14.4.3 Other factors: Technological Change and Climate Change

John Wright

Finally, two other systemic factors have been introduced into the system. They were created in large part by the post-war order – changes arising out of the nature of the system itself – and have now become new and increasingly influential factors in international affairs and in the role and nature of the state at home and abroad: information technology and climate change.

The information revolution has turned out to be no less significant in overturning the course of human affairs than the Industrial Revolution that preceded it some 150 years previous. Like the Industrial Revolution, the IT revolution has fundamentally transformed not only the fundamentals of economic and social interaction but also accelerated the pace of that change. Most of the backbone of the contemporary economy and society did not exist 30 years ago: the internet, social media, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and robotics. All these things arose from the military and economic competition of the Cold War, much of it directly from military research and development. But it was the spread and development of IT for civilian applications that truly transformed the international system by changing the relationship between the state and sub-state actors and by transcending the state as the gatekeeper for sub-state actors in the international system.

Domestically, computational power and robotics transformed the nature of work and the mainstays of the economy. Industrial jobs were displaced by digital ones. Services (including such things as industrial design, software development, sales, entertainment, banking, insurance, marketing, administration, logistics, and legal) became the dominant sectors in developed Western economies, while the production of consumer durables became the mainstay of developing economies. Financial capitalism overtook productive capitalism as the main generator of wealth. This exacerbated the already-problematic economic challenge facing states: that capital is free to move, whereas people are not, especially as people and property are the primary tax base – the revenue – of the contemporary state. Capital flight and hiding revenue have become significant challenges to the economic viability of the state.

Internationally, the growth of IT has challenged the modern state-system through its capacity to instantly connect people to create new communities of interest as well as to strengthen existing epistemic and other communities. We have seen, for example, the power of Facebook and Twitter to frame political debate and to aggregate opinions and influences in a way that defies national borders. What happens in one place can now have immediate effects somewhere else. Individuals and sub-state actors are no longer reliant on state-provided or traditional corporate media sources of information. Real-time videos of political events such as the Arab Spring, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and coups and countercoups in Myanmar galvanize interest groups internationally to put pressure on their respective states to react. The message can no longer be as easily controlled at home or abroad.

Also, political leadership having immediate and unmediated access to millions of individuals facilitates their ability to talk directly to audiences, bypassing previously established mechanisms and norms of social and political control: the role of a trusted gatekeeper has been severely attenuated in the face of direct populism. This is the era of “fake news” and false equivalencies, where claims and counter claims are reduced to rhetorical volume over substance, where “do your own research” has challenged the role of the expert, and where emotional arguments hold as much sway as rational ones.

Finally, IT challenges our assumed worldviews though its ability to measure and create new patterns of understanding: big data. For political movements, the capability to inexpensively gather and process large amounts of data has greatly increased their ability to present evidence to back their arguments. Nor are they solely reliant on state-produced data (the collection and promulgation of data used to require a scale of labour only available to the largest organizations). It is becoming easier and easier to gather and present nuanced opinion polling or data on outcomes for marginalized groups and to feed this information into public policy discourse.

Data patterns sometimes create completely new understandings by connecting things that have never been connected before. This might be something as trivial and innocuous as a fashion trend, a cultural phenomenon, or a global following for a professional soccer club. But sometimes profound understandings of our globalized world also emerge. No better example of this exists than man-made climate change.

Quite simply, without the huge amount of data and computational power developed over the past, the overwhelming evidence that man-made climate change is happening, and that we can project it to be an existential threat in the near future, would not be possible. The scale and complexity of the task would have precluded it. Furthermore, this evidence and theorization were furthered by international research and shared resources facilitated in a qualitatively and quantitatively different way than was previously possible. And finally, the ability to disseminate this information widely to individuals and non-state actors furthered the attention political leadership received on this matter – accentuating it as a national and international priority.

Climate change has gone from a niche area of study to the dominant organizing principle of state and international-systemic policy over the course of 20 years. The understanding that we need to change the underlying structures of human activity that are predicated on the Industrial Revolution now informs most decision making at the national and international level. In essence, the creation and advancement of an equally new “green” ideology is underway.

Systemically, climate change has added a new layer of multinational, institutional, inter-state cooperation to the existing international system that is codified and underpinned by the UN-sponsored Paris Accords. This new layer of cooperation and understanding has reinforced the international-institutional state-system. Enforcing the mechanisms needed to deal with climate change requires individual sovereign states to enact climate change solutions, often at the expense of economic competitiveness or key sectors and interests in their own economy. So, while this is individually a challenge for many states, it is collectively the means by which states reclaim power and leadership from non-state and sub-state actors in the international system.

The final point to recognize about the IT revolution is that the enormous amounts of data readily available from the information systems people use also provide the capacity to target very precise points of information, be they geographical or various other criteria. Cross-matching multiple data sets makes it even more possible to focus in on very precise data, even identifiable individuals, anonymized or not. This has changed the balance of power not only between the individual and the state, but also of the individual with regard to non-state actors: insurance and finance companies, medical corporations, and political interest groups. The very nature of what it means to be an individual in society and the boundaries of your person as an economic actor, a political actor or an actor in any other context, have been perforated. This can affect how people think in terms of their ideological orientation, perhaps shaping a shifting set of preferences depending on each contextualization, which would, ultimately, break down ideological cohesion on social and public choice issues.



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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction Copyright © 2021 by John Wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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