The story of barbed wire is one of the most instructive ones in the history of technology. The short version is this: barbed wire (developed between 1860 to 1873) helped close the American frontier, carved out the killing fields of World War I, and by spurring the development of the tank as a counter-weapon, created industrial-era land warfare. It also ended the age-old global conflict between pastoral nomads and settled agriculturalists (of animals, vegetables and minerals) and handed a decisive victory to the latter. Cowboys and Indians alike were on the wrong side of the barbed wire fence. Quite a record for a technology that had little deep science or engineering behind it.
Barbed wire is an example of a proximal-cause technology that eventually disturbed multiple human balances of powers, starting with the much-mythologized cowboys-versus-ranchers balance. When things finally stabilized, a new technological world order had emerged, organizing everything from butter to guns differently. Barbed wire was not a disruptive innovation in the Clayton Christensen sense. It was something far bigger. Its introduction marked what Marshall McLuhan called a break boundary in technological evolution: a rapid, irreversible and wholesale undermining of a prevailing planet-wide technological equilibrium. So ironically, the ultimate boundary-maker of physical geography was a boundary breaker in technology history.
The story of barbed wire illustrates the core principle that I want to propose: an equilibrium in technological affairs is necessary for an equilibrium in political affairs. There is no possibility of a realpolitik equilibrium without a corresponding realtechnik equilibrium: a prevailing, delicately balanced configuration of technological forces across an entire connected political-economic-cultural space (which today is always the entire planet).
I mean the term realtechnik in the obvious way suggested by the analogy to realpolitik: a pragmatic, rather than ideological approach to arranging human affairs in relation to the technological environment (I can’t claim credit for the term; as far as I can determine, it was introduced by Sherry Turkle in her 2011 book Alone Together, which I haven’t yet read. Her definition seems sufficiently close to mine, so I won’t attempt to distinguish between the two).
Realtechnik is a conscious, pragmatic human process and stands in contrast to the sort of “what technology wants” view I explored earlier. Realtechnik is about what humans want and what they do to get it. And I am increasingly beginning to believe that it is humans who ultimately prevail. They do so primarily by abandoning certain technological possibilities in favor of others.
The sorts of coherent and active agency implied or assumed by various forms of the question “what technology wants” (ranging from the Singularitarian notion of self-improving AI technology to “constructal theory” to my own relatively modest proposal of a “baroque unconscious”) are entertaining to think about, but cannot yet be taken seriously. They do not represent any kind of agency that competes with human agency. At best, we can project our own hopes and fears onto blind technological forces. Andrew McAfee’s recent revival of 1960s style automation anxiety is a recent example. The threat of collapse triggered by technological complexity and entropy is another sort of projected agency.
Realtechnik equilibria do not just happen. They are consciously engineered by key architects, the Bismarcks and George Kennans of technology. The last two such architects in America were J. P Morgan and Vannevar Bush. In terms of my terminology from my earlier post on future nausea, they defined the contours of the “new normal” for technology. Such definition usually happens via the creation of powerful new institutions that govern future technological evolution. In the United States, Morgan was responsible for catalyzing the emergence of institutions ranging from the Interstate Commerce Commission in its modern form to the Federal Reserve. Bush was responsible for the creation of what is now DARPA, as well as the modern research university (through his introduction of funding models that favored institutional development along certain lines over others).
Like the realpolitik equilibrium that follows it, the realtechnik equilibrium has the characteristics of a détente: not only is there an equilibrium, but there is a general easing of tensions and competitive fervor. The technological forces that participate in the balance of power ease up. The action shifts to new loci not just because technology wants to, but because realtechnik architects decide it needs to.
But realtechnik equilibria do not represent an across-the-board slowing of technological change. Merely the replacement of an era of unbridled, violent change with one of measured, controlled change, characterized by détente on some fronts and intensified activity on others, with the aggregate of all deployed energies experiencing a certain reduction in magnitude.
