By Pierre Buhler
PARIS: Beyond the headlines, the embarrassment of governments, and the blow dealt to the secrecy of diplomatic correspondence, WikiLeaks’ exposure of US diplomatic cables offers a raw illustration of how deeply the essence of power has been altered in our information age.
Since its inception, the state has been the main vessel of power; access to power usually meant control of the state, whether by election or by violent takeover. This model, within which individuals are subjects or, at best, taxpayers and voters, is being undermined by several recent trends that have empowered the individual.
Consider the internet, a network of connected nodes invented in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, to preserve the United States from total chaos after a nuclear attack on its nerve centers. It was deliberately constructed with no hierarchy, no core, and no central authority, though few at the time could have suspected where — given the numerous breakthroughs of the digital revolution — the internet’s built-in trend toward decentralized power would lead.
It has led to the second trend: a metamorphosis of the production process. Information has become much more than a message conveyed by technology; it is now the raw material of services-intensive advanced economies, and the building block of modern social and productive organizations.
The third trend concerns the room this has opened for individual and collective action. In “The Human Condition”, the philosopher Hannah Arendt linked politics to the human capacity not simply to act, but to “act in concert.” While concerted action is a familiar notion, it used to be aimed mainly at influencing the state — exemplified by the way civil society prompted America’s withdrawal from Vietnam.
Today, however, collective action is of a different magnitude. Because of the universality of the digital language, its ease of use, and the virtual absence of marginal costs for producing or disseminating information, the state’s tools of control have been weakened and depleted.
Global finance has been one of the most eager beneficiaries of these trends, using internet networks not just as a tool to conduct operations with greater efficiency and velocity, but also as a means to circumvent state supervision. Corporations have dwelled on connectivity to globalize their markets, R&D, ownership, tax domiciliation, and leadership, thoroughly transforming their relationship with states, whether in their country of origin or elsewhere.
In September 1992, it took George Soros $10 billion to bring the Bank of England to its knees and impose devaluation on the pound. It now takes only a computer and internet connection to cause serious trouble: intrusion by hackers into protected networks, or the introduction of havoc-wreaking software viruses and worms in sensitive information systems. While the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 — the deadliest of all time — had nothing “virtual” about them, their perpetrator, Al-Qaeda, projects a cloud of threat and power by using cyberspace to promote its bloody “successes,” spread hatred, and recruit jihadists.
Of course, access to a networked world has also balanced state power in positive ways, by giving a formidable boost to independent advocacy, as seen in the online campaign to ban landmines and the treaty that ratified its success — despite opposition by powerful states. Many similar organizations have flourished, gaining the ability to shape political outcomes and public policies.
But there is no place where the transformative power of connectivity is potentially greater than in China, with its reported 420 million internet users. No matter how eager China’s authorities are to keep the internet under their control — for example, by blocking foreign web sites — they are also aware of how much their economy now needs the internet.
As a result, the room for “concerted action” has never been so large for individual Chinese to gain access to uncensored information, share opinions, and communicate country-wide to expose official misconduct. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was jailed for circulating on the internet his proposal for a truly democratic constitution, Charter 08, which gathered 10,000 signatures online in only 24 hours.
In the late 1980s, glasnost — transparency — was one of the nails in the coffin of the Soviet Union. While WikiLeaks has certainly not had a similar effect, it epitomizes the extent of the individual’s empowerment in a networked world. All that was necessary to challenge the world’s mightiest power, after all, was a disgruntled US Army intelligence analyst, some hacking knowledge, a few computers, and a handful of determined activists enrolled under the contested banner of transparency.
At the time she was named Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a respected scholar of international affairs, boldly heralded the advent of a networked world. “War, diplomacy, business, media, society … are networked,” she wrote in Foreign Affairs in January 2009, and “in this world, the measure of power is connectedness.” Having the greatest potential for connectivity, America has the edge in a “networked century.”
This drive prompted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January 2010 to proclaim the “freedom to connect” as the cyber-equivalent of the more familiar freedoms of assembly or expression. Of course, Clinton added, these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing, and can be misused for darker purposes. But her list of the potential abuses of the connected world contained nothing similar to the WikiLeaks storm.
That storm will leave behind no trace of understanding if it is assessed in isolation, rather than as part of a broader pattern. WikiLeaks’ latest release demonstrates that the transformation of power by the “digital revolution” could be as far-reaching as that brought about by the fifteenth-century printing revolution. In this game, where new players invite themselves, the edge goes to agility and innovation.
All of this implies that connectedness will remain a double-edged sword — the leverage it provides being fraught with vulnerability. And that means that we can count on more surprises in store for states.
Pierre Buhler, a former French diplomat, was an associate professor at Sciences Po, Paris. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, www.project-syndicate.org.