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PrestiDigital GeoPolitics

PrestiDigital GeoPolitics Web Spatiality and Territoriality

No. 7-8, Sep.-Dec. 2017 » UNCOVERstory

Argument 

We, humans, live and act in the old physical space, though spatiality will never be the same after digits became the atoms of some “virtual matter”, in which our bodies and souls e-immersed. Cyberspace, equated reasonably with the Internet, allows for larger and better markets and fortunes, as well as more and fierce dangers to our security and liberty, to our homes and homelands.

Cyberspace reunites nearly three billion inhabitants worldwide, transforming its existence from the fief of a community of technical experts to a place of societal reflection and performance. Governments, armies, businesses and citizens need to grasp these cyber-realities, seemingly outside the traditional territory of geopolitics, but still mappable along the unchanging lines of human nature and behaviours. 

Newer economy, newer (geo)politics 

We feel the need for wisdom and caution in judging the “new economy” – and this feeling is already an old one. This phrase bears the mark of temporal relativism, since the “new” epithet can be associated with any construction that has to do with some disruption and seems to be equally legitimate for the Neolithic agrarian revolution, as well as for the three (or even four) industrial revolutions, with the last one – that of informational and communicational technologies origin – being in progress and in the progress of messing with us.

The whole global polity and all national polities borrow that disrupting novelty. Territory and power, the raison d’être of old-school geopolitics, are neither immune to novelty nor can ignore it. While geopolitics modifies its discourse from one era to the next, it stubbornly frames the world order and dismisses voices that announce its obsolescence.

Briefly put, when we talk about the new economy [1], we are talking about a brand new world: one where people work with their brains more than with their arms; one where information technology creates global markets and military competition; one where innovation is more important than mass production; a world where, through investments, new concepts are acquired and ways to develop the old ones, rather than new machines; one where rapid changes are the only constant; one of a “revolution” (and of many “revelations”).

The “latest” new economy involves several changes of scope and scale, of breadth and depth that far exceed the avatars of the classical factors or production relations. Along with it, the whole global polity and all national polities borrow that disrupting novelty. Territory and power, the raison d’être of old-school geopolitics, are neither immune to novelty nor can ignore it. While geopolitics modifies its discourse from one era to the next, it stubbornly frames the world order and dismisses voices that announce its obsolescence.

Space and territory – factors of production and casus belli, as well – will not be the same again. Influenced by computerization, globalization and deterritorialization, global space changes the Euclidean perspectives, is more hybridized and moves towards multiple and decentralized forms challenging the sovereign power of states [2]. Far from being displaced by this new internet-, digital-, cyber- spatiality, geo-politicians and geo-strategists are rather concerned to re-map and manage it, side by side with economists.

Globalization, computerization and the emergence of global risk propagation have transformed the discourses and repertoires of geopolitical thinking, but a resignation of geopolitics is unlikely. Some pretenders were launched under various names and disguises in postmodern times. Far from substituting old-school geopolitics, they are rather complementary to it. Among them: chronopolitics – the loss of material space consistency shifts governance to time management; geoeconomics – trade and investment considerations dislodge the obsolete military treatments; ecopolitics – the imminence of environmental menaces redesigns rivalries and alliances, geogovernment – a more integrated reality from the economic, cultural and political is cried for. Unable to be replaced and impossible to be neglected, space keeps its privileges in the universe of human action.

Influenced by computerization, globalization and deterritorialization, global space changes the Euclidean perspectives, is more hybridized and moves towards multiple and decentralized forms challenging the sovereign power of states.

The Internet is the extra dimension in the new economy. Surely, the Internet is far more than the tool that the (fake news) media often overuses, or the simple vehicle that (dot.com) business abuses. It offers also a new alternative for establishing communities, the habitat of an online society, a spatial dimension of a wealth similar to that of a newly discovered country, but still crossed by reminders of a past world. The Internet network is proper and ready for a geopolitical study. For there are geopolitical objects, in the definition of geographer Yves Lacoste [3], director of Herodote magazine: “territorial rivalries that are subject to contradictory representations”. Power struggles that remodel our civilization deeply do not take place only in the real territories of nations or peoples, they behave in the same way within the virtual world. Still, parallelisms are less intuitive.

Running in both real and virtual dimensions, offering universal support for expressing different representations, the Internet changed the geographic scale we were accustomed to look at, confusing implicitly the geopolitical dimension.

The Internet is spatially physical: it is sufficient to review the planetary extension of these networks, the location of the servers and telecom operator cables, the nerve endings illustrated by the network(s) of inter-connected computers.

This real architecture reveals the strengths and the domination of certain actors. But the Internet does not just mean physical, well-defined and measurable territory. Equally important are the online worlds created by Internet users.

These users are asymmetrical in interests and power, they enter combinations and conflicts alike, they rely on state or defy state institutions, they are political in their classical jurisdictions, and geopolitical in the anarchical global cyberspace

Cyberspace is societal, thus political 

The paternity of the term cyberspace belongs to William Gibson [4], the American writer being the first who inserted the word in his SciFi story Burning Chrome and then in the novel Neuromancer. Initially, the term meant a virtual hallucinatory reality, generated by a dense matrix of networks of computers. Mercenary hackers connected their own nerve systems to the network so they can overcome complex and often lethal security measures to get into the widespread computers on Planet. For the time being, the Internet and other computer networks have borrowed little from the image of the future cyberspace, controlled by immense corporations, as predicted by Gibson. Undoubtedly, many of the important issues debated in the present about network access, commerce, privacy, encryption will determine the future nature of a cyberspace that is fated to evolve.

The Internet is the extra dimension in the new economy. Surely, the Internet is far more than the tool that the (fake news) media often overuses, or the simple vehicle that (dot.com) business abuses.

In 1984, the year of Gibson’s book, cyberspace actually embodied a “non-space”, being only a common mental representation pigmented by a bit of technology and a lot of imagination. However, since the publication of these books, literature has come to the forefront of computer communications networks, contributing to the effective realization of cyberspace, a universe that still remains with abnormal landscapes. [5] Centred on the Internet and its communication services – World Wide Web, email, forums, real-time chat channels, instant messaging, file uploading and remote administration of computers – it extends beyond the Internet, with virtual reality technologies and video games. Everything is digitized, that is, universally expressed in bits, then stored, integrated. The cybernetic space, encompassing telephony and television downstream, would have the exclusivity of information.

Reproducing the real world or completing it, the cyberspace electronically preserves the human action with its societal, cooperative expressions as well as with its state-made, coercive ones [6]. Societal crises can have dramatic repercussions in the virtual environment, “exposed” by the very nature of the information society, while creating opportunities and threats to freedom and democracy. These threats are not just the prospect of totalitarian regimes to use computers to monitor almost all aspects of their citizens’ lives. A bigger danger lies in hidden control and manipulation of beliefs and actions that the vast majority is secretly “forced” to embrace. Information is a commodity, as information is power. By exchanging and extolling information, cyberspace becomes a bazaar and an agora, a (market)place both for private commerce and cooperation, as it is for public corruption and coercion.

In the definition of geographer Yves Lacoste, director of Herodote magazine: “territorial rivalries that are subject to contradictory representations”. Power struggles that remodel our civilization deeply do not take place only in the real territories of nations or peoples, they behave in the same way within the virtual world.

The (nation-)states, the fundamental unities of geopolitics, are perceived at the sunset of their existence, although realities seem to deny such a hasty prognosis. They conscientiously cultivate the interest that has pushed them into being, preserving their existence both in the physical environment and in any other available space – i.e., cyber realm. The geopolitics of cyberspace follows from the geopolitics of information, a concept developed in Antony Smith’s homonymous work [7]. Information seen as a scarce resource (despite apparent technical abundancy) is an invitation for the state, whether autocratic or not, to lead its allocation and social control. Information flows are diverted to circulate only in specific groups or for specific interests. Privacy, access, trade privileges, public interest are problems that every society has debated endlessly in history and are relevant again.

Bits and borders – to mix and match 

Cyberspace interests the state from a simple reason: it is a populated territory. In the world of (nation-)states, space is sanctioned at the level of territories, framed by borders, at the level of points, zones or spheres of influence. The study titled Applying State Boundary Theory to Cyberspace by Thomas Pingel [8] explored the suitability of old concepts to fit into new garments.

Societal crises can have dramatic repercussions in the virtual environment, “exposed” by the very nature of the information society, while creating opportunities and threats to freedom and democracy.

One may be guided along four axes: (a) reviewing the development and history of state boundaries theory; (b) determining a paradigm associated with the idea of ​​a suitable boundary within which to situate cyberspace; (c) highlighting the interest of states to maintain and enhance their presence in cyberspace; (d) an inventory of state manifestations in the cyberspace.

A large number of paradigms associated with the idea of ​​borders have been articulated throughout the 20th century. Some are worth mentioning in order to make some comparisons and analogies with the situation of the cyberspace. Stephen Jones proposes in a large study [9] some such ideas, out of which a few look quite relevant in the setup of cyber-borders (Table 1). 

Table 1. Border paradigms and border properties 

Border paradigm

Border properties

Primitive or tribal model

The boundaries were non-linear, the territories being rather bounded by zones; blood ties prevailed over the territory as a political unity

The imperial model

There were either harsh, linear demarcations, separating civilization from barbarity (China), or flexible, fortified formula (Roman empire)

European Middle Age model

Distinct territories (by culture, language, etc.), allocated and inherited to/by dynastic families, not being connected whatsoever to each other

Nation-state model

With the concentration of territories on national basis, rather than dynasty, the aim for continuous territorial areas as well as legitimacy prevailed

The organic model

State boundaries resemble the dermis of a plant or animal, which spreads or strains as dictates the needs of the state, being poorly permeable

The contractual model

States should agree on a line and respect it; it is improper to use military force, the true forms of establishment being represented by treaties

Power policy model

The frontier is nothing less than a “biological battlefield in peoples’ life”, the borders being the contact lines of territorial power structures

Source: Synthesis after Jones, op. cit. 

The discussion of the opportunity of paradigmatic thinking in “mapping” cyberspace and the selection of the most comprehensive paradigm for delineating borders and thus power and authority over a certain area can be made. The spatial character of the network can be accepted from the idea of ​​an “environment” in which there are degrees of “movement”.

Within cyberspace, information and value move, as power and influence move. By consequence, cyberspace looks like a legitimater geopolitical (as well as a geo-economic) space. Its design of opposing interests and multiple influences involve a sort of territorial allocation of resources. It becomes a geopolitical territory, superimposed onto a sum of private spaces.

The (nation-)states, the fundamental unities of geopolitics, are perceived at the sunset of their existence, although realities seem to deny such a hasty prognosis. They conscientiously cultivate the interest that has pushed them into being, preserving their existence both in the physical environment and in any other available space – i.e., cyber realm.

There are some relevant issues that deserve to be discussed about the applicability of boundary theory to the cyberspace. Some authors (i.e., Rosencrance [10]) (pro)claimed the very decline of the nation-state paradigm on the grounds that territory is no longer as important as it once was. This seems more attached to the idea that the resources used by one state do not necessarily mean resources refused to another. In other words, since cyberspace cannot be fully filled, growing continuously, it defies the obsolete physically-scarce world [11].

As mentioned above, organic paradigms and power politics have a rather poor voice in context. Contractual concepts may be more useful, but given that the metaphor of space for electronic information and the global communications network remains a metaphor, it may not be possible for states to establish an effective division of territory. In addition, since cybernetic space grows in itself, it might be important if someone wants to use the contractual paradigm to determine how the expansion of cyberspace can match website ownership.

In cyberspace there are no rivers, no mountains, no trenches that can be digested as a frontier. This space is fundamentally different from the real one, being composed of wires and hubs. The borders are hardly natural. But if artificial borders are not implicitly more unstable than the natural ones, they are lacking in intuitive consistency. As all artificial boundaries are either subjective or arbitrary, it is easier for two parties not to understand the respective boundary position. In cyberspace, the problem would be at least as acute.