The Realpolitik-Realtechnik Tango
Realpolitik in the political sphere is about pragmatically assessing the capabilities of all actors and figuring out a way to accommodate their motivations through pre-emptive design rather than through direct competition (which in politics amounts to open warfare between or within nations). It is a natural behavior for a species smart enough to simulate futures and skip ahead to inevitable outcomes.
If adopted by a large enough quorum of powerful agents, the process tends to lead to political détente: stable equilibria that allow for a temporary relaxation of on-edge vigilance, a slowing-down of arms races and active maneuvering for advantage.
This kind of equilibrium requires an all-around consensus that no side has a decisive advantage, and that there is no point to active conflict. Or put another way, the impact of the last big shock to an established political order has run its course. All actors affected by it have factored the new capabilities all around into their calculations and concluded that the bulk of the power shift is over. The dust has settled. People believe they know how things will end, and agree to skip to the end. Old actors may want to begin negotiations while they still have power, and emerging ones may want to delay, but all agree to avoid more painful routes.
Doing those calculations and convincing all parties of their correctness constitute the work of engineering a realpolitik equilibrium. A “New Order” is recognized by all with power to disrupt it. This recognition includes early legitimization of any new political actors who might have earned a place at the table, graceful delegitimization of any political actors who have lost power, and collective intimidation-into-submission of any minor remaining parties who might disagree with the premises of the new order.
I want to make a strong claim: realpolitik equilibria are only disrupted by technological changes. If there is no major technology change, political actors who are unhappy with the prevailing order, no matter how cleverly they attempt to reorganize, will not succeed in creating a stable new order with a different power structure. A reason to do things differently is not sufficient. Different means must become available.
Unhappiness with the prevailing order is generally embodied by nascent political classes that have not yet coalesced into coherent political actors with defined institutional forms. I suspect every major equilibrium shift is accompanied by the rise of at least one new kind of political actor, and the eclipse of one existing actor.
Efficient Politics and Efficient War
A new realtechnik equilibrium must emerge before the corresponding new realpolitik equilibrium can emerge. This is simply because the realpolitik calculations are intractable before the technological dust settles. Once they start to settle, the emerging patterns of power become relatively obvious, and can be efficiently codified in the form of new institutions.
In fact, making politics tractable again is the whole point of seeking a new realtechnik equilibrium, even if it means giving up some potential technological value. The dangers of unbridled technological change are precisely the dangers represented by an ever-widening gap between technological and political capabilities.
This is a sort of loose Efficient Politics hypothesis, with consensual appreciation of technological capability playing the role of market information: the marketplace of political power (eventually) correctly values and reflects the new distribution of technological capabilities.
You could even say that politics is the continuation of technology by other means, just as war is a continuation of politics by other means. Finishing the loop, we can note the military origins of most major technological shifts, and argue that technology is the continuation of war by other means.
In fact, extending the argument about nascent actors coalescing in each new technological era, we can speculate that this class becomes militarily active before it becomes politically active. The relationship between the rise of the English yeoman and the longbow, the labor movement and the industrial factory and most recently, Middle Eastern peoples and the cellphone, illustrate this point (McLuhan has much to say about this sort of thing and his notions of hot and cold media are mildly helpful in predicting what sorts of new political actors might be favored by specific new technologies).
Let me add a speculative sidebar about an analogous phenomenon in military affairs.
Military equilibrium is distinct from either political or technological equilibrium. There is no word (that I know of) for the phenomenon of war being pragmatically conducted for the purposes of arranging a new, purely military equilibrium rather than a victory in the immediate conflict, but examples exist.
At the tail end of World War II, once the fall of Germany became a certainty, the Allied military objective shifted to creating a favorable military equilibrium with the Soviet forces advancing from the East, for future purposes. That reasoning drove the race to Berlin. The purpose was not to win the current war, but to define positions for the potential next war (and the politics and technology in between).
We might say that this is Efficient War: military events designed to create configurations that reflect actual military power, factoring in the lessons of the current war. This is a more generous reading of the modern conduct of war than the normal one: rather than generals being prepared to fight the last war, you could say that once outcomes become relatively certain, they finish current wars with an eye on future wars.
