A Westphalian Turning Point for the Digital

François Soulard

The shockwaves of the Covid-19 pandemic have brought to the forefront the physiognomy of digitization. In the backdrop of a fragmented multilateral stage, the intensified use of digital technologies to support the post-pandemic recovery has come without sufficient awareness of the inherent dangers generated by the computerization wave. Far from being a mere new industrial sector, the IT economy is “upgrading” the current industrial economy and is shaping a new matrix. Akin to the two previous industrial revolutions that started in 1775 and 1880, a new technical system has been on the rise since 1975, this time based on the synergy of microelectronics, software engineering, and the ubiquitous networked connectivity. To limit the predation wrought by this new system and envision a digital new deal, it is necessary to address the lack of understanding of the new digital economy and refresh our doctrines. This calls for a Westphalian turning point for the digital. Granted that the turn is unlikely to come any time soon, the time is still ripe for us to design new initiatives and prepare the ground for new foundations.

Illustration by Kevin Ilango


“The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought.”
– Joseph Licklider, March 1960

The Covid-19 pandemic has put health, political, and economic systems under considerable strain, accelerating a phenomenon already at work in the digital continent and, more broadly, on the security front.

This has exposed a deeply fragmented multilateral stage, torn between geopolitical rivalries and nationalist reflexes while allowing for medium-intensity scientific cooperation. On the one hand, as with the previous health crises of the 2000s such as Ebola, MERS, and SARS, the coronavirus pandemic has created – on a whole new scale – a sense of urgency that has forced the adaptation and invention of innovative responses. On the other, it has provided alibis for certain actors to impose their will, strengthen their control, and manipulate opinions if needed to conquer economic markets, all in the name of efficiency to meet the demands of the healthcare spiral.

The cascading effects of the Covid crisis are not entirely new. Despite the many imperfections in the multilateral framework, the World Health Organization (WHO) has provided the basis for countries to develop crisis responses, with some adaptations to suit their local contexts. And yet, in every country, the current crisis remains marked by extreme operational vulnerability, irrespective of the degree of material development.

While the initial sources of the pandemic may have been easily identified and secured, the absence of a steering function for risk modeling, effective response mechanisms, and a coordinated global action required in the face of a threat of this magnitude has landed us in the current debacle. In short, our international system stands bare and archaic, with the G20, the WHO, and other players unable to orchestrate any transnational efforts. As the current crisis has unfolded, it has exposed the flaws in our socio-economic systems and modes of action adopted to cope with the situation.

The absence of a globally coordinated response to the pandemic is a missed opportunity to move towards better economic models than the ones we are currently stranded with. Our current models, relying on a rigid vertical segmentation of productive activities, resulting in the concentration1 and optimization of economic costs in long delocalized chains, have proved to be less resilient to the crisis. Some cards have also been reshuffled in the realm of perceptions, geopolitical relations, technologies, and economics. One of the consequences of the pandemic has been a crude sketching of the world canvas in which we will operate in the decades to come, in which the traditional balance of power, the lack of cooperation, and the assertion of national interests will be the linchpins. New stress points arising from the pandemic and the acceleration of previous trends are likely to seal medium-term arrangements. The crisis has favored a wave of sovereign posturings and affirmations which were already underway at the global level. Big Tech corporations are taking the place of fossil-fuel producers in the stock market podium while clean power shares are up by 45 percent so far in 2020.2

However, unlike the global financial collapse of 2008, the pandemic is an external accident which originated outside the current economic and political matrix. This diagnosis is often challenged on the grounds that the circulation of the virus could have been facilitated by the no-holds-barred extraction of natural resources, unregulated globalization, experimental manipulation of living beings, or even by the authoritarian nature of the Chinese state. Besides, the emergence of every new climate or security risk3 increasingly forces us to re-evaluate existing notions of economic efficiency and pay attention to the long-term variables of resilience and adaptation.

Be that as it may, beyond the ideological sensitivities and despite the intensity of the global economic slowdown, we can see that current responses to the pandemic are not built on the identification of an ‘endogenous fracture’ in global capitalism. For states and other actors engaged in international exchanges, there has been no real questioning of the engines of the economic status quo. Rather, attention has been focused on the imperative to manage the health contingency and promote recovery, possibly accompanied by certain corrective measures. The focus has also been on a certain strategic reorientation, in particular on the decoupling and relocation of sectors. The recovery plans have been criticized for reinforcing earlier standards of productivism and not taking into account, for example, the new climate commitments4 resulting from the Paris Agreement of 2016.

