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Biden’s America on the world stage

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
January 14, 2021

Looking back on the period of 2000-2020 conjures up a gloomy picture of U.S. global leadership: from the unilateral war of Bush and the failed multilateralism of Obama to the unilateral sanctions of Trump. In 2021, Biden will become president of the U.S. What does this mean for the future of U.S. global leadership?

Our observations

  • Biden will attempt to counter China by building new alliances. After the signing of the RCEP trade deal in Asia, Biden suggested that the U.S. has to find other (democratic) allies for a new trade deal (similar to the Trans-Pacific Partnership quit by Trump).
  • Both the European Commission and Biden are supportive of a new EU-US agenda for global change.
  • Biden will return to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. He has also vowed to cooperate internationally to reduce fossil fuel subsidies.
  • Biden will rejoin the World Health Organization and has pledged to cooperate more closely with the United Nations.
  • Biden promises he will call for a global summit to pressure tech companies to reform their practices around privacy and surveillance.
  • Biden has called NATO the “single most important military alliance in the history of the world”.
  • Biden wants to convene all democratic countries in a “Summit for Democracy” to discuss three major themes: corruption, authoritarianism, human rights.

Connecting the dots

If we look back to the period of 2000-2020, we can identify different types of U.S. global leadership. From 2000 to 2008, the global leadership of Bush may be characterized as “unilateral destabilization”. The “Bush Doctrine” refers to his principle of unilateralism (i.e. going it alone). Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and did not seek United Nations legitimization for the invasion of Iraq. From 2008 to 2016, the global leadership of Obama may be characterized as “sabotaged multilateralism”. Obama struck a deal with Iran about its nuclear program and was close to signing the historic Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. However, Trump withdrew from both of them. From 2016 to 2020, the global leadership of Trump may be characterized as “unilateral sanctions”. Trump’s unilateral threats, sanctions and trade wars affected both adversaries (China, Iran) and allies (EU, Japan).

How should we characterize the global leadership of Biden? It depends on how likely Biden’s strategy of multilateralism (see observations) is to succeed. If Biden, for instance, strikes a deal with the EU on China or devises an alternative global trade deal, he may succeed where Obama failed. However, it is more likely that Biden’s multilateralism will reap even fewer rewards than Obama’s. Most importantly, the EU is unlikely to agree to U.S. demands to counter China, whereas a global trade deal at the scale of RCEP is unlikely given Biden’s electoral promises around trade. Such “strategic impasses” could render Biden a mere caretaker when it comes to U.S. global leadership, although smaller “multilateral wins” are likely (e.g. the Paris Agreement, WHO).

When a “strategic impasse” turns Biden into a caretaker, we should draw on what the previous decades of U.S. global leadership have taught us. The U.S. chose to unilaterally destabilize a region, then failed to reach its goals through multilateralism, then chose to unilaterally pressure both its adversaries and its allies, and then, in our scenario, again failed to realize its goals through multilateralism. To be sure, there is also an ideological force at play –both Republican presidents opted for unilateralism and both Democratic presidents opted or will opt for multilateralism.

However, there is a deeper force at play as well. It is the decline of U.S. global leadership: from unilateral destabilization, to failed multilateralism, to unilateral sanctions, back to failed multilateralism. The main question is how other powers will react. In different elements of the global order (e.g. trade, human rights, environment), different powers (e.g. China, Europe) will attempt to lead in this new world.

Implications

  • The domestic political situation will dampen Biden’s ability to fulfill his ambitions. The U.S. is not merely “polarized” between two camps. Instead, there is a four-way struggle (that resembles European politics with multiparty parliaments) between progressive/far-leftist Democrats, moderate Democrats, nationalist/far-right Republicans and moderate Republicans. It will make governing the U.S. much more difficult, as its political system is, contrarily to European countries, not built for such a struggle.

  • China could stand to benefit from Biden’s America. However, if Biden succeeds in bringing about a grand multilateral program aimed at countering Chinese influence (e.g. Transatlantic policy, a global trade deal), the odds of a Western front against China will grow significantly.

How do we distil a good narrative from 2020?

Written by Pim Korsten
January 14, 2021

2020 was the year of the coronavirus crisis and in 2021, we’ll hopefully be able to leave this crisis behind. How we do that depends on the story we create about it, and the language, metaphors, narratives we want to use. From the perspective of philosophical hermeneutics, we can consider the structure of this story, and how we can actively build a post-corona future.

Our observations

  • In his book Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (2020), historian Frank Snowden writes that epidemics have led to large public investments. The plague, for instance, led to the beginnings of public healthcare, as the temporary agencies and emergency ordnances gradually changed into permanent institutions. In his book Epidemics and the Modern World (2020), Mitchell Hammond writes that such initiatives and the first iterations of public administration were therefore of great importance to the modern state.
  • According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, the Enlightenment and modernity were both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, modernity has brought us much prosperity, in the form of disposable income, better healthcare, better social and physical infrastructure, and new innovations that make our daily lives better and more enjoyable. At the same time, Foucault contends modernity and the Enlightenment have also brought us a new form of power and discipline, “biopower”, and he viewed the new forms and institutions of public healthcare as laboratories for experimenting with new forms of social control.
  • In their book Metaphors We Live By (2003), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson pose that the metaphors we use in our language also influence our direct physical and social experiences. According to them, the conceptual framework from which we interpret and approach reality is metaphorical by nature, and thus subconsciously influences our thinking and actions. Metaphors aren’t fully rational but integrate feelings, thought structures and our imagination into a figurative “image of thought”.
  • Many contemporary thinkers emphasize that humans are a “story-telling being”, and that narratives are a fundamental determinant of how we relate to reality and are able to shape the future. Think of Yuval Harari in Sapiens, Alex Rosenberg in How History Gets Things Wrong, Jordan Peterson in Maps of Meaning, Jeremy Lent in The Patterning Instinct. The base unit of a narrative is a “narreme”, comparable to the “phoneme” (a unit of sound) in phonology (the linguistic study of sound). A narreme relates to the state of affairs in the world and the positioning of story development and events within a certain wider narrative framework.
  • In his magnus opus Truth and Method (1960), Hans Georg Gadamer poses that different domains of life and various sciences have a different understanding of truth and method from a merely scientific one. The humanities have their method of hermeneutics – the art of interpretation – in which meaning is sought. In his final chapter “Language as horizon of a hermeneutic ontology”, Gadamer contends that meaning is always linguistic in nature as man has always interpreted reality and himself from the perspective of a historical and cultural tradition.

Connecting the dots

In our Retroscope, in which we looked back on 2020, we wrote about the term “crisis”: a moment of truth when we must make decisive judgments on what is actually important and what isn’t. A crisis also always forces us to make a political and ethical choice to transform the current situation into a brighter, more positive future. This makes the coronavirus crisis a real crisis, which has set in motion important choices and developments in the domains of geopolitics, technology and culture. The question now is: how do we interpret the events of 2020, and how will we develop a narrative? This is a matter of how the coronavirus crisis can lead to a new consciousness and how we should understand ourselves. Firstly, we could characterize the coronavirus crisis as a “formative experience”, as a consequence of which a new generation will adopt a new set of values, norms and ideas. This is apparent in our scenarios from the Resilient World in the domains of technology, culture and geopolitics. The coronavirus crisis could also leave an imprint on our political, technical and social systems (just as the Second World War left an imprint on our socio-technical systems). “Imprint” is a term from biology and psychology, which refers to changing behavioral processes of humans (and animals) as a consequence of being exposed to external stimuli (e.g. imprinting in genetics and developmental psychology). The coronavirus crisis will also leave such an imprint on our subjective and objective consciousness.

It’s important how we formulate and understand this in language and concepts, express it in metaphors, media and stories. For example, think of the long-term consequences of pandemics on the development of modern institutions and public government services such as healthcare, and how we should understand and assess these new forms of “biopower”. What’s crucial in this is the narreme we develop; the wider framework from which we consider and position the coronavirus crisis and its consequences within a narrative axis. Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was an important thinker in the comparative narratology in literature. In his masterpiece Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Frye analyzes the narrative categories and patterns in different literary traditions, and devises an “anatomy” of historical modes, ethical symbols and archetypical myths and rhetorical genres.  How does this relate to the coronavirus crisis? And what can we expect from the so-called “post-corona narratives”?

The coronavirus crisis is best perceived from the tragic mode. The Ancient tragedy is about how people relate to their fate and ill-fortune, which serves to inspire pity and fear in the audience in order to achieve “catharsis”: emotional purification. The comedy, by contrast, is marked by protagonists making blunders and mistakes, while still ending happily, thus achieving catharsis in the audience through laughter, humor and enjoyment. The coronavirus crisis caught many people off guard, and is often seen as a manifestation of Fate (e.g. as a religious reprimand or nature’s pushback against the hubris of modern man). In this tragedy, we may apply the framework from Frye’s first essay to distinguish various tropes, such as the highly mimetic coronavirus tragedy (marked by the sacrifices people such as nurses make to fight the coronavirus) or the ironic tragedy (man’s weakness in the face of nature or other lifeforms). When we consider different types of “coronavirus symbols”, the first one we notice is the descriptive symbol of the virus that’s bringing humankind, and even entire “superorganisms” such as economic systems (e.g. healthcare or the economy) to their knees.

The visual symbol ties in closely with the use of metaphors, such as the prison as a metaphor for working from home, or the desert for the empty cities during lockdown. The mythical symbol displays the relationship to other symbols of our time that, as we’ve argued before, are metamodern in nature. The anagogic symbol represents the spiritual value of the coronavirus crisis, and whether it will lead to a better, more enlightened future or not. The mental side of the experience of the coronavirus crisis is also considered, such as the moods inspired by the coronavirus or our ideals in this post-corona world.

This brings us to the archetypical myths: which original images, figures and ideas emerge in our visualization of the coronavirus crisis? Describing these moods, ideals, experiences, in short: the mental side of the coronavirus, isn’t about explaining or categorizing various psychological phenomena – the cognitive and neurosciences are much better equipped to do this – but helps reveal the meaning of our world and existence in society. This means we can expect new media that – implicitly or explicitly – are a result of the moods of the coronavirus crisis and quarantine, in the same vein as the “post-9/11 media” or the “atomic culture” that arose after the bombings in Japan and the critical philosophy (e.g. the Frankfurter Schule) that came into being in response to the Second World War.

This shows that our visualization of the coronavirus crisis and the narrative we create about it is ultimately the product of how we interpret the historicity of the coronavirus crisis: is it the end of the world as we know it, thus an epoch of decay, or in fact the beginning of a better world and thus of spiritual reassessment? It’s interesting to see that “cyclical theories” such as the generational dynamics of Strauss and Howe, the theory concerning technological revolutions and hegemonic cycles and economic paradigm shifts point to such a turning point. They highlight that a post-corona world might look radically different, and that such a narrative might be constitutive or even performative in creating a better future.

Implications

  • The coronavirus crisis could become a new “grand narrative” with which rifts could be closed. This will probably be utopian in content, as a response to postmodern skepticism and modern naiveté. For this narrative to be told, it’s crucial that creative artists can get to work on this. Especially now that many of us are in social isolation, stuck at home without the possibility of seeing friends and family, it’s conceivable that the coronavirus crisis may lead to a period of enormous creativity and invention. Film makers, for example, now have the time to consider new formats and pieces. We’ve written before that the Zeitgeist and a “structure of feeling” are manifesting in art, media and popular culture.

  • Another important aspect of this visualization is speculative design. Precisely because the coronavirus crisis is a real crisis that’s changing the course of the world and humankind, we can’t extrapolate the past and have to experiment with new images and forms of visualization. What scenario thinking is to theoretical thinking, speculative design is to visualization.

Does the future belong to Keynes and Mazzucato?

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
January 14, 2021

In the past year, Keynes made a comeback into the soul of European economic policy. First intended to keep the economy going, then with a view to establish a sustainable and inclusive economy in the future. In order to facilitate the latter, Keynes was modernized with the mission-oriented innovation policy of economist Mariana Mazzucato. Together, they provide a substantial economic policy framework for governments to combat the “wicked problems” of the 21st century.