We could call this speculative kind of pragmatism realconflikt. Speculative because I am not entirely certain the history of war admits this reading, outside of isolated regions and eras. By contrast, realpolitik and realtechnik appear to be the default way of conducting affairs in the respective spheres, with ideology only occasionally gaining primacy, during the startup phase when new political actors cohere. Once they cohere, the inertia of their new institutions takes over and the ideology becomes dispensable.
Technology as Sufficient Cause
I want to propose a stronger model: technological change is not only necessary for political change, it is in fact sufficient. At least when the change is sufficiently large (a weasel clause, yes). By political change, I mean substantive change in realpolitik equilibrium arrangements, primarily via the introduction and/or elimination of specific actors (or in lesser cases, a refactoring of old actors, such as the replacement of institutions based on ethnicity with ones based on class, with no change in the individuals represented).
It is important to note that the domestic versus international distinction is irrelevant here, because nation-states themselves are political actors whose institutional forms are determined by realtechnik dynamics. In the ongoing political churn for instance, we might argue that nation states might end up as relatively weak institutions on the Internet, compared to corporations and multi-state groups.
This is a relatively strong form of technological determinism in the spirit of Joel Mokyr and Marshall McLuhan. Technology confines politics and defines the canvas on which realpolitik evolves. So Industrial Age technology, you might say, eliminated non-ceremonial monarchies, colonialism and certain varieties of large-scale fascism everywhere it went (even as it appeared to initially enable some of them). It left enough room for only two political ideologies: liberal democracy and communism. Electronics technology we might speculate, further narrowed the space to allow only one ideology: liberal democracy. This is an alternative technological way to understand Fukuyama’s End of History argument, and in my opinion a more powerful argument.
The technological determinism argument is implicit in Fukuyama’s models of history and institutional evolution, via the idea of the Hegelian Slave self-actualizing through “work” (i.e., technology-making), which is an activity that is different from the Hegelian Master (Barbarian-Sociopath in our little universe here) business of zero-sum war-making. But it is much easier to see the logic of the “End of History” argument when the role of technology is made explicit.
Not everybody buys this argument. Fareed Zakaria in particular, argued that illiberal democracies were also possible. I used to find that argument compelling a few years ago, but now that the pattern of the impact of the Internet on illiberal societies is becoming clear, I no longer believe it. Even the Middle East is going to slowly liberalize as it democratizes. It is a tiny, but meaningful sign that Saudi Arabia sent women to the Olympics for the first time in 2012.
But I am not married to this argument about the sufficiency of technological change for political change. Necessity is sufficient for me. Sufficiency is not necessary.
Transforming Technological Power into Political Power
Realtechnik equilibria are expedient arrangements of technological affairs. When a government uses its research funding budget to fund a multibillion dollar nanotechnology laboratory, it does so by not funding something else.
The most consequential of such decisions arise precisely when a new wave of technology, rushing from a break boundary, is creating new wealth and power in ways not comprehended by existing political institutions. So it was with the huge Robber Baron corporations in an era where the American political mind had been shaped by small businesses, free agency and an entrepreneurial workforce. And so it is now with the Internet.
This means that old political institutions aren’t just weak with respect to the new challenges. This weakness begins to undermine their legitimacy and erode their power even where they are capable of operating effectively. While such undermining is going on, the early work of arranging the new technological equilibrium is done by new actors with de facto political power, but no de jure political status. So until nation states learn to engage Facebook and Google, they are effectively outlaw political entities that issue the equivalents of passports and currencies. They might pass a more basic test of political legitimacy (tacit consent of the governed, given that we are not fleeing en masse), but they are not themselves governed in any meaningful way via accountability mechanisms. We are forced to rely on imperial don’t be evil affirmations.