In cyberspace there are no rivers, no mountains, no trenches that can be digested as a frontier. This space is fundamentally different from the real one, being composed of wires and hubs. The borders are hardly natural. But if artificial borders are not implicitly more unstable than the natural ones, they are lacking in intuitive consistency.

In the spirit of what has been discussed so far, it is clear the limitation, from the point of view of the border design, to which we are exposed in relation to the paradigm that we might have been reserving for cybernetic space. J.R. Prescott [12] articulates a concept which, due to historical similarity, was called the American West Paradigm and distinguishes between primary (de facto, rough and mostly done) setting of state-made, political borders and some secondary establishment of frontiers (de jure, more thorough, in progress). 

The multi-layered “cyber-spatiality” 

Despite the fact that the mapping and mastering the spatiality of cyber-realms remain at a first glance counter-intuitive, the geography of power remains a legitimate concern, even if the actors remain (more or less) “mainstream” – besides governments and armies, multi/transnational corporations and globetrotting citizens –, while the old-school, more clear-cut, threats are being replaced by shady hybrid mixtures of hard-core criminals or peacocking hackers, militants and dissidents, rogue enterprises and rogue states.

Agreeing on a minimalistic definition, cyberspace is, at once, the Internet, the “space” it generates – an intangible space in which un-territorialized exchanges take place between citizens of all nations, at an instantaneous speed that abolishes all notions of distance, a network of networks (around 40.000 autonomous ones). But beyond clarifying definitions, the contradictory representations set the real mental stage, fed by science-fiction literature, activism, politics or marketing (with the Cloud being almost mystical).

In the article La géopolitique pour comprendre le cyberespace, Frédérick Douzet [13] identifies four layers of cyberspace: physical, logical infrastructure, soft applications, and interactions.

The fact is that, at every level of this multi-layered space, there are rivalries of power between actors on often technical issues, but whose stakes are, in a highly meaningful measure, geopolitical. 

Table 2. Layers of contemporary cyber-geosphere 

Layer

Fabric

Physical

Submarine and terrestrial cables, satellites and radio relays, computers and other terminals – that is a set of equipment ultimately installed on a territory, subjected to the constraints of the physical and political geography, that can be built, modified or destroyed, connected or disconnected from the network

Logical infrastructure

Services that make it possible to transmit information across network and, thus, to make it travel divided into small data packets, from sender to recipient; it is based on a common language (the Internet Protocol TCP / IP); it includes (also geo-localizable) services of routing, naming and addressing

Applications

User-friendly computer programs that allow anyone to use the Internet without knowing anything about computer programming (Web, e-mail, social networks, search engines, etc.); some apps (by Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.) cunningly exploit blindly entrusted private info, to the gain of third parties

Social interaction

Users, discussions and exchanges in real time around the world; it is geopolitically relevant when it comes time to determine the most “friendly” countries on social networks, observing the cultural penetrations or the location of social rebellions or disinformation campaigns against governments (or other entities)

Source: Synthesis after Douzet, op. cit. 

When it comes to “planting the flag” [14] in cyberspace, two opposing representations concerning this unusual, hybrid, multi-layered and multi-fabric territory severely enter into a collision course: the first one is that of individual freedom, which simply presumes that it should be the “flag” of each and every free, unconstrained individual that should reign supreme on his homesteaded parcel of the cyber-territory (in both its hardware and software dimensions), while the second one calls for the sovereign state to follow-up on its citizens’ rights and duties, to serve and protect them in the “digital” space as it does in the “analogue” one, with the same obscure price paid in form of private (fiscal and regulatory) serfdoms in exchange for (alleged) public good(ie)s.

Speaking of the first camp, we should remember the pioneers of the Internet, who founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in 1990, long before the web became a commonality in our lives. This was an explicit and extended sequel of the philosophy of the evolving American frontier, developing dream and forged democracy, as exposed by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, in his circulated book The Significance of the Frontier in American History [15]. By 1996, even a “declaration of independence of cyberspace” had been issued, asserting the self-sovereignty of cyberspace (citizens). In this “civilization of the mind”, the laws of the governments of the physical world do not and shall not be made to apply.

