New Technologies and Their Megapolitical Consequences

Jun 02, 2016

Alternative title: Room for Improvement.

While we’ve written a lot about what new technologies can do and what features they offer, it would be myopic to think that the technologies we create and the uses we design them for exist without consequence—in particular political. How will new technologies change constituents’ relationship with their government? How will new products influence that balance of power?

This question became relevant in light of yesterday’s announcement that the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund would invest $3.5B in Uber. Most surprising was the different reactions people had. After reading through many, it seems they can be decomposed into two principal components:

Saudi Arabia is a dictatorial regime with numerous human rights abuses therefore how could something good possibly come of this?

Here is an example of this school of thought.

While the first part of this sentence is true - Saudi Arabia has had documented human rights violations in the past, it shuts out any room for improvement and ignores the possibility that technology has the ability to foster exchange and dialogue that can affect change. In dismissing the information as regressive, we subscribe ourselves to the exact regressive view that we reject: by basing our opinion on past behaviors, we leave no chance that technology can introduce change that could shake the makeup of society.

Put differently, exclusively subscribing to this viewpoint is akin to the ostrich that burrows its head beneath the ground when it sees something it doesn’t like, or the elementary school teacher that believes that people are static — why invest time trying to help an underperforming student? It’s a veiled form of Western elitism that we should be mindful of. After all, Albert Einstein was “a hopeless student,” according to his professor.

As for the second component:

This is actually progress. Even though KSA has a history of human rights violations, it could be a really good thing, both for KSA SWF’s bottom line, and for the Saudi population.

Low oil prices are putting the Kingdom in a bind and are introducing the opportunity for change. Whether you believe the net result will be positive or negative, the modern day Middle East is in a precious tug-of-war between a young populace that wants to live a “normal” life, connected to a global community, both culturally and economically, and a fundamentalist school of thought that is a symptom of oil politics and some of the ugliest gerrymandering ever done (Sykes-Picot, anyone?).

Nobody really knows what the Middle East will look like in 10 years, let alone 50, but opening up and investing in technology and R&D could be a promising start. Time and again, technology has demonstrated itself as a catalyst of societal change. The mega-political consequences that our technologies bring cannot be ignored nor repudiated; instead, they must be reckoned with as both cause and consequence of our global economy. It is this capitalist economy, compromised of many cultures, societies, nation-states and many competing value systems that shares one common value: to enhance its own efficiency. Not only should we proceed with the tolerant, optimistic mindset inherent to our so-called millennium generation, but we should recognize that, at least in that, we share a common Darwinian thread.