What will the wars of the future look like, as the age of data is transforming societies in ways not seen since the Industrial Revolution? Two trends are emerging that point into two opposite directions.
On the one hand, technological progress leads to an unprecedented potential empowerment of the individual. We have all the knowledge of the world at our fingertips, and with ever more effective connectivity we can insert ourselves in the production processes, ensuring that products are tailored to our specific needs. With 3D printing, we can even produce our own products, from clothes to less benign possessions such as guns. This extreme individualisation reflects a broader trend in science as well as in society. As knowledge gains ever more specificity, medicine can be increasingly tailored to individual profiles. And most societies ---especially but not only in the West --- celebrate the agency of the individual as the master of their own destiny.
On the other hand, the mass collection of data gives the collecting organisations the capacity to shape collective perceptions in a way that is much more powerful than traditional propaganda. Individuals can now be easily manipulated by corporations or authoritarian states that collect and manage data. Meanwhile, the volume of data that we generate is growing exponentially, as the digitalisation of the world ensures that every moment of our lives leaves a trace. Moreover, the volume collected is so vast that only algorithms can effectively manage it. Most of these algorithms are self-learning, raising the question of who has ultimate control over them.
The trend towards ever greater individualisation may usher in ever more fragmented societies, deprived of a shared common space. The decline of collective values makes the avoidance of risk the absolute priority. And the emphasis on the supreme value of the individual increases the potency of terrorism, as the protection of each individual life trumps any other societal consideration. Societies fragment into self-referential groups united by fear rather than shared values, and public debate withers. This is already in evidence in many western societies. In the absence of conflicting but nevertheless collective visions structuring societies, traditional politics is in decline, replaced by atomised violence and radical populist groups whose appeal rests on symbols rather than genuine programs. Over time, such societies will become increasingly vulnerable, as they find it more and more difficult to raise the revenues that fund public services. A vicious circle sets in, whereby the declining legitimacy of collective institutions erodes their capacity to support themselves, which in turn leads to the deterioration of the services they provide.
The opposite trend, reflected in the concentration of power resulting from the mass collection of data, generates a huge inequality between the entities that collect and manage data and the individuals who provide them. Today there is a great difference between societies in which the state is the main collector and manager of data, and those in which corporations are the main actors. China is the prime example of the first category, and it uses the data to ensure its stability, by suppressing dissent, but with the greater ambition to create a “harmonious” society in which perceptions are so tightly controlled that the people won't even feel their chains, living happily in a manufactured bliss. The giant American corporations that thrive on data have a different goal: they want to maximise their profit. Social media companies have found, unsurprisingly, that people prefer to be reinforced in their opinions rather than challenged, resulting in the formation of groups which self-radicalise and have little time for contrarian views. These companies, therefore, tend to amplify difference without facilitating discussion.
In theory, the virtual space of the internet could foster a virtual agora in which various views could be discussed. However, the reality is the opposite, and the cacophony of opinions is generating a dangerous backlash: the easiest way to avoid damaging polarisation is to suppress controversial views, and there are increasing demands for stricter regulation of the opinions that can be expressed on the internet. It is possible, if not likely, that western societies might eventually embrace their own version of the Chinese model, suppressing any opinion that triggers controversy, thereby fostering homogeneous conformist societies. The end-result would be the consolidation of societies where there is little dissent, with the risk that governments could use the power of data to mobilise their societies on the basis of strident nationalism and identity. Instead of the fragmented violence of hyper-individualistic societies, the world could face not the clash of civilisations foreseen by Huntington, but a clash of closed societies incapable of relating peacefully with anything different from them. Domestic dysfunctionality may be a predictor of international conflict. Russia today illustrates how a violent society can turn into a violent international actor. In an age of weapons of mass destruction, such mass thinking could be catastrophic.
We can do better than those two dystopian futures, but we need to work out how. How do we prevent the slide from dysfunctional societies to a dysfunctional international system? Political institutions are lagging behind scientific and technical progress, and the gap that has opened is at the root of the crisis of trust in collective institutions. The legitimacy of traditional institutions is already being challenged: the enormous expansion of knowledge inevitably increases the separation between political and technical decisions at the same time as power and wealth are being captured by new actors. Rebuilding trust under such circumstances is a difficult but necessary process. It will require new institutions to restore accountability, and a better and more transparent articulation between competing legitimacies. The strength of democratic societies has been to welcome debate and differences. Their challenge is now to ensure that differences don't turn into violent conflict.