We now face a century of change like no other in history. Technology will transform how we meet our needs for peace, dignity and community. This will shatter the global political equilibrium, and shift power away from governments towards individuals. States, ideas and industries will go out of business. Inequality could grow.
Already, the internet has changed the world faster than any previous technology. The smartphone has given a superpower to much of the world’s population. For many, the web is no longer for our downtime, but for all our time. We have access not just to more information than we can process, but more than we can imagine. From self driving cars to artificial intelligence, as Nobel Prize winning geneticist Richard Smalley says – “when a scientist says something is possible, they’re probably underestimating how long it will take. If they say it is impossible, they’re probably wrong.”
And we’re only just getting going. The patterns show us – data, computer chip advancement, global temperatures, demography – that change is accelerating at a staggering rate. Sociologist Ian Morris predicts that in just a century we will go through the equivalent technological tsunami of the journey from cave paintings to nuclear weapons.
For the first time, technology gives the prospect of the world’s population having an instant, global and unfiltered means of communicating, of consuming information, of forming opinions, preferences and communities. Digital technology empowers new sources of power, increasingly enabling the individual to take control of their lives. This connectivity could unleash an unprecedented empathetic force for global development. But it could also leave us feeling overwhelmed, unable to keep up, unequal, exploited by corporate algorithms, reduced to variables to be mined as big data, and our every networked action recorded by big-brother government surveillance.
How humans manage this paradigm shift is the greatest challenge of our time. Yet we are in danger of being overwhelmed by that change. At a time when we have the tools to react globally, we are failing to use them. We have not begun to truly adapt our institutions to the new realities. And we too often mistake demolition for disruption.
If we are in the foothills of a truly global, connected, civilization, which craft is better equipped than diplomacy to shape debates on how to protect our basic human needs in the Networked Age? But diplomacy is hard in periods of economic and political uncertainty. The system based on states, hierarchies, and the status quo is becoming weaker. The pace of technological change means that the internet has often been something that happens to diplomacy, not a force marshaled in support of diplomacy.
So diplomacy must innovate with urgency, or face a slow slide into under resourced decline and irrelevance. Using digital technology, diplomats should build networks in a time of institutional failure; consensus in a time of arguments; and bridges in a time of walls. We should strive for expertise, patience, perspective and judgement in a time of fake news, sound bites and echo chambers. We can aspire to be courageously calm and tolerant in a time of outrage and intolerance. We can be internationalist in a time of nationalism, and open minded in a time of closed minds. A retreat from the world is the path to irrelevance, drift and uncertainty.
The great dividing line of the 21st century is between two basic human instincts – to fight for resource, or to negotiate for it. We need diplomacy more than ever because the implications of diplomatic failure are more catastrophic than ever. We need to seize our smartphones.
There are three new frontiers for digital diplomacy. Firstly, using social media not just to gather information and connect, but to influence on a massive scale, building campaigns and coalitions. Diplomacy is no longer an elite pastime. It will become more open, democratic and inclusive.
Secondly, artificial intelligence. No government is remotely prepared to deal with the consequences of the huge transformation of AI in the coming decades. Diplomats need not just to be thinking about the implications for our craft, but what AI will do to the societies in which we operate. Automation will destroy many industries, and increase distrust in traditional politics. How do we create the right global institutions to realize the potential, and manage the threats?
Thirdly, service delivery. In an age of Netflix and Amazon, the public won’t accept the same old government services – months waiting for an appointment or a visa. Digital technology creates new expectations of how we serve the public. So we are working now on building the embassy of the future, a hub for ideas, connections and networks.
If diplomacy did not exist, we would need to invent it. Now, we need to reinvent it.
Featured Image Credit: “Apple Device Blur” by Pexels. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.