Big Tech's big challenge to the global order

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Read Ian Bremmer's wide-ranging essay in Foreign Affairs that puts in perspective both the challenge, and the opportunity, that comes from the unprecedented power of Big Tech.

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here on the road, something we haven't done very much recently, but will increasingly as we try to move through COVID. And I want to talk to you about a new article that I just put out in Foreign Affairs that I'm calling "The Technopolar Moment." Not unipolar, not bipolar, not multipolar, technopolar. What the hell does technopolar mean?

It means that increasingly big technology companies are themselves geopolitical actors. So to understand the future of the world, you can't just look at the United States, Europe and China. You need to look at the big tech companies, too.


Now I'm saying that. I never felt that way about big oil or about the banks or any other major multinationals. And the reason for that is because they all exist in real physical space. And as a consequence, they are regulated in physical space or sometimes not effectively regulated. But nonetheless it is inside sovereign government entities, and their territories that they exist.

Technology companies actually have sovereignty over their digital space. They not only determine what the rules are going to be. But they actually create it from the ground up. They're the architects. They drive the algorithms. They own the data. They decide what to do with it. I mean, everything about that space is the mandate of the tech companies themselves. And that is the kind of power in digital space that increasingly feels like a parallel world to physical space where governments are in charge.

And so we see a couple of interesting things that come from this. First of all, I first became aware of this after January 6th. By far the biggest event that had transpired in terms of domestic political stability, instability of my lifetime by a domestic actor. And the response did not come from Congress, did not come from the executive, did not come from the judiciary. They all failed to act.

The responses came from the tech companies deciding to de-platform Parler, Amazon and Apple, de-platforming the sitting President of the United States by Facebook and by Twitter. And to the extent that people were eventually arrested and then tried, that came because of information they had posted on social media platforms. Now those companies, I mean, no one's voted for their rules. They decide in a kind of capricious way, what they do or don't want to do to respond.

I'm not saying that they didn't take responsible decisions. That's an entirely different point. But the fact was, they exerted sovereignty. It wasn't just true about January 6th. Was true, the most important attacks on the United States and on its allies, last year was the SolarWinds attack. And the US government and the Europeans weren't even aware of the attacks when they occurred. It was Microsoft that found out about them. And they were the ones that, with other private sector companies, figured out how to attack back.

In other words, whether you're talking about the economy or politics or national security, as all of those areas increasingly moved to a mixture of the virtual world and physical space, and as tech companies dominate the virtual space, they increasingly exert sovereignty. And so if we want to understand what the world is going to look like in 10 to 20 years and the balance of global power, we need to understand what drives these tech companies. What kind of actors are they? What do they want? What are they orienting towards? And then see which of those models are likely to play out what the balance of power looks like, including them as geopolitical actors.

Now, two other things I want to say aside from "read the piece "so you can see what I have to say about all this. The first is, to the extent that we need to think about how these firms operate. Well with governments, we think about whether or not they're democracies or authoritarian regimes. And of course, no one is the perfect democracy. No one's really a perfect authoritarian regime. But you exist on a spectrum. Some countries are vastly more authoritarian, North Korea on one end, China and Russia towards that end. Some countries are much more democratic, Germany, Canada on one side, the United States towards that side, but slipping down, countries like Hungary and Turkey, not so much.

Okay. In the technology space, there is no tech typology. We don't have one. All we think is, "Well, they want to make money." But actually, if you think about the relationship of these companies to the state, they do have very different models. In fact, I'd argue they have three. One is the globalist model, kind of an outgrowth of their historic libertarianism, which is don't get involved. Don't regulate me. We want to have strong lobbying that allows us to capture regulations of the public sector. We want to be dominant in the space, be able to write the rules that the government will use to regulate us and achieve, maintain monopoly status in spaces that we exist in. I would argue that Apple is much closer to that kind of a model, Tencent, for example, in China.

And there's also national champions. And national champions are the technology equivalents of Lockheed in the 20th century, but for the 21st century. And these are companies that actually want to align with governments, think of the governments as very important partners. And they're not trying to invest as much in a global world, but instead understand there's going to be a much more fragmented world. I would argue that Microsoft is more in that direction, Amazon to a degree, Google a little bit. And they're balancing more between the two. And in the case of China, a company like Huawei would certainly be in that environment.

And then finally you have techno utopians, people that believe driving their corporations, that the government is literally going to go away. They're not going to be relevant in their space. I think Vitalik Buterin from Ethereum would definitely be in that space where he thinks that the future of currency will be crypto and not sovereign currencies, not fiat currencies anymore. So the government just won't matter in the digital space. It will be crypto. And some of what Elon Musk is trying to do with space is in that orbit. Some of what Mark Zuckerberg talks about in the metaverse would look like that. China used to have someone like that in terms of Jack Ma, but they don't anymore because they certainly don't want that model to exist in China.

The big remaining question then is where do we go from here? Who's going to win? And it's too early to say. But it's really interesting to play out three quick thoughts. One to the extent the globalists win, which means that the governments don't continue to do a lousy job of regulating the space. They don't align with the corporates. The corporates would rather continue to capture the regulatory space, that implies, we don't have a technology cold war between the US and China. Global models for technology continue to work more effectively over time. And it means Europe is actually much more important because they probably to the extent that anyone is developing effective rules of the road. They're going to be better at that, more thoughtful at that than the Americans or Chinese would be.

If the national champion model wins, then it is the Chinese continue to focus on squeezing the private sector. Everyone has to align with the government. The Americans increasingly do that too. It becomes a technology cold war. And there's very little space for Europe. In fact, everybody else needs to align to one or the other.

And then finally, you have the techno utopians. And it's hard for this to play out what happens to the world if the techno utopians win. Because in part it depends on if they win at what? Do they win at currency? In which case, central banks start mattering a lot less. And the US looks like it's in decline. Why? Because you no longer have the global reserve currency as the US dollar.

What happens if the metaverse ends up being a space that's completely ungoverned by the United States and other governments? Well, it means the governments will be expected to do a lot less. Federal power will erode. And the social contract will be driven either by those corporations in those spaces or not at all, a lot more inequality in that kind of an environment. Anyway, a lot to think about here, a piece that I've been considering pieces of for a long time now. I hope you find it worthwhile and we'll be talking more soon. Be good.

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