The “internet of things” is the rapidly growing network of everyday objects that have been equipped with sensors, small power supplies, and internet addresses. We are used to an internet of computers, mobile phones, gaming consoles, and other kinds of consumer electronics. But a whole host of other products are now being connected in digital networks, including cars, refrigerators, and thermostats. And many industries are looking for ways to put cheap wireless chips into their products in ways that will impress shoppers.
This will transform the internet. It will go from being an information network we deliberately use through a few dedicated devices we think of as “media” into a pervasive, yet hidden, network of many kinds of devices. Wired and wireless devices will be everywhere, embedded in a range of everyday objects, and therefore less visible.
We are entering a period of global political life I call the pax technica. I’ve coined this pseudo-Latin term to capture my broad theory that the rapidly increasing diffusion of device networks is going to bring about a special kind of stability in global politics, revealing a pact between big technology firms and government, and introducing a new world order. As with the Pax Romana, the Pax Brittania, and the Pax Americana, the pax technica is not about peace. Instead, it is about the stability and predictability of political machinations that comes from having such extensively networked devices. The pax technica is a political, economic, and cultural arrangement of institutions and networked devices in which government and industry are tightly bound in mutual defense pacts, design collaborations, standards setting, and data mining.
Technological innovation has historically given some countries the upper hand in global affairs. But over the past decade, technological control and information access have consistently become the key factors explaining political outcomes, and no particular country seems to have the upper hand. The smart, stupid, or surreptitious use of digital media by political actors consistently has the biggest impact on who gets what they want.
Such new world orders have been given the label of pax—an epoch of predictable stability based on known rules and expectations. The internet of things is establishing a new pax.
Popular uprisings against long-standing dictators have rocked the Arab world. Antiestablishment movements in the West—the Tea Party in the United States, the Pirate Party in the European Union, the Occupy movement globally—have organized protests and captivated voters in unexpected ways. Around the world some regimes are more precarious, yet others seem as stable as ever. The Western internet, constituted by billions of mobile phones, computers, and other networked devices, has formed the largest information infrastructure ever. But this great device network has rivals and attackers. Battles between rival network infrastructure from China and competing norms of internet use from Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other authoritarian political cultures will dominate political life in the years ahead.
In this book, I argue that nation-states, polities, and governments need to be thought of as sociotechnical systems, not representative systems. We are used to thinking of politics as a process by which a few people represent the interests of many people, either through some democratic process or by fiat. But the internet of things is increasingly reporting on our actual behavior, generating politically valuable data, and representing our habits, tastes, and beliefs. Political communication is no longer simply constituted by citizens and politicians. Political communication systems are coordinated by network devices that citizens and politicians use with varying degrees of sophistication.
We are launching such a system now, in the internet of things. Ours is the pax technica. In this new era, it may make less sense to speak of unambiguous categories of democracy and dictatorship.
Instead it may be most revealing to characterize a government on the basis of its policies and practices regarding network devices and information infrastructure.
Governments are technical systems that tie their work to territories bounded by borders and claim a monopoly on certain kinds of technical expertise, information, and military power.
Their character is defined both by the people who work in government service and by the material resources and devices that are built to support their administrative practices. On the whole, democratically elected governments are comparatively open technical systems, and authoritarian regimes are relatively closed technical systems.
Indeