While 2011 showed the power of the mob, both overthrowing Middle East dictators and catapulting China into great power status, the year was also one where machines increasingly shaped world politics. Three examples:

  • Machines instead of workers: as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in their popular e-book Race against the Machines, one good explanation for why the US is suffering such staggering unemployment, despite a rebound in company profits, is the increasing automation of employment. And it's not just manufacturing or physical labour but middle--class jobs (from sports writers to lawyers) being automated. Improvements this year such as driverless cars mean a whole new future for the transport industry, from military transport to taxis.
  • Drones, the weapon of choice for 2011: drones helped bring down Osama Bin Laden, isolate Qadhafi, increasingly led the US war effort in Afghanistan, and surveillance over Pakistan and Iran. Journalists, police and protesters got in on the act too, leading to increasingly crowded skies and difficult moral debates. Watch for 2012 to be the year drones take to the ocean. Could make things very interesting in the South China Sea.
  • Politics goes online: the West was too quick to celebrate the power of social media in 2009 during the Iranian uprising, but 2011, with the Arab Spring and #OccupyWallStreet, demonstrate the enduring political significance of these tools. Of course, as critics like Evgeny Morozov rightly point out in the The Net Delusion, in 2011 governments also began understand how to wield digital power. In the UK during the riots and Russia during the election, the net helped strengthen the hand of authority.

The increasing human reliance on machines is hardly a new story, but 2011 helps us glimpse some of the political and global implications of a digital society.

Photo by Flickr user runnerofnight.