Scientists like Albert Einstein are famous across the world, but few people understand the theory of relativity or quantum physics. Simply put, quantum theory explains the movement of subatomic particles that make up the universe. Physicists describe the behaviour of these particles the way journalists depict politicians—weird, wacky, mysterious, inexplicable, even diabolical. Particles behave randomly and unpredictably, yet there is a pattern. Particles aim to reach their destination; politicians aim to get votes. Same thing, really.
Unexpected political twists such as Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory are manifestations of ‘Quantum Politics’, a phrase coined by physicist-turned-president of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian. Like physics, where atoms were once deemed the smallest and indivisible constituents of matter, politics, too, needs a mandatory update, necessitated by technology and social media. In physics, as in politics, linear, reductionist thinking is outdated. We now live in an era of uncertainty, unpredictability, accelerating change, complexity and interconnectedness.
An eerie factoid of quantum physics is that the very act of observing the particle makes it alter its path. Observation changes outcome. This is happening in quantum politics. Social media makes it possible for people near and far to observe unexpected developments. This provokes impactful reactions even in unconnected regions or triggers change in political behaviour or decisions.
American Republican Senator Jeff Flake was waylaid in an elevator by two rape survivors. Their emotional outburst went viral, forcing Flake to change his decision and ask for an FBI background check on allegations of sexual attacks against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Observation changed outcome. A massacre in the Middle East causes a terrorist retaliation in the west. Or, diasporas mount powerful social media campaigns to reverse a government policy in their home country.
Quantum physics demonstrates another strange phenomenon—particles can exist in two, even multiple dimensions at the same time. This was inconceivable to us, until cyberspace made it comprehensible. People watch videos on their mobile phones, track election results and answer emails, inhabiting several worlds at the same time. Flake was in a Washington elevator, but he was simultaneously in millions of homes and heads.
Quantum physics experiments reveal another spooky trait: particles ‘know’ if we are looking and so change their trajectory, but they also know if we are planning to look. They can anticipate. Is this what we call intuition, empathy, telepathy? So it is utterly natural for clever politicians to anticipate public reaction and adjust their behaviour accordingly.
Is quantum politics new? Of course not. Quantum physics existed in the universe long before scientists discovered it. Quantum politics is probably as old as humankind, but there is no doubt that technology and social media have forever altered the pathways of politics. Already specialists called ‘quants’ apply mathematical models to evaluate highly complex financial instruments.
The magnitude of complexity grows exponentially, constantly. Until 2005, there was a total of 130 exabytes of data accumulated since the dawn of humankind (five exabytes represent all words ever spoken by human beings, says computer professional James Huggins). In 2020, we will have 40,900 exabytes of data. How is it even remotely possible for human beings to analyse so much data? They cannot. Enter the new species of artificial intelligence and algorithms that have already begun deciphering data too complex for humans to process. For politics, this is another ‘quantum’ leap.