Our observations

  • Because of the coronavirus crisis, for the first time in twenty years, poverty is on the rise again. Depending on the severity of the economic crisis, an estimated 150 million people will join the ranks of those living below the poverty line, making the sum total nearly 10% of the global population. A wealthy continent such as Europe, despite there being more social security than elsewhere, is no exception to this trend.
  • In the past, crises have sometimes been great equalizers: In wartime, equity and capital evaporated more quickly than gunpowder. This does not apply to the coronavirus crisis, which has only exacerbated social and economic inequality in several ways.
  • CO2 emissions decreased by 8% in the past year and we’re unlikely to ever again reach the global peak levels of 2019. The main concern is now whether emission levels will be reduced fast enough, and which part of the population will “bear the brunt” of the decreased emission rates.
  • With the coronavirus as a tipping point, governments are now striving for a more active role in the economy to deal with the abovementioned “wicked problems”. In the course of the year, aid packages came to be accompanied by recovery packages meant to correct the unbridled neoliberalism of the past years. These recovery packages are largely made up of investment funds with a lot of reference to mission-oriented innovation policy, which gradually seems to be gaining ground in Europe.
  • The recovery plans and investment funds are crystal clear in one respect: sustainability is the main goal. The German government devised a green recovery plan of 130 billion euros which focuses mainly on hydrogen. The French government, unwilling to lag behind, presented a 100 billion euro plan soon after, of which 30 billion is reserved for the ecological transition. And recently, regulations on spending the European recovery fund of 672.5 billion euros were tightened, so that a significant percentage of the subsidies and loans would have to be used for sustainability purposes. The same applies to the Dutch growth fund of 20 billion euros, which initially incurred much criticism for the gray and traditional economic set-up of the investment fund, but has now become much greener.

Connecting the dots

Economists generally disagree. Put two economists in a room and you’ll get three opinions, the old economic saying goes. The consensus among economists about the global aid policy of governments was therefore surprising. Economists have rarely been this unanimous in their agreement on the necessity of government intervention. Moreover, with the financial crisis still fresh in our memories, central banks are asking governments not to start phasing out financial aid too soon. The rising government debt has been taken for granted so far; the fear of long-lasting economic stagnation unequivocally takes precedence over the fear of inflation. Initially, the emphasis was on keeping the economy going. Now, we’re becoming concerned about the future. The government wants to stimulate economic growth as well as realize societal goals such as reaching sustainability and social justice at the same time.

This will be one hell of a job. Classical Keynesian undifferentiated innovation policy is no longer the solution, as not all innovation is good and not all consumption is wanted. Keynes needs an update. The neoclassical economic idea that innovation is ultimately best judged by the market, is abandoned in the innovation policy of economist Mariana Mazzucato. Her ideas include a preceding process of elimination by civilians and the government, who join hands in formulating ambitious societal goals, or “moonshots” as Mazzucato likes to call them.

In Europe, in part because of the coronavirus crisis, Mazzucato’s ideas have gained much momentum. Following the Green Deal, governmental aid packages often contain clear references to mission-oriented policy, with social justice and sustainability as the most prevalent missions. These societal missions are ambitious and this is precisely the point, according to Mazzucato, so that passion will return to government policy, which otherwise is at risk of becoming uninspired and providing a culture with little direction. Yet, the economic reality presents a challenge for European policy makers. Mission-oriented innovation policy is a three-fold struggle in which crises from the past, present and future influence each other.

The legacy of the past is a financial system in which capital is (too) profitable. Indeed, private savings abound: in the year of the coronavirus, European savings accounts and nest eggs were amply stocked. Moreover, central banks are copiously adding to the money supply with their extensive buy-back programs. Because of this, collecting money isn’t the problem, but, eventually, this money should be flowing into the real economy, which has been an issue for over a decade. The way the financial system is organized ensures that returns on stocks and capital are often more interesting than risky innovation. It speaks volumes that in the year of the coronavirus, more young people opened a private investment account than ever before, and house prices merrily kept on rising during the crisis. Speculation counters innovation and discourages companies from making daring long-term investments.

The legacy of the present is simply the economic damage of the current crisis. Inequality has increased in many domains. The crisis greatly divides society, resulting in clear winners and losers. Consequently, we’re witnessing increasing resistance against some forms of public spending, especially where climate policy is concerned. Economists therefore advocate a joint approach to reaching sustainability and economic equality. Their approach boils down to higher (environmental) taxes for the upper class, and tax exemptions or financial compensation (e.g. for road pricing) for the lower and middle classes to restore their disposable income. According to economist Dirk Bezemer, tax and wage measures should be in one and the same package as sustainability laws, otherwise, the intended acceleration of the green transition in Europe would be completely unrealistic.

Our “legacy” for the future is the advance we’ve taken on this future and the necessity of growth to be able to pay this back. With sufficient economic growth, government debt becomes lower in relative terms and tax income rises, so that it becomes easier to pay interest charges without this affecting other expenses. And it’s not just government debt that makes economic growth desirable. The future pension costs and increasing healthcare costs of an ageing population, make economic growth essential to Europe.

Economic growth is thus very desirable, but to what extent are economic growth and societal missions reconcilable? This is a controversial question, especially as regards sustainability. Too much emphasis on quick recovery in the form of a single-minded focus on economic growth would have disastrous effects on, among other things, absolute emission rates. Yet, an economic downturn, is not the time to experiment with economic paradigms that do not center around growth. The fact that societal missions are still mostly framed as interesting investment opportunities for growth is exemplary of the dilemma governments face. Innovation, it is still felt, is mostly meant to be interesting economically, and only to benefit society by derivation.

Thus are government policy-makers forced to struggle with the legacy of a financial system marked by perverse incentives, with the economic downturn of the current crisis, and, finally, with the considerable loan we’ve taken out from future generations. If Mazzucato’s ambitious mission-oriented innovation policy is to have any chance of success, this threefold legacy will have to be taken deathly seriously.

Implications

  • There are risks involved in a more active role for government. If we fixate too much on the promises made, we’ll lose sight of the fact that in the past decade, many companies have become too dependent on the government, with dire effects on innovation. Economic renewal requires the creative destruction of old and lumbering companies that should not be able to keep getting handouts from the government or obtaining debt obligations at extremely low cost. Economists have long feared the rise of zombie companies, that are all too eager to look to the government for bailouts. Like unbridled neoliberalism, this “sunflower capitalism” (i.e. these companies turn to the government as a sunflower turns to the sun) creates the wrong conditions for innovation.

Vaccine diplomacy

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
January 14, 2021

The global distribution of coronavirus vaccines can remind us of D-Day and the subsequent liberation of Europe. The companies and governments that deliver the vaccines will be hailed as liberators and will likely wield significant political power over the countries they ‘liberate’. China and Russia are clearly aware of this effect as they appear to be quite generous when it comes to distributing their vaccines to needy nations.

Despite concerns over the safety and efficacy of the Chinese and Russian vaccines, many nations are eager to use them. As a consequence, countries such as South Korea and India will be drawn closer to Russia, while Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia and others will tilt towards China.

Europe and the U.S., by contrast, seem determined to get “their” vaccines to their own people first. While this may be a logical strategy from a domestic societal and economic perspective, the West runs the risk of alienating international allies. As such, sharing vaccines with the rest of the world is not only a matter of humanity, as it is mostly portrayed, but also of geopolitical power play.

Food security will have its moment on the world stage

Written by Julia Rijssenbeek
January 14, 2021

In the year when the World Food Program unexpectedly received the Nobel prize, the fight against hunger faced major setbacks. The COVID-19 crisis laid bare the vulnerabilities in the global food supply chains, causing food insecurity to triple in almost every part of the world, along with the number of people suffering from hunger. The pandemic further made clear that the way we grow food increases the risk of zoonotic outbreaks. Agriculture makes ecosystems more vulnerable and destroys habitats, thus creating the perfect conditions for viruses to emerge.

A third direct link between COVID-19 and our global food system is the undeniable fact that being overweight – a problem for more than a third of all adults globally – makes people more prone to suffering from the virus. To confront global food security issues, international cooperation is needed to set global goals and standards that integrally address the health of people and of our planet. In 2021, the global Food Systems Summit will take place, an event that might induce the establishment of an intergovernmental panel like the one on climate change (IPCC) or a treaty like the Paris Agreement.

The Retroscope 2020

Written by Freedomlab Thinktank

2020 was a year in which society and the economy were hit hard. At the same time, it was also an interesting year in which many issues that had already arisen in the previous years were brought into much sharper focus. Last summer, we explored all of these issues in our scenario study “The Resilient World”, in which we reflected on the different worlds that could emerge from this crisis. In this Retroscope, we look back on the past year and consider the current state of affairs regarding the most significant uncertainties we formulated in our study.

Technological cycle 

The corona crisis has profoundly affected the technoscientific self-confidence of modern societies. First and foremost, the crisis has taught us that our modern technology is still not able to tame nature to the full. Yet, it may also open our eyes to the fact that we have failed to make the best of our technological capabilities. So, could the coronavirus crisis indeed lead toa different perspective on technology? Will it trigger us to solve our structural problems and thus prevent another crisis?

The tech-fix illusion is nearing its end

Overnight, the world came to a standstill because of a virus, as our technological solutions only worked to a moderate extent in combating the pandemic. The strongly intertwined global network society is even identified as one of the most important causes of the rapid spread of the virus. In addition, even before the pandemic, large technology companies were under immense societal pressure, which does not appear to have abated. Many believe they are partly responsible for societal unrest, caused in part by floods of disinformation, and polarization. After another excellent year on the stock market, their innovation is perceived to mainly benefit shareholders.

The partial loss of confidence in technology and its makers does not contribute to the development of possible forms of technological prevention. For example, in the past year, we’ve seen how prevention often coincides with different forms of surveillance. Especially in the West, citizens tend to be wary of the use of technology because of an expanding and monitoring government. Especially the collection of data by governments or private companies worries citizens. Although we acknowledge the potential advantages of a data-driven economy, when it comes down to it, we are reluctant, as has also become clear with the coronavirus app. Despite high expectations and long ethical deliberations, too few citizens have turned out to be willing to install the app. In addition, due to ethical concerns, the app has been modified to such an extent that its potential contribution to containing the pandemic has become minimal.

In the public debate of the past year, technocratic ideals and civil liberties were posited as opposites, difficult to unite. This is not wholly surprising in a year when we were mainly told not to do certain things. The tension we all experienced in the first lockdown, consisting mainly of fear and a certain degree of excitement, has given way to the fragmented fatigue and frustration of the second, current lockdown. While technology (partly) enables us tocontinue working, shopping and enjoying ourselves, we are now harshly confronted with the limitations of the current technological solutions. As the crisis unfolded, the emphasis in speeches began to shift increasingly to human behavior. Ultimately, technology cannot be thesole answer and humans need to adapt their behavior as well, according to scientists and most government leaders. A such it seems as if the tech-fix illusion is nearing its end.

Technoscientific culture will prevail

Yet, there is another possibility. Taiwan and Singapore are continually cited as examples of countries where strong trust in technology has in fact paid off. China too, in addition to strict non-technological measures, has relied strongly on technological means to fight the pandemic, and successfully so. Even though these countries have different models of governance and other cosmotechnics than we do in the West, they could still show us how a different, arguably more determined, perspective on technology could help to prevent new crises in the future.

Indeed, there is no reason to be shy about our technological prowess. The record-breaking development of multiple vaccines may indeed provide us with the necessary level of confidence. In the coming months, the (prosperous part of the) world will be vaccinated and we will be able to continue our old lives. Thus, the development of the vaccines will probably go down in history as the absolute turning point of the crisis and modern technoscience will profit from this success for years to come. Criticism of technology will become less vehement and technoscientific culture will prevail (again).

In the same vein, Big Tech, despite the growing resistance against their power and behavior, and our digital infrastructure, kept the economy up and running during the lockdown. This stay-at-home economy will prove to have lasting, partly positive, consequences in our daily lives in the coming years.

A new technological order

All in all, we possess all the technological ingredients to make work of a new technological order that is geared towards preventing new crises in the future. Indeed, governments have been seriously contemplating how to deal with the vulnerabilities of the international traffic of humans and goods and fragmented value chains. The current market system is too efficiently and cost-effectively organized, which makes us vulnerable to shocks such as this. Resilience, reshoring and redundancy are the political and economic key words of the year. In short: we’re in the early stages of a truly thriving enlightened technocracy, aimed for the common and long-term good. As such, the corona crisis may end up putting us on the right track with respect to our perspective on technology. With the right technological changes and political determination, which have now been set in motion, crises will be more easily prevented in the future.

Hegemonic cycle 

The past year raises questions about the fate of globalization. The president of the United Sates blamed China for the global COVID-19 pandemic, after attempting to sabotage economic relations between the two countries in several different ways. Meanwhile, internal relations in Europe remained high-strung, with Poland and Hungary turning against the European course increasingly often. How should these developments be understood in a wider context? Is globalization as we’ve known it in the past decades coming to an end, as the stagnating growth of world trade seems to indicate? Will we have stronger borders between countries or are we merely on the brink of a phase of globalization in a new form?

The strategic reorientation of the West

The era of Atlantic hegemony, the hegemonic cycle of the past five centuries, is nearing its end. But it’s too early to determine whether a new hegemon will rise, or, with the end of this cycle, a new order will come into existence in which no country is dominant. Before we can answer that question, the current power relations will continue to change, causing the world to move towards a new order in several domains (e.g. finance, technical standards, strategic technology).

In the Western world, 2020 was a moment of strategic reorientation. The United States is renouncing the Trump model of exerting strategic pressure on rivals and partners alike. The Biden administration will attempt to breathe new life into American alliances, though this will be arduous in many places because of conflicting interests. In addition, Europe broke free from its geopolitical paralysis. In the past year, the European Commission and EU member states created more momentum for the ideas of strategic autonomy and European sovereignty, though it’s as yet unclear how this will take shape. Both Western superpowers are thus facing a moment of strategic reorientation. Furthermore, we’re in the midst of a period of “Westlessness”, lacking a clear idea of the West.

Thus the economic center is shifting east, and so the complexity of globalization will only become clear when we truly understand what is currently happening in, among other countries, China and Russia.

A different path of globalization

In the West, China is often perceived as a “challenger” of the world order, but in many areas, China is as supportive of international norms, rules and treaties as Western countries are, if not more so. Meanwhile, in the past year we saw investments in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative project decline. Not because China is weakening, or other countries are less willing to cooperate with China, but precisely because China is becoming a mature global power. The country now more strategically and responsibly considers foreign investment, as the U.S., Europe and Japan have done for decades. During the coronavirus crisis too, the stability of the Chinese global power has become apparent. In fact, the rapid recovery of the Chinese economy soon turned out to be a vital driving force of the global economy. In addition, in 2020 China was the largest economy to sign the RCEP trade deal of 15 countries, the biggest trade deal in the world. While the Western world is skeptical about accelerated integration with the global economy, Eastern countries actually embrace further economic globalization.

In 2020, Russia stayed in the background, but it’s precisely this that shows Russia is notably changing its course. It’s becoming a geo-economic power that leans less on military capacity than we think and is creating more influence with strategic economic policy. The Eurasian Economic Union is an important Russian initiative to strengthen economic ties with Eastern countries, so that Russia gains a stronger position than the West in respect to Europe. Russia’s biggest ambition is to create “technology transfer” – to import high-grade technology from Europe, Japan and South Korea to revive its own economy. With its new, remarkable course, Russia is laying the groundwork for this strategic move.

Thus, the complexity of globalization will become apparent in the coming years. The first responses to the coronavirus crisis, containing phrases such as “reshoring” and “the end of globalization”, seem to have been based on false hope. There has not been a fundamental reappraisal of efficiency in value chains either. Globalization will continue, but in a different way. There will be different types of globalization, as there are different elements to the world order. Many non-Western countries still embrace economic globalization, while Western countries, under the influence of certain political groups, are becoming more skeptical. Because of these dynamics, political globalization, in the form of multilateralism and the protection of human rights, is becoming more difficult rising countries such as China are less active in this area. Furthermore, new domains of globalization are emerging, such as the digital domain, where countries will be in direct opposition to each other with different digital models, projects and strategies, such as the Chinese New IP internet protocols, the Russian Runetand the European internet and data strategy and the GAIA-X platform. All of these projects gained momentum in 2020 and will take shape in the coming years.

Hence, in 2020, two major implications of the new complexity of globalization became clear.

First, there are stronger borders between the superpowers. The alliance between the U.S. and Europe is no longer a given. The stakes are getting higher because of the rise of other Eurasian countries and the cooperation between Western superpowers will become more opportunistic. The conflict between the U.S. and China will outlast Trump. 2020 also saw India and China butt heads with military clashes in the border region and mutual economic sanctions. The borders between superpowers are becoming harder in these times of hegemonic shift. Second, an opportunity is arising for a new model of globalization, in which Europe could play an important role. Efficient value chains will remain the driving force of economic growth and most developing countries will stay amenable to the model of economic globalization.

Precisely in this world, where the conflict between the U.S. and China is threatening the current model of globalization, an opportunity is arising for Europe to break new ground. With regulation, digital models and multilateral strategy, Europe may come to lead the world increasingly often in its own way, a way that would allow for a new phase of globalization.

Socio-cultural cycle 

Prior to this crisis, several contrasts in societies were becoming starker: between left and right, young and old, progressive and conservative, city and countryside, rich and poor, center and periphery, culture and nature. Individualization of citizens and countries is often identified as the cause of this development, but during the coronavirus crisis, collectivist initiatives among countries and citizens have also come into existence. Will this collectivist development persist or will the coronavirus crisis in fact accelerate individualization in the end, if cooperation proves too arduous?

Time to decide

In order to answer this question, we must first better understand the term “coronavirus crisis”. The word “crisis” is etymologically derived from the Greek krinein, which means to distinguish or decide. This makes a period of crisis a moment of truth: a decisive moment when we’re obliged to make judgments on what’s really important and what isn’t, what’s right and what’s wrong. A crisis always forces us to make a political and ethical choice to transform the current situation into a better and brighter future. At the same time, the coronavirus crisis is not a clear-cut phenomenon as it pertains to themes such as ecological degradation, our ideas on sickness and health and the fact that Wuhan changed from a small village to a city of millions in the course of a few decades and China has become integrated in international economic, political and tourist flows. In other words, the coronavirus crisis is a highly complex phenomenon, with different “aspects of crisis” that require us to make political and ethical choices for the future. If we follow this dialectic now, what will arise in the sociocultural domain?

