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A world divided into “cans” and “cannots”

The editor’s letter from our technonationalism issue looks at how technology is increasingly becoming a tool of geopolitical power, in part thanks to covid-19.
gideon portrait
gideon portrait
Gideon Lichfield is editor in chief of MIT Technology Review.Ian Allen

In the last few decades, the received wisdom among global elites has been that technology tends to make the world flatter, smaller, more open, and more equal. This now seems increasingly false, or at least simplistic. Countries are vying for dominance in technologies that could give them a strategic advantage: communications, energy, AI, surveillance, agricultural tech, cybersecurity, military tech … and now, amidst a global pandemic, medicine and manufacturing. The urge for nations to amass technological prowess and use it as an instrument of geopolitical power is what we mean by technonationalism. The thesis of this issue is that the post–Cold War order was already splintering, and covid-19 is finishing the job.

The biggest driving force in this trend is China’s rise as a tech superpower and the US’s consequent belligerence as its supremacy comes under threat. Mara Hvistendahl looks at how US law enforcement has gotten mixed up in the rivalry between Western and Chinese agriculture giants, and at how China’s government sweeps up data all around the world. Paradoxically, Karen Hao explains, even as the Chinese government amps up surveillance of its citizens, it is strengthening laws protecting their privacy as consumers. And James Temple shows how central China has become to renewable-­energy technology.

As Steven Feldstein argues in the opening essay, technonationalism plays a part in the strengthening of other autocracies too. Evan Gershkovich writes about Russian tech giant Yandex’s uneasy relationship with the Kremlin. Sonia Faleiro looks at the Indian government’s attempts to control information by simply shutting down the internet for periods of time. Richard Kemeny reports on how Brazil is becoming a surveillance state. Patrick Howell O’Neill profiles Israeli spyware company NSO, which has quietly built up its fortune by helping governments around the world snoop on people.

Covid-19 is intensifying technonationalist tendencies in part by laying bare the differences between countries that are handling the pandemic well and those that aren’t. Rowan Moore Gerety delves into why America’s once-vibrant manufacturing sector, which switched nimbly to a war footing in the 1940s, now can’t churn out enough masks and equipment to keep citizens safe. Antonio Regalado examines the international race to find a vaccine and interviews Larry Corey, who is in charge of the Trump administration’s vaccine trials. Krithika Varagur talks to people on the pandemic’s front lines in several of the countries that have done best against the disease. Kati Krause and Patrick Leger take a closer look at Germany—a federal system like the US, but one where clear leadership from the top has produced a very different outcome.

Finally, Christine Rosen reviews a book by historian Jill Lepore on the forgotten history of “people analytics,” a discipline that was born of governments’ ambitions to predict and control their populations. Konstantin Kakaes sums up five books on the complicated relationship between governments and technology. And we round off with a thought-provoking piece of fiction from Fatin Abbas.

My guess is that while we wait for a vaccine or treatment, the international contrasts will only grow more stark. In some countries, economies are already picking back up and life is returning to some semblance of normalcy. In others, there is decline, depression, uncertainty, and a feeling of being trapped in the horror of now. Technology will continue to be one more means by which countries seek advantage. As nation-states reassert their power in the world, the stories in this issue will help you understand the nature and limits of what they can do.

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