Technology is transforming societies more deeply than the political vibrations of 2017July 9, 2017
Credit: Benoit Tessier/Reuters
On Sunday, French voters will choose between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron — politicians with radically different visions. Macron is for globalization and European integration. Le Pen is a nationalist, representing the kind of discontent that led to ‘Brexit’ and the Trump election.
It’s a stark choice, but the outcome may actually be less important to the future of Western democracy than, well, the screen you’re reading this on.
That’s because the epochal change created by technology is transforming societies more deeply than the political vibrations of 2017. That’s according to David Rothkopf, CEO of Foreign Policy and author of “The Great Questions of Tomorrow.” He says it’s easy to miss the bigger picture.
“Facebook’s goal is five billion members by 2030. That will be the biggest community ever,” says Rothkopf. “On a level of power, we have to acknowledge that Facebook is going to be significantly more influential in the world, and touch more lives, than all but a couple of nations.”
Facebook now has 1.94 billion users, according to an earnings report released this week. The company also said it plans to hire 3,000 new employees to manage and screen all its content. That would bring its global team to 7,500 people. Getting to five billion users depends on people all over the world buying mobile devices.
Mark Zuckerberg may not be in public office, but he wields a lot of social and economic power, Rothkopf says. Not only does Facebook profit from its users, it also has the power to knit them together, and apply algorithms to decide the news they read. Facebook can also share information about them with governments, corporations and other non-state actors. Not to mention, decide what is acceptable speech and advertising.
And how does Facebook’s power compare to, say, President Donald Trump’s?
“I would argue that the reason we have the president we do is that someone, somewhere, wrote an algorithm that said, ‘Stories with the following characteristic will appear at the top of a news feed.’ Somewhere there’s an algorithm writer with a heck of a lot of power who is not accountable to any public institution or been anticipated by any system of law,” says Rothkopf.
Much was made of Trump’s first 100 days. It’s a classic, journalistic yardstick. And there’s worthwhile debate about what the first months of the Trump Administration can tell us about the next four to eight years. But what about longer term? Rothkopf says we keep looking backwards.
“We’ve spent the last 20 to 30 years looking backward at the last threats of the 20th century … instead of a change in the world on an epochal scale, like the fact that in the next 10 years or so every human being on the planet is going to be connected in a manmade system for the first time in history, which means anyone, anywhere can reach out and touch and communicate with anyone anywhere else, anytime. And that does change: ‘Who am I? What is community? What is a government? What is an economy? What is money? What is war? What is peace? It changes the answer to all of those questions.”
This story first aired as an interview on PRI’s To The Point with Warren Olney.