First, the issues we’re faced with now are not easy-to-solve “puzzles” but wicked problems. The question how long bars should stay closed so that enough hospital beds will be available for covid patients, suggests a conflict between healthcare and the economy, but ultimately makes us realize how deeply healthcare and the economy are intertwined. Another wicked problem is the question how many civil liberties we’re prepared to sacrifice to restore our society to health.
Because of the uncertainty and complexity of the issues, it’s no wonder that countries with a capable institutional structure have done relatively well in this crisis. The same structural problems that are at the root of the pandemic will cause more of these complex issues in the future. The first example that comes to mind is of course the climate crisis, of which the coronavirus crisis has just been a small preview. Similar to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s not easy to tell whether the climate crisis is a fully man-made or natural phenomenon, and solutions to it require a new understanding of humankind and our relationship to nature. Another issue is the rise of “uncontrollable technology”, including synthetic biology and AI, the outcomes of which aren’t fully predictable by humans, and which will eventually fundamentally change our ideas of life and being human. In the same way that the coronavirus – the smallest lifeform to shut down human superorganisms such as our healthcare and education system – has forced us to reconsider our relationship to our fellow humans and society.

The coronavirus crisis has made many of us aware of the fact that, as humans, we’re embedded in wider social, technological and ecological structures, and that we depend on other people and countries. And yet, it’s unclear whether this insight will inspire a more collectivist attitude in citizens and bring countries closer together, as the failure of joint efforts could in fact lead to further individualization. For example, economic inequality translates to medical inequality and the debate on ethnic inequality and racism has reached boiling point during this crisis. Both themes are high on the agendas of policy-makers; during the U.S. presidential elections, for example, or in discussions on the future of the financial system. In addition, younger and older generations are affected differently by the economic and health crisis, and as such, respond to and reflect on it differently as well. There is also no consensus as yet about the future of work after the coronavirus crisis. Neither is there an answer to the questions whether virtual practices are a desirable and viable substitute for physical and social interaction, and whether coronavirus-related mental problems (e.g. loneliness, anxiety) require more, or less technologization of our living worlds. In fact, even our collective faith in established institutes and structures of knowledge and truth is under severe pressure.

The “moods” of metamodernism 

In other words, in the past year, we saw a high degree of ambivalence around sociocultural issues and possible solutions, with which we are confronted by different aspects of the coronavirus crisis. But what does this mean for us, our society and the wider sociocultural developments following the coronavirus crisis? In any case, the coronavirus crisis shows us a specific palette of “moods”. These moods bring aspects of reality to light which, in ordinary times, would have remained obscured from theoretical, abstract thought. Specific moods thus lead to new ways of relating to the world, pertaining to globalization and sustainability (stress versus hope), political initiatives (insecurity versus confusion), spirituality (boredom versus fear).

These moods aren’t purely subjective, not “all in our heads”, but are in fact intersubjective: they arise when we relate to and interact with the world and other people around us. The fact that(almost) all of us act like a “superorganism” that is focused on a single phenomenon and acts accordingly (e.g. developing a vaccine, staying in quarantine) also makes the coronavirus crisis a metamodern concept. And with the adoption of the metamodern perspective, new sociocultural transitions are made possible. We no longer revert to modern objectivism and naiveté, but neither do we succumb to postmodern pessimism or irony. In other words, the metamodern coronavirus crisis could thus form the idealistic foundation for the new metarules of new societal, economic and political systems.

So from the subjective mind (moods), we are now arriving at the objective mind and reality (metamodernism) of the corona crisis. We’ve known for over a hundred years that God is dead, but we’re still living with the nihilistic base mood in which there are no grand narratives anymore. The coronavirus crisis confronts us with a harsh reality from which we can no longer escape: that we are mortal, finite beings, that sickness and death are a part of life. Like Trumpism, which should also be understood as a complex and metamodern phenomenon, the coronavirus crisis has created an enormous “memeplex”. This is a new, metamodern way of dealing with such phenomena. Memes and other forms of culture help us to find meaning, ethics, politics, a relationship between the community and the individual. There’s a reason the coronavirus crisis is seized upon by artists and scientists, politicians and conspiracy theorists alike to reflect further on this theme and incorporate it in art, culture and a new structure of feeling.

Disinformation and the false believe we are autonomous in our search for knowledge

Written by Jessica van der Schalk
December 18, 2020

It’s often attributed to the advent of social media, algorithms that secretly use our preferences to prioritize certain information, but also to the rise of deep fakes: disinformation. Online, an argument can be found for every possible notion, our own ideas are easily confirmed and disinformation appears to spread more rapidly and widely than reliable information
Some say that we now live in a time where we experience autonomy when, in reality, we are being manipulated. Is this a new phenomenon and how worried should we be?

Our observations

  • In 2016, “post-truth” was nominated for word of the year by Oxford dictionaries, defined as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
  • In general, disinformation refers to the intentional spreading of manipulative or even untrue information to convince the public of a certain viewpoint and/or influence their behavior. Disinformation differs from misinformation in the underlying motive: the spreading of erroneous information is intentional. There are different types of disinformation, such as false information (think of deep fakes, or simply made-up stories), “cherry-picked” information (certain parts of the truth are intentionally left out or highlighted), unproven links (true facts are wrongly linked to each other, leading to a false conclusion) or authentic information that is potentially harmful to a person or community (e.g. hate speech or private information that is leaked). In the report by the European Commission Technology and Democracy – Understanding the influence of online technologies on political behaviour and decision-making (2020), one conclusion arrived at is that people behave differently online from offline. The web offers a cognitively unique environment, resulting in specific psychological reactions. The online environment can, for example, influence the way individuals process information and communicate with each other. Importantly, there is scientific evidence that suggests that social media change people’s offline political behavior; this includes inciting dangerous behavior such as committing hate crimes, which could, if proved, be a valid reason to impose restrictions. “Establishing causality is crucial because it offers opportunity for intervention and control. If social media were found to cause social ills, then it would be legitimate to expect that a change in platform architecture might influence society’s well-being.”
  • Professors Dutilh Novaes and De Ridder claim that the tactics used in the spreading of disinformation to influence the public’s viewpoints or behavior are not new, rather the technical knowledge and means are. They have led us into a potentially dangerous situation in which it may become impossible for reliable parties to abide by the democratic maxim “should they go low, then we go high” any longer.

