Is systems change inevitable?

easyDNS is pleased to sponsor Jesse Hirsh‘s “Future Fibre / Future Tools” segments of his new email list, Metaviews

Probably not, but it sure seems likely


In yesterday’s issue we looked at the twenty year projections prepared by the US intelligence community for the incoming Biden administration. In particular highlighting the political nature of these trend reports, that they also act as road maps to desired futures.

As a result, one of the key omissions or blind spots in the report was the assumption that the systems that run our world today will be the same systems that run our world for the next twenty years. That in spite of the institutional crisis we’re witnessing in North American and Europe, these same institutions are going to survive the next two decades intact?

Such an assertion seems absurd.

Even before the pandemic, we’ve collectively been discussing disruption, monopoly, and pervasive surveillance. Artificial Intelligence alone suggests systems change is immanent. Not to mention climate volatility, wealth inequality, or other issues rightly identified in the DNI global trends report.

Yet absent is the possibility that our existing systems and institutions would be forced to change, perhaps radically, or even outright replaced. As if these were the same people who could not imagine someone using an airplane as a missile to take out a symbolic skyscraper.

I am often arguing that the future we perceive is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. In this context, systems change is already here, it’s just not entirely acknowledged or understood.

For example I suspect many if not most of us have experienced alienation from institutions we depend upon during this pandemic. Sometimes it’s small things like the grocery or hardware store screwing your order up. Or your Internet not working well or not being fast enough. Or your employer or lack thereof not being in a position to property support you.

At it’s highest level, it has also been our government’s inability to either prepare for or respond to this pandemic. This varies depending upon jurisdiction, with some faring better than most. Yet there really isn’t a beacon out there for others to follow. It’s more the least bad rather than the best.

As we lose faith in our traditional institutions, opportunities emerge for new authorities and new institutions.

This is not lost on me as I reflect on how effective and reliable Amazon has been for us in this pandemic. It’s a guilt we share, and we talk about, as many of us recognize and acknowledge how great it has been and how much power the company is amassing as a result.

In a future issue we can explore speculative fiction on what it would mean to take Amazon over and turn it into a human friendly distributed cooperative, however the point in raising it here, is to argue that it is obviously and quite successfully a governing system that is an effective alternative to the nation state as we know it.

I’m not endorsing Amazon, at least not without some affiliate payback setup. I’m just wondering how blind the DNI has to be to not recognize Amazon as a potential competitor for power, and control over resources?

A lot of us who are outside of the IC are able to recognize this:

WE LIVE IN two worlds: We’re citizens of countries but also visitors of “ net states,” massive tech companies that wield global powers. Despite being both digital and physical creatures, we do a pretty good job sorting out how to navigate the two spaces. We follow laws according to where we park our physical selves, and we follow net state rules according to which sites and apps we log on to.

Yet this dual-worldedness seems to confuse governments. They may recognize that Big Tech has country-like powers, but they can’t seem to figure out how to deal with their very un-country-like structures. As a result, most countries are still floundering when it comes to controlling net states, flinging old world weapons like fines and regulations into an indifferent and engulfing ether.

Part of the issue, as we’re articulating in today’s Metaviews issue, is that nation states have been failed by their respective intelligence agencies, who due to their own professional and cognitive biases are not able to recognize digital platforms as a potential threat. An existential threat to the nation state as we know it.

They assume control over the platforms when these platforms do not have effective control over themselves.

Fortunately, at least a handful of countries are committed to figuring out a better approach to Big Tech. In 2017, Denmark made history when it appointed Casper Klynge, a long-serving diplomat, to become the world’s first tech ambassador. When I asked him shortly after his appointment for his thoughts on how governments should deal with net states, he told me, “The freight train is coming … so it’s not the IT office that needs to deal with technology; it’s mainstream foreign and security policy. Too few countries get that.”

At the time, Denmark seemed to be the sole country viewing Big Tech as a geopolitical force to be reckoned with. However, in 2021, at least a dozen additional countries have followed Denmark’s example. This is a promising start, but it is not enough. Every country needs tech diplomats—and fast. While government officials lag behind the private sector in even basic digital literacy, Big Tech continues to steamroll its way into the future, amassing global power virtually unchecked. As they do, tech users float between platforms largely unprotected, our data hoovered up, repackaged, and sold without our say-so. But tech diplomats could offer governments a suite of new tactics for combating this. From traditional strategies like formally recognizing allies and adversaries to more modern approaches such as public-private partnerships, ambassadors with technical know-how could help nations more nimbly navigate this foreign territory.

Literacy and capability are essential, but they can be limited or even prevented by the cognitive and ideological biases that systems enable. In this case, the institutional biases of the US intelligence community cannot recognize the emergence and potential of states that are not based on myths of national identity and nationhood. These myths are no longer as relevant in an era of networks and self-constructed identity.

As Harold Innis argued in Empire and Communications, with each new communications medium, new political and religious systems emerge. Perhaps the DNI should order a copy from Amazon.

One thought on “Is systems change inevitable?

  1. You make it sound like “net states” are benevolent forces. In reality they are merely part of the Investor State, or corporations, navigating within the physical and transnational infrastructure of the Internet. As such you use the word “net” as a metonymy.
    Big Tech’s power is relative and based on perception management. Their “state” is transitional, especially view of the work being done on the development of quantum internet as a parallel system.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *