Engineering Illusions: State Power and Technology
Constructing entirely new industries by investing in necessary infrastructure and subsidizing its client corporations, as NSCAI recommends; funding research and development that makes products like the iPhone possible; operating technology development programs for “national security,” “national interests” and “national freedom”; devising the means and accelerating the risk of terminal nuclear disaster and ecocide; and suppressing democratic inputs in favor of wealthy, private interests — these actions encapsulate the state’s relationship to the technical enterprise. Pop politics and pop economics may propound the notion of a technology industry, exemplified by Silicon Valley, that burdens itself every day to improve the human condition with the business of technology. This view, among many follies, ignores the relationship of the technical enterprise to the state. It further ignores the relationship of the state to its population on one hand, versus its private clients like Apple, Google, GE, Lockheed Martin, etc. on the other.
Two White House officials noted in 2017, “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” Among the state’s many timeless properties, the searing flame of its will to power burns most intensely. Against this purpose, all other requirements are ancillary. Today’s advancing technologies provide the state with unprecedented control and execution abilities. The technical enterprise is routinely commanded to mutilate our scientific and technological capabilities for the protection and expansion of state power, at the expense of programs desired by the population — ostensibly being served by the wonders of technology. The officials utter tautologies. The world is not a global community because it is an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.
As discussed, Martin Gilens, Benjamin Page and Thomas Ferguson show that US state policy is largely influenced by concentrations of private capital, while the desires of the majority are ignored at best and opposed at worst. Perhaps these conclusions are not entirely surprising, as the basis of such outcomes can be found in the nation’s founding. Architect of the US Constitution James Madison discussed in 1787 that the government “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,” and that the Senate should safeguard these interests (at the time, the Senate was not designed to be elected). Madison hypothesized that every Senator would be “an enlightened statesman and benevolent philosopher,” and the Senate’s “wisdom may best discern the true interests of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” However, within a few years, upon witnessing the results of the experiment, Madison admonished “the daring depravity of the times as the stock-jobbers become the Praetorian band of the government, at once its tool and its tyrant, bribed by its largesse and over-awing it by clamors and combinations.”
In the private sector, today’s technology industry magnates, billionaire investors, and entrepreneurs are hailed as those whose “wisdom may best discern the true interests of their country.” They profess their “patriotism and love of justice” to advocate for self-serving policies of deregulation, inaction on anti-trust enforcement, as they continue to benefit from subsidies and skipping on taxes. As faith in technology soars, so does the trust placed in the hands of such individuals. It is a sad commentary on “the daring depravity of the times as the stock-jobbers become the Praetorian band of the government, at once its tool and its tyrant, bribed by its largesse and over-awing it by clamors and combinations.”
With the deterioration of international institutions and democratic processes worldwide in recent years, techno-nationalism is on an upswing. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, 5G cellular connectivity, robotics, advanced biotechnologies, 3D printing, Internet of Things are poised to redefine entire industries, and the state is on high alert due to threats to power and commerce. In a 2019 Global Asia piece titled Techno-Nationalism vs. the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Atlantic Council fellow Robert Manning observed, “In the national-security realm, these technologies portend radical changes from logistics and inventory management to surveillance and reconnaissance, with air and undersea drones of all sizes having autonomous capabilities.” Stressing imminent changes, he noted, “It will transform business models, transportation, healthcare, finance, manufacturing, agriculture, warfare and the very nature of work itself.”
Illustrating one kind of reaction to these emerging technologies, then Director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Peter Navarro emphasized the need to protect the state’s weapons manufacturing, declaring in 2018, “To be strong and secure, our nation must be able to rely on US companies to manufacture products needed for our national defense. [President Trump] understands that we must never become dependent on foreign nations to design, produce and maintain the aircraft, ground combat vehicles, ships, munitions, components of our nuclear arsenal and space capabilities that are critically important to our nation’s defense.” Indeed, so passionate are we about safety and security that we will redirect the genius and sweat of our technical endeavors to expand the most advanced means of our own destruction.
Advocating for a return to the ‘rules-based order’ of international affairs amidst growing technology protectionism around the internet, software businesses, and AI, Manning offered, “The risk of this mindset is a fragmentation, if not an unraveling, of the rules-based trade and investment regimes that have been the foundation of global growth and prosperity for the past 70 years.” Critiquing Trump’s approach to the international order, he questioned, “But in a world of global supply chains, with hundreds of patents and licenses held by global firms for autos, airplanes and electronics there are limits to self-sufficiency. Where do you draw the line? Complete autarchy? This is where Trump’s dismissive disregard for allies is deeply flawed. Nations do pursue self-interest. But those interests, if not values, can and do overlap, creating a basis for collaboration on shared goals, from open trade and investment to global peacekeeping.”
