Internet of Things heralds dawning of Pax Technica

The 16th-century French writer Etienne de La Boetie, hailed by some as the Western world's first libertarian philosopher, is worth reading today. In his Discourse On Voluntary Servitude, La Boetie argued that the masses were often enslaved by their own compliance more than repression by their masters.

Bread, circuses and "other such opiates" were, for ancient peoples, "the bait towards slavery, the price of their liberty, the instruments of tyranny", he wrote. "By these practices and enticements the ancient dictators so successfully lulled their subjects... that the stupefied peoples, fascinated by the... vain pleasures flashed before their eyes, learnt subservience as naively, but not so creditably, as little children learn to read by looking at bright picture books."

A few years ago, at a public debate in Switzerland, I heard one member of the audience question whether we were not falling into the voluntary servitude of our digital overlords enthralled by the dopamine rush of a thousand tweets, likes and swipes.

If we are already worrying about our technological subservience today, then what will happen during the next stage of the Internet's evolution when billions of connected devices come online?

Our watches, clothes, cars and digital assistants may cater to our every convenience but they will also monitor every spasm of our daily lives, leaving us naked in front of our emerging algocracy.

Is this Internet of Things going to set us free or lock us up?

That question is the subtitle of a book - Pax Technica - by Professor Philip Howard of the Oxford Internet Institute. It was also the subject of a recent conference at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge University.

Prof Howard argues that the Internet of Things is emerging as the most powerful political tool ever created, challenging and, in some respects, supplanting the authority of the most successful form of political organisation for the past 500 years, the nation state.

"By 2020 there will be some 30 billion devices connected to the Internet, and political power over the eight billion people on the planet will rest with the people who control those devices," he writes.

Most empires, he argues, have been underpinned by technological superiority in the realm of informational infrastructure. The Pax Romana was built on roads and aqueducts; Pax Britannica relied on networks of fortifications and naval supremacy.

But Pax Technica may differ in some important ways. Most notably, the dominant informational infrastructure may be mainly owned by private, rather than public, entities, by Facebook rather than France. That may lead to a pact of convenience developing between governmental and commercial powers rewriting the rules of politics.

In the words of professor of politics David Runciman at the University of Cambridge, Pax Technica may move us towards a "government of the things, by the things, for the things".

Prof Howard suggests three distinct regimes are likely to develop in the United States, China and Europe, shaped by differing commercial pressures and regulatory frameworks.

The rest of the world will be rule takers, rather than rulemakers, in this technological great game.

The ability of Pax Technica to control civil society has been foreshadowed in the debate over "fake news" and the manipulation of the US presidential election.

Imagine a world in which an artificial intelligence-enabled bot can pull down data from the Internet of Things and target personalised advertisements at voters 48 hours before an election. The informational asymmetry between the data imperialists and civil society will widen into a chasm.

All this may sound outlandishly dystopian. Indeed, Prof Howard is one of those who believes that far better outcomes are possible if we act now to forestall the worst.

Some of the computer scientists at the conference rejected the idea that the Internet of Things would evolve into one panopticon. More likely, it would develop into many fragmentary "networks of things".

For the moment, the technological lava is molten enough to be channelled in directions we desire.

But that depends on us all taking an intense interest in the minutiae of information policy, engineering protocols and telecommunications standards. Ultimately, these regulatory details may be far more important in shaping our futures than the tumult over Brexit or President Donald Trump.

"Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed," La Boetie concluded. Good advice for our times.

FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2017, with the headline 'Internet of Things heralds dawning of Pax Technica'. Print Edition | Subscribe