Revolutionary Adaptations

By Don, Bruce | Harvard International Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Revolutionary Adaptations


Don, Bruce, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

The evolution of science and technology underlies a trend toward increasing complexity and uncertainty in international relations. Technological advances alone cannot effect change in the international order; they are directed by human motivation and pursuit of economic gain, military prowess, and power. Nonetheless, today's technologies, particularly information technology, have greatly accelerated this change. For example, many have argued that information technology is supplanting nation-states as actors on the international stage with new entities such as non-governmental organizations. The meteoric rate of this change can marginalize institutions and render substantial national investments worthless.

Text:

Headnote:

Science and Technology in International Relations

The evolution of science and technology underlies a trend toward increasing complexity and uncertainty in international relations. Technological advances alone cannot effect change in the international order; they are directed by human motivation and the pursuit of economic gain, military prowess, and power. The shift of the global order enabled by technology represents a fundamental change in "the way the world works. "This is not a new phenomenon. Since the Industrial Revolution, technology has brought about fundamental changes. The economist Joseph Schumpeter encompassed much of this in his phrase "creative destruction." Nonetheless, today's technologies, particularly information technology, have greatly accelerated this change. For example, many have argued that information technology (which in the broadest sense includes television, the internet, and fax machines) is supplanting nation-states as actors on the international stage with new entities such as non-governmental organizations. The meteoric rate of this change can marginalize institutions and render substantial national investments worthless. If technology changes the nature of conflict, existing force structure can become ineffective. In the event that an international competitor's expertise in digital technology replaces a more traditional approach to consumer electronics, as was the case in high-definition television, the investment in the supplanted technology is wasted.

How can we plan, manage, and live in a world that cannot be understood in familiar ways? One approach that has shown promise (and mimics our actions as individuals) relies on an appreciation of the broad range of possible changes in international relations driven by science and technology.

Changes to the System

There are some probable trends in science and technology that may reshape our conceptions of the international system. For example, despite concerns about the anticipated doubling of the world population over the next three decades, our technological advancements will likely allow us to feed the population about as well as we do today. In addition to efforts at agricultural development dating back thousands of years, there is the promise of scientific knowledge in plant genetics from commercial firms and public organizations dedicated to this mission; these groups, motivated by the requisite economic and humanitarian incentives, seem certain to meet increasing demand for foodstuffs.

But such trends are not representative. Both science and technology involve knowledge in a codified form that can be readily taught to others in ever-increasing numbers under the right conditions, and the world has a large and growing stock of people skilled at applying such knowledge. Advances such as combinatorial chemistry, DNA chips, and information networks like the internet promise substantial increases in the rate of discovery, innovation, and diffusion of new technology. The experience of the Human Genome Project demonstrates that the basic production function of science can be materially improved. From the perspective of an individual, a firm, or even a large and organized nation like the United States, innovations emerge with increasing rapidity without the lead time necessary to assess their impact on society and the international system. …

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