Inside the Digital Society: Three questions about our digital assumptions at a time of war

It’s hard for anyone in Europe, as I am, to write about the future of society today, as war rains down on the heart of the continent and many fear its spread. That future – digital or otherwise – is far more uncertain now than it was two weeks ago. For others round the world the same holds true.

Last week, as war in Europe started, I asked how optimistic we should be about the digital society. Optimism or pessimism, I suggested, may come down to how we see the world and how we see digitalisation, as a technological or a societal phenomenon.

Technologists I know tend to be optimistic, seeing first and foremost the good that they believe technology can bring. (Cybersecurity specialists may be more sceptical.) Social scientists are more likely to be pessimistic, considering technology through the lens of human history, human behaviour, human pathology, structures of power, influence, control.

The great goals of the international community and civil society today – human rights, sustainable development, equality and justice, peaceful coexistence and, yes, digital cooperation – all emerge from struggles to achieve a better future than human pathology and power structures have managed hitherto.

Prospects for achieving them depend on geopolitics, for which these are not optimistic times. All of those goals are affected by the war in Ukraine, including digital cooperation. Imagine talks, for instance, now on cybersecurity, on weapons technology, on the governance that is appropriate for innovations in AI. Imagine how different they’d be next month from last.

I’ve thought long and hard about what it’s possible to write this week. I’ve decided to revisit three fundamental questions about the internet and digital development, and ask if we need to reconsider what we mean by them.

Is the internet fragmented?

One of the internet community’s great fears is what it sometimes calls the ‘splinternet’, a fragmentation of the internet into separate spheres, divided by geography and politics.

The starting point for thinking about this is, generally, that the internet was intended to be universal, to interconnect networks and content irrespective of location or type of techno underpinning. Its architecture was designed thus, and this has implications that reach beyond technology – not least the notion that there should be universal access to all content. It is concerned, therefore, not just with technology but with issues such as human rights, access to knowledge, access to opportunity.

Other technologies and architectures are possible and so, therefore, are breaches to this principle of a single, open, interoperable internet.

But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, we shouldn’t just look at the internet from a technological perspective, but also the perspective of society – and from the way that it’s experienced, by users and non-users. It’s a digital SOCIETY, in other words, not just a DIGITAL society.

Experience of the internet has always been very different for different people in different contexts. The digital divides that preoccupy practitioners and commentators describe the social fragmentation of the internet: how it’s experienced differently according to geography and connectivity, education, prosperity, access to resources, social class, gender, disability, language, literacy.

Add here the values, beliefs and prejudices that lead users to focus only on content and services they “like”: the polarisation that results from which is yet another type of fragmentation. And, of course, the services available in different lands are different. Facebook may look universal in the West and many other countries, but China’s population uses WeChat. In Russia search is Yandex largely, rather than Google.

And finally, there’s politics. Some governments police the boundaries of content on the internet with vigour and with great success. Internet architecture’s already managed by some governments to support their interests. Much content’s circumscribed, made inaccessible or banned, while other content is designed to influence opinion. The national internet is bent to serve political objectives. VPNs and other tricks may enable the tech-savvy to get round these boundaries, but they’re not available to those who’re tech-unsavvy.

Different national narratives result from this, as demonstrated by the different narratives available online in Russia and the rest of Europe about the war in Ukraine.

The potential fragmentation of internet architecture is important, yes, but let’s not forget that internet experience is fragmented and has been from the start. We should talk about technology and society together.

What’s the internet’s relationship with other international goals?

Here’s a second issue, which also concerns the architecture of the internet.

Ukraine’s government asked ICANN and RIPE-NCC, the region’s internet registry, to close down Russia’s space in the domain name system. ICANN and RIPE-NCC have rejected this request. The latter put it thus: 'the means to communicate should not be affected by domestic political disputes, international conflicts or war'.

Some of the debate around this in the internet community has been pragmatic: would the impact of internet governance bodies doing as requested make it more or less likely that Russians could see content from outside? But an issue of principle’s also at the centre, which amounts to this: is the architecture of the internet so fundamental – to the internet’s own functioning and therefore to the impact of the internet – for it to be superior to other considerations that might come to bear?

I’m not going to discuss specific circumstances here. The question that I want to raise, and that it also raises, is a general one.

