When we talk about technology we fail to ask whether technology exists as a kind of background for our actions or whether something else is the background. I think builders and technologists are not very interested in this question. Maybe we just assume technology is a set of gadgets. The thought that it could become the environment is bold, but maybe too bold. When we talk about smart cities we are moving in that direction, but still hesitantly.

Here I want to argue we live in a technological world, a technological medium surrounding us like a fully artificial environment. Interestingly, this is clearer in world politics, where states are permanently concerned with technological superiority and thus tend to measure their actions more or less by reference to how technology works.

To me, it seems that the contestants exist and move in a certain medium. Often this medium seems to take a life of its own, even acquiring the traits of an agent. At these moments it seems that a higher power stands above Washington and Beijing, dictating the terms of their actions, their rising conflict, and what the outcome will be.

It’s not easy to take stock of something that does not look like a state, and something that is in fact all around us but never perfectly visible and fully revealed. But when actual decision makers in Washington or Beijing make a decision or execute a strategy, you should look carefully at what happens next and you might just catch a glimpse of this hidden actor. For example, Washington might decide to place a Chinese company on the entity list, foreclosing its access to valuable inputs and components. This decision is only the beginning. What happens next could take wildly unexpected or unintended forms. You could end up spurring a technological acceleration in China, as Chinese firms need to shore up domestic production of semiconductors, for example. You see what I am getting at. These decisions may well be the right ones, but we cannot say for sure without looking at how they play out.

In other words: they are moves in a game.

You could reduce the global supply of chips, hurting your own automakers. That has happened in the last few months, with at least one American automaker moving chip production from Chinese Semiconductor Manufacturing International after it was hit by trade restrictions to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, which by then was overbooked. Or you could end up banning your own companies from being present at meetings where Chinese companies are present, leaving an open field for their calculated efforts to approve key Chinese technologies as global standards. As a result of the addition of Huawei to the entity list in May 2019, some companies with American operations actually removed themselves from the meetings and processes in which they used to join. As The Economist remarked at the time, “in areas where Huawei is active, this has left America voiceless in setting the tech rules of the future.” These are just the immediate consequences of the above decisions.

I could try to proceed to the next series of consequences, but this short article would start to resemble a novel, a garden of forking paths. Chess masters can calculate thirty moves ahead. Political masters? Two, maybe, but the logic is similar.

Who decides what happens? Not Washington, not Beijing, but the rules of the game. Better to know the rules in all their maddening and unpredictable nuance. The game is sovereign — America and China are considerably less so. So my argument is really directed at builders and technologists: They should be aware that ultimately, technology is the set of rules under which great questions of war and peace now take place. It would be naive to think otherwise. We left the jungle behind. Great powers don’t compete in the jungle and are not subject to the law of the jungle. They compete inside a technological construct, following the game algorithm but also striving to discover all the rules and possibilities contained therein.

Things are complicated by the fact that the algorithm is unknown to the player and only reveals itself through repeated iterations of the game. One must play in order to learn how the algorithm works and only later in order to win. This seems to me a very apt description of world politics, where it is primarily through play that we actually discover the rules, and rarely that we have all the rules spelled out for us before play. A typical game begins at some point in a large, unknown space. In the course of the game the player will explore this space, map out its geography, unravel its secrets.

No strategy can ignore the fact that states now operate within a global system that has been considerably automated and seems increasingly able to dictate outcomes, rewarding or punishing those agents that fail to understand how it all works. Think of the rhythm of financial crises, global investment and economic incentives, technological progress and power. Human beings have of course built this system. We built the world game and we are the ones playing it.

How did we get here?

Were I to write the history of the world game, a few dates would stand out. First, of course, the invention of nuclear weapons. This was the moment when states lost their monopoly over the use of force. You might think nuclear weapons simply added to their powers of destruction, but in fact they raised the possibility that even the most powerful state could be destroyed in a nuclear war. It placed states under a higher power, a power with a technological rather than human center.

The second critical moment was the American victory in the Cold War. The defeat of the Soviet Union represented the moment when the plan of total control over society and the economy was revealed as impossible. That meant that states would have to act against the background of forces they could not fully control, and even that the competition between them would boil down to how successful they might become in acting within that general system.

The system has certain rules which offer the promise of success to those who understand how markets and technology, capital and natural resources — how these great forces truly work. At this point, the logic of the world game was complete.

