces from Silicon Valley and other parts of the tech world more frequently in Washington and world capitals these days, unless more show up, trouble looms. What we need is a wider, deeper conversation between the two sides and a major effort to find a new generation of leaders who truly understand innovation — both its potential and its pitfalls. If we can find these leaders, we can harness the promise of today’s multiple tech revolutions, and their benefits can extend — more than they already have — from top to bottom in a more closely integrated and ever-changing global community.

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