Great Protocol Politics

The 21st century doesn’t belong to China, the United States, or Silicon Valley. It belongs to the internet.

In a pair of recent essays, political scientist Ian Bremmer contends that Big Tech companies will reshape the global order, while FP columnist Stephen Walt’s friendly rejoinder is that states will remain predominant. We take a third view: Not only has technology already changed the global order, but it is also changing the nature of both companies and states themselves. The 21st century belongs not to China or the United States—nor to tech companies as traditionally understood. It belongs to the internet.

This is true for many reasons, of which perhaps the most important is the rise of decentralized protocols like Bitcoin and Ethereum that are controlled by neither states nor companies. To Bremmer’s credit, he does mention them, but he still underrates their importance. Many of the global technology firms’ weaknesses both he and Walt discuss—that they’re typically domiciled in the United States or China, that they rely on those jurisdictions for contract enforcement, that they don’t have a state’s political legitimacy, and that their exercise of power has already caused a global backlash—are addressed by the introduction of crypto protocols, which can safeguard property and execute contracts beyond the boundaries of traditional nation states.

But technology’s challenge to traditional geopolitics goes beyond crypto protocols, tech companies, and even digital space itself, as it has begun reshaping the physical world. Here are 10 ways in which we are transitioning from an age of geopolitics to one of technopolitics.

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