Guidance for an uncertain future.
Social Media, Social Credit, Social Contract
The state of play in the scramble for digital order.
During the brief period of time when the computer developed significant capability but had not grown strong enough to dominate people’s lives and the structure of the lived world all on its own, statecraft centered around the realization that military technology had become crucial to security in two senses: first, the traditional one concerning war, but, second, and still more importantly, the broader socioeconomic one pertaining to the deliverance of goods and services sufficient to satisfy public needs and wants.
This double sense of security animated and justified the military-industrial and intelligence apparatuses of the state, which since the Manhattan Project took on a life and a life form all their own. In essence, these states-within-states were permitted to develop military and security technology without any real constraints—political, financial, or otherwise.
While the imperative of protecting the homeland and preventing the conquest of the world by rivals afforded this decisive breach with America’s form of government a powerful justification during the Cold War, the global struggle against communism centered on the power of the security state to push technological advancement through core civil institutions and society at large. Yesterday’s military innovations became tomorrow’s commercial and communications goods and services, especially and increasingly those with entertainment applications.
In this way America’s Cold War victory, the basis of its establishment as the sole superpower of the New World Order, depended in two senses on a limitless and constitutionally ungoverned techno-state within a state. America’s hard power and its soft power were twins. Research and development became a creature of this inner state, and capitalist society and culture dependent on its open-ended development of technologies that could be repurposed or applied to the entertainment-industrial complex—which ordered the patterns and habits of production and consumption that conformed American and world sensibilities toward a central understanding of fantasy as the ultimate or true source of human meaning and value.
After the Cold War, a sort of inner battle between political factions ensued over what relationship between American hard and soft power would be optimal to consolidate the regime’s preeminent control over the world. The war on terror and its attendant missions achieved certain military successes, or at least prevented catastrophe at home, but contributed to a widening breach between the apparent results that hard versus soft power could achieve. A substantial shift in the balance between military and intelligence power resulted, with the “intelligence community” making huge gains in influence and control under Obama.
The sudden leap to dominance over people and the world made by digital technology in the Obama years caused a new opportunity to seal the widened breach between hard and soft power. Networked computing swiftly saturated the world, creating the prospect of a new soft projection of state knowledge power through both domestic and international theaters—a form of systemization that located true sovereign power and control in the datacenter.
Since then, the development of what can only be described as a social credit system began in earnest, both through the entrenching of government datacenters and data collection at the heart of the security state and through the establishment and protection of massive new social media companies with the same kind of vast resources, global reach, and obscured inner workings as the security state itself.
As these moves healed the breach between hard and soft power, they eliminated the gap between public and private life at the heart of traditionally liberal society. Entertainment became a tool of statecraft fully integrated into surveillance and security technology and operations, both at home and abroad.
Those who orchestrated and benefited from these arrangements achieved a parallel break with the rest of society, peeling away from the labors and costs borne by individuals and peoples who could only interact with the system in their role as consumers or as products of those systems.
The radical distortion of cultural and economic activity that resulted caused America and societies in its orbit to begin to violate—with increasing impunity—the social contract that had been forged at the outset of the security-state era between the invention of the computer and the production of the smartphone. The delivered goods that this contract took to be essential to the good life—good jobs, good standards of living, good neighborhoods for families, and good parents, schools, and prospects for children—evaporated progressively from the lives of ordinary people and concentrated in the hands of an exclusive yet expanding clique of people with the skills or contacts needed to exploit the new technologized social structure.
Today we find ourselves in a moment when the collapse of the old social contract is occurring faster than a new one can be put in place. For this reason the rushed completion of the social credit system has the appeal both of a bold advance and a calculated retreat for America’s ruling factions. Many millions of people are now so shellshocked and demoralized by the pace of transformation that they actively seek out forms of online entertainment that privilege fantasy life over real life, and prize these arrangements despite—or because of—the fact that conscription into the social credit system is effectively the price of admission.
Yet at the same time, many others are more interested in using the virtual realm of online life to seek an escape from both the social credit system and the deadened and deracinated real world that the collapse of the old social contract is leaving behind. While some hope that online life can in this way be built up into something that ultimately replaces real life as the standard of the highest flourishing, others are simply looking for the room to reconstitute basic social arrangements consistent with venerable Western understandings of the good or best life, the better to reimplant them in the real world once they have grown strong enough or the regime weak enough to do so.
These shifts are taking place in a power situation of extreme fluidity and uncertainty. The prime imperative or “desire” of digital technology is for interoperability, and in a democratic society where the old social contract is collapsing the experience of human insignificance and interchangeability primes people both to hate and to emulate their increasingly interoperable yet increasingly powerful machines. The emotional and cognitive slipperiness and disorientation sown by this experience contributes to a generalized impression among both the people and the regime that victory amid the unfolding conflict for control over whose social contracts prevail in which human spaces depends on who can avoid detection long enough to develop minimally viable virtual models of new social contracts implementable in the real world.
And because the triumph of digital technology over the whole world and over each aspect of life strengthens even more the imbalance of offense over defense regarding all kinds of conflict, information war and culture war oblige combatants to constantly play a double game—one overt and one covert—with codes of silence and dissembling about constructed virtual worlds at its strategic core. It is now not possible to discuss virtual commercial or entertainment products outside a military and intelligence context. The implications, intentions, and instrumental possibilities of everything from the ostensibly new “metaverse” to such established popular “games” of pacification and dehumanization such as Animal Crossing all must be seen in light of regime and popular efforts to establish new social contracts through models meant to be reasserted over or substituted for real life.
In such circumstances, the ability of citizens to reason publicly about potential and real new social contracts is radically undermined. Perhaps it has even already been eliminated. From this perspective, the need to build new institutions that can cope with the reality of the digital transformation is exacerbated by the race in which any such builders find themselves. If the recognizable return of America’s constitutional form of government is to be accomplished in the digital age, the return of basic technological development and innovation to people outside the state within a state will have to be achieved, under conditions in which the rivalry and even the hostility of the regime to that achievement may have to be assumed.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.