Cyderworld as political domain

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Jarno Limnéll


Cyber has very often been called  the fifth dimension of warfare in today´s world. However, the reality is different. A major misconception is that the logic of cyber war takes place on a different domain, such as a fifth domain, that is totally separate and disconnected from all other forms of warfare, be it land, sea or air space. Rather than being disconnected from all other types of warfare, the “cyber” world of bytes is an integral part of all other domains.

Warfare taking place on land, at sea or in air and space has its own cyber components, and the world of bytes is everywhere. It penetrates all  levels and dimensions of warfare, with cyber components prevalent in weaponry, communications, equipment and other war-related items. And the question is not only about war – cyber is integral part of all security thinking and preparations in digitalized world.

What is also very often forgotten or neglected is the increasing importance of cyberspace as a political domain. For example referring to war, the cyber instrument is, like land, sea and air power, a means to achieve a political aim. “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” says the famous formulation of Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz.

Until recently, cyberspace was considered largely a matter of low politics. In recent years, issues connected to cyberspace and its uses have catapulted into the highest of the high politics. “Cyberpolitics”. With the creation of cyberspace, a new arena for the conduct of politics is taking shape, and we may well be witnessing a new form of politics.

When evaluating the cyberspace from the Nation-state´s point of view, the questions are very political – and primarily cyberspace should be treated as political domain.

In cyberworld there are no borders and it remains unlikely that they could be artificially erected today or in the future. This is due to the fundamentally different topography between the physical world and the world of bytes. While in the physical world the land territory over the entire globe is divided between nation-states such divisions cannot be performed in the cyberworld. Or can they? If we mentally discard the importance of boundaries for a while, we can see that the networks that the entire realm of the cyberworld consist of, bear a resemblance to the real world as it existed before globalization. The global intangible internet and other networks indeed manifest themselves as “nets” or “webs.” There are innumerable nexus in these nets, intricately interconnected with cables and wireless connections. As such a comparison may be made to the pre-modern world, where cities were the nexus and roads created the connections between them. It was said that all roads lead to Rome, thus highlighting the importance of that eternal city. In both worlds the number of connections are evidence of the importance of a certain nexus. No matter how big the city, like Chichen Itza, since it was not connected outside the Mayan civilization, it was not globally important.

Likewise in today’s cyberworld the location of computers and servers is inconsequential and the number of connections and their band-width are the essential factors. The information highways shape the cyberworld just like sea routes, the Roman road net or the Silk Route shaped the political world of the past by creating chances for people to connect.

The physical routes, however, are intersected by borders between states. These allowed for putting checks and restrictions on what was transported from one state to another. States were able to not only control but, if deemed necessary, stem the flows in and out of their respective areas. The Berlin wall, just as well as the Iron or Bamboo Curtains, stood testament to the effectiveness of boundaries and restrictions of movement of people, physical good and even ideas.

The world of bytes has no such inflexible or impermeable borderlines. Should there be? Our claim is yes. Nevertheless, the only restrictive boundary that can be established in the interface between the physical and cyber domains. It is possible to exclude people from the networks, but once they have been permeated, there is no credible way to limit how people act and proceed within them.

Certain parts of the networks can be shut down, but then it is a question of individual domains, most recently the Russian VKontakte. Access can be restricted but only to limited areas for a limited time. Boundaries can be erected, but they are likely to fluctuate constantly. They are erected and dismantled again, their locations change, their permeability is altered. There can be no permanent boundaries and thus no practical stable framing of the political space.

This means that the politics in cyberworld do not necessarily have to adhere to the nation-state structure of the physical world. The states, however, remain important political actors, but other spring up alongside them. In fact, it is surprising that the huge multinational corporations, whose yearly budgets by far surpass the GNP’s of the majority of the nation-states, have not emerged as more important political players in the physical world. In the world of bytes, however, they can fulfill their potential.

However, political importance in cyberworld is not a question of having more money of other tangible resources. What matters in information, connections and intellectual resources. From the nineties onwards we have witnessed the growth of cyberpolitics. Initially individual dissidents or protest-groups were able to spread their messages more effectively through the networks. This led further to such bastard offspring of the early bright-brow activists as Anonymous and other hactivist collectives. The political clout of these amorphous and unidentifiable actors has been growing constantly and now the more traditional political actors are attempting to establish their prestige and power in cyberworld as well.

Divide et impera  remains a good guideline of Realpolitik even today. Paradoxically the race for political dominion of the ethereal cyberworld is likely to adhere to the rules of Realpolitik. To divide one must first be able to establish barriers and borders to dissect the cyberworld into manageable sections. This is in stark contrast with the ideas and ideals of freedom of information that was the guiding principle in the creation of information societies. Very often in the history governments have perceived free information as a threat rather than an asset. Whether our information societies assume the traditionalist stance or not, the question of the political control of cyberspace in immensely important. We are increasingly witnessing attempts by nation-states to gain a foothold and build prestige in the cyberworld. As of now, cyber remains the most vital and vibrant channel of political action for citizens of our global village. Both in order to allow individuals to exert their political influence and in order to understand the dynamics of cyberpolitics we need to start viewed cyber as an important and as yet largely unrestricted sphere of potential political action.

While all traditional forms of political activity in the West seem to decrease in their attraction to general public, the cyberpolitics rather seem to gain momentum. Discussions on topics such as security or freedom attract people most when related to cyber domain. Cyberpolitics is a topic that is on the rise and while it would be fantasy to claim that it is where the battle for individual freedoms is fought, we can say that in the contemporary world it is the most contested site on political action. It is likely that in this situation of ambiguous developments the aspirations of people and nation-states are juxtaposed. One wants freedom, the other regulation. Barack Obama rode to presidency with the agenda of change using “Yes we can” as his slogan. The politics of cyber are undergoing a radical change and it is the sphere of political action where an individual can do his utmost to shape the direction of the changes.

Cyber is a part of our everyday life. Yes, we can change it, we can transform it for the propagation of the common good. We can use it as a platform for altruistic policies – or let is develop according to the whims of a few to become regulated and controlled. All action within a society is by definition poitical to some degree. Now is the time to get interested in one of our global commons – the cyberworld.

This article was written together with Dr. Jan Hanska.

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Brian Ford Ugh. Good article. Poor spell check on the title.
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