Connecting the dots

Disinformation is a global, public concern threatening democratic societies. After all, a well-functioning democracy depends on the ability of citizens to make informed choices. And it is precisely reliable information that seems to be having more difficulty reaching citizens. According to the report by the European Commission, the circumstances nowadays are perfect for the large-scale spread of disinformation, because of the interplay of the attention economy with human psychology. The attention economy is driven by algorithms that select and subsequently promote attractive, fascinating content on an individual level.

Furthermore, people are naturally strongly inclined to focus on negative news, and most disinformation inspires negative emotions such as fear, rage and indignation. Disinformation thus spreads more quickly and widely than reliable information. Moreover, this causes individuals to be exposed less to different opinions, which are crucial to identifying the best arguments, exchanging viewpoints and reaching consensus. Scientific research corroborates the concerns over this phenomenon, but we are still in the early stages of policy-making on this theme.And yet, the intentional manipulation of the public is not a new phenomenon.

According to Professors Dutilh Novaes and De Ridder, there are three tactics for manipulating the public that were already used before the internet era. First, pleasing and seducing the audience. By playing into deeply rooted sentiments by means of misleading but attractive information, the public is tempted to take on a certain standpoint or change their behavior. If this form of manipulation is exclusively applied, other information will still be available, and all parties can employ the same method, so that different stances can be heard.

The second tactic is that of propaganda and censorship. Information is communicated by one party only and dissenting voices are suppressed. For practical reasons, this tactic is mainly used by political figures who have the means to censor.

The final tactic is knowledge pollution. Traditional sources of information (science, government, media) are discredited by a stream of alternative information of such proportions that the public does not know which information is reliable anymore. Experts are depicted as subjective sources with their own views and those spreading disinformation as having equally valuable but different views. Due to this tactic, the public is threatening to fragment and individuals tend to narrow their focus to those sources they consider credible and which confirm their worldview.

However, the technical aspects of how (dis)information is produced, spread and consumed, are new. Besides knowledge of human psychology, technological knowledge is also needed nowadays both to make disinformation effective as well as to combat it. In addition, these technological developments make it possible to reach prodigious numbers of people at low cost, whereas heretofore this would have required expensive means such as printing texts or employing persons. The technologies used in this context include the above-mentioned recommendation systems, dark patterns, fake news websites, fake social accounts, troll farms and bots.

Implications

  • Most people would characterize themselves as critical thinkers, capable of forming judgments and acquiring knowledge autonomously. However, when we investigate more thoroughly what it means to be a critical thinker, human beings in general appear to be poor critical thinkers but nevertheless see themselves as such. Professors Dutilh Novaes and De Ridder hold that the danger of knowledge pollution is that citizens still appear to be autonomous, when in fact they are not. This makes it very difficult for reliable information to reach citizens without the deployment of so-called “counter-manipulation”.

  • According to famous contemporary philosopher Latour, the reason that some people cling to information that denies problems has to do with the desire to deny global problems such as the coronavirus and climate change. This way, it is possible to live in a world without these problems.

  • The company WordProof has received 1 million euros to combat fake news, fraud and privacy problems with blockchain technology. His solutions try to transport some of the ‘rules’ of our physical world to the digital world that help make knowledge sharing more reliable. One example is the connection between someones identity and the extent to which information can spread on the internet. This way, he separates freedom of speech from freedom of reach.

Europe’s double digital ambition

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
December 18, 2020

The European Digital Strategy is beginning to unfold. Following the GDPR, which was geared towards protecting personal data, a number of agreements are rapidly being made with which Europe hopes to gain more of a grip on the European digital Stack. These agreements pertain to the storage of data, secure data sharing and better, more honest digital services. The EU is thus attempting to reclaim the digital sphere from large (non-European) tech companies and simultaneously work towards a strong, just and prosperous Europe.

Our observations

  • Earlier this year, we wrote about the digital ambitions of Europe and the possibility that they might actually lead to a European model for the internet. Such a European model, or European Stack, would put the user and citizen first, much more emphatically than the American and Chinese model do, and take away power from central (private or public) actors. Now, more has come to light about the different initiatives of the Union on different layers of the Stack.
  • On the infrastructure layer, the GAIA-X is meant to form a European ecosystem for cloud storage and computing.
  • The GDPR determines the rules of play, in line with European values, regarding the use of (personal) data.
  • In order to fully utilize the potential of data, as well as protect citizens’ and companies’ data, the Commission recently launched the Data Governance Act that seeks to realize a level playing field for the exchange of data.
  • In early 2020, Europe already presented plans for data spaces for specific sectors that have much to gain from pan-European data exchange. At the same time, the Commission presented its white paper on Artificial Intelligence, in which it describes how Europe could responsibly become the frontrunner in AI.
  • As regards the service layer, the E-Commerce Directive has been in effect in the EU since 2000. This will be replaced by the Digital Services Act, which was launched this week and will address the responsibility and liability of online services. With respect to financial services, the PSD2 has been in effect since 2015.
  • Concurrent with the DSA, the Digital Markets Act should become operational as well, which is meant to curb the power of (foreign) tech parties.
  • All of these measures are expected to contribute to a stronger Europe that converts the opportunities of digitalization into increased prosperity, but where, in the long-term, digital technology will also strengthen the European democracy and safeguard sovereignty.

Connecting the dots

With its digital strategy, Europe is striving for a globally leading digital economy that will, moreover, expressly benefit society and, openly and honestly, serve the interests of its citizens. This endeavor comes at a time when Europe is in fact lagging behind digital giants such as the U.S. and China. In that sense, this will be a double challenge: Europe must catch up with the U.S. and China, as well as realize a large number of societal ambitions. These goals could easily be interpreted as conflicting, as the societal preconditions could be considered a roadblock to innovation and the adoption of new technology and services.

