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A War of World-Building

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A War of World-Building

As human life migrates to a new technological domain, powerful states race to write its rules. April 3, 2022
Technology and Innovation
The Social Order

In his book The Imperative of Responsibility, the philosopher Hans Jonas—who wrote his doctoral dissertation under Martin Heidegger but later repudiated his mentor—describes the profound transformation that modern technology has brought about in man’s relationship with nature. The Greeks, he says, were quite capable of praising humanity’s powers to transform the natural environment, but those powers remained within sharp limits. Our inroads into nature were essentially superficial. There was harmony in the end because human activity left the encompassing nature fundamentally unchanged. At most, it scratched the surface.

All this changed in modern times, the age of the Anthropocene, when human activity became, first, a much more relentless and limitless exploitation of natural resources, and then, a course of conquest tending invariably to the wholesale replacement of nature by a human-built world. Jonas takes a pessimistic and even despairing interpretation of these developments. Human beings cannot survive as a species if nature does not survive, so the ethical imperative today is to make sure that the conditions for human life are preserved. The Imperative of Responsibility is a book about the collapse of the natural world and the need to find a new balance.

But the contrast so vividly captured by Jonas has another dimension—a geopolitical one. In this age of human-built worlds, to whom falls the task of building? As Jonas put it, human power was once essentially superficial. A natural world remained outside our reach and could play the role of arbiter between different powers. Even the Cold War, a conflict rooted in the mastery over the atom and thus a conflict of the Anthropocene, still appealed to the impartial judgment of history. Whether the Soviet Union or the United States would ultimately prevail depended on which contestant was on the right side of history. Did they have the right beliefs and institutions to grow stronger over time? Did they control the forces of historical development? The conviction, which both sides shared, that a higher authority would ultimately decide the matter helped keep the Cold War contained within certain limits.

The situation is fundamentally different in a human-built world. In such a world there is no recourse to an external authority. The engineering power has set the rules in advance and alone enjoys root access to them. Other actors may even take the external environment as somehow natural or inescapable. They have no way to access the most important levers and switches of power. The world in this case is American or Chinese. Naturally, in a Chinese world the rules are predetermined to favor China; in an American-built world the rules will favor America.

The history of these changes is well contained in the history of the term “geopolitics.” When the term was coined at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was meant to capture the struggle or competition between states for the effective control over territory. The notion of an external environment was obviously part of the concept, but geography or territory were seen as passive objects of state action and jealousy. Later, other sources of state power started to be regarded as more central than having control over a large territory: population, industrial prowess, the economy, and knowledge and culture. The transformation had begun.

In our time, the use of the term “geopolitics” is often perplexing. It has retained the element of state competition, but it no longer refers to geography or territory, making one wonder what the prefix “geo” is doing there. In 1925, German theorist Karl Haushofer wrote: “This prefix means much and demands much. It relates politics to the soil. It rids politics of arid theories and senseless phrases which might trap our political leaders into hopeless Utopias. It puts them back on solid ground.” Haushofer presented geopolitics as an “exact science,” a promise that remained undelivered. The prefix “geo” may have been intended as a constraint on power, but restricted to its geographical meaning, the result was the opposite: a vortex of state control in search of unlimited “living space,” which is how the Nazis read Haushofer. Today, the prefix is being taken to its logical and formidable conclusion, as the struggle for territory becomes not about who controls an already-existing geography but about who will build the new artificial or virtual worlds of the future.

As one tries to make sense of contemporary geopolitics, a pattern emerges. The two critical developments in recent years were the trade and technology wars between the United States and China, and then, soon after, the great pandemic. Together, these forces managed to fragment the global system. Globalization did not collapse, but it changed shape: states are again prominent, even if they still operate within something like a networked global landscape.

When we examine the technology wars around Huawei and the American response to what many already interpret as the beginning of Chinese technological dominance, what do we see? The panic involved the notion of technological standards (about which I wrote at some length in my book Belt and Road) and the race to control the world system. Technology triggered strong competitive dynamics in an age when the superpowers are actively rebuilding the world according to their own specifications. The fundamental features of this world were no longer geographic but technological: not oceans, but telecommunication networks. The stakes were much higher. And states took that into account.

It was a curious coincidence that the pandemic arrived on the heels of the technology wars because it carried the same lesson. Faced with a natural, existential threat, the main state actors had to consider how to build a secondary world protected from the unexpected intruder. Rules, policies, and technologies such as digital surveillance or vaccines were quickly developed for this purpose. They were insufficient, but this is just the beginning. The important point is that different state actors aimed to free us from the old natural world of material needs upon which we still relied.

As J.R.R. Tolkien would put it, the superpowers are trying to build a secondary world that everyone else can inhabit. Inside it, what the world contains is true: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The great game is indeed a game, but a game with a purpose of creating the rules of the game.

