In the Loop (On Technology and Politics)

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The feedback loop between politics and technology appears to be one of the most potent motors of human history, its pace quickening with each innovation cycle.

In the antiquity, the Greek city states and the Persian and Roman Empires created the necessary conditions and incentives for mathematicians and engineers to pursue specific technologies, such as aqueducts and catapults. Later, the feedback loop began closing, with technological advances directly informing the political system — in Marx’s words:

“The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”

Fast-forwarding to today, much has been written about the way in which new communication tools have enabled the resurgence of popular and populist movements in the Middle East, Europe and the USA. It is also often argued that it is politics that is bound to play catch-up in this process, with technological firms leading the way towards decentralization and acceleration.

But, in light of recent political developments around immigration, the feedback loop appears to be promptly working its way in the reverse direction. Politics, in fact, seem bound to dislodge the barycenter of technological innovation from its current established poles. Technology has thrived in environments characterized by diversity and mobility. Financial tech firms have found fertile ground in London and Internet companies have taken over Silicon Valley. But the threat, even if not yet directly enforced, of new walls and restrictions in the UK and USA is pushing gifted PhD students and Post-Docs to choose alternative destinations, such as Canada, New Zealand, Mexico and Singapore.

Looking further ahead in the future, to update Marx’s quote, 3D printing may give us a post-scarcity and post-work society. As imagined by Cory Doctorow in “Walkaway“, if tools such as 3D printers fulfill their promises, objects and foodstuffs will be just a few clicks away, produced with close to zero cost by repurposing unused materials and by transforming bits into things. In an economy of abundance, there would be no need to keep jobs, maintain a currency, protect private property or support the current education system. This would strip the nation state of its main functions and usher in new ways of organizing societies — and, inevitably, new technologies.

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