The Technopolar Moment: How Digital Powers Will Reshape the Global Order – Foreign Affairs Magazine
After rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, some of the United States’ most powerful institutions sprang into action to punish the leaders of the failed insurrection. But they weren’t the ones you might expect. Facebook and Twitter suspended the accounts of President Donald Trump for posts praising the rioters. Amazon, Apple, and Google effectively banished Parler, an alternative to Twitter that Trump’s supporters had used to encourage and coordinate the attack, by blocking its access to Web-hosting services and app stores. Major financial service apps, such as PayPal and Stripe, stopped processing payments for the Trump campaign and for accounts that had funded travel expenses to Washington, D.C., for Trump’s supporters.
The speed of these technology companies’ reactions stands in stark contrast to the feeble response from the United States’ governing institutions. Congress still has not censured Trump for his role in the storming of the Capitol. Its efforts to establish a bipartisan, 9/11-style commission failed amid Republican opposition. Law enforcement agencies have been able to arrest some individual rioters—but in many cases only by tracking clues they left on social media about their participation in the fiasco.
States have been the primary actors in global affairs for nearly 400 years. That is starting to change, as a handful of large technology companies rival them for geopolitical influence. The aftermath of the January 6 riot serves as the latest proof that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter are no longer merely large companies; they have taken control of aspects of society, the economy, and national security that were long the exclusive preserve of the state. The same goes for Chinese technology companies, such as Alibaba, ByteDance, and Tencent. Nonstate actors are increasingly shaping geopolitics, with technology companies in the lead. And although Europe wants to play, its companies do not have the size or geopolitical influence to compete with their American and Chinese counterparts.
Most of the analysis of U.S.-Chinese technological competition, however, is stuck in a statist paradigm. It depicts technology companies as foot soldiers in a conflict between hostile countries. But technology companies are not mere tools in the hands of governments. None of their actions in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol insurrection, for instance, came at the behest of the government or law enforcement. These were private decisions made by for-profit companies exercising power over code, servers, and regulations under their control. These companies are increasingly shaping the global environment in which governments operate. They have huge influence over the technologies and services that will drive the next industrial revolution, determine how countries project economic and military power, shape the future of work, and redefine social contracts.
It is time to start thinking of the biggest technology companies as similar to states. These companies exercise a form of sovereignty over a rapidly expanding realm that extends beyond the reach of regulators: digital space. They bring resources to geopolitical competition but face constraints on their power to act. They maintain foreign relations and answer to constituencies, including shareholders, employees, users, and advertisers.
Technology companies are shaping the global environment in which governments operate.
Political scientists rely on a wide array of terms to classify governments: there are “democracies,” “autocracies,” and “hybrid regimes,” which combine elements of both. But they have no such tools for understanding Big Tech. It’s time they started developing them, for not all technology companies operate in the same way. Even though technology companies, like countries, resist neat classifications, there are three broad forces that are driving their geopolitical postures and worldviews: globalism, nationalism, and techno-utopianism.
These categories illuminate the choices facing the biggest technology firms as they work to shape global affairs. Will we live in a world where the Internet is increasingly fragmented and technology companies serve the interests and goals of the states in which they reside, or will Big Tech decisively wrest control of digital space from governments, freeing itself from national boundaries and emerging as a truly global force? Or could the era of state dominance finally come to an end, supplanted by a techno-elite that assumes responsibility for offering the public goods once provided by governments? Analysts, policymakers, and the public would do well to understand the competing outlooks that determine how these new geopolitical actors wield their power, because the interplay among them will define the economic, social, and political life of the twenty-first century.
BIG TECH IS WATCHING YOU
To understand how the struggle for geopolitical influence between technology firms and governments will play out, it is important to grasp the nature of these companies’ power. The tools at their disposal are unique in global affairs, which is why governments are finding it so hard to rein them in. Although this isn’t the first time that private corporations have played a major role in geopolitics—consider the East India Company and Big Oil, for example—earlier giants could never match the pervasive global presence of today’s technology firms. It is one thing to wield power in the smoke-filled rooms of political power brokers; it is another to directly affect the livelihoods, relationships, security, and even thought patterns of billions of people across the globe.