There is an intensified use of digital technologies to support post-pandemic recovery without any particular awareness of an endogenous crisis in the digital sphere. There are neither new insights in the governance of the digital nor a reorientation in decision-making, only an acceleration of previous tendencies. The computerization of the real economy is one of them.

This initial diagnosis of the origins of the crisis is central because it has determined the forms taken by recovery strategies and their interactions with the digital sphere. We are at a stage where many – including sections of the global economic elite5 – are rushing to underline the contradictions exposed by the pandemic. And yet, there are few signs that it has led to a fundamental shift in the nature of recovery models.6 There is an intensified use of digital technologies to support post-pandemic recovery without any particular awareness of an endogenous crisis in the digital sphere. There are neither new insights in the governance of the digital nor a reorientation in decision-making, only an acceleration of previous tendencies. The ‘computerization of the real economy’ is one of them.

In this respect, the digital continent, the primary focus of this essay, is perhaps one of the most fertile areas to explore in the present landscape. The shockwaves of the pandemic have brought to the forefront the ethos and physiognomy of ‘digitization. This physiognomy needs to be approached carefully through a lens and a vocabulary that can accurately describe the processes at work. Instead of digitization, for instance, which only refers to the sub-process of data encoding in a binary format, I will evoke the process of ‘computerization’. The latter raises the idea of a transformation of the old technical system, constituted by the alloy between the human workforce and machines, into a new one based on the alloy between programmable automatons and the human brain. In this context, the question of ‘cognitive registers’ is of primary importance. A new understanding is needed to grasp these manifestations in depth and see beyond the parameters defined by the spirit of the times. The difficulty in envisioning computerization as a phenomenon that goes beyond a mere technical disruption is a crucial part of the agenda. This is at the root of the current digital imbalance that exacerbates the impacts in terms of predation and threats, and reduces the potential for a social justice-oriented digital economy. Through negative and positive shocks, the pandemic is offering us a sort of radiography of the characteristics of the new digital economy. This new economy is not merely a new industrial sector, it is ‘upgrading’ the current industrial economy and shaping a new matrix.

1. The fault lines of the emerging new technical system

Let’s start with the weaknesses of our cognitive structures. The disarray created by the pandemic led to its initial diagnosis through ideological bubbles and horizontal communication networking. The resulting ‘spinning of perception compasses’ disrupted critical intervention efforts in the immediate aftermath of the emergency, particularly in communities with overly rigid or permissive leaderships, regardless of the political regimes in force.7 One just has to look at how the Chinese state’s hermeticism ultimately constituted the best escape hatch for the virus to all of China and beyond. Or how posturing by the US head of state exacerbated the healthcare stalemate. This dispersal of perceptions also weighed on public debate and the corrective measures that were projected on economic models.

Due to the central role digital networks have played since the onset of the crisis, they have undoubtedly been affected by this ‘spin’ and found themselves somewhat in the crossfire. IT resources have been deployed heavily in response to the emergency, albeit not without errors or backpedaling.8 For many businesses and governments,9 the crisis has forced a rapid advancement in computerization,10 something that had previously been strategically undervalued or delayed.11 Of course, the revenues of many IT services – excluding various privileged sectors – have declined.12 Nevertheless, this line of business has made a double gain in legitimacy, boosting economic growth and consequently fitting into most economic recovery plans in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and elsewhere.13 But in turn, and below the media radars, the effectiveness of computerization in certain areas has inevitably led to a new wave of feudalism by furthering an all-out dependence, monopoly, and a spectre of surveillance. Feudalism, as a particular form of predation, is a relationship in which one of the two parties is able to extract wealth by force or impose a transaction on the other.14 It is akin to the conquest and control of territories, this time not in the geographic space but in the economic sphere, by a new breed of ‘lords’ who are disposed to wage battle at their borders to defend their domination and eventually redistribute their excess wealth as an act of charity.

In the US, the head of the White House rants about the country’s tech monopolies and the Attorney General has announced that he wants to initiate antitrust proceedings against Google. If we are to believe Standard & Poor’s analysis, the six digital giants – namely Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google, and Microsoft – have broken previous stock market valuation records, holding nearly a quarter of the world’s total market valuation amongst themselves. Their market value increased by around 43 percent between January and September 2020, while the rest of the large companies on the same index saw their cumulative value decline by 4 percent.15 In Europe, against a backdrop of re-industrialization and computerization of services, the recent concession of national sovereign data by governments to US corporations has generated much outrage. Despite the General Data Protection Regulation (2018) and the invalidation of the Privacy Shield voted on at the European level in July 2020, France, for example, has decided to implement its national Health Data Hub with Microsoft.16 Furthermore, almost everywhere, under the garb of security measures, the temptation for surveillance has gained ground both in authoritarian regimes as well as in democracies that, at least outwardly, preach about citizens’ rights. On top of this, we have seen a resurgence of cyberattacks and hijackings (including those on health systems) that have been engulfed in the vortex of the pandemic to monetize a share of the destruction.17