Europe, however, presents this as a coherent strategy in which societal values are actually prerequisites for catching up technologically and economically. The thinking is that other countries, sooner or later, will have to set similar requirements, simply because their societies are also harmed by the unbridled growth of digital platforms. The first proof of this can be found in the U.S., where the curbing of big tech is gaining momentum amidst growing interest in GDPR-like regulation. By being in the forefront of regulation and giving substance to European values and norms, Europe could also come to take the lead in the development of platforms and services that tie in with these values and norms. Moreover, the European internal market is of great importance and the large international platforms will have to abide by European rules. This so-called “Brussels effect” makes Europe a potential “regulatory superpower”.

What’s interesting about the digital strategy is that different laws and initiatives cover every layer of the digital Stack, from infrastructure to data, intelligence, services and, ultimately, the governance of the digital sphere. Together these laws and initiatives are supposed to amount to the development of a truly European model for our digital future. On the infrastructure layer, at the initiative of Germany and France, Europe is working on a European ecosystem for data storage and cloud computing. This so-called GAIA-X project is meant to ensure that the entire Union will have an interoperable system that’s open, honest and secure.

Where data is concerned, the European regulation for the protection of (personal) data, the GDPR, has helped ensure that online service providers can’t just collect, use or sell all user data they can get their hands on. Other countries (and the state of California) are considering implementing the same rules, either for the protection of their own citizens or because they want (their own) companies to be better tailored to the European market.

The recently presented Data Governance Act aims to provide a data governance structure for sharing (public and private) data for the benefit of European governments, companies and citizens. With this act, the Commission hopes to create a level playing field (and end the hegemony of the current players) and inspire trust, so that citizens and organizations will be more willing to share their data, especially when this serves public interest and enables open modes of innovation. In early 2020, Europe presented plans for several data spaces. These data spaces should facilitate the easier exchange of data in specific sectors, such as healthcare, energy, transportation and agriculture. This could be done by means of clear protocols on data structures and agreements on open access.

Regarding the service layer, the EU has been trying since 2000, by means of the E-Commerce Directive, to create a single, harmonized market for digital services. The Commission follows up on these measures with the Digital Services Act. Essentially, the DSA will restrict the freedoms of online services and should create more clarity on the responsibilities and liabilities of these platforms. The emphasis here, is on the protection of consumers and service providers (such as delivery drivers or handypersons) and it will mostly be platforms on which products or services are sold that will come under scrutiny.

Concurrent with the DSA, the Digital Markets Act is also to come into effect. The DMA is meant to prevent large online platforms, which presently hail from the U.S. and China, from abusing their market power to thwart other, smaller (and mostly European) players. The DMA will therefore entail rules for so-called gatekeepers respecting the preferential treatment given to their own services, the bundling of services and making certain data available to other parties.

In early 2020, the Commission also presented its white paper on Artificial Intelligence. In this paper, as yet without any legal framework to support it, the ambition is expressed to make Europe a frontrunner in the application of AI and, at the same time, to expressly uphold European values and norms. A group of 14 countries, including the Netherlands, has already responded with a plea for a soft law approach, which should ensure that the development of technology (and applications) is not inhibited by legal barriers before it even begins.

Whether and how these laws and initiatives will actually put Europe back in the lead remains to be seen. One of the (typically European) challenges will be the balancing of interests of different member states. We’re currently joined in battle against a number of foreign platforms, but the question is what will happen when a French, German or Spanish platform dominates (part of) the market. Will there still be consensus to combat that? The same applies to the European cloud ecosystem; will that be a truly European ecosystem, or will it remain a French-German affair for which other countries will be unwilling to sacrifice their own standards (and companies)? Ultimately, the European good will partly have to take precedence over the national good in order for these plans to be realized and to prevent us from all losing in the end. If we fail to do that, we will see the added value of technology flow to other economies and will be stuck with technological solutions that don’t align with our ideas about the Good Life.

Implications

  • While Europe is known for its reticence regarding technology (cf gen tech), of which the GDPR is an example, this strategy shows that Europe is in fact looking for ways to turn this reticence into a(n) (economic) weapon.

  • Large foreign tech platforms will be confronted with far stricter rules concerning the products they offer, which data they are allowed to collect and what they may do with it, and how to deal with local service providers. They might also be confronted, even more so than in their own countries, with attempts to dismantle their monopolies.

  • The package of European measures could be interpreted as an illegitimate form of protectionism (by hindering foreign parties and supporting Europe’s own industries) and this could lead to a new (digital) trade war, e.g. between the U.S. and Europe.

The sound and cost of silence

Written by Pim Korsten
December 18, 2020

In his book Sound: A philosophy of musical experience (in Dutch), musical philosopher Tomas Serrien posits that we’re in an auditive crisis, meaning the visual is now more dominant than the auditive. We’re consuming more and more images, domains are increasingly structured according to the logic of the image (e.g. ocular democracy), while large companies are investing more in video streaming.

Yet our ears are increasingly stimulated as well: megacities are host to cacophonies, we can stream sound and music anytime, anywhere, and virtual voice assistants and speech recognition technology have us speaking and listening more, even in public spaces (e.g. in public transport, at work). But just as visual overload can cause “screen fatigue”, the ubiquity of sounds, microphones and headphones can lead to “listener fatigue”, a known cause of physical and mental problems. As a response, several (new) practices are on the rise, such as noise-cancelling headphones (originally invented for airplane pilots), silence wellness retreats, and practices that accentuate the spiritual value of silence (e.g. yoga and meditation). With sound in abundance, the sound of silence is becoming more valuable.

Transatlantic troubles

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
December 18, 2020

Since the U.S. election victory of Joe Biden, there has been a widespread expectation of renewed transatlantic cooperation between the U.S. and Europe. However, while it is likely that the Biden administration will reinvigorate some alliances, as opposed to Trump and his strategic pressure on both adversaries and allies, it is unlikely that the U.S. and Europe will grow as close together as is widely expected.

The main issue is hegemonic shift. The rise of China is primarily a threat to the U.S., but while Europe is cautious and also feels threatened by China in several domains, it is much more open to the strategic opportunity of a rising China. An implication is that the U.S., aware of Europe’s position, will not allow Europe to freeload off U.S. security while refusing to follow American policy towards China. Overall, although we should expect policy proposals such as transatlantic strategies and agendas to emerge, they will be much more difficult to implement than is widely expected.