The integrity of the internet’s architecture is fundamental to its functioning. There’s a strong case to be made for protecting what the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace defined to be its public core. Universal access to the internet – and thereby to content and services – has also been endorsed as a goal by the international community since WSIS.

But what is the relationship of this to other goals that are as fundamental to the international community?

Some of these are goals that, it’s widely hoped, the internet will be able to advance – human rights in general, freedom of expression, sustainable development. There are others where the relationship with digital technology is more equivocal – the right to privacy, for instance. In none is the relation simple or in only one direction.

The international community’s own foundation document – the UN Charter, with its commitments to national self-determination and the peaceful resolution of international conflicts – was intended to provide a framework for managing changes in the way the world was working. Including what were then unanticipated changes, like digitalisation.

The internet evolved rapidly, from insignificance 30 years ago to profound influence over other international objectives now. Assumptions have often been made – for good or ill – about its implications for those objectives, and they’re often discussed in places like the Internet Governance Forum (the IGF).

But the actual interaction between internet and other fundamentals hasn't been resolved in international discourse, in either intergovernmental negotiations or multistakeholder spaces. There’s been more ambiguity than clarity involved in such discussions, especially about what could/should happen if/when fundamentals of the internet appear (to some, to many, maybe most) to conflict with other global goals.

Saying that the architecture of the internet’s so fundamental that it must always be prioritised makes sense to many on the inside of the internet – but it’s never going to make sense to those who see it as a tool, not as an end. The relationships between the internet and other fundamentals need to be debated between internet insiders and those primarily concerned with those other goals, not polarised as they too often are. Nothing here is simple, either.

Is the internet transformative?

For my third question I’ll go back to where I started, with the perspectives of optimists and pessimists, and the distinction that I sketched between technologists (whom I suggested tend to see the bright side) and social scientists (who tend to see more risk).

Many from both backgrounds might call the internet ‘transformative’, and that’s a word that’s popular with more in international agencies (seeking solutions to problems that have seemed intractable), in governments (likewise, but also concerned with maintaining democratic legitimacy or autocratic power, depending on their inclination) and business (seeking profit from things that used to be impossible).

The idea of transformation is, of course, concerned with impact, not technology per se (with digital technology as tool, not end). And what matters to the vast majority of people is, likewise, that impact on their lives, certainly not (what seem to them) arcane discussions about the architecture of the internet or its potential fragmentation.

That the internet has been transformative in certain areas (interpersonal communications, access to information/content, business modalities, etc.), at least for certain people (now nearing a majority), is clear. That the next wave of digitalisation will be even more so’s also clear. But there is a question to be asked of what it can and does transform.

It can transform our options – the opportunities we have to do things, to do them differently, with people we could not previously have done them with. Those online services that (most) of us (in most countries) now depend on illustrate this: email, Google, WhatsApp, Facebook, Alibaba, Amazon, Uber, Deliveroo.

It can transform our actual behaviour – the way we work, shop, play, chat, date, share things we like or express our identities.

But it can’t transform and it has not transformed our underlying motivations: our desires for love and friendship, for health and security, for prosperity and opportunity, for instance. It doesn’t affect the desire for profit on the part of businesses, or for power over the lives of others on the part who of those who wish to exercise it. Human nature’s untransformed, and that includes the risks attached to abuse and exploitation, criminality and war.

Aspirations for a better world with better people who will work in harmony have never made that better world appear. Compare the aspirations in the UN Charter, if you wish, with the world we’ve had since its adoption and the world we have today. Human nature’s not going to be transformed by algorithms, though they may make human capacity (for good or ill) more potent.

The relationship between digital ‘transformation’ and the underlying continuity of geopolitics is central to the UN Secretary-General’s desire for ‘digital cooperation’: how to handle risk and opportunity in a world where technology is transforming what we can do without transforming why we want to do it; where the governance of technology’s increasingly fragmented; and where the potential of powerful actors to use technology against the common interest is at least as great as the potential to support it.

The Sustainable Development Goals set out goals for global cooperation to which digital cooperation might contribute. COVID, conflict and climate change have emphasised the urgent need for that cooperation. The prospects for achieving it have taken a severe downturn. There’s a challenge there for optimists and pessimists alike.


Image: L’Angelus d’Homo Algorithmus entre la rationalité de son architectonique phénoménale paréidoliaque et l’affectivité de son atavisme libidinal crépusculé . . by jef Safi via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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