This sequence of events leads us not far from a Hobbesian state of nature whose cacophony would encourage us to revisit the social contract at the heart of our societies. The idea is not that far-fetched either. For now, we will measure the change of scale achieved by ‘network rapacity’ by taking a look at one of the first such theses published in 1998 in Hijacking the World: The Dark Side of Microsoft, and those compiled by Shoshana Zuboff in 2019 in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The titles speak for themselves. This particular rapacity of networks, as Niall Ferguson reminds us,18 is only touched upon by the sycophants of the techno-industrial revolution who hardly evoke the idea of negative externalities and are worried about the rising frictions of globalization. The boost provided by the pandemic to digitization has also led to a spurt in its forms of predation, letting the new digital economy emerge by the force of circumstances in the backdrop of an inappropriate ‘apprehension by thought’. The confusion, the superficiality of discourses, and the rise of oxymorons (‘inclusive growth’, ‘inclusive labor markets’, ‘sustainable development’, ‘netizen’) reflect a growing disconnect between these different plans.

Schematically, for the proponents of dominant neoliberalism, the ‘digital revolution’ is a central vector of growth that must be made to coincide with the postulates of liberal or state regulation of markets, perfect competition, and the primacy of shareholder value; it will usher in a green economy or the “great reset19 that would embody the new course to follow in order to meet global challenges. Here, digitization is seen as one disruptive innovation, among others. This is the perception of the Sino-American duopoly and it is the vision that President Xi Jinping has just outlined20 amid geopolitical tensions that intensify the competition around electronic technologies. For the heterodox – from Marx and Keynes to Joseph Schumpeter, Joseph Stiglitz, James Galbraith, or Jeremy Rifkin among others – whose theoretical field widens to socio-cultural dimensions, digitization is a novelty that perpetuates the inequalities of wealth, asymmetrical relations, and the primacy of finance. They criticize the general equilibrium theory preached by neoliberalism. For others, for instance Yanis Varoufakis, Thorstein Veblen, Gaël Giraud, or Pierre Calame, the digital is a relative, even ‘technicist’ innovation, which distills changes in the physiognomy of societies and must be put at the service of a transition towards a more sustainable economic matrix, a matrix which cannot be reduced to the dominant economic trends. Digital networks are also seen as a technical element. This is true for the Green New Deal proposed by the Democratic Party in the US, which oddly, in the country of Silicon Valley, mentions low technology but ignores digital innovation.21 In all these cases, IT, thus distanced and reduced to the ‘digital’, only serves political ends – not a negative in itself – and is relegated to the background. Above all, it is not seen as a ‘new technical system’ – a synergy of fundamental techniques to organize the economy and the society, which has consequences for the anthropological field. We will elaborate on this concept a little later.

Ultimately, it is as if the brutality of the collisions triggered by the digital continent continues to elicit behaviors oscillating between fascination, mimicry, and blindness on the one hand, and refusal and negation on the other. The current transition to a new technical system is a period of turmoil in which entrepreneurs with the first-mover advantage generate high profits, while others remain prisoners of older forms of organization to which they have become accustomed. Computerization still appears to be a phenomenon ‘endured’ by the majority of economists and elites who perceive neither its full potential nor the dangers to which societies are exposed with its emergence. Potentialities are on the side of a new economy that enhances quality, functionalities, services, automation of repetitive tasks, clean power energy, full employment, and new forms of intelligence relying on the alloy between human brains and the programmable automaton. In this respect, if we conclude that the pandemic offers only a small window of opportunity to advance these digital issues, it is because the reform proposals and the political subjects that campaign for these potentialities are, for the moment, too external to the political and social spheres in general, and the ruling spheres in particular.

2. A new frame of reference for ‘computerization’

This leads us directly to the conditions likely to build a better understanding of computerization and its integration into its preferred field: the system of production of goods and services. In essence, if computerization is an ‘endured innovation’ around which a series of creative destructions develop, as Schumpeter points out, this is because it is ‘ill-treated’ in our minds – misunderstood and under-conceptualized. A new frame of reference is therefore necessary, capable of escaping the disciplinary corset to which computerization is usually subjected and, instead, focusing on its ‘transformative force’. To me, the need for this new frame of reference has become a central issue in recent years through various processes such as the Earth Summit (2012), the World Forum of Free Media, the Internet Social Forum, as well as through my own work on computer ecosystems. It echoes other conceptual contributions that we will briefly mention here.

