When Thomas Newcomen built his pioneering steam engine in 1712, Queen Anne and the Duke of Marlborough were right to ignore it. Though in the long run steam engines completely reshaped the world, in the short run the war with France and the Hanoverian succession were far more important. Even when the Industrial Revolution picked up steam in the 19th century, it still moved slow enough for politicians to be one step ahead of events and to regulate and manipulate its course.
Yet whereas the rhythm of politics has not changed much since the days of steam, technology has switched from first gear to fourth. Technological revolutions now outpace political processes, causing ministers and voters alike to lose control.
The rise of the internet gives us a taste of things to come. Cyberspace is now crucial to our daily lives, our economy and our security. Yet the critical choices between alternative designs for the internet weren’t taken through a political process, even though they involved traditional political issues such as sovereignty, borders, privacy and security. Decisions made far from the limelight mean that today the internet is a free and lawless zone that erodes state sovereignty, ignores borders, abolishes privacy and poses perhaps the most formidable global security risk.
Whereas a decade ago it hardly registered on the radars, today hysterical officials are predicting an imminent cyber 9/11. Any day now we might wake up to discover that the power grid is down, the local refinery is up in flames, and crucial financial data has been erased so that nobody knows who owns what.
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