After an earthquake, people climb out from under their protective tables and doorways, look around, and try to make sense of the distorted landscape. After the political tectonics of 2016, Brexit and Trump, people did the same – a mood captured by P.J. O’Rourke in the title of his 2016 election memoir, How the Hell Did This Happen?
It wasn’t just in Britain and the U.S. that the ground moved. Across Europe nationalist parties have come to prominence, gaining power in Hungary and Poland. In France, the nationalists didn’t win but were defeated by Emmanuel Macron, whose En Marche party was only a year old. In Iceland, the Pirate Party, a five-year-old group whose symbol is a skull and crossbones flag, has fired a shot across the bow of the political establishment.
Prior to all of this, the Arab Spring toppled governments or ignited civil war in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen.
Companies, churches, and empires are the solid rocks that society is built on. These solid institutional rocks are floating on a swirling fluid magma of technology.
Different technologies support different institutions. The feudal church supported by swords and scriptoria is very different from the nation state supported by gunpowder and the printing press. Sailing ships support different-shaped empires than railway lines.
The technology layer is fluid, elastic, and constantly shifting. The institutions it supports are heavy, solid, and, ultimately, brittle. Institutions can be built on what look like solid foundations, but those foundations move and can tear apart the very thing they’re supposed to hold up.
In the 1850s telegraph wires bound the British Empire together. During the Indian Rebellion in 1857 the telegraph enabled British troops to communicate better than the rebels and suppress the mutiny. Fifty years later, rapid telegraphic communications enabled the cascade of events that triggered World War I, that unprecedented bonfire of empires.
Gunpowder enabled the formation of large armies of untrained men and hence large states. Gunpowder morphed into high explosives and then into nuclear weapons. States became empires became superpowers. The superpowers’ most powerful weapons are too dangerous to use – nuclear weapons haven’t been used since Nagasaki in 1945 but explosives in the form of Stinger missiles and car bombs or IEDs are now the weapon on choice against superpowers.
Those of us who live on top of geological fault lines have a visceral understanding of plate tectonics. Those of us who live amongst institutions whose technological foundations have moved will become familiar with state tectonics.
Several magmatic currents are tearing at the foundations of our social order. We are living on top of a complex fracture zone.
Social media has democratised propaganda. Where broadcast media once consolidated opinion and allowed the manufacture of consent, social media fragments opinion and enables strife. An Egyptian president of thirty years can be deposed by a hashtag. Fifty gigatons of Soviet warheads did nothing to lessen American power but $200-worth of Russian Facebook ads caused riots in American streets.
The printing press made us all readers, ended five centuries of feudalism, and gave birth to the modern age. Social media makes us all writers, persuaders, and propagandists and will upend the “broad church” political parties that have been at the centre of modern democracy.
Cyberwarfare has given the power to destroy infrastructure to anyone who can download a piece of code. The Wannacry ransomware worm brought British hospitals to their knees. The sort of havoc that used to require an air force is now available to anyone who can Google “EternalBlue”.
Information technology can either give us the tools to distribute and decentralise the electrical grid and make it highly resilient or provide the tools to cut off the lifeblood of civilisation.
Cryptocurrencies threaten the monopoly that governments have on issuing money. Taxation depends on knowing who earns what. Governments balance their books by expanding the supply of paper money. If either of these abilities disappears, everything we know about modern welfare states is up for grabs.
Bitcoin may or not be around in ten years but, either way, money printing and government debt is going to cause a crisis that will change money forever. Whether we end up with gold, IMF Special Drawing Rights, or a novel electronic currency is still to be decided but the existing order won’t last.
Machine learning, 3D printing, and robotics make it possible to manufacture all manner of goods with almost no staff. Where factories used to provide thousands of solid jobs, capital is often now cheaper than labour.
The Luddites tried to reverse the first industrial revolution by smashing weaving looms. History shows that the Luddites were wrong and that the industrial revolution created far more jobs and wealth than it cost. Automation and artificial intelligence will create even vastly more wealth but what will our relationship with the machines look like?
Quakes caused by any of these rifts could be dramatic. Together they’ll reshape the societal landscape like nothing we’ve ever seen and the results are unknowable.
Five hundred years ago, similar forces reshaped Europe in the Reformation. Gunpowder and the printing press reduced city walls to rubble and ended the Church’s monopoly on Biblical interpretation. Both books and firearms were used in service of the Church but the changes they brought about inevitably swept feudalism away. Luther believed he was returning the Church to its origins but unwittingly launched Europe on the path to science and democracy, to secular humanism, via the catastrophe of the Thirty Years’ War.
The new reformation that we’re embarking on will have equally unknowable results. The question is: how can we survive and prosper through it?