Why technology is NOT the catalyst

Geopolitics drive technological developments. Tech is enslaved, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey its master, writes Jacob Shapiro from Geopolitical Futures.

When I sat down to write this article, I intended to make a case for why technology’s effect on geopolitics is overstated. I realized before I started writing that I had run out of coffee, an unacceptable state of affairs. So I got in my car and drove to the store to buy coffee. After purchasing my coffee, I returned to my car and put my key in the ignition. Low and behold, my car would not start. I spent a few hours in the parking lot waiting for roadside assistance. I then spent another hour in the cold and rain helping the technician fix the problem. Four hours later, I returned home, and wondered if perhaps a Higher Power had played a cruel joke on me for underestimating technology’s power.

The history of human civilization is the history of technological development. One of the characteristics that defines human beings is the ability to invent tools that bend the physical world away from its naturally capricious state.

This drive requires a certain amount of hubris, as nature reminds us time and again how powerful it really is.

Technology is a fancy word to describe the way human beings use knowledge to develop new tools. The purpose of these tools is to enable us to do what was once impossible, or at least to reduce the time and effort necessary to bring about a desired outcome. Human needs are the ultimate arbiter of technological progress.

Consider the following two examples. One of the most well-known and important technological developments was the invention of the caravel in the 15th century. The caravel was a small ship that allowed European sailors to travel distances that had been hitherto unimaginable. It is not hyperbole to say that without the caravel, the Old World would not have discovered the New World, and history might have developed along a very different path. What most forget however is that the caravel was not a novel invention. China, under the rule of the Ming Dynasty, already possessed long-range ships. In fact, more than a century before European technological advances in seaborne travel, Chinese ships of superior size and capability were at sea all over the world.

Despite China’s technological superiority, it never discovered the New World. Its ships made is as far as Java and the Horn of Africa, but there they stopped. Furthermore, in the places China did explore, it did not set up colonies or seek domination of local populations. By the 1430s, China’s seaborne explorations had ceased altogether. The reason was the proliferation of new land-based threats on China’s northern borders. Building ships is a costly endeavor, and China had more important places to spend its resources than on whimsical maritime adventurism. It was the beginning of the end of the Ming Dynasty. Within roughly 200 years, the Ming had collapsed and China was conquered by foreigners. Meanwhile, European countries discovered and summarily conquered the New World, ushering in Europe’s Golden Age.

That history developed this way was not based on luck or chance. Historians are still not quite sure what drove China to its short-lived naval enterprises. But there is little doubt as to European motivations. The rise of Ottoman Empire threatened European access to the East, and at the very least made it more expensive. Various European countries devoted resources towards naval discovery so that they might discover a trade route to India that allowed them to bypass traditional trade routes (the same trade routes upon which China is purportedly basing its much ballyhooed One Belt One Road initiative.) Some (like Vasco da Gama) discovered these trade routes. Others (like Christopher Columbus) discovered the New World. The impetus for the development of the technology that allowed them to do so was human need.

That Europe, not China, used this technology to conquer the world was because of geopolitical necessity.

Or take a more recent example: the advent of nuclear weapons. By the end of the 20th century, science as a discipline was well-established. The generations of scientists charted the inside of the atom did not aim to develop an atomic bomb. Some hypothesized that discovering the secrets of the atom might unlock a vast potential source of energy, but as the leader of the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, said after World War II, most scientists worked because of “organic necessity.” Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists believed that “knowledge of the world, and the power which it gives, is a thing of intrinsic value to humanity.” That they stumbled upon discoveries which would transform the international political system might be regarded as evidence of technology’s eclipse of geopolitics.

That would be a faulty interpretation. Because, like the caravel, the development of the science that led to the invention of the atomic bomb was rooted firmly in geopolitical considerations. The process began, not in World War II, but in World War I, when scientists on all sides of that Great War were essentially drafted into military service. This was particularly pronounced in the United States. In the span of just a year and a half (April 1917 – November 1918), the US transformed itself from peripheral curiosity to global behemoth. Woodrow Wilson’s administration all but nationalized the US economy in order to create a more efficient war machine. This touched all corners of American society, including the scientific community. World War I produced specific military needs for which science provided. War hijacked science and forced her to produce military technology that had never been seen before.

World War I ended in 1918. But the US was just getting started. Between 1920 and 1932, the US education system turned out more physicists than in the previous 60 years. These new American scientists were reinforced by refugees from Nazi Germany. As Nazi Germany became more aggressive, so did US scientific efforts to develop technology that might neutralize Nazi Germany should the US be forced to intervene as it had during the first World War. The Manhattan Project, founded in 1939, took as its mission the transformation of the knowledge that had been acquired about the inner workings of the atom into practical application: the development of a weapon of such destructive capability that it might lead not only to Hitler’s defeat, but to the abolition of war throughout the world.

That was the great hope of many of the scientists who helped create the atomic bomb – that the very existence of so powerful a weapon would abolish war altogether because the stakes would be too high. Losing a war is one thing, but risking total annihilation is another. Of course, it has not turned out this way. Besides the two atomic bombs the US dropped on Japan, nuclear weapons have never been used. But the existence of nuclear weapons has not precluded nations from fighting other nations for the same reasons nations have always fought each other: resources, fears, divergent interests, territorial disputes, and others. Richard Rhodes, the definitive historian on the atomic bomb’s development, wrote in 1986 that the advent of nuclear weapons “challenged the power of the nation-state.”

But nuclear weapons are and always have been tools. They do not challenge the nation-state. They are used by the nation-state.

It is not a coincidence that technological developments tend to occur in relation to human needs. This is not a chicken and the egg type of paradox, where it’s impossible to say which comes first. Human needs drive technological development. Human needs are, in turn, not whimsical. They arise out of the specific challenges that political communities face. This process creates a never-ending feedback loop. Technology is invented to respond to a particular need. Once that need is solved, a new need arises, and new technology is invented to satisfy that need. In this way, technology shapes the very forces that led to its development in the first place.

But technology is not the catalyst. Geopolitical considerations drive technological developments. Technology is enslaved, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey its master

– even when it makes buying coffee a four-hour ordeal.

(On the cover: Season 1 intertitle for HBO's blockbusting comedy series 'Silicon Valley')

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