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The State and Technological Revolution

One of the most important lessons from the first Industrial Revolution is that periods of far-reaching technological change require an equally radical transformation of the state. Sadly, too many politicians have clung to the rhetoric of retrenchment instead of embracing what the new technological dispensation has to offer.

LONDON ā€“ The following account should sound familiar. Over the course of decades, feats of innovation re-engineer society, diffuse across countries and regions, and fundamentally alter every facet of life. Politicians, slow to respond to new challenges, centralize power and pursue older, more familiar forms of control, be it traditional statism, aggressive nationalism, or both. But technology continues to force change, and inevitably re-orders the political, economic, and social settlement.

This description applies both to the first Industrial Revolution and to our current moment. One way or another, the wave of technological revolution underway today will require a new theory of state.

In the nineteenth century, a confluence of social, scientific, and economic factors created the conditions for the rise of the modern nation-state. And within a couple of generations, life had changed dramatically, with population growth skyrocketing, incomes rising, and life expectancies increasing substantially. In the United Kingdom, the 1832 Great Reform Act and various innovations in media brought far more people into the political process. Newspapers like The Guardian and The Economist became increasingly influential in shaping public debate. But the reforms of the period were mostly in response to crises, rather than the result of dispassionate analysis and careful deliberation. Having been born of revolution, democratization always threatened revolution anew.

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