Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 154: Soft power and technological sovereignty in the 21st century

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Another single-topic TiB this week. Last week I was asked to make some brief comments to a group of policymakers on how technology might shape the UK and Germany’s place in a post-pandemic world. I thought it might be interesting to share these, as they touch on many key TiB themes. What follows is focused on those two countries, but also has implications for any liberal democracy outside the United States.

I want to make four brief points. First, that we need an intentional political economy of technology. Second, that the key choice we face is whether to be technology takers or technology makers. Third, that "this time it really is different", as we’re entering an era where technology explicitly embeds values. Finally, that there is an opportunity to project soft power through global technology public goods.

The political economy of technology

We need an intentional political economy of technology. I was asked to talk about technology, but I’ll focus mostly on information technologies, partly because it’s what I know best and partly because software really is eating the world. Technology remains something an afterthought when we think about what sort of political-economic regime we want (Dig our your old copy of Varieties of Capitalism and you’ll see that it’s rather peripheral). That’s no longer tenable.

The vaccine rollout is a microcosm of the challenge of the next couple of decades (see TiB 151). First, states are are not powerless to regulate - you really can have an independent policy, but the consequences of being reactive or slow are profound - and the upside of success enormous. In this sense, states will have to make choices like those of the last 12 months again and again in the coming decades.

Technology takers vs technology makers

Crucially, states have much more leverage when they are (or host) technology makers, rather than technology takers. Technology is splintering because of geopolitics. There is already a Chinese internet that is quite distinct, from the Western one - and that will spread to other spheres, including life sciences.

Most states will therefore face a trilemma: use the American version, use the Chinese version or create your own. Pace Macron, most of the time for most of the West it will make sense to use the American version. But the trade-off between political autonomy and technological capability will be increasingly real for “technology taker” countries.

Soft power and embedded values

This is of paramount importance now because we’re entering an era when technology embeds values in a much more literal way than before. It’s somewhat fashionable to dismiss “this time it’s different” stories, but autonomous machines (even machines with far less than human intelligence) raise values-based questions far more profound than we’ve faced in any previous era. In a world where machines decide - in war, in finance, in healthcare - on which values are their decisions based?

This points to the great opportunity for “medium sized liberal democracies”, as Ian Hogarth and others have argued: soft power through global technology public goods that embed our values. So many of the basic building blocks of the autonomy revolution are still to be built and it is an open question whether they will be open/closed, public/private, Chinese, American or something else. The UK and Germany have the core talent, culture and infrastructure to create and disseminate these as global public goods. It’s largely a question, perhaps more than we’d like to admit, of political vision and will.

Quick links

  1. The best news in history? Some very positive COVID spillovers.
  2. Nuclear fusion in a cold climate. The coldest known stars (at least one cool enough to visit...)
  3. Let them eat deep learning. Historical figures brought to life through machine learning-driven animation (Amazing thread; the Marie Antoinette one is particularly astonishing).
  4. How to film the world from California. Fun 1927 map from Paramount showing how to recreate locations around the world within one state.
  5. Theydunit. Which murder mysteries are actually decipherable by the reader/viewer? Great thread of recommendations.

What do you think?

Thanks for all the comments on the last single-topic TiB, which were generally positive. Feedback encouraged on this one too!

Comments, questions, shares, forwards, etc, always welcome. Just hit reply.

Until next week,

Matt Clifford

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