A third and final revolution is equally inevitable, but it still lies in the future, so I won’t go much farther than cautious observation. Think of global competition today: Success or failure do not depend on psychological qualities such as bravery. Merit for us means control, but control is an infinite game. There is always a better way to move your chess pieces, to deploy your resources, to anticipate your opponent’s thoughts. There is a move and then another one and still another one in an infinite series. The task is not simple and limited but extends potentially to every element of the game environment. There is no end. The game continues forever and the final purpose is to stay ahead forever.

A state that was able to take all available data into account and to properly weigh it in every decision would quickly rise to world domination. Such a state, you will have guessed by now, would be run on software. How futile and childish look the machinations of even a brilliant statesman by comparison.

A game, however, is not an algorithm. It is the human use of an algorithm. To play a game is to learn how the algorithm works. The game just sets the stage. Human beings still have to play it. Think of the game of chess: The system of rules and possible moves helps free your creativity and powers. The mind to govern human societies will be very different from an algorithm. Intuition, brilliance, genius. These qualities must be saved and, if saved, they can save the world.

When the game board changes…

For builders, the world game is more than a metaphor. It’s a reminder that they are building something much bigger than a gadget or an app. They are building a global platform that is setting the terms for global power competition. There is no getting away from geopolitics and the question of what the rules are. At the same time, the general form of the game provides order and stability to world politics.

For the student of geopolitics, there comes a moment when we start to suspect there is a hidden actor determining outcomes. At some point, one starts to turn his or her attention away from the visible centers of power and towards this hidden center, which is in fact at the center of their relative distances.

It is a moment of awakening. Competition is not direct after all and there is a higher agent — higher even than the most powerful player — determining the winner.

The world political and economic system resembles the dynamics of a game in a critical, often overlooked aspect. In a game you never fight your opponent directly. There are moves and relations that tie you together and you fight your opponent by using those moves and relations against him. Even two boxers are not trying to punch each other like two brawlers on the street: They are acting within a predefined contest and thinking about the contest as a whole and about the best strategy to bring about victory, which is something different from destroying your opponent. Those who make it personal are more likely to lose. The players have learned over years or decades how to master and perfect all the possibilities opened by the game. They use the possibilities of the game to beat their opponent.

The same happens with technology today, which operates at the level of the system itself. Using the power of the global technological system to pursue your aims is much more effective than using more direct means. When I argue that this is an exceedingly complex game, I have in mind the process by which an actor comes to master the way technology works, with interconnected parts and knock-on effects. It is almost indistinguishable from the process by which one learns how to play a game.

For example: As a major oil and gas producer, Russia knows it has more energy resources within its borders than it could ever need, and customers are forever assured a more or less mechanical result of a growing and more balanced global economy. But that set of assumptions neglects how other producers can hit its interests by manipulating market prices. Use the system to go after your opponent. At the end of 2015, a 10% cut in public spending in Russia was the best evidence of the growing stress from the pincer of international sanctions and low energy prices in an economy that depends on crude at $100 a barrel. Faced with a direct challenge, Russia decided that the Middle East was now the arena where its future would be decided.

As each economic bloc increasingly focuses on specific technologies, it must make sure that those technologies become dominant, providing something of a global standard. The European Union has actively bet on hydrogen. The European Green Deal could have a major impact on Russia, a country heavily dependent on exports of fossil fuels to the European Union. WoodMac, a respected energy consultancy, now has a scenario where oil prices could fall to $10 per barrel by 2050 if the world accelerates the transition to clean energy. 2025 could become an inflection point for the critical automobile industry, the moment when electric and combustion vehicles are projected to cost the same. Countries in East Asia are racing to develop the battery technology of the future, and China is developing integrated supply chains for electric cars in Indonesia. European companies are still world leaders in wind turbines and Germany is striving for global leadership in hydrogen technology, while China threatens to quickly catch up even in these areas.

An exceedingly complex game.

We need to realize that what looks like disorder is in fact a new kind of order, imposed from above on all players. There are even penalties in the system, applied more or less automatically to those who fail to understand the game and how it is played. There are those who can see the game and those who see the players only. At every moment the beginning of wisdom is to rise above the players. Technology decides. The game decides.

  • Bruno Macaes is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former Europe minister of Portugal.

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