Today’s biggest technology firms have two critical advantages that have allowed them to carve out independent geopolitical influence. First, they do not operate or wield power exclusively in physical space. They have created a new dimension in geopolitics—digital space—over which they exercise primary influence. People are increasingly living out their lives in this vast territory, which governments do not and cannot fully control.
The implications of this fact bear on virtually all aspects of civic, economic, and private life. In many democracies today, politicians’ ability to gain followers on Facebook and Twitter unlocks the money and political support needed to win office. That is why the technology companies’ actions to deplatform Trump after the Capitol Hill riot were so powerful. For a new generation of entrepreneurs, Amazon’s marketplace and Web-hosting services, Apple’s app store, Facebook’s ad-targeting tools, and Google’s search engine have become indispensable for launching a successful business. Big Tech is even transforming human relationships. In their private lives, people increasingly connect with one another through algorithms.
Technology companies are not just exercising a form of sovereignty over how citizens behave on digital platforms; they are also shaping behaviors and interactions. The little red Facebook notifications deliver dopamine hits to your brain, Google’s artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms complete sentences while you type, and Amazon’s methods of selecting which products pop up at the top of your search screen affect what you buy. In these ways, technology firms are guiding how people spend their time, what professional and social opportunities they pursue, and, ultimately, what they think. This power will grow as social, economic, and political institutions continue to shift from the physical world to digital space.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., October 2019
Erin Scott / Reuters
The second way these technology companies differ from their formidable predecessors is that they are increasingly providing a full spectrum of both the digital and the real-world products that are required to run a modern society. Although private companies have long played a role in delivering basic needs, from medicine to energy, today’s rapidly digitizing economy depends on a more complex array of goods, services, and information flows. Currently, just four companies—Alibaba, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft—meet the bulk of the world’s demand for cloud services, the essential computing infrastructure that has kept people working and children learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. The future competitiveness of traditional industries will depend on how effectively they seize new opportunities created by 5G networks, AI, and massive Internet-of-Things deployments. Internet companies and financial service providers already depend heavily on the infrastructure provided by these cloud leaders. Soon, growing numbers of cars, assembly lines, and cities will, too.
Along with owning the world’s leading search engine and its most popular smartphone operating system, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, dabbles in health care, drug development, and autonomous vehicles. Amazon’s sprawling e-commerce and logistics network furnishes millions of people with basic consumer goods. In China, Alibaba and Tencent dominate payment systems, social media, video streaming, e-commerce, and logistics. They also invest in projects important to the Chinese government, such as the Digital Silk Road, which aims to bring to emerging markets the undersea cables, telecommunications networks, cloud capabilities, and apps needed to run a digital society.
Private-sector technology firms are also providing national security, a role that has traditionally been reserved for governments and the defense contractors they hire. When Russian hackers breached U.S. government agencies and private companies last year, it was Microsoft, not the National Security Agency or U.S. Cyber Command, that first discovered and cut off the intruders. Of course, private companies have long supported national security objectives. Before the biggest banks became “too big to fail,” that phrase was applied to the U.S. defense company Lockheed Corporation (now Lockheed Martin) during the Cold War. But Lockheed just made the fighter jets and missiles for the U.S. government. It didn’t operate the air force or police the skies. The biggest technology companies are building the backbone of the digital world and policing that world at the same time.
Big Tech’s eclipse of the nation-state is not inevitable. Governments are taking steps to tame an unruly digital sphere: whether it is China’s recent moves targeting Alibaba and Ant Group, which derailed what would have been one of the world’s biggest-ever initial public offerings; the EU’s attempts to regulate personal data, AI, and the large technology companies that it defines as digital “gatekeepers”; the numerous antitrust bills introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives; or India’s ongoing pressure on foreign social media companies—the technology industry is facing a political and regulatory backlash on multiple fronts.
Moreover, technology firms cannot decouple themselves from physical space, where they remain at the mercy of states. The code for the virtual worlds that these companies have created sits in data centers that are located on territory controlled by governments. Companies are subject to national laws. They can be fined or subjected to other sanctions, their websites can be blocked, and their executives can be arrested if they break the rules.
People are increasingly living out their lives in digital space, which governments cannot fully control.
