The Paradox of Power in the Network Age

Who, exactly, will claim the virtual high ground?


There’s a whole lotta technophilia going on.

There’s a whole lotta technophilia going on.

The wave upon wave of digital disruptions buffeting and inalterably changing global society — we have been told by a chorus of Silicon Valley CEOs, hyperventilating best-selling authors, and digital fan-boys and -girls — will be democratizing, will undercut the brutes who traditionally have wielded and abused power, will lift up the masses. This power of connection, so it goes, will transform such masses, educate them, and elevate us all above the boundaries and barriers that have separated us throughout history. Consequently, they say, we will find ourselves in a future in which we will work less and laugh more.

It’s a great era in which to be alive.

But as any student of even the very best chapters of human history might expect, with progress come new, sometimes greater challenges. That is, having all the world’s people linked to the Net can empower and educate them, but it can also expose them to new threats and potentially open the door to new kinds of exploitation and domination.

Acceleration plus amplification produces volatility. Connection breaks down barriers and brings us closer, but it also creates new vulnerabilities. Redistribution plus decentralization of power can produce the Islamic State, the world’s first open-architecture terrorist group; it has recognized that the most effective force multiplier is using modern communications techniques to let anyone join, harnessing the power of the alienation of thousands by co-branding it with a single perverse and evil message. It is a leap forward from the ways of hierarchical, closed, club-like terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda or the FARC. But it is hardly the kind of progress we wanted to be making.

While poor societies may leapfrog ahead thanks to mobile money, distance health and education, and smart distributed energy infrastructure, this may be offset by the fact that they are regularly buffeted by the whims, emotions, and ambitions of tech superpowers that feel empowered to intervene in their lives on a low-cost basis. These superpowers, without so much as the use of a single human on the ground, could devastate these poor societies, not to mention others in their weight class, via the Internet or autonomous robot armies deployed on land and in the sky. This is a looming threat in this new world: that the digital divide morphs into a kind of digital colonialism in which the tech haves, without much fear of meaningful retribution, feel empowered to impose their views and values on the tech have-nots.

The central reason for these contrasts has to do with a defining reality of the interconnected world, the world we are entering, in which essentially every human is part of a man-made system for the very first time. Call it the “network paradox,” a phenomenon by which joining a network can both strengthen and create new vulnerabilities for those on the network.

A corollary to the paradox, however, might be called the “network power paradox,” which is what happens when the network both empowers all those on it and enables a constant shifting of that power, creating more independence and capability than ever before, both for those at the fringes of the network (at the bottom in the traditional power distribution) and for those at the center or top in traditional hierarchies or hubs of power.

As illustrated by the revelations about the National Security Agency and the behavior of countries such as China and other authoritarian states that seek to control the Internet within their borders and administer it like any other of the domains over which they have sovereignty, big governments that are able to bring to bear the greatest capital, as well as technological and human resources, can gain even more disproportionate power in this new world. Big companies, too, can gain in ways that give them absolutely extraordinary and previously unthinkable influence. Consider the companies with billions of users or those that control information or key technological monopolies or near monopolies.

Who conceivably has the ability to influence more people: a major power, like the United Kingdom, or Google or Facebook? The power that used to control the waves or the ones that dominate the airwaves and the mind share of today? With an economy in which the building blocks of wealth are bits and bytes rather than acres or vaults of gold, whoever is best able to monetize connections, capture intelligence, or create unique new forms of value or advantages wins. Indeed, those who succeed are more likely to be those who have the means at multiple levels to gain the virtual high ground—the concentrations of data, the control over nodes and networks, the means to create the algorithms and codes that encrypt and destroy and create.

In our networked world, economic, political, social, and military power increasingly flow via the network. Thus, the terrain of the network—defined by infrastructure, regulations, concentration of valuable resources and capabilities—becomes as critical as was geographic terrain. In politics, security matters, and business, understanding that terrain and the new rules of power that pertain to it becomes especially important, as does understanding how component aspects or elements of the network impacting its speed, ease of use, security, etc. will influence the conditions for success or failure of those on the network.

But as the nature of exchanges on the network changes, another critical advantage will emerge: Those who master machine intelligence may gain significant power even as they are shifting significant power to the machines. How they harness that machine power, or whether they do or do not, will be of crucial consequence. From a military-affairs perspective, the 20th century was the era of industrialized warfare. The 21st will be the era of network warfare and therefore increasingly the era of automated warfare.

Setting aside hyperbole and simplistic visions is essential when planning for a future that is going to become dramatically different in many complex ways. When threats and capabilities or opportunities and risks are assessed, however, we see that this is good practice not just because it really never pays to be simplistic or to fall for the hype, but because the new reality is that threats will come at all of us, faster than before, from all precincts of the network. Naturally, those with greater resources will have greater power to dominate, and those on the fringes will primarily have greater power to disrupt, but as important as both these facts is the Net’s ability to swiftly transfer power from node to node or to enable ad hoc alliances to emerge quickly as actors seek strength through collaboration.

Seventeen years ago, Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs published an article I wrote, titled “Cyberpolitik: The Changing Nature of Power in the Information Age,” in which I addressed the contradictory phenomena of the new era:

The revolution … breaks down hierarchies and creates new power structures. It amplifies the capacity to analyze, reduces reaction times to allow only for impulse and can be a tool for amplifying emotions or rationality. … It can make the United States so strong militarily that no one dares fight her in ways in which she is prepared to fight, while enabling opponents to take advantage of new options in asymmetrical conflict. It cedes some state authority to markets, to transnational entities and to non-state actors and, as a consequence, produces political forces calling for the strengthening of the state. It is the best tool for democrats and the best weapon for demagogues.

I went on to say that, given all the contradictions, it was probably too early to assert what certainties would be associated with the then-budding revolution. (The article came out six months before Google was founded, six years before Facebook, and nine before the iPhone.) Now, nearly two decades later, there is one clear certainty: Contradictions are themselves an essential aspect of this new era and should inform us as we seek to command a virtual landscape, one that we have made but whose form keeps shifting and whose horizons we cannot see.

A version of this article originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of FP under the title “The Network Paradox.”

Illustration by Matthew Hollister

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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