The contemporary technical system, initiated around 1975, not only reconfigured the socio-economic matrix through the third industrial revolution; it also ushered in new relationships with nature, in which the link connecting intentions and human action, thought, organization, communication, forms of competition, market size, and consumer needs began to be modified.

To define this frame of reference and project towards a sustainable digital horizon, we should venture into a field that is philosophical, conceptual, and epistemological and draw inspiration from thinkers of the history of techniques such as Bertrand Gille, André Leroi-Gourhan, or Gilbert Simondon. They describe how the networked computer is much less an isolated invention than a technology embedded in a new technical system. The latter is a cluster of techniques, basically microelectronics, software engineering, and the ubiquitous networked connectivity, intertwined with a singular cohesion. The first modern technical system, born in 1775, was based on the synergy between mechanics and chemistry. It was completed around 1880 by energy, with the advent of oil and electricity. The contemporary technical system, initiated around 1975, not only reconfigured the socio-economic matrix through the third industrial revolution; it also ushered in new relationships with nature, in which the link connecting intentions and human action, thought, organization, communication, forms of competition, market size, and consumer needs began to be modified.

Techno-skeptics frequently oppose this vision, rejecting the idea that a mere bundle of techniques could have such a systemic impact on social and cultural dimensions. Gilbert Simondon emphasizes the antagonist relation between culture and techniques by putting forward an anthropological response: “Culture has constituted itself as a defense system against techniques […] It ignores a human reality within technical reality. To play its full role, culture must incorporate technical beings in the form of knowledge and in the form of a sense of values.”22 Its corollary is that for a change in the technical system to occur, new techniques must be available, but it is equally necessary to effect a socio-cultural change. This is the stage, confusing and highly perilous, which resembles the anarchic landscape that we have outlined above, underlining the need for ‘new cognitive tools’ to understand this situation. More than defeatism, utopianism, or ideological conformity, it is imperative to resort to realism, to methodological and rigorous exploration facilitating epistemological crossbreeding, and a ‘multilingualism’ which also characterizes IT.

Such a reconfiguration does not erase the previous industrial system based on a synergy of chemistry, mechanics, and energy. It computerizes it to varying extents depending on the maturity of each national economy and its cultural foundations. Among the few economists venturing off the beaten track, Michel Volle has attempted to summarize the characteristics of the new emerging economy.23 This refers to regimes of monopolistic competition, fixed-cost production, maximum risk, and increasing returns to scale. Unlike the mechanized economy, the contemporary economy tends to be spontaneously ultra-capitalist and form temporary monopolies around innovations. This is not to say that the mechanized economy has eliminated all forms of violence. On the contrary, despite its professed principles of balanced exchange, trade union rights, and a certain constraint on monopolies, the exploitation of labor, imperialist tendencies, colonization, and the extractivism inflicted on peripheral economies continue unabated.

But because of its intrinsic characteristics, the contemporary economy is now the bearer of new forms of endemic violence. It tends to shift the historical opposition between the working class and the owners of capital to a confrontation between ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘predators’. Here, entrepreneurs are conceived as those who are passionate about the active relationship with realities and people, and who put innovation at the service of productive action and the real economy. Since the 1980s, the exaltation of shareholders has eroded companies, driving out entrepreneurs and replacing them with managers concerned only with attractive accounting results. According to Volle, this evolution, which has gone hand in hand with the rise of neoliberalism and the rising power of the financial system, is a key factor in the current crisis. Predation, which historians remind us is the economic regime of feudalism, has taken the form of a vast constellation of practices that have continued to grow over the past three decades: the hyper-volatile activity of banks and the decoupling of the financial sphere from the productive one, illicit diversion of financial flows, civil and industrial espionage, confiscation of capital as mentioned in the work of Thomas Piketty,24 data extractivism for monetization and intelligence, the temptation to exploit the synergy between human intelligence and the programmable automaton through the reductive logic of data and programs, and so on. Laurent Bloch also illustrates the rejection of computerization and its effectiveness within companies and in information systems.25

To understand this physiognomy in greater depth and consider strategies for action, we should also be interested in the simultaneous emergence of neoliberalism and computerization, which together have amplified this new state of nature. Neoclassical thought that unfolded since the 1970s, and its emergence as a political force, coincide with the beginnings of computerization. It can be argued that the postulates of neoliberalism, contrary to the patrimonial economy that computerization has brought about,26 have come in part to respond to the wave of destabilization caused by the new emerging technical system. In their preoccupation with shareholder value, self-regulation of the markets, and the withdrawal of the state, the founders of neoliberalism turned their backs on the emerging new technical system, creating a climate all the more conducive to its predatory effects. Whereas these should be better understood and contained, the dominant ideology continues to encourage their free rein.