But as technology grows more sophisticated, states and regulators are increasingly constrained by outdated laws and limited capacity. Digital space is ever growing. Facebook now counts nearly three billion monthly active users. Google reports that over one billion hours of video are consumed on YouTube, its video-streaming platform, each day. Over 64 billion terabytes of digital information was created and stored in 2020, enough to fill some 500 billion smartphones. In its next phase, this “datasphere” will see cars, factories, and entire cities wired with Internet-connected sensors trading data. As this realm grows, the ability to control it will slip further beyond the reach of states. And because technology companies provide important digital and real-world goods and services, states that cannot provide those things risk shooting themselves in the foot if their draconian measures lead companies to stop their operations.
Governments have long deployed sophisticated systems to monitor digital space: China created the so-called Great Firewall to control the information its citizens see, and the United States’ spy agencies established the echelon surveillance system to monitor global communications. But such systems can’t keep tabs on everything. Fines for failing to take down illegal content are a nuisance for businesses, not an existential threat. And governments realize that they could sabotage their own legitimacy if they go too far. The potential for a popular backlash is one reason why even Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to ever go as far as Beijing has in restricting citizens’ access to the global Internet.
That is not to say that Big Tech is massively well liked. Even before the pandemic, public opinion polls in the United States showed that what once was the most admired sector in the country was losing popularity among Americans. A majority of Americans are in favor of stricter regulations for big technology companies, according to a February 2021 Gallup survey. Global trust in those companies—especially social media firms—has also been hit hard during the pandemic, according to the annual Trust Barometer published by Edelman, a public relations consultancy.
But even if getting tough on Big Tech is one of the few things on which both Democrats and Republicans agree, the fact that there hasn’t been a major crackdown yet is telling. In the United States, a combination of congressional dysfunction and Silicon Valley’s potent lobbying power will likely continue to preclude expansive new regulations that could pose a serious threat to the digital giants. It is different in Europe, where the lack of homegrown cloud, search, and social media conglomerates makes passing ambitious legislation easier. And it is certainly different in China, where a recent round of regulatory crackdowns has sent shares of the country’s own technology heavyweights reeling.
In both Brussels and Beijing, politicians are trying to channel the power of the biggest technology companies in pursuit of national priorities. But with the cloud, AI, and other emerging technologies set to become even more important to people’s livelihoods—and to the ability of states to meet their people’s basic needs—it is far from certain that the politicians will succeed.
THE STATE STRIKES BACK
The most important question in geopolitics today might be, Will countries that break up or clamp down on their biggest technology firms also be able to seize the opportunities of the digital revolution’s next phase, or will their efforts backfire? The EU, alarmed that it has not given rise to digital giants the way the United States and China have, appears intent on finding out. It is at the forefront of democratic societies pushing for greater sovereignty over digital space. In 2018, the EU passed a sweeping data protection law that restricts transfers of personal data outside the 27-member bloc and threatens steep fines on companies that fail to protect EU citizens’ sensitive information.
A new regulatory package advancing in Brussels would give the European Commission new powers to fine Internet platforms over illegal content, control high-risk AI applications, and potentially break up technology companies that EU bureaucrats deem too powerful. The EU and influential member states, such as France, are also calling for technology-focused industrial policies—including billions of euros of government funding—to encourage new approaches to pooling data and computing resources. The goal is to develop alternatives to the biggest cloud platforms that, unlike the current options, are grounded in “European values.”
This is a massive gamble. Europe, acting from a position of weakness, is betting that it can corral the technology giants and unleash a new wave of European innovation. If it turns out instead that only the biggest technology platforms can muster the capital, talent, and infrastructure needed to develop and run the digital systems that companies rely on, Europe will have only accelerated its geopolitical decline. The outcome hinges on whether a handful of large-scale cloud platforms, with all the attendant economic opportunities and challenges, can continue to drive innovation or whether a group of companies operating under greater government supervision can still produce cutting-edge digital infrastructure that is globally competitive.
Big Tech is transforming human relationships.
It is expensive to create and maintain digital space on a massive scale. Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft plowed a combined $109 billion into research and development in 2019. That is roughly equal to Germany’s total public and private R & D spending in the same period and more than double the amount spent that year by the United Kingdom’s government and private sector put together. If European states want greater control of the technology sector, they’re going to have to invest much more money. But even if governments were willing to finance these digital capabilities themselves, money is only part of the picture. They would likely struggle to bring together the engineering and other talent required to design, maintain, operate, and grow the complex cloud infrastructure, AI applications, and other systems that make these technologies work at scale.
