In the haze, the horizons of distant peaks braided together.
The nature writer Robert MacFarlane observes, in his book “Landmarks,” that a Scottish painter once described this phenomenon to him as landskein.
“Skein” can mean either a coil of yarn or a flock of birds flying in a V formation.
Landskein, a neologism, uses both, knitting the V’s of mountaintops together.
Each time I saw the jagged, braided horizon, I thought about how happy I was to know the word.
I was chilled to learn that I had been exposed to a predator, and felt terrible for the victims.
Was it wrong, then, that I remained grateful for my own experiences on the islands?
I had been shaped by those summers at Ru’a Fiola. They had encouraged me to be self-sufficient.
I wondered whether my children—with their phones, and my ability to digitally track them—would ever feel as free as I did, or whether they should.
In Morocco, I was being tracked, yet I was nonetheless enjoying prelapsarian sensations of daring and solitude.
It was a strange gift to have nothing to think about but where to take my next step.
To start my breakfast fire, I resorted to a cheat that Asher had shown me: using distressed cotton wool and lip salve, I made an accelerant.
The blaze started instantly, as if I were using a gas cooker.
I was pleased, but it made me consider how contrived the rules of this experiment were.
If I was in possession of exactly the right items to start a fire, I might as well have brought a stove.
Yet, had I not accepted Asher’s terms, I would not have mastered any new skills.
Oddly, the expedition’s most artificial boundaries helped generate its most satisfying moments.
My experience had been both real and extremely theatrical.
The mountains and the rocks were solid enough to have broken my bones.
But I was able to travel as I did only because
a group of experts had prepared a route customized for my level of fitness, and
had monitored my every move
so that I could feel danger without actually being endangered.
There was a touch of “Westworld” to Get Lost. And I hadn’t been truly disconnected;
rather, I had been given the luxury of living for a short while under the illusion that I was.
The adventure was every bit as confected as my hotel stay.
States have been the primary actors in global affairs for nearly 400 years.
That is starting to change, as a handful of large technology companies rival them for geopolitical influence.
The aftermath of the January 6 riot serves as the latest proof that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter are no longer merely large companies;
they have taken control of aspects of society, the economy, and national security that were long the exclusive preserve of the state.
Most of the analysis of U.S.-Chinese technological competition is stuck in a statist paradigm.
It depicts technology companies as foot soldiers in a conflict between hostile countries.
But technology companies are not mere tools in the hands of governments.
These companies are increasingly shaping the global environment in which governments operate.
They have huge influence over the technologies and services
that will drive the next industrial revolution,
determine how countries project economic and military power,
shape the future of work, and
redefine social contracts.
Political scientists rely on a wide array of terms to classify governments: there are “democracies,” “autocracies,” and “hybrid regimes,” which combine elements of both.
But they have no such tools for understanding Big Tech.
Even though technology companies, like countries, resist neat classifications, there are three broad forces that are driving their geopolitical postures and worldviews:
globalism, nationalism, and techno-utopianism.
it is important to grasp the nature of these companies’ power.
The tools at their disposal are unique in global affairs,
which is why governments are finding it so hard to rein them in.
Today’s biggest technology firms have two critical advantages that have allowed them to carve out independent geopolitical influence.
they do not operate or wield power exclusively in physical space.
They have created a new dimension in geopolitics—digital space—over which they exercise primary influence.
Technology companies are not just exercising a form of sovereignty over how citizens behave on digital platforms; they are also shaping behaviors and interactions.
they are increasingly providing a full spectrum of both the digital and the real-world products that are required to run a modern society.
today’s rapidly digitizing economy depends on a more complex array of goods, services, and information flows
Private-sector technology firms are also providing national security,
a role that has traditionally been reserved for governments and the defense contractors they hire
[In the past] Lockheed just made the fighter jets and missiles for the U.S. government.
It didn’t operate the air force or police the skies.
The biggest technology companies are building the backbone of the digital world and policing that world at the same time.
Big Tech’s eclipse of the nation-state is not inevitable.
Governments are taking steps to tame an unruly digital sphere
the technology industry is facing a political and regulatory backlash on multiple fronts.
technology firms cannot decouple themselves from physical space,
where they remain at the mercy of states.
But as technology grows more sophisticated, states and regulators are increasingly constrained by outdated laws and limited capacity
because technology companies provide important digital and real-world goods and services,
states that cannot provide those things risk shooting themselves in the foot
if their draconian measures lead companies to stop their operations.
Governments have long deployed sophisticated systems to monitor digital space
But such systems can’t keep tabs on everything.
Fines for failing to take down illegal content are a nuisance for businesses, not an existential threat.
And governments realize that they could sabotage their own legitimacy if they go too far.
The most important question in geopolitics today might be,
Will countries that break up or clamp down on their biggest technology firms
also be able to seize the opportunities of the digital revolution’s next phase,
or will their efforts backfire?
Europe, acting from a position of weakness, is betting that it can corral the technology giants and unleash a new wave of European innovation.
If it turns out instead that only the biggest technology platforms can muster the capital, talent, and infrastructure needed to develop and run the digital systems that companies rely on,
Europe will have only accelerated its geopolitical decline.
If European states want greater control of the technology sector, they’re going to have to invest much more money.
But even if governments were willing to finance these digital capabilities themselves,
money is only part of the picture.
