Fragmentation and the cycles of hysteria

Tech amplifies both globalisation and fragmentation, thus putting politics and the nation state under pressure. We need a better understanding of politics.

For most people, politics is hard to understand. This probably doesn’t change much over time. But in the last few years, it has become even harder to understand politics. This is due to the fact that the Parallelwelten of politics and tech have clashed. Politics is now influenced and fragmented by tech in an utterly new way, and vice versa.

In the introduction to his book Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech, Jamie Susskind writes:

Politics in the twentieth century was dominated by a central question: how much of our collective life should be determined by the state, and what should be left to the market and civil society? For the generation now approaching political maturity, the debate will be different: to what extent should our lives be directed and controlled by powerful digital systems—and on what terms?

In the past, the state has been the grand unifier, through the idea of nations with common heritage, language, values, culture, society, economy. Globalisation drove unification even further, through global travel, communication, and trade. At first, Big Tech contributed its fair share to globalisation, and it still does today. But Big Tech has also given rise to a new round of societal disruption and fragmentation.

It is now widely recognised that both the Brexit vote and the Trump election in 2016 have been decided through the use of technology. But Obama had won both terms of his presidency with clever digital campaigns before Trump came into office. The polarisation and fragmentation of our Western societies didn’t come over night.

A deeply apolitical stance

Increasingly, the nation state is under pressure from the opposite forces of globalisation and fragmentation. And both forces are amplified through tech. Politics basically is the art of compromise, of balancing clashing interests. In our day and age, compromise is being replaced by a new furor of absolute priorities.

At least since the financial crisis of 2008/2009, politicians started to talk about decisions as being without any alternative. If this was true, we no longer needed democracy. We could return to dictatorship or absolute monarchy. Or move on to a new technocracy, and put our faith in science.

In essence, this is what Greta Thunberg proposes, all for the sake of fighting the one big enemy, and to the enthusiasm of many people: abandoning the laborious process of balancing diverse priorities, of finding common ground and achieving compromises between competing issues, of carefully allocating scarce resources to solve different problems.

This is a deeply apolitical stance, to put it politely.

And it is also similar to what is happening in the UK since the Brexit referendum. The art of compromise is almost lost, replaced by a fragmented parliament unable to get to a decision about the future of the country. At least three different scenarios – deal, no deal, or remain – are more or less still on the table. And each side is trapped in their own filter bubble.

A fragmented political system

The current cycle of hysteria, polarisation and fragmentation concerning climate change (and Brexit in the UK) is not the first. In fact, it directly replaced the refugee crisis of 2015/2016, which also contributed to Brexit. And before Brexit, there was Grexit and the Greek debt crisis. Which in turn contributed to the refugee crisis, as Greece lost control of the EU border.

Another case in point is the Fukushima disaster in 2011. It caused a cycle of hysteria in Germany that led to an early nuclear phase-out. This now in turn aggravates the carbon dioxide emission crisis: most of the German electricity production is still driven by coal plants. And there is no plan on how to replace the base load power plants after nuclear and coal plants will have been shut down.

The cycles of hysteria are deeply interconnected. They are amplified by tech. And a fragmented political system increasingly looks unable to find sustainable solutions, beyond short-term fixes that already lay the foundation for the next crisis, and the next cycle of hysteria.

Fragmentation as a threat to democracy

We’ve been at a similar crossroads before, namely at the dawn of the modern era. The Protestant Reformation led to a fragmentation not only of the church, but also of the states and the societies (that back then of course weren’t like our modern states and societies). Ultimately, this splits led to wars. In a recent essay, Jonathan Franzen asserts:

In times of increasing chaos, people seek protection in tribalism and armed force, rather than in the rule of law, and our best defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, functioning communities.

Tech has become a threat to democracy. To the extent it undermines our democratic institutions, it needs to be and will be regulated. The biggest empires in history – Google and Facebook – are clashing with nation states and multinational institutions.

We need a better understanding of politics and democracy to avoid falling back to tribalism and authoritarian regimes.

Jamie Susskind will share his views next Thursday in his keynote at NEXT. Join the fireside chat on Thursday afternoon to discuss how we can help to build a future that can inspire hope and optimism.

Photo by Tom Athawes on Unsplash