Think about it as a clash between two versions of the world. Or, more graphically, imagine a simulated landscape in which two or more computer programmers are fighting to redesign what appears on the monitor. The pixels keep changing from moment to moment. One second, the landscape looks like a mountain scene; then the mountains grow smaller and smaller until the landscape becomes a grassy plain. Some back and forth ensues until one of the programmers gives up and the other vision wins. Geopolitics is the struggle not to control territory but to create the territory. As we enter an age of climate change, the meaning of terraforming becomes increasingly vivid and even literal.

In his recent book, Jacob Helberg writes that the new wars are now less about who controls some piece of territory in Europe or East Asia than about who “controls the information networks and communications technologies that shape the distribution of world power by shaping the daily lives of billions of people.” He fails to draw an obvious but fascinating conclusion: what changed was that technology has rebuilt the world to such an extent that these networks are now the territory.

Much in the American panic about Huawei and other Chinese companies reflected simple anxieties about economic decline, but it also revealed a new, existential fear about a specific technological singularity. What happens to geopolitical competition when we enter the Anthropocene? What happens to war and conflict when the battlefield is no longer natural but technological? As Helberg puts it, if the Chinese wrest control of global telecommunications systems, if they can steal our information, manipulate it, monitor it, and redirect it, then any level playing field for system competition is gone: they will have the ability to extend and enforce their influence around the world.

What has changed is that we no longer believe in a neutral playing field. And the reason we have stopped believing in it is that we now believe the game environment is built by the players. We live “after nature,” which changes the terms of geopolitical rivalry.

Just as new technologies slowly raised the destructive potential of direct conflict, a new avenue was opened: states can now fight one another not by winning in a direct battle but by setting the rules under which other states must operate. Call it a form of indirect government: perhaps your opponent will even assume the rules are natural or given—but in reality, you have moved one level up in the great game. Your opponent is playing a video game. You are coding it. I would reserve the term superpower for those states engaged in a battle to shape the rules. Everyone else is competing under the rules.

Listen to Russian president Vladimir Putin or any of the thinkers orbiting the Kremlin and all you hear is the same geopolitical dread: will Russia be forced to play by Western rules, or can it rise to the role of world-builder? Putin seems to believe that an independent and Westernized Ukraine would reduce Russia to a subordinate status. His is the classical gamble of someone who attempts to change the rules of the game but risks achieving no more than being punished under the existing order. The danger for the Western order is that the tools used to punish and constrain Russian power will erode the legitimacy of that order.

The Ukraine war is a revealing moment in the history of world-building. The global system suddenly appeared as a tool of power rather than a neutral framework of rules. There is some danger in this moment of revelation because a number of state actors in the developing world may themselves stop playing by the existing rules or even start looking for alternative systems of play.

The global order is fracturing. State conflict is returning. The postwar dream of a global order with shared rules and institutions is collapsing. Why? A common explanation is that perennial elements of human nature are reasserting themselves: lust for power, security dilemmas, contempt for rules or moral principles. But if my analysis is correct, the reasons are connected to the current stage in technological development rather than anything having to do with human nature, let alone its immutable core.

The historical significance of the pandemic is that it introduces a wholly new technological equation. In past ages, technology existed in harmony with nature, while at other times technology was supposed to master nature. The pandemic has made one suspect that, while the relation remains antagonistic, it is futile to hope that man can master nature once and for all. We are being forced to consider the image of a fully technological environment or habitat. If the separation between the natural and human worlds is not brought about in a total manner, the possibility of a fatal catastrophe remains. Mastering nature could thus give way to a strategy of decoupling from it. Reactions from countries around the world are best seen as blueprints for a human-built world.

Entry into this world was a common experience, bringing together most people over the last two years. Some sacrificed their globe-trotting habits. Others postponed weddings or were forced to close down their small businesses. Children lost a year of school. Older people stopped meeting their grandchildren; many became victims of the pandemic before that cruel exclusion could be lifted. We stopped seeing our friends or did so with so many rules and with so much caution that nothing felt the same. Jobs were lost, personal plans abandoned. We were all looking through glass.

The pandemic should be interpreted as a moment of radical emancipation from nature. Less confident than before in our ability to subdue natural forces, we now feel tempted to build a barrier between these forces and human existence. A second life beckons, much more artificial, culminating perhaps in the troubling promise of the metaverse.

On the global stage, the changes were profound. The pandemic was a second chapter in the process. If trade wars demonstrated the geopolitical consequences of technological acceleration, the pandemic showed such an acceleration is perhaps inevitable and irreversible. A certain theory of globalization is increasingly under crisis. The theory maintained that different political regimes could be brought together in a depoliticized sphere of trade and economic exchange because this sphere followed natural needs of every human bring, irrespective of political regime. The pandemic revealed that this natural sphere is extraordinarily fragile. As every country attempted to reassert control over the natural environment, there was less and less that could be shared between regimes. The pandemic has triggered forces pulling us toward a war of worlds—one that is primarily a war of world-building.

Photo: metamorworks/iStock

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