3. A new deal for a new economy

These statements need to be developed in greater detail than we can do here. But let us retain their main implications when it comes to sketching out the strategies for change. The first perspective, which we see as a backbone, is to focus attention on the structural transformations generated upstream and downstream by the computerization of economic models and institutional actors. It invites us to reconsider the conceptual grids, to adopt a less fearful, conservative, and Manichean perception of the dangers and advantages of computerization. It suggests that attention should be directed less towards areas already formalized (internet governance, digital data and rights, e-commerce, cybersecurity, media and social networks, etc.) and more towards the dynamics at work between the organized human being and the ubiquitous programmable automaton. Of course, the above mentioned sub-domains continue to be relevant registers around which a whole series of actors have been structured. But they evade other cross-cutting issues and the overall vision of a change in the socio-productive architecture. This explains, in particular, why the idea of an industrial revolution or a great societal transformation has not yet garnered a consensus.

In this regard, the conceptualization effort is not only theoretical. It has to be connected with the trenches that arise in the spaces where the legal, the political, the organizational, and the economic integrate and confront each other. The case studies and monographs developed in different socioprofessional environments are valuable epistemological sources to feed a new interpretative framework. While most indicators or statistics are not designed to make visible the emerging new economy, monographs are more adapted to enhance its essential characteristics and to produce the basics of an intellectual framework. This was the case in 1847 when the modern technical system emerged. More recently, Erik Brynjolfsson, among others, has contributed to overcoming the blind spots in the productivity brought about by IT.27

In addition to these writings, there is also a need for transformative narratives. This is the second perspective which refers to a mobilizing imaginary capable of guiding the efforts to build a “new economy”, that is to say, responding to the objectives of cohesion and well-being while remaining within the domain of biosphere viability. As previously discussed, the new economy must be enriched by previous doctrines. In view of the vigor of the peoples whose historical and continued demands for more dignity marked the year 2019 – from Algeria, Brazil, Bolivia, France to Iraq, Iran, Hong Kong, Indonesia, India and beyond –28 it seems difficult to imagine that the new efficiency and the forms of intelligence that appear today borrow only from market rules or develop themselves outside ideas of justice and equity. However, that threat is already knocking at the door. New technologies are showing that, in the absence of a new framework of thought and adapted regulation, they amplify potentially extreme tensions in terms of inequalities, distribution of wealth, and social rupture. This doctrinal effort, therefore, invites a review of the values of and the relationships among equity, freedom, efficiency, and new constraints and regulations. As these are specific to each geo-cultural base, the foundations of this new economy are, therefore, linked to a debate on the integration of each society into sustainable globalization.

From this perspective, the term ‘digital economy’ is largely insufficient to stimulate such mobilization. This is also the intuition of the “Great Reset” initiative undertaken by the World Economic Forum which envisions “urgently build[ing] the foundations of our economic and social system for a more fair, sustainable, and resilient future”.29 We may be seriously skeptical about this initiative, driven as it is by the promoters of unregulated liberalism. But let us recognize that a strong perspective needs to be developed, capable of addressing not only the political sphere but also citizens and economic players. The idea of a “general assembly of the computerized economy”, launched by IT specialists calling on the diversity of professional circles, could be a lead. This initiative should not be seen only as an intellectual exercise. It must set itself the goal of building influence on political and economic leaders, and therefore take a long-term view.

The Treaty of Westphalia, which sealed a new international order in the 17th century, was the outcome of a change in the conception of European leaders who then opted for a new system of balance of power after a prolonged period of destabilization. Reduced to current multipolarity and contemporary economics, recent news leads us to believe that we are not currently at a turning point of this nature. However, it is nevertheless necessary to invest in preparing for the crises to come and create the conditions to initiate a less costly and less destructive shift. It is now impossible to ignore that the contemporary economy is the scene of a new dialectic between predation, balanced exchange, the rule of law, and the return of feudalism in a modernized form. The challenge of finding new foundations along the way is, therefore, more seriously posed than ever.


François Soulard is a French migrant and activist, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He currently coordinates the international networked communication platform Dunia (https://dunia.earth). He is also member of the Forum for a New World Governance. ​