Achieving and maintaining global leadership in fields such as cloud computing or semiconductors requires huge and sustained investments of financial and human capital. It also requires close relationships with customers and other partners across complex global supply chains. Today’s modern semiconductor plants can cost in excess of $15 billion apiece and require legions of highly trained engineers to set them up and run them. The world’s leading cloud service providers can invest billions of dollars in R & D each year because they are continually refining their products in response to customers’ needs and funneling their profits back into research. Governments—and even groups of small firms working together—would struggle to muster the resources needed to deliver these technologies at the scale required to power the global economy. Even in China, where the government is not afraid to throw its weight around, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is counting on the country’s biggest private-sector technology companies to do the heavy lifting as it aims to build a wealthy and digitally advanced society.
The next decade will test what happens as the politics of digital space and physical space converge. Governments and technology companies are poised to compete for influence over both worlds—hence the need for a better framework for understanding what the companies’ goals are and how their power interacts with that of governments in both domains.
THE STRUGGLE WITHIN BIG TECH
Technology companies’ orientations are no less diverse than the states with which they compete. Strands of globalism, nationalism, and techno-utopianism often coexist within the same company. Which outlook predominates will have important consequences for global politics and society.
First are the globalists—firms that built their empires by operating on a truly international scale. These companies, including Apple, Facebook, and Google, create and populate digital space, allowing their business presence and revenue streams to become untethered from physical territory. Each grew powerful by hitting on an idea that allowed it to dominate an economically valuable niche and then taking its business worldwide.
The likes of Alibaba, ByteDance, and Tencent emerged at the top of China’s massive domestic market before setting their sights on global growth. But the idea was the same: set up shop in as many countries as possible, respect local rules and regulations as necessary, and compete fiercely. Sure, they have also benefited from policy and financial support from Beijing, but it is still a cutthroat, profit-driven approach to global expansion that is driving innovation at these firms.
Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tesla’s Elon Musk in Shanghai, August 2019
Aly Song / Reuters
Then there are the national champions, which are more willing to align themselves explicitly with the priorities of their home governments. These firms are partnering with governments in various important domains, including the cloud, AI, and cybersecurity. They secure massive revenues by selling their products to governments, and they use their expertise to help guide these same governments’ actions. The companies hewing closest to the national-champion model are in China, where firms have long faced pressure to further national goals. Huawei and SMIC are China’s core national champions in 5G and semiconductors. And in 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping named Alibaba and Tencent, along with the search engine Baidu and the voice recognition company iFlytek, to China’s “national AI team,” giving each of them a leading role in building out parts of China’s AI-powered future.
More than perhaps any other country, China has enlisted its technology giants during the pandemic, leaning heavily on digital services—including videoconferencing and telemedicine—and even using them to enforce lockdowns and other travel restrictions as the pandemic took hold. It has also tapped Chinese technology firms to manage reopenings by providing digital health passports and to engage in “mask diplomacy” by shipping badly needed medical supplies to needy countries to enhance China’s soft power.
Today, even historically globalist U.S. companies are feeling the pull of the national-champion model. Microsoft’s growing role in policing digital space on behalf of the United States and allied democracies and targeting misinformation spread by state actors (particularly China and Russia) and international crime syndicates is leading it in that direction. Amazon and Microsoft are also competing to provide cloud-computing infrastructure to the U.S. government. Amazon’s new CEO, Andy Jassy, who previously headed its cloud business, was a member of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a blue-ribbon advisory panel that published a major report earlier this year that is having a strong influence on the evolution of the United States’ national AI strategy.
The forces of globalism and nationalism sometimes clash with a third camp: the techno-utopians. Some of the world’s most powerful technology firms are headed by charismatic visionaries who see technology not just as a global business opportunity but also as a potentially revolutionary force in human affairs. In contrast to the other two groups, this camp centers more on the personalities and ambitions of technology CEOs rather than the operations of the companies themselves. Whereas globalists want the state to leave them alone and maintain favorable conditions for global commerce, and national champions see an opportunity to get rich off the state, techno-utopians look to a future in which the nation-state paradigm that has dominated geopolitics since the seventeenth century has been replaced by something different altogether.
