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Upcoming Book by Denis Morozov

Historically, all empires had a simple check on overreach—populace resistance. When Louis XVI almost bankrupted France due to funding the American Revolution and his court's lavish spending, the people, driven by empty stomachs and pamphlets, stormed the Bastille. It was their version of a one-star app review, but with more urgency. But how do we resist an app? You can't guillotine a corporation... And, even if you could, barbaric methods of conflict resolution should be left to the ancient times. If a beloved tech product turns sinister, do you fight by smashing your phone? Leaving a scathing review? How do you collapse a digital empire that took hydra's shape?

Empires Beyond Collapse

Did Modern Tech Giants Transcend the Historical Patterns of Ancient Empires?

In the early 5th century, a Roman legionary stands watch over a flickering campfire, his thoughts interrupted by the distant sound of approaching footsteps. He turns to see a shadowy figure emerge from the darkness—his comrade, clutching a scroll. “It’s a message from the Emperor,” the comrade whispers, “the Visigoths are upon us.” As the camp descends into chaos, the legionary realizes that their once-mighty Empire is on the brink of collapse, much like Carthage centuries before. The sacking of Rome in 410 AD by Alaric is not just a military defeat but a symbol of an empire crumbling under its own weight—dwindling tax revenues, thinning legion ranks, and economic turmoil.

If Julius Caesar had access to modern tools of surveillance and control, his grip on power might have lasted beyond the historical confines. Imagine if instead of military conquest, the Roman Empire expanded through digital dominance. No need for the brutal suppression of the Gallic revolt—instead, every Gaul’s communication would be monitored, every dissenting thought flagged. Caesar’s spies, armed with data from a vast network like PRISM or Echelon, could pinpoint troublemakers with the precision of drone strikes, rather than resorting to the mass enslavement that followed his victory at Alesia.

Today, tech giants wield immense influence over our digital lives, driven by the pursuit of market share and user metrics. Their algorithms exploit human desires and insecurities with computational precision, surpassing the capabilities of ancient despots. Unlike figurehead rulers of old empires, tech giants are malleable and decentralized, resembling the Byzantine bureaucracy more than the Western Roman Empire. Their dominance is sustained through consumer choice and market dynamics—a soft power that would have intrigued Machiavelli.

The fall of a digital empire is not as dramatic as the violent end of ancient civilizations. It has no single keeps or legislative chambers to capture, no aqueducts to sever. Its resilience recalls the Parthian Empire, whose decentralized structure allowed it to absorb invasions. Tech giants operate in a realm of infinite data, consuming vast amounts of energy to harvest our digital lives into a new commodity. Our identities, behaviors, and connections are repackaged into profiles, creating a data-driven empire that dwarfs even the most ambitious colonial ventures.

Digital empires wield the ability to influence and addict on a global scale, much like the British East India Company’s opium trade in 19th-century China. Success is measured in financial valuation on the stock market, not territorial control or intellectual legacies. As we marvel at tech’s progress, we may be unknowingly sacrificing something profoundly human, just as the Aztecs sacrificed their own people to appease gods they believed granted them power.

“Empires Beyond Collapse” draws parallels between ancient civilizations and modern superpowers repeating oppressive patterns with new tools. In our digital age, tech corporations shape society and control narratives, allowing governments to focus on harder forms of power. The similarities between ancient regimes and big tech are examined through the lenses of the Tragedy of the Commons, Enshittification, and Progress Paralysis.

History teaches that unchecked authority can be dismantled through uprising or military defeat. But how does one depose a power existing primarily in code and cloud servers, influencing billions through algorithms? It’s a far cry from the visible fall of ancient regimes—cities besieged, royal lines extinguished. A digital downfall may be far more insidious—a quiet rot of once-vibrant societies, democracy eroding bit by bit, without a single shot fired, much like how the Byzantine Empire gradually faded through a series of slow, almost imperceptible declines.