Local politics won't solve technoglobal challenges

At the dawn of this new decade, I have to admit that only four things really stood out during the 20 first years into this golden century. Digital became the norm, China reawakened, we almost fell into a financial abyss in 2008, and a stupid virus brought the world to a sudden halt.

Maxim Hopman Iay Klkmz6G0 Unsplash Min

Scott Galloway, also known as the big GAFA(Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon)-basher, has predicted that 2021 will be ‘less awful’. He also thinks that, once we’re finally allowed to travel again, the stock price of Airbnb will go through the roof. Maybe... I am often at odds with Galloway’s views, but the relationship between politics and technology could lend vivid color to the next decade.

When Trump came to office, the American tech giants had a collective heart attack. The new president disliked Silicon Valley intensely. He openly vented his gall on companies like Amazon. That obviously had a lot to do with Jeff Bezos – owner of The Washington Post and founder of Amazon – who let no chance pass to criticize Trump. But the anti-tech sentiment ran a lot deeper than the figure of Trump. The Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, for example, based her candidacy on the break-up of big tech.

Battling big tech

In recent months, an unprecedented witch hunt has been going on in the States. But that’s not a new phenomenon here in Europe. Margrethe Vestager – as EU Competition Commissioner – has been battling for years now against big corporations such as Google, Amazon and Apple. She ordered Apple to pay 13 billion euros in tax arrears and fined Google 5 billion dollars on account of its Android monopoly.

Vexing for those companies, but let’s be honest: 5 billion is, to Google, just a polite rap on the knuckles. And it was ‘only’ the European Commission. These were, are after all, US companies. And so they felt completely safe.

In serious trouble

But the wind is suddenly blowing from the other direction. On 9 December Facebook was charged by the US Federal Trade Commission, backed by the public prosecutors of 48 states, even that of California. The indictment is serious. They accuse Facebook of many years’ abuse of its monopoly position, and want the company broken up.

Two months before that, Google was named by the U.S. Justice Department in the biggest antitrust case in years. I remember vividly the one against Microsoft in 1998. The company was put in the pillory because it was giving away its browser (Internet Explorer) free of charge and had bundled it with Windows. Clearly annoyed, Microsoft-CEO Bill Gates evaded the questions. His rancor towards the narrow-minded backwardness of the government was clear to see. Twenty years on, the giving away of a browser is, these days, a non-issue. Microsoft is, for that matter, stronger than ever.

The most spectacular development is that the tech giants, in China too, have been knocked off their pedestal. The cancellation of the flotation of ANT Financial, clearly orchestrated by the Communist Party leadership, was a public character assassination of topman Jack Ma. That he has not been seen since, shows that the Chinese government is determined to restrict the power of technology. It won’t be ANT Financial that will pull the Chinese purse-strings, but the Communist Party, which wants to put in its own virtual crypto currencies.

Global phenomena, local politics

Managing that global phenomenon, is a big challenge. And something you don’t pull off with local politics and legislation. Big tech has made it crystal-clear that the markets and the global economy are being reallotted and that countries, acting individually, no longer have a hold on that.

Regrettably, in the year 2021, we have no tools to tackle such global trends. Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961, put it brilliantly: ‘The UN was not created to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell.’ Nowadays, it offers no solace. The technological revolution has finally overtaken the ultimate supremacy of individual countries. It is high time that we – in this century – start to wield pragmatic, geopolitical tools. I hope I will live to see the day!

An earlier version of this piece was published in Dutch in 'De Tijd'.