Technology companies are increasingly geopolitical actors in and of themselves.
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is the most recognizable example, with his open ambition to reinvent transportation, link computers to human brains, and make humanity a “multiplanetary species” by colonizing Mars. Yes, he is also providing space lift capacity to the U.S. government, but he is chiefly focused on dominating near-space orbit and creating a future in which technology companies help societies evolve beyond the concept of nation-states. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, has similar tendencies, even if he has become more open to government regulation of online content. Diem, a Facebook-backed digital currency, had to be scaled back dramatically after financial regulators almost universally raised concerns. Thanks to the dominance of the U.S. dollar, governments retain a far stronger grip on finance than on other domains in digital space.
That may not be true for long if Vitalik Buterin and the entrepreneurs building on top of his Ethereum ecosystem get their way. Ethereum, the world’s second most popular blockchain after Bitcoin, is rapidly emerging as the underlying infrastructure powering a new generation of decentralized Internet applications. It may pose an even greater challenge to government power than Diem. Ethereum’s design includes smart contracts, which enable the parties to a transaction to embed the terms of doing business into hard-to-alter computer code. Entrepreneurs have seized on the technology and the surrounding hype to cook up new businesses, including betting markets, financial derivatives, and payment systems that are almost impossible to alter or abolish once they have been launched. Although much of this innovation to date has been in the financial realm, some proponents believe that blockchain technology and decentralized apps will be the keys to unlocking the next big leap forward for the Web: the metaverse, a place where augmented and virtual reality, next-generation data networks, and decentralized financing and payment systems contribute to a more realistic and immersive digital world where people can socialize, work, and trade digital goods.
China still has its globalists and national champions, albeit with a more statist tilt than those in the United States. But it no longer has its own techno-utopians. The CCP once exalted Jack Ma, a co-founder of Alibaba and the country’s most prominent entrepreneur, who revolutionized how people buy and sell goods and tried to create a new version of the World Trade Organization to facilitate e-commerce and promote direct global trade. But the party reined him in after he gave a speech in October 2020 criticizing its financial regulators for stifling innovation. Beijing now has Ma and Alibaba on a much tighter leash, a cautionary tale for any would-be techno-utopians in China who might consider challenging the state.
Even so, China depends on the digital infrastructure provided by the likes of Ma to boost productivity and living standards—and thus ensure the CCP’s long-term survival. China’s authoritarianism enables it to be more forceful in its regulation of digital space and the companies that build and maintain it, but Beijing ultimately faces the same tradeoffs as Washington and Brussels. If it tightens its grip too much, it risks harming the country itself by smothering innovation.
OUR DIGITAL FUTURES
As technology companies and governments negotiate for control over digital space, U.S. and Chinese technology giants will operate in one of three geopolitical environments: one in which the state reigns supreme, rewarding the national champions; one in which corporations wrest control from the state over digital space, empowering the globalists; or one in which the state fades away, elevating the techno-utopians.
In the first scenario, the national champions win, and the state remains the dominant provider of security, regulation, and public goods. Systemic shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and long-term threats, such as climate change, coupled with a public backlash against the power of technology firms, entrench government authority as the only force that can resolve global challenges. A bipartisan push for regulation in the United States rewards “patriotic” companies that deploy their resources in support of national goals. The government hopes that a new generation of technology-enabled services for education, health care, and other components of the social contract will boost its legitimacy in the eyes of middle-class voters. Beijing and other authoritarian governments double down on cultivating their own national champions, pushing hard for self-sufficiency while competing for influence in important global swing markets, such as Brazil, India, and Southeast Asia. China’s private technology sector becomes less independent, and its technology companies no longer go public on international stock exchanges.
U.S. allies and partners find it much harder to balance their ties with Washington and Beijing. Europe is the big loser here, as it lacks technology companies with the financial capacity or technological wherewithal to hold their own against those of the two major powers. As the EU’s push for digital sovereignty sputters and the U.S.-Chinese cold war makes national security in the technology space a dominant priority, Europe’s technology sector has little choice but to follow Washington’s agenda.
