We might be facing the most largest tectonic shift in the power structures in the modern era since World War One finally ended the old empires of Europe. But this isn’t a conflict between the interests of nation states. It’s a power struggle over you, and the question of to who you owe your primary loyalty as a citizen. And it’s playing out between your government and your tech provider.
The NSAs invasive surveillance techniques may, on the surface, seem like a national security story. And in one regard it is. But the real national security threat is not terrorism. The real power struggle here is between the established power of the nation state, and the emerging powers of what we might begin to call the “technological state”.
Today Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and AOL made a major counterstrike in this conflict by backing radical legislation to reign in the powers of the NSA. This marks a transition point. For at least the last two years the tech giants have conceded to government demands for their cooperation in surveillance. Now these companies are testing whether, in the ultimate measure, their power is greater than the NSAs. At least to determine who can access their user’s data. To have taken this step, they must already believe they are likely to win.
The history of human politics shows us forming ever larger political groupings. From family cluster to tribe. From tribe to kingdom. From kingdom to empire. From empire to nation state. From nation state to super national identities – the United States of American, the European Union, the Association of South East Asian States. But there is every reason to suppose that digital information technology will allow the next stage of this political evolution to transcend geographic boundaries. The technological state will not exist on any map of the planet. Instead it’s border are much more like to be plotted by shared economic interests and political ideals.
Today Google provides your information (search) and your communication (email). Tomorrow it could easily provide your transportation (self-driving cars) and your currency (bitcoin or some variation of the same). These are all major functions of government, quickly being filtered away to tech companies, for the simple reason that these organisations are structurally specialised to develop the needed technology. It makes perfect sense that these competing power structures begin to test one another’s boundaries. The NSA story is simply among the earliest and most high profile examples.
This isn’t to say your government is going away. But it is almost certain to cede large parts of its powers to the emerging technological states. Will you one day have a Google passport? Will you be a citizen of Apple? Some might argue you already are. Perhaps the more important question is, which of these powers should you support? If your ultimate interest is in individual freedom, it seems at this time that the self-interest of the tech giants is more likely to provide the future you need. If your concern is more socially focussed, to the greater good of the community, the rhetoric of governments is a stronger siren call. But realistically, it’s only by keeping such great powers balanced against one another that most people will remain free and society will retain its cohesion. At the moment it seems government has accrued a little too much power, but no doubt sooner rather than later the tech giants will need radically reigning in. But not today.