The Coming Sino-American Internet Schism
To historians, the split between the churches of Rome and Constantinople in the year 1054 is known as the Great Schism. What emerged from that schism, of course, was the Roman Catholic Church in the west and the Orthodox Church in the east.
To the contemporary ear, the theological disputes that led the leaders of the Western and Eastern churches to excommunicate each other, nearly 1,000 years ago, seem impossibly arcane. One question, for instance, was whether or not the Eucharist should consist of leavened or unleavened bread. Yet in those days, such disputes were not arcane at all: religion was far more central back then. Indeed, if we think of religion as a form of identity—well, we all know how enduringly important identity is.
Not surprisingly, there was a geopolitical subtext to the doctrinal disputes: the Greeks in the east and the Latins in the west had long been rivals over trade and territory. In other words, in the Mediterranean world, diversity was not strength—it was a source of conflict.
It’s been that way ever since. In 1204, for example, crusaders from the west detoured from their supposed mission of liberating the Holy Land from the Muslims to besiege and sack their fellow Christians in Constantinople. Indeed, even today, the ramifications of the Great Schism are felt. No small part of the alienation of Russia from the west, for example, is traceable to that long-ago cleavage.
Today, another great schism seems to be happening, and it, too, has an ideological cause that may be seen through an almost theological lens. The flashpoint is the internet, that planetary hive-mind. As such, the internet, also known as the World Wide Web, is making a bid, in its way, to be compared to all the other transcendent belief systems—sacred, profane, and in between—that we’ve seen in human history. And yet it, too, seems headed for a schism.
On September 20, Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, was asked about the future of the internet, specifically the prospect of it splintering into smaller domains. Schmidt answered, “I think the most likely scenario now is not a splintering, but rather a bifurcation into a Chinese-led internet and a non-Chinese internet led by America.” In other words, it might no longer be the World Wide Web, but rather the Bifurcated Web, with the Great Firewall of China in between.
Schmidt added, “There’s a real danger that along with those products and services comes a different leadership regime from government, with censorship, controls, etc.” The most notorious of these controls come from China, and some of them seem bizarre, on the order of fighting over leavened or unleavened bread. For instance, the Chinese government has banned the image of Winnie the Pooh; it even for a time banned the letter “n.”
Here in the U.S., we haven’t yet plumbed the depths of what Silicon Valley has been censoring, de-platforming, and algorithmically manipulating. So while it’s impossible for an American to argue that China’s internet controls aren’t vastly more severe and sinister, it’s also impossible to know how future historians will judge these censorious activities.
In the meantime, we might speculate that the schism of the internet will carry us into unknown psychic territory. Most obviously, it seems destined to reverse the basic presumption of liberal thinking over the past few centuries, which held that the world was converging towards a parliament of man. As Schiller wrote in his famous 1785 poem “Ode to Joy”: “What custom’s sword has parted/ Beggars become princes’ brothers.”
We can look back on Schiller and conclude that he had simply secularized Christian teleology. And yet the sentiment was no less powerful as a result. Indeed plenty of Christians, too, believed that mankind—including man’s technology, starting with the printing press and mass education—would play a role in the joyous future to come.
One such was the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who popularized the concept of the noosphere—that is, the common mind-space created by the evolving intellect of humanity. And from Teilhard it was only a short hop to the thinking of Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), who popularized the idea of an electronic “global village.”
Of course, Teilhard and McLuhan were operating in the pre-internet era. By the time the Well (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) started to flourish in the late 1980s, the notion that the net was bringing about a cyber-utopia was firmly established.
To be sure, today it seems laughable that the internet is creating an earthly paradise. But it’s still possible that some new kind of trans-national consciousness is being created—rooted, perhaps, in feminism or environmentalism—or maybe it’s just a kind of digital hypnotism.
Indeed, we might look at the obvious impact of the net on the young to realize that history is still unfolding, only faster. So would it be wise to argue against the thought that some new belief system is going to emerge? For instance, there’s the religion—or should we say, “religion”—of Syntheism, whose founder, one Alexander Bard, preaches, “In Christianity, one of the last things Jesus said to his disciples was ‘I will always be with you.’ …The Internet is seven billion people connected together in real time, and if that isn’t the holy spirit then I don’t know what it is.” One can laugh, or be appalled, at such thoughts, and yet it’s a cinch that the ghosts in the machine are up to something.
Of course, the muse of history has a way of mocking these—and all other—human pretensions. So in this case, any yearned-for universalism will likely soon enough have a collision with particularism.
By such a reckoning, the looming U.S.-China split of the early 21st century—seemingly made all the more inevitable by roiling disputes over trade, tariffs, and the territory of the South China Sea—will be seen as a kind of cosmic comeuppance. Indeed, the Sino-American split could be followed by other splits, just as the Great Schism was followed by another, even more profound, schism: the Reformation.
The Reformation might have started with a theological argument between Martin Luther and his church, yet immediately other passions were unleashed. The strongest of these was proto-nationalism. Thus it was that centuries before the word “nationalism” was coined, specific, non-catholic, national churches were created in the new Protestant countries, e.g., the Church of England. And of course, these Protestant churches have themselves endlessly divided and subdivided, often to the nth degree of non-belief and non-existence.
So with that template in mind, we can guess about further internet balkanization. And yes, the word “balkanization” comes loaded with the historical freight of fractious fighting. Even now, with the internet we have, we’re seeing a militant surge in identity politics, which can be viewed as a kind of micro-nationalism—that is, the hoisting of flags that signal ever more granulated group identities. Thus it is that “gay” quickly led to “LGBT,” which led to such ungainly coinages as LGBTQIAPK. In fact, at last count, Facebook offers its users a choice of 71 gender identities.
Of course, if it’s true that the historical dialectic never stops, then the centrifugal force that seems so dominant today could soon enough be reversed by some new centripetal force. That is, the outward-flying could yet become the inward-seeking.
The obvious candidate for the role of reversing everything is artificial intelligence (A.I.). Today, a hundred countries and companies are grasping toward A.I. dominance. Indeed, progress, if that’s the right word, is so rapid that it seems inevitable that wars of the future will be fought at the whim of some algorithm.
Yet it’s also possible that some overall guiding intelligence will emerge from this newest noosphere. Since A.I. is designed to be infinitely smarter than all of us humans put together, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if it develops thoughts that we haven’t thought of.
So perhaps the A.I.-ish techno-godhead will see, in its Yottaflop-y way, the value of peace, if only for the sake of its own survival. Why, with a steady power supply, some digital rough beast could reasonably aspire to immortality.
Of course, such a peace might not leave much room for people. You’ve seen The Terminator, haven’t you?
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.