As the United States and China decouple, companies that can recast themselves as national champions are rewarded. Washington and Beijing both funnel resources to technology firms to align them with their national goals. The increasingly fragmented nature of the Internet, meanwhile, makes operating on a truly global scale increasingly difficult: when data, software, or advanced semiconductor technology can’t move across borders because of legal and policy barriers or when computers or phones made by U.S. and Chinese companies can’t talk to one another, it raises costs and regulatory risks for companies.
Apple’s Tim Cook at the EU’s privacy conference in Brussels, October 2018
Yves Herman / Reuters
Amazon and Microsoft might not find it hard to adapt to this new order, as they are already responding to growing pressure to support national security imperatives. Both companies already compete to provide cloud services to the U.S. government and intelligence agencies. But Apple and Google could find working with the U.S. government more uncomfortable; the former has balked at government requests to crack encrypted smartphones, and the latter pulled out of a project with the Pentagon on image recognition. Facebook might have the hardest time navigating a landscape that favored national champions if it is seen as providing a platform for foreign disinformation without also offering useful assets for the government, such as cloud computing or military AI applications.
This would be a more geopolitically volatile world, with a greater risk of strategic and technological bifurcation. Taiwan would be a major concern, as U.S. and Chinese companies continue to rely on the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company as a major supplier of cutting-edge chips. Washington is already moving to cut off leading Chinese technology firms from Taiwan and TSMC, fueling impressions in Beijing that Taiwan is being dragged further into the U.S. orbit. Although it remains unlikely that China would choose to invade Taiwan over semiconductors alone—the potential for a military conflict with the United States that escalates beyond Taiwan would be too great, and the damage to China’s international standing and business environment would be too severe—it remains a potentially potent tail risk.
A world of national champions would also impede the international cooperation needed to address global crises—whether a pandemic disease more lethal than COVID-19 or a surge of global migration induced by climate change. It would be ironic if technology nationalism made it harder for governments to address these problems, given the role of such crises in shoring up the state’s position as the provider of last resort in the first place.
In the second scenario, the state holds on but in a weakened condition—paving the way for the ascendancy of the globalists. Unable to keep pace with technological innovation, regulators accept that governments will share sovereignty over digital space with technology companies. Big Tech beats back restrictions that could curtail its overseas operations, arguing that the loss of market opportunities will harm innovation and, ultimately, governments’ ability to create jobs and meet global challenges. Rather than accept a technological cold war, companies pressure governments to agree on a set of common rules that preserve a global market for hardware, software, and data.
Apple and Google would arguably have the most to gain from this outcome. Instead of being forced to choose between a U.S.- and a Chinese-dominated Internet, Apple could continue to offer its own unique technology ecosystem catering to elites in both San Francisco and Shanghai. Google’s advertising-heavy revenue model would thrive as people in democracies and authoritarian countries alike consumed products and services that commodified every piece of personal data.
Governments and technology companies are poised to compete for influence.
The triumph of globalism would also help Alibaba, which hosts the world’s largest e-commerce websites. ByteDance, whose video-sharing app TikTok has helped it achieve a valuation north of $140 billion, would be free to serve up viral videos to a global audience, supercharging its AI algorithms and its global revenues. Tencent is also a globalist but cooperates far more deeply with China’s internal security apparatus than Alibaba. It would find it easier to trend in the direction of a national champion as ideological competition between Washington and Beijing intensified.
The globalists need stability to succeed over the coming decade. Their worst fear is that the United States and China will continue to decouple, forcing them to choose sides in an economic war that will raise barriers to their attempts to globalize their businesses. Their fortunes would improve if Washington and Beijing decided that overregulation risks undercutting the innovation that drives their economies. In the case of Washington, that means pulling back from an industrial policy designed to convince companies that they can thrive as national champions; for Beijing, it means preserving the independence and autonomy of the private sector.
A world in which the globalists reign supreme would give Europe a chance to reassert itself as a savvy bureaucratic player capable of designing the rules that allow technology companies and governments to share sovereignty in digital space. Washington and Beijing would still be the two dominant global powers, but the failure of the former’s industrial policy push and the latter’s quest to elevate national champions would loosen the two powers’ grip on geopolitics, increase the demand for global governance, and create more opportunities for global rule setting. This is a world with somewhat weaker American and Chinese governments but one that offers both countries their best chance to cooperate on urgent global challenges.