As with all political terms of discourse such as ‘democracy’ and ‘capitalism,’ ‘globalization’ has been used and abused repeatedly in service of prevalent economic and international relations doctrine. What is called globalization today is simply one mode of international integration. This mode is marked by the control of technology by the state-corporate complex, coups, monopoly pricing rights enforcement (patent regimes) and resource conflicts. While attempting to paint a portrait of free peoples, free workers and free technologies wonderfully commingling on the global stage, it restricts precisely this mingling in favor of business and state interests. In this the techno-nationalists and advocates of techno-globalization are united. Despite rhetoric and affectations, harmonious are both regimes in their dedication to state domination and control, for this is in the nature of the state. Allergic are both regimes to producing systemic solutions to runaway climate breakdown and escalating nuclear threats, for these are not matters that concern the state’s mercantile clients in the short term.
Techno-nationalism and liberal techno-globalization, despite conflict, heartedly agree on the enshrined rights of private capital. As seen, our scientific and technical endeavors are inherently difficult and expensive, often beyond the patience and intellectual curiosity of private investors. Hence, it is left to the state to conduct long programs of discovery and invention. How shall the state convince its benefactor, namely, the public, that a thirty-year research program will eventually bear fruit? National security, national defense, national pride and national wealth are all potent options. When the technical enterprise is alloyed with war funding and nationalism from birth, the consequences naturally follow.
Concerns over national security and defense are deployed by tech companies to buttress their demands and justify domestic surveillance, subsidies, and market protections on the world stage. Referencing the enormous gifts showered upon contractors, the first secretary of the US Air Force Stuart Symington had put it flatly in 1948, “The word to talk was not ‘subsidy’; the word to talk was ‘security.’”(Powers and Prospects, Chomsky). Similarly, the appropriation of the term ‘globalization’ by these narrow interests ensures that those who oppose this version are characterized as primitive, anti-integration and isolationists. It prevents the consideration of alternative global approaches, and hence prohibits the construction of alternative institutions — ones truly committed to democratic development of the scientific and technical enterprise, and intelligent use of our technologies.
One such approach is the regulation of the state itself by its subjects. After centuries of struggles and tectonic popular upheavals, the state has been disciplined to some extent. Numerous rights and freedoms have been won. Expansion of the franchise and broadening labor rights are but two stark, long-term trends in this direction. This exposes an opening in the state, in that it is possibly democratic. The citizens and workers have available to them the option of informed, organized, democratic changes — including to our technical enterprise, so that the participants of our technical endeavors may design and deploy technologies to their communities’ needs. While in practice there are numerous but surmountable economic and political impediments to constructing such an organized existence, in theory there is but one.
In the First Principles of Government, leading Enlightenment figure David Hume posed a paradox, noting that “Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.” Hume resolved the paradox, noting, “When we inquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.”
An undemocratic technical enterprise is predetermined to serve the interests of its operators. A democratic approach to the sciences and application of our technical knowledge holds within it the promise that the state-corporate complex only preaches of — ad nauseam from the religion of technology. The state cloaks itself with glossy robes of globalization, freedom, progress, and democracy — depending on the weather, as it seeks to craft these concepts for its own ends. It works relentlessly to extinguish the innate human spirit of free association and cooperation, rendering yet untouched freedoms seem impossible. Under such nihilistic global governance that cynically plagiarizes these international human values lies an elementary truth, expressed by early liberal philosopher Wilhelm Von Humboldt. In his 18th century Limits of State Action, Humboldt noted that the state strove to “make man an instrument to serve its arbitrary ends, overlooking his individual purposes, and since man is in his essence a free, searching, self-perfecting being, it follows that the state is a profoundly anti-human institution.” Rocker put it even more simply, observing, “The state is capable only of protecting old privileges and creating new ones; in that its whole significance is exhausted.”(Anarcho-Syndicalism, Theory and Practice)
Silicon Valley enables this operation. As it deems itself a collection of intrepid, free-thinking pioneers of the technical enterprise, it simply follows the drumbeat of state doctrine and private capital. Priding itself on disrupting the world, it only entrenches the prevalent power systems in their place, facilitating them with advanced technological capabilities. To borrow Harold Rosenberg’s description, the “herd of independent minds” that thinks it’s leading only follows with regimented discipline. Left unchecked, the state-corporate complex directs and abuses our scientific and technical work. The dearth of efforts to counter these forces contributes to the ruinous conditions under which rational, responsible technology decisions perish, and irrational, reckless technical actions fester.
The systemic costs and failures of the technical enterprise are of no concern to the “stock-jobbers,” for the endeavor brings bounty and control to those who are in it. The wonders of globalization under state and private instruction have spawned sufficient global growth and prosperity for some to dismiss even elementary investigation. Meanwhile, in the face of astounding technical capabilities, matters of breathtaking inequality, global existential risks, privacy violations, censorship and the rise of dysfunctional states are comfortably ignored. As development economist Gerard Helleiner put it in his disapproval of such affairs,
The poor complain; they always do,
But that’s just idle chatter.
Our system brings rewards to all,
At least to all who matter.