Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 126: Why democracy is doomed; in praise of ARPA; Trump as geopolitical banker; and more...

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Should the US ban TikTok?

TikTok, the wildly popular social app owned by Chinese tech company Bytedance (and which we discussed a couple of weeks ago), has had a weird week. Donald Trump threatened to ban the service in the US; Microsoft said it was interested in buying it; and then the President, playing part-time geopolitical investment banker, gave the potential deal his blessing, provided that a "a very substantial portion of [the] price [goes to] the Treasury of the United States”. The New York Times has more.

The core issue is whether Chinese ownership of a popular social media platform represents a thread to US national security. CSIS, a think tank, makes the case against here; it argues that TikTok gives China no important capabilities it doesn’t have already. This is unconvincing. You can’t dismiss the value of TikTok as a vector for influence operations on the basis of China's clumsiest propaganda efforts. If you worry Facebook can swing elections, you should definitely worry that TikTok might one day. As Jeff Ding points out, Chinese “techno-nationalists” certainly hope and believe it will!

That’s not to say that Trump is covering himself in glory. As Ben Thomson says, it’s possible to see this as the right action with the wrong motivations. And it’s certainly true that the President’s stated desire for a share of the proceeds fails Brendan Nyhan's “what would you say if you saw it in another country?” test. There’s room for a lot of nuance here, as this great diagram shows. The (misnamed) Tech Cold War just got hotter. 

Why democracy is doomed

A group of political analysts “war gamed" what might happen if the 2020 US Presidential election results are contested, and the Boston Globe wrote up the results. It makes for grim reading - and points to a structural weakness of liberal democracy: even with a written constitution, stability requires that all the players to adhere to norms and conventions. If you break that assumption, the system collapses.

There’s an interesting academic paper on the topic of “constitutional hardball” from 2004. It lays out the threat to democracy that norm erosion creates. Worryingly, though, the examples it cites seem remarkably tame compared to what’s now commonplace on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s tempting for liberals (like me) to see this as a one-sided phenomenon (indeed, there’s also a paper on asymmetric constitutional hardball), but that’s dangerously complacent. After all, many British Remainers (like me) cheered when the Speaker “discovered" new ways to evade a No Deal Brexit last year.

The problem is that when both sides see the stakes of victory as existential, the incentive to play by the rules disappears. We’ve talked before about the dangers of “Flight 93 election” framing, but it’s now common on both sides in the US. The cosiness of political elites has attracted a lot of criticism in recent years, but benefit is that it makes norms more binding on our leaders (As previously discussed, intra-elite conflict is extremely dangerous). And without strong adherence to norms, even when it costs you the policy outcomes you want, democracy is doomed

Dominic Cummings, ARPA and "techno-declinism"

I’m fascinated by the idea that narratives can become embedded in a nation’s psyche and, even if incorrect, shape its culture and politics. This week I came across this fascinating essay from 1996 by historian David Edgerton (Thanks Rowland Manthorpe for the link). Edgerton says the idea of the UK as a declining scientific and technological power is "part of the very fabric of British intellectual life”. He also argues it’s mistaken: any decline was relative and the result of the rest of the world catching up, not policy failure

Rowland says belief in “techno-declinism” explains the current UK Government's desire to make Britain the global capital of science and technology. As we’ve discussed before, Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s senior advisor, is a major proponent of this agenda, the first fruit of which is the creation of a UK ARPA (which I wrote about for Wired here). Edgerton's essay suggests this is a policy mistake. He criticises the assumption that "more scientific and technical education, and more investment in R&D, are the main causes of economic growth”

But there are at least three reasons to support the creation of ARPA-like institutions and higher R&D spend, even if the impact on growth is limited. The first is geopolitical. There are some technologies where having a national capability is of vital strategic importance. Second, as we noted in the context of the Apollo Missions, science represents an opportunity to create a shared sense of purpose. Third, and most importantly, as we discussed a few weeks ago sometimes technology creates new possibilities for what it means to be human. That’s worth having, even if it does nothing for GDP.    

Quick links

  1. Nice travel company you've got there... The extraordinary story of a company hit by a ransomware attack and its very polite negotiations with its attackers.
  2. Nuclear weapon stockpiles and more. The CIA declassifies more than 3,000 maps.
  3. Who said what. A new tool to explore language use across 100 billion tweets. (One example)
  4. GPT-3 roundup. GPT-3 does comedy. And Plato. And philosophy more broadly.
  5. Dirty money. Fascinating piece on why there are more banknotes in the economy after months of lockdown. Not the reason you expect.

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford