Meaning of Digital Networks
Technologies have long been recognized as significant factors in production, distribution, organizational forms, and social relations. But today's ICTs are not just any technology. They are reshaping crucial features of democratic participation, control, surveillance, privacy, and war. From the preface to "World-Information.Org – Politik der Infosphäre", Konrad Becker et al. BPB Berlin/ Leske und Budrich, Opladen 2002
Technologies have long been recognized as significant factors in production, distribution, organizational forms, and social relations. But today's ICTs are not just any technology. They are reshaping crucial features of democratic participation, control, surveillance, privacy, and war. They are redrawing the strategic geographies of a growing number not only of institutional orders but also of public imaginaries, and even personal identities. They do so in both highly visible and in submerged, often illegible ways. In terms of research and development, the new ICTs spawn just about all sectors of the economy – from agriculture through manufacturing to finance – and growing sectors of society – from education through medicine to entertainment. Understanding the new ICTs is then crucial.
But what it is we are actually naming when use the term ICTs is not all that clear. There is a strong tendency to focus on the technical capabilities of the new ICTs. From a narrowly engineering point of view this might be fine. But if we are to understand the broader issues involved, such a narrow focus even though crucial is not enough. For instance, as World-Information.Org (WIO) shows us very clearly the new data storage capacities we now have through digitization are not only about storage – they are also about storing data that can be used for surveillance and for marketing purposes. Nor can understanding the new ICTs be confined to what many social scientists have done, which is to look at the ICTs in terms of their impact on existing conditions and institutions. The ICTs are also to be recognized as constitutive of new conditions and institutional arrangements and, further, as an emergent order and system of power. Anyone concerned with questions of democratic participation and accountability must go beyond technical capabilities and impacts on existing conditions and examine also the features of this emergent order and system of power.
WIO does all of this, and it does so with great clarity, precision, and brilliant insights. It brings together analyses and information covering these issues. It contains detailed information on a) all the key aspects of the infrastructures, technical capabilities and organizations that constitute the technical side of the new ICTs, and b) in-depth analyses of how this technical side gets used and deployed by various types of actors, such as global markets and firms, NGOs, and individuals, and for various types of purposes, such as profit making, democratic participation, and surveillance.
What comes out of this combination of information and in-depth analyses is a tentative outline of an emergent order marked by new types of instrumental capacities and by enormous concentrations of specific forms of power among key actors. These instrumental capacities are of multiple sorts and can be put to multiple uses: For instance, data handling capacities have increased exponentially and created whole new data topographies, notably vast global data networks and data hubs. The new data coding and retrieval capabilities have fundamentally altered the relation of people to data. This can be seen in what WIO calls "global brainware", notably the proliferation of think tanks and their strategic new roles for the world of politics and corporate economies. It can also be seen in the new biometric capacities, such as the appropriation of what we still consider "private" information about our lives and bodies. Another instrumental capability is the combination of speed, interconnectivity and distributed parallel outcomes which has raised the orders of magnitude and the scales at which various operations can be executed. Global finance has been a key beneficiary, raising its overall volume to levels that dwarf other major global flows, such as trade and direct investment even as these have also benefited from the new ICTs.
As for the vast concentrations of power that are facilitated by the new ICTs, what stands out is the power of major corporations increasingly to control the development of these technologies and their infrastructures in directions that enhance their interests, and secondly, the power of the U.S. government to engage in multiple forms of surveillance, including surveillance of corporations in countries run by governments who are strong and long-term allies, illustrated by the so-called Echelon U.S. surveillance system and its use to spy on European corporations described at length in WIO. Major corporations and the US government are also playing an increasingly definitive role in the governance of the internet; ICANN was meant to open up internet governance to multiple constituencies, but this has not quite happened. Another outcome of these specific forms of power is the use of technical capabilities to produce the erasure of what we once thought were absolute protections to our privacy, protections centered in both law and nature. Overall, WIO shows us that instead of maximizing the role of communication and information in democratic societies, these developments threaten democratic participation and accountability. In many ways what we are seeing is an exponential strengthening not of democracy but of the power of already powerful actors. This is not how it was meant to go.
And yet, WIO also shows us the possibilities for using certain components of the new ICTs, notably the internet, as instruments that can enhance the efforts by a broad range of individuals and organizations struggling for a more just world. It enables these efforts whether they are local or global, and whether they focus on human rights, the environment, poverty, or the fight against powerful and largely unaccountable organizations such as the WTO. But these uses of the new technologies need to be developed, they do not just fall from the sky. And even if they proliferate, they will not necessarily fundamentally alter the enormous power held by corporations and some governments. But they can raise their own global capability to make those powerful unaccountable actors at least somewhat accountable to democratic principles. These multiple practices will expand the spaces themselves for these counter-systemic efforts and the possibilities of cross-border networks, thereby contributing to the building blocks of a global civil society and the possibilities for surveilling the surveillors and their power projects.