The Blog

It's Trump, But It's Not Trump

It's not about Trump. I mean, it clearly is a bit about Trump because he's just been elected President of the United States of America, but actually there are far bigger forces at play here than even him. The mistake would be to allow ourselves to be distracted by the shouty orange thing rather than looking to what's created the shouty orange thing.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Don't be distracted by the bright orange shouty thing - a bigger voice is being heard.

The hardest thing to do at a time like this is listen. When the name-calling and the fear and the testosterone-pumped celebrations are in full swing perspective is in short supply. But the quicker we pull back and acknowledge what's going on here the quicker we'll be able to react to it in a constructive way (and perhaps retain some of our sanity).

It's not about Trump. I mean, it clearly is a bit about Trump because he's just been elected President of the United States of America, but actually there are far bigger forces at play here than even him. The mistake would be to allow ourselves to be distracted by the shouty orange thing rather than looking to what's created the shouty orange thing.

Trump is a function of the change that's taking place, not the instigator. The man is clearly an idiot. He isn't even in control of his own hair; he certainly isn't capable of orchestrating a grand political shift. What we're actually seeing is a breakdown of The Great Contract of the post-war world and all our analogue systems of governance. It's that big. The creation of the digital space is fundamentally disrupting how we communicate and organise ourselves and the Trump event is just the start.

In the past our systems of communication and government were functions of the analogue world. Physical barriers to the movement of goods and the speed and diversity of ideas defined the system. The analogue world needed systems that had centres - parliaments where people met to talk, newspapers where ideas were collected, edited and then distributed, markets where people traded.

But the digital space we've created doesn't have those restrictions. It has no centre. Every point of the network can reach every other point of the network almost instantaneously. In this new system there is no central filtering and editing of ideas and any voices can carry anywhere with equal weight. And some of those voices simply haven't been heard before.

Last month a major Denial of Service (DoS) attack took down a US internet infrastructure company using little more than a bunch of webcams and some smart code. These Internet of Things devices were seemingly meaningless points on the great global network but when collectively pointed in the same direction they were able to bring large parts of the system to a standstill. Trump has effectively managed the same thing. Trump - or at least Trump's advisors - were smart enough to effectively hack the system using the same approach. They unearthed a load of vulnerable and largely unused points on the network and pointed them in the same direction.

Which is not to say people are stupid. Far from it. The question is, why would these people be so open to influence? In the DoS attack it was weak passwords. In the current system the human equivalent of the weak password is a feeling of being utterly screwed over.

The post-war contract with the populations of the Western World was clear - you keep buying stuff and don't rock the boat and we, the government, will make sure you have a job for life and be looked after in your old age. It may not be very thrilling, but you and your children will eat, stay warm and you'll have a nice new car every couple of years. Between 1950 and 1980 that pretty much held true, but as our goal for an international capitalist economy became realised it started to break down. China coming on board was the tipping point. (And ironically it was another rogue American President, Nixon, who kick-started that shift.)

Once the system took on an extra billion people the Western economies suddenly found themselves increasingly robbed of the making part of the system and left more and more with just the buying part of the system. That's when things started to go south. Or, rather, east. Millions of Americans who had dutifully played by the rules have been left jobless or hopeless or both. Their contract had been torn up. Their security had been breached. They have been left vulnerable to a hack.

Trump is a result of a digital space that connects everyone and gives them a value and influence. Each influence might be microscopic but collectively it's like a tidal wave. Welcome to true democracy. Our analogue systems are just not set up to cope with it. And there's a lot more to come.

All of the systems that have governed the post-war world are now being digitally disrupted. It's not just the EU, NATO, or the UN, it's the very notion of the nation-state. The idea of the nation-state governed by a social contract was an eighteenth-century phenomenon. The systems of capitalism and centralised media that held it together all arrived at the same time. Our previous systems of government and communication were dictated by a scarcity and value of information, and the fundamental principles of international capitalism were dictated by a scarcity of resource and labour. The infinite and uncontrolled information exchange of the digital space has disrupted our media systems and is now disrupting our government. It's here in Brexit, it's here in Trump. But in a world that is rapidly moving towards localised 3D printing, robot labour and almost infinite solar energy, our systems of international capitalism are next. The rules that governed all our understanding of the way the world works are breaking down.

If you think the Trump reaction to the consequences of international capitalism is tumultuous wait until you see what happens when full robot manufacturing comes on line. Right now Trump is fighting over the low-paid, low-skilled jobs that have disappeared from America to China. What are he, and his supporters, going to do when there are no jobs left to fight over because the robots are doing them all anyway? That's the real issue we need to start thinking about because it's only years away.

It's interesting to wonder what Elon Musk is feeling right now. I bet he's pretty hacked off, sure, because no-one wants a mad-man with his finger on the nuclear button, but I bet he's also not surprised. I think he'll see it as part of an inevitable wave of change, the effects of the exponential development of technology rippling through the system. The stark truth is that the change we're going to see in the next twenty years will make the last twenty look like a stroll along the beachfront at Torquay. Musk knows it and he's preparing for it. Hell, he's creating it. That future 'change the headline' act. Trump is just the sideshow.

When I started working on internet magazines (imagine such a thing!) in the mid-'90s we knew this new thing was important but we hadn't thought it through. We were excited by Netscape, we didn't see the possibility that a reality TV star would become President. (Probably because we didn't know what reality TV was.) But when you step back to look at the last 20 years Trump makes perfect sense. Producing a reality TV star President is exactly the sort of thing the system was always going to do because it was designed to run without any kind of control. The internet was designed to survive a nuclear attack. It's an unstoppable car speeding forward with no-one at the wheel. We're going to need fundamentally different systems to look after people and manage ourselves to cope with that. Those that have served us for 250 years, largely unchanged, are clearly not up to the job. That's what Trump is telling us. The change that's coming will be a change in type rather than scale and the sooner we get our head round that and plan for it the better.

So, pour scorn on Trump and grieve for Hilary, yes. He's an idiot, she's entitled to be disappointed and you're entitled to be hacked off. But look beyond Trump. Look beyond the shouty orange thing. Because what's created Trump is way bigger, way more revolutionary and way more intimidating than him. And it's only just got started.