Editors Note: This article is the first part in a series on how technology disrupts politics. The topic today is communications technology.
History books are filled with kings, emperors, and presidents. When historians explain how society is shaped, they give politics a leading role. However, one important actor on the world stage is often missing from the story: technology. Most people intuitively understand that technology transforms society and the way we live, but few pay attention to how disruptive it can be to politics, the rule of law and the world order.
One modern example is the container ship. Most people don’t know that this invention didn’t exist before 1956, and even fewer are aware that it nearly single-handedly enabled the global economy. Before the standardized container ship, shipping was very expensive, and most goods had to be produced locally. Global trade was a curiosity reserved for luxury and specialty items. Without the container ship, neither Japan nor China would be economic superpowers today. It reshaped the world economy and thus the world order.
However, one disruptive technology is well known to historians: Gutenberg’s printing press. It did to the written word what the container did to global trade. Gutenberg’s invention brought the price of books down to such affordable levels that it democratized knowledge. Before the printing press, book knowledge was a well-kept secret privileged only to the church and to the ruling elite.
Gutenberg enabled an information revolution. Without the printing press, there would have been no reformation of the church. Protestantism would not exist. At first, the dissemination of the Bible to the masses created religious wars, but eventually the peace that ensued after people were tired of warfare resulted in the political notion of the separation of church and state.
The founding fathers had printed books by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke in their libraries. Leading up to the American Revolution, Thomas Paine’s classic book “Common Sense” became a bestseller in America, and a significant portion of the population read it. “Common Sense” laid the foundation for widespread support for independence. Without the printing press, this would have been practically unthinkable.
Fast-forward to present day, and we are currently in the midst of a second information revolution, which appears to be even more disruptive than the printing press. The internet is doing to the media what Gutenberg did to the Roman Catholic Church.
Until very recently, all people got their information through established news corporations. Now more and more are getting their news and knowledge from smaller, more agile alternative sources, such as Liberty Nation.
These new media outlets are now changing politics.
There is a growing recognition that the internet and alternative media played a vital role, not only in Brexit but also in the election of President Donald Trump. Trump spent far less money on advertising and campaigning than any other presidential candidate in recent history. Instead, he actively used Twitter and social media to make his positions known to the American public – without the middle man.
Most likely, these are just baby steps in a radical and permanent transformation of the way politics is communicated to and with the public. In the future, the mainstream media centered on the century old one-way TV model will have a severely diminished role. It will probably be replaced by a diverse ecosystem of individuals and small groups.
We already see the contours of this development, through internet celebrities such as Mike Cernovich and Stefan Molyneux. Cernovich is an independent journalist whose Tweets have been seen by more than one hundred million. Molyneux runs what he calls “the biggest philosophy show in the world” and has more than half a million subscribers on YouTube.
However, history and recent events give us a forewarning of what may be in store for us in coming years. The Roman Catholic Church met Martin Luther’s translation and spreading of the Bible to ordinary people with fierce resistance. Europe was thrust into religious war and conflict as the establishment attempted to outlaw and persecuted the dissidents.
The inklings of such a conflict are brewing today. The establishment tries to attach the “fake news” narrative to the alternative media, and the authorities in many countries have pressured corporations such as Google and Facebook to censor, filter, demonetize and deplatform what they deem as “hate speech” and “fake news.” No one’s being burned at the stake – but you get the idea.
In fact, one of the leading characteristics of politically disruptive technologies seems to be that those who feel politically threatened by them try to ban or severely curb their usage. Therefore, awareness and understanding are crucial to anyone who is interested in politics.