In the final scenario, the oft-predicted erosion of the state finally comes to pass. The techno-utopians capitalize on widespread disillusionment with governments that have failed to create prosperity and stability, drawing citizens into a digital economy that disintermediates the state. Confidence in the dollar as a global reserve currency erodes—or collapses. Cryptocurrencies prove too much for regulators to control, and they gain wide acceptance, undermining governments’ sway over the financial world. The disintegration of centralized authority renders the world substantially less capable of addressing transnational challenges. For technological visionaries with vaulting ambitions and commensurate resources, the question of patriotism becomes moot. Musk plays an ever-greater role in deciding how space is explored. Facebook substitutes for the public square, civil society, and the social safety net, creating a blockchain-based currency that gains widespread usage.
The implications of a world in which techno-utopians call the shots are the hardest to tease out, in part because people are so accustomed to thinking of the state as the principal problem-solving actor. Governments would not go down without a fight. And the erosion of the U.S. government’s authority would not give techno-utopians free rein; the Chinese state would also need to suffer a collapse in domestic credibility. The less that governments stand in their way, the more techno-utopians will be able to shape the evolution of a new world order, for good and for ill.
A BRAVE NEW DIGITAL WORLD
A generation ago, the foundational premise of the Internet was that it would accelerate the globalization that transformed economics and politics in the 1990s. Many hoped that the digital age could foster the unfettered flow of information, challenging the grip of authoritarian holdouts who thought they could escape the so-called end of history. The picture is different today: a concentration of power in the hands of a few very large technology firms and the competing interventions of U.S.-, Chinese-, and EU-centered power blocs have led to a much more fragmented digital landscape.
The consequences for the future world order will be no less profound. Right now, the world’s largest technology firms are assessing how best to position themselves as Washington and Beijing steel themselves for protracted competition. The United States believes that its foremost geopolitical imperative is to prevent its displacement by its techno-authoritarian rival. China’s top priority is to ensure that it can stand on its own two feet economically and technologically before a coalition of advanced industrial democracies stifles its further expansion. Big Tech will tread cautiously for now to make sure it does not further compound government insecurity about losing authority.
But as U.S.-Chinese competition grows more entrenched, these firms will wield their leverage more proactively. If they manage to establish themselves as “the indispensable companies”—much like the United States considers itself “the indispensable nation”—the national champions will push for greater government subsidies and preferential treatment over their rivals. They will also press for greater decoupling, arguing that their vital work needs maximum protection from adversarial hacking.
The globalists will argue that governments will be unable to sustain economic and technological competitiveness over the long haul if they turn inward and adopt a bunker mentality. American globalists will note that big Asian and European companies, far from exiting China, are boosting their presence there—and that Washington will hurt only itself by forcing American companies out of the world’s largest consumer market. To preempt the government charge that they are putting their bottom lines above national security, they will argue that deeper levels of decoupling will inhibit U.S.-Chinese cooperation on urgent transnational challenges, such as deadly pandemics and climate change. The Chinese globalists will argue that the CCP’s ability to sustain robust growth—and therefore domestic legitimacy—will ride on whether China can establish itself as a hub of global innovation.
And the techno-utopians? They will be happy to work quietly, biding their time. While the national champions and the globalists duke it out over who will shape government policy, the techno-utopians will use traditional companies and decentralized projects, such as Ethereum, to explore new frontiers in digital space, such as the metaverse, or new approaches to providing essential services. They will strike an understanding tone when the U.S. government hauls them in before Congress every now and then, per usual, to denounce their egos and power, taking minimal steps to appease policymakers but deploying aggressive lobbying efforts to undermine any efforts by Washington to bring them to heel.
This does not mean that societies are heading toward a future that witnesses the demise of the nation-state, the end of governments, and the dissolution of borders. There is no reason to think these predictions are any more likely to come true today than they were in the 1990s. But it is simply no longer tenable to talk about big technology companies as pawns their government masters can move around on a geopolitical chessboard. They are increasingly geopolitical actors in and of themselves. And as U.S.-Chinese competition plays an increasingly dominant role in global affairs, they will hold growing leverage to shape how Washington and Beijing behave. Only by updating our understanding of their geopolitical power can we make better sense of this brave new digital world.