By Sam Vaknin
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Author of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited"
Paradigm shifts in science and revolutionary leaps in technology are frequently coterminous with political and military upheavals. The dust usually requires three centuries to settle. Such seismic waves and tectonic shifts occurred between the 12th and 14th centuries AD, again starting with the 15th and ending in the 17th century AD, and, most recently, commencing in the 19th century and still very much unfolding.
These quakes portend the emergence of new organizing principles and novel threats. Power shifts from one set of players and agents to another. And the scope and impact of the cataclysm increases until it peaks with the last vestiges of the cycle.
Thus, in the current round (19th-21st centuries AD), polities shifted from Empires to Nation-states and economies from colonialism-mercantilism to capitalism: a new order founded on new systems and principles. Industrialized warfare and networked terrorism emerged as the latest threats. Ochlocracies and democracies supplanted the rule of various elites and crowds of laymen lay siege to the hitherto unchallenged superiority and leadership of experts. Finally, starting in the late 19th century, globalization replaced localization everywhere.
Why this confluence of scientific-technological phase transitions and political-military tumults?
There are three possible explanations:
(I) Scientific and technological innovations presage political and military realignments, rather as prequakes forewarn of full-fledged earthquakes. Thus, at the beginning of the twentieth century, physical theories, such as Relativity and Quantum Mechanics reflected a gathering political and military storm in an increasingly uncertain and kaleidoscopic world. Or ...
(II) Scientific and technological innovations cause political and military realignments
Still, many technologies - from the GPS to the Internet and from antibiotics to plastics - were hatched in state-owned laboratories and numerous scientific advances were spurred on and financed by the military-industrial complex. Science and technology in the 20th century seem to be the brainchildren, not the progenitors of the political and martial establishments.
It seems, therefore, that Scientific and technological innovations move in tandem with political and military realignments. Instability, competition, and conflict are the principles that underlie our political philosophy (liberal democracy), economic worldview (Darwinian capitalism), and personal conduct within our anomic societies. It would have been shocking had they failed to permeate our science and technology as well. As people change one dimension of their environment (let's say, their political system), all other parameters are instantaneously affected as well. Science, technology, politics, and warfare resonate and influence each other all the time. Hence the aforementioned synchronicity.
But, what are the transmission mechanisms between science-technology and politics-military? How is a tremor in one sphere communicated to the other?
First, we must distinguish between primary and consumer technologies.
Primary technologies are purely military, industrial, commercial, and large-scale. As primary technologies mature, they are invariably converted into consumer technologies. Primary technologies are disempowering, inaccessible, societal (cater to the needs of the society in which they were developed and within which they are deployed), concentrated in the hands of the few, self-contained, focused (goal-oriented), and largely localized (aim to function and yield results locally).
Consumer technologies are the exact obverse of their primary counterparts: by design, they empower the user, are ubiquitous, cater to the needs of individuals, are distributed and redundant, collaborative, emphasize multitasking, and are global.
Science and technology interact with politics and the military along two pathways:
(I) Established structures are rarely undermined by the mere invention or even deployment of a new technology. It is the shift from primary technology to consumer technology that rattles them. Primary technologies are used by interest groups and power centers to preserve their monopoly of resources and the decision-making processes that determine their allocation. Primary technologies are always in favor of the existing order and are, therefore, conservative. In contrast, consumer technologies grant erstwhile outsiders access to these cherished commodities. Consumer technologies are, therefore, by definition, radical and transformative.
(II) But, the masses are not always content to await their turn while the elites reap the considerable rewards of their first mover status and old-boy-network clubbish advantages. Sometimes the mob demands instant use, or even control of primary technologies. Such revolutionary spasms "compress" historical processes and render primary technologies consumer technologies by dint of the mob's ability to access and manipulate them.
If so, how come we have known periods of tranquility, prosperity, and flourishing of the arts and sciences? Why hasn't history been reduced to a semipternal dogfight between haves and haves not?
The answer is: the mitigating effects of consumer technologies.
Whichever the pathway, once consumer technology is widespread, it becomes a conservative and stabilizing force. Consumers in possession of (often expensive) consumer technologies have a vested interest in the established order: property rights, personal safety, the proper functioning of institutions and producers, and so on.
Consumers wish to guarantee their access to future generations of consumer technologies as well as their unfettered ability to enjoy and make use of the current crop of gadgets and knowledge. To do so, leisure time and wealth formation and accumulation are prerequisites. Both are impossible in a chaotic society. Consumers are "tamed", "domesticated", and "pacified" by their ownership of the very technologies that they had fought to obtain.
Similarly, developers, creators, inventors, and investors require a peaceful, predictable, just, fair, and functional environment to continue to churn out technological innovations. Consumers are aware of that. While inclined to "free rider" behavior in the "Commons", most consumers are willing to trade hard cash and personal freedom for the future availability of their favorite toys and content.
Consumer then form an alliance with all other stakeholders in society to guarantee a prolonged period of status quo. Such intermezzos last centuries until, somehow, the deficiencies and imperfections of the system lead to its eventual breakdown and to the eruption of new ideas, new disruptive technologies, creative destruction, and political and military challenges as new players enter the scene and old ones refuse to exit without a fight.
Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East.
He served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, Global Politician, PopMatters, eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.
Visit Sam's Web site at http://samvak.tripod.com