The next decade will test what happens as the politics of digital space and physical space converge.
Governments and technology companies are poised to compete for influence over both worlds—
hence the need for a better framework for understanding what the companies’ goals are and how their power interacts with that of governments in both domains.
Strands of globalism, nationalism, and techno-utopianism often coexist within the same company. Which outlook predominates will have important consequences for global politics and society.
the globalists—firms that built their empires by operating on a truly international scale.
E.g., Apple, Facebook, and Google,
create and populate digital space, allowing their business presence and revenue streams to become untethered from physical territory.
Each grew powerful by hitting on an idea that allowed it to dominate an economically valuable niche and then taking its business worldwide.
The likes of Alibaba, ByteDance, and Tencent
have also benefited from policy and financial support from Beijing,
but it is still a cutthroat, profit-driven approach to global expansion that is driving innovation at these firms.
E.g., Huawei and SMIC
more willing to align themselves explicitly with the priorities of their home governments.
secure massive revenues by selling their products to governments,
and they use their expertise to help guide these same governments’ actions.
Today, even historically globalist U.S. companies are feeling the pull of the national-champion model.
Amazon and Microsoft are also competing to provide cloud-computing infrastructure to the U.S. government
E.g., FB (Elon Musk), Tesla (Mark Zuckerberg), Etherum (Vitalik Buterin)
headed by charismatic visionaries who see technology not just as a global business opportunity but also as a potentially revolutionary force in human affairs.
centers more on the personalities and ambitions of technology CEOs rather than the operations of the companies themselves.
look to a future in which the nation-state paradigm that has dominated geopolitics since the seventeenth century has been replaced by something different altogether.
China’s authoritarianism enables it to be more forceful in its regulation of digital space and the companies that build and maintain it,
but Beijing ultimately faces the same tradeoffs as Washington and Brussels.
technology giants will operate in one of three geopolitical environments:
one in which the state reigns supreme, rewarding the national champions;
one in which corporations wrest control from the state over digital space, empowering the globalists; or
one in which the state fades away, elevating the techno-utopians.
the national champions win, and the state remains the dominant provider of security, regulation, and public goods.
This would be a more geopolitically volatile world, with a greater risk of strategic and technological bifurcation.
A world of national champions would also impede the international cooperation needed to address global crises—whether a pandemic disease more lethal than COVID-19 or a surge of global migration induced by climate change.
It would be ironic if technology nationalism made it harder for governments to address these problems,
given the role of such crises in shoring up the state’s position
as the provider of last resort in the first place.
the state holds on but in a weakened condition—paving the way for the ascendancy of the globalists.
Unable to keep pace with technological innovation, regulators accept that governments will share sovereignty over digital space with technology companies.
A world in which the globalists reign supreme would give Europe a chance to reassert itself as a savvy bureaucratic player
capable of designing the rules that allow technology companies and governments to share sovereignty in digital space.
the oft-predicted erosion of the state finally comes to pass.
The techno-utopians capitalize on widespread disillusionment with governments that have failed to create prosperity and stability, drawing citizens into a digital economy that disintermediates the state.
This does not mean that societies are heading toward a future that witnesses the demise of the nation-state, the end of governments, and the dissolution of borders.
There is no reason to think these predictions are any more likely to come true today than they were in the 1990s.
But it is simply no longer tenable to talk about big technology companies as pawns their government masters can move around on a geopolitical chessboard.
They are increasingly geopolitical actors in and of themselves.
I can’t help thinking that the two meanings of “estrangement” converge.
Artistic estrangement — originally ostranenie, a word coined by the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky — is sometimes translated as “defamiliarization.”
A good writer, for example, makes unfamiliar what they depict — jealousy, or a tree, or a siren’s sound — to free it from clichés or preconceptions, forcing us to encounter it as if for the first time,
though we have probably been jealous, seen a tree, heard a siren.
Estrangement revives perception.
For Shklovsky, ostranenie occurs when a writer creates “a special way of experiencing an object, to make one not ‘recognize’ it but ‘see’ it.”
The stakes are high. Life, otherwise “automatized,” can pass as if we are unconscious — even as if we never lived at all.
Art is the means to live through the making of the thing
Estrangement is the means to live through the making of life.
“Help me create ever-enduring love,” the great Polish poet Czesław Miłosz wrote, “from my persistent dissonance with the world.”
Trips to the post office and supermarket became exhilarating;
paying attention to the oddities and ironies of even my dullest routines
reminded me that I lived, I perceived and I contained a startling range of feelings: humiliation, pain, self-hatred, yes, but also wonder.
Wonder that depended on nothing but my own willingness to find it.
Time-slip anecdotes, though fashioned out of the ambient dread of living with the ticking clock, are childlike in their sense of wonder.
They are light, playful and irrational,
as frivolous and folky as a ghost story
if it were narrated by the confused ghost instead of the people it haunts.
If you suspend disbelief, you’ll find these threads constitute a philosophical inquiry
about the place of the spirit in our physical beings.
They debate the merits of subjectivity and objectivity and question the idea that time is a one-lane highway to death.
These writers argue that our past and future can suffuse our present,
unveiling an epic dimension of our quotidian existences
in moments when we slip and, like Frank, feel eternity.
“time slips” — a genre of urban legend in which people claim that, while walking in particular places, they accidentally traveled back, and sometimes forward, in time