This internet freedom philosophy was a revamped episode of the 1960’s countercultural movement: the architecture of such cock-and-bull, surreal (at the horizon of the seventh decade of the past century) network was supposed, in the 1990s, to exhibit the longed-for spirit of openness, self-management, freedom of exchange and expression. It was about a new kind of place on Earth, where abundance overcomes scarcity (differently than how communists sought to do the job), since the cyberspace could become as infinite as the creativity which generates it will allow; hence, borders are not only illogical, but immoral as well. This Romantic view of the “www” animates many idealist hacktivists, preaching the free flow of information on the Internet.

Borders are not only illogical, but immoral as well. This Romantic view of the “www” animates many idealist hacktivists, preaching the free flow of information on the Internet. But cyberspace, supposedly lost in the sci-fi novel universe, reappears in the 2000s in the realpolitik of state institutions and officials.

But cyberspace, supposedly lost in the sci-fi novel universe, reappears in the 2000s in the realpolitik of state institutions and officials [16]. It is a territory to conquer, to control, to monitor, to reclaim, on which everyone must respect its borders, its sovereignty, its laws, while any deviated cyber-conduct equates to an assault on the national interest, on national security. In 2007, Estonia, one of the most digitalized countries in the world, was under a cyber-attack – as some critical infrastructures for both public administration and private economy were paralyzed –; it was a siege conducted not by tanks or airplanes, but by networks of tens of thousands of zombie (malware infected, remotely controlled) computers. One year later, it was Georgia’s turn. 

(Un)Conclusive remarks 

Invoking the need to secure sovereignty (in the name of the citizens) and having as sovereign concern (their citizens’) security, states are fighting a symbolic battle: the conquest and control of the cyber-lands from which attacks can be carried out against their power and to dissimulate this crusade under the guise of protecting civil liberties at home and across globe. Snowden will object to that.

In this unusual space, Euclidian geometry is defied (since information seems a-dimensional), the Westphalian geopolitical framework is asymmetric (sovereignty claims by far exceed gains), and marginalist geo-economics seems to scarcely apply (lacking the decreasing marginal returns). However, people find, to their utmost surprise, that some things never change: power, be it over nature or man. 

References 

[1] Encyclopaedia of the New Economy, http://hotwired.lycos.com/special/ene, accessed in December 2002.

[2] Tuathail, Gearóid Ó (Toal, Gerard). 1996. At the End of Geopolitics? Reflections on a Plural Problematic at the Century’s End. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 22(1): 35-55.

[3] Lacoste, Yves (dir.). 1993. Dictionnaire de géopolitique. Paris: Flammarion.

[4] Gibson, William. 1984. Neuromancer. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group.

[5] Harris, Blake. 1999. The Geopolitics of Cyberspace. Infobahn – The Magazine of Internet Culture, http://www.interlog.com/~blake/geopolitics.html, accessed in December 2002.

[6] Kempf, Olivier. 2012. Introduction à la cyberestratégie. Paris: Economica.

[7] Smith, Antony. 1980. The Geopolitics of Information. London: Faber.

[8] Pingel, Thomas. 2001. Applying State Boundary Theory to Cyberspace (draft paper, accessed in December 2002).

[9] Jones, Stephen B. 1959. Boundary Concepts in the Setting of Place and Time. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 49: 3.

[10] Rosencrance, Richard. 1996. Rise of the Virtual State. Foreign Affairs 75: 4.

[11] Virilio, Paul. 1997. Un monde surexposé. Le Monde diplomatique, août.

[12] Prescott, John R.V. 1965. Geography of Frontiers and Boundaries. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

[13] Douzet, Frédérick. 2014. La géopolitique pour comprendre le cyberespace. Hérodote 152-153(1): 3-21, accessed in December 2017.

[14] Dossé, Stéphane. 2010. Vers une stratégie de milieu pour préparer les conflits dans le cyberespace? DSI, n°59, May.

[15] Turner, Frederick Jackson. 1894. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

[16] Deibert, Ron. 2015. The Geopolitics of Cyberspace after Snowden. Current History 114(768): 9-15.

 
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