When the momentum of such ungoverned technological self-organization builds to a certain point, new political institutions start to emerge. When these institutions are recognized and engaged by existing institutions with nominal legitimacy, the work of realtechnik engineering slows down and the work of realpolitik engineering begins. Such was the transition of power from J. P. Morgan (a private banker who effectively managed the US economy for almost a decade) to the Federal Reserve between 1910 – 1913, for instance. Other examples include the “governmentization” of standard time zones first introduced as de facto standards by the railroads, once “national time” was recognized as a new institution worth absorbing into existing political processes.
This process of gradual politicization of technology is contentious, but not in the usual sense of big government versus small government debates. Those tend to involve old technologies that have already been normalized into the mainstream (in America, they include guns, birth control and the rest of the laundry list of usual suspects).
The new political debates revolve not around the extent of government involvement in governing newly normalized realities, but the form of involvement. The debates triggered by the new technologies — SOPA/PIPA, Bilski, Net Neutrality, the role of the SEC in governing things like Kickstarter — are much murkier than those triggered by old ones like guns and birth control pills.
It is my belief that notions of “liberal” and “conservative” (which map to nominally big and small government today) will get refactored before the new debates get resolved. Because the new technologies make nonsense of old political constructs and boundaries.
As an example, in the ongoing Obama-Romney race, the debate around making a living revolves around saving manufacturing jobs from China, whereas the technological edge has already concluded that the real debate revolves around saving information work from automation.
And this is not just a fringe Silicon Valley view from Rent-and-Ramen free agents oblivious to their own deluded destitution. Mainstream thinkers are now reaching similar conclusions (an example is technology-skeptic Pankaj Ghemawat with his save work, not jobs slogan).
Technological Triumphalism and Technological Longing
If an attempt at engineering a realtechnik equilibrium succeeds, evolution slows down or stops entirely on some fronts (occasionally even reversing, as in the case of ballistic missiles), but intensifies and accelerates around others.
This is because the détente, besides creating new power equations, also abandons certain possibilities in order to pursue other possibilities more aggressively and systematically (that is, with suitable catalytic institutions in place). Usually the logic is macroeconomic: partition the frontier of possibilities into those representing diminishing returns and those representing high returns, and concentrate (declining in the aggregate) energies on the latter.
This is not very different from military commanders choosing to concentrate forces.
In American in the early 1900s, the front abandoned was the vast interior. The front chosen for more intensive development was the emerging urban landscape. Though there were still interesting possibilities to be pursued in things like railroads, mining and oil, it was the emerging urban landscape that was far more attractive. New entrepreneurs sprouted up in second-order industrialization sectors like retailing, real-estate development, construction, bicycles, automobiles (more a local than cross-country vehicle), leading to suburbanization and the rise of the new middle class.
But this shift, while suggested by naturally shifting patterns of economic activity, was not entirely natural. Regulatory mechanisms clamping down on the closing frontiers, and new amplifier institutions emerging on the chosen opened-up frontiers, helped direct and intensify this activity.
(It may help to think of this as a sort of technological crop rotation: closed frontiers may be reopened for further cultivation at a later date).
This collective rejection of some possibilities and embrace of others creates two basic narratives around every new realtechnik equilibrium: narratives of triumph and narratives of longing.
Around the turn of the last century, Americans mourned the closing of the interior and the Wild West. They also celebrated the rise of the new, urban middle class, the emergence of new art movements and urban institutions involved in new patterns of urban economic expansion.
More recently, the equilibrium following the second world war opened up the frontier represented by electronics and computing but closed down the frontier represented by aerospace engineering.
This last point can be difficult to appreciate. Post World War II American aerospace engineering was after all, a spectacular triumph in many ways. It got to the Moon.
Nevertheless, it represented a détente: a slowing down of the frantic and unbridled development in the industry between 1905 and World War II. Instead of a thriving entrepreneurial scene, aerospace became a government-dominated domain that experienced gradual consolidation.
The drama of the Space Race blinds us to the fact that aerospace was effectively reined in as a technological frontier not in the 1970s after Apollo, but around 1945. From a purely engineering point of view, the biggest leaps ahead happened before 1945. Today, all aerospace engineering around the world is a heavily regulated government sector.
