The Fundamental Theorem of Tech-Geopolitics

A historical anecdote I cite a lot, from Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History involves the Britain-France naval power race in the 17th century. Britain was dominant historically, but briefly, during the administration of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, France pulled ahead with better ships thanks to a concerted top-down policy. But after his era, the advantage faded and Britain pulled back ahead.

Moral of the story: A long bottom-up cultural history conducive to a technology always prevails in the end. Britain was a nation of seafarers. France was a nation of farmers and nobility-staffed military. The tech advantage was hard won but short-lived because it didn’t have the roots to sustain.

Fundamental theorem: In the long term, a technology is driven by the culture that harmonizes best with it.

Applying this to today’s technologies, the zeroth-order prediction would be that the West will dominate crypto (and protocols in general) and China will dominate AI (and all process technologies that benefit from economies of aggregation scale in general).

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The term “harmonization” has been niggling at me. It seems to overlook the dynamic and evolving nature of technology and culture that I’ve been grappling with. Borrowing from systems theory, “Requisite Flexibility” may offer a protological counterpart to “Requisite Variety” when thinking about the distinction between strong and weak protocols.

This also got me thinking about what might be called “Requisite Adaptability”. Technology is not static. It evolves, disrupts, and responds to the needs and influences of the culture in which it is embedded. Similarly, culture is not static either. It adapts, transforms, and shapes the development and adoption of technology. This interplay suggests that rather than seeking a static state of harmonization, we should focus on the ongoing process of “requisite adaptability”.

Engels’ Pause suggests there are periods of rapid technological advancements followed by a “pause” during which social and cultural structures catch up. But it’s not just about technology outpacing culture - it’s compounded by social unrest, resource constraints, and shifting global dynamics. In other words, it’s not simply a failure to “harmonize” with technology, but a reflection of how technological and cultural landscapes are constantly shifting. To me this is a stark reminder that no technological advantage is permanent, and success depends on the ability to adapt to changing circumstances - both internal and external.

So, bringing together “requisite flexibility” and “requisite adaptability”, here’s my counter-theory: In the long term, a technology thrives through its ability to adapt and co-evolve with the dynamic cultural landscape in which it operates.

For example, the success of the internet seems to stem from its ability to adapt to various cultural contexts while simultaneously shaping new cultural norms. An example of technology succeeding through co-evolution with culture.

I’m still working through the implications of this, but it certainly relates to my PILL project. I’d welcome any thoughts.