The cost of the abandonment of a frontier is a sense of collective failure. A society whose imagination has been stretched by the possibility of colonizing the Moon will necessarily view any reality that does not actualize and normalize that possibility as a failure. But note that the imagination-stretching began long before the end of the Moon Race. Flash Gordon began exploring other planets in 1934.
Triumphalist narratives on the other hand, represent actualities rather than pure fictions. The American Dream based on home ownership, the idea of marrying the boy or girl next door and raising a nuclear family, keeping up with the Joneses, the idea of college as a necessary life stage — these form the canvas for realist fiction rather than science fiction or fantasy.
Technological Longing versus Future Nausea
This position I am outlining in this post is weaker and more conservative than the one I outlined in my recent post on the idea of future nausea and manufactured normalcy. There, I argued that there were social orders (for example, “Dark Age” eras or a polycentric condition of lots of little normalcy bubbles) that might represent a condition of sustained nausea (or equivalently, failed realtechnik engineering, with consequences similar to a reactor meltdown).
I now think sustained future nausea is unlikely to get too extreme. We give up on what cannot be economically normalized, settle for lesser realtechniks than the ones we anticipated, and experience a sense of failure and technological longing.
A lot of people (at last count, these included Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk — who appears to be doing something about it — and perhaps Obama, with his rather nostalgic call for a new Sputnik moment) are currently expressing a great deal of technological longing, but it is a longing that belongs in the last chapter of technology evolution, not the current one, since it concerns the aerospace frontier, abandoned in 1945, as its main motif (Curiosity notwithstanding).
In terms of the concepts I introduced in the future nausea post, extended nauseous futures are simply rejected by human societies and the future is limited to what can be normalized.
The creation of a new realtechnik equilibrium is in a sense the “back end” work corresponding to the design of new “user experiences” (the manufactured normalcy field). I am not yet sure what the mechanism might be, but I suspect it is simple social darwinism, consciously amplified by a handful of people who happen to be in the right places at the right time. Attempts to create non-normalized realities simply fail and die, or turn into marginal futurist subcultures of the sort I talked about in the Future Nausea post.
Towards an Internet Realtechnik
Where does that leave us?
Inevitably headed towards another equilibrium. Parts of the Internet as a frontier are going to be decisively shut down, despite tantalizing possibilities remaining. Too many people are throwing up. The sociological g-forces are too high for the majority to handle.
The technological peace being gradually brokered by the big players will eventually make enough sense that even politicians will get it. They will then step in to transition to a realpolitik conversation. In twenty years, we will be making up “we did not return to the Moon” type narratives around the abandoned possibilities of the Internet (Semantic Web anyone?), and living out new normal lives on the frontiers not abandoned.
What remains unclear is what frontiers are being opened up.
Like urbanization in the early twentieth century, which rested on the new industrial foundations sprawling across the continent, the new frontiers will certainly need to rest on the capabilities of the newly quiescent Internet. The stable foundation is clear. In some sense, the Internet will recede from our lives as an active presence and become part of the quiet background, much like farms, oil refineries, ballistic missiles and container ships today.
What sort of new way of life will be built on these foundations, with new-normal folkways, is not clear.
My approach to figuring it out is to follow the most visibly transforming folkway: work. Cities represented the locus for the transformation of agricultural labor (animal, vegetable and mineral — green and brown collar) into industrial (blue and white collar) labor. Along with the new workways came a whole new way of life.
But for now, the future remains nauseatingly foggy. The settling techno-geological layers are still too prone to Moore’s Law aftershocks. Governments still have no real clue how to engage Google, Amazon and Facebook (they are just starting to figure out Microsoft and Apple). New institutions are just twinkles in the eyes of social revolutionaries. Lifestyle designers represent isolated individual lives rather than new-normal lives.
And for some of us, the new normal cannot arrive soon enough. We could use a break. Technological détente can start to seem pretty attractive if you’ve been violently throwing up for more than a few years. I am not among the discontents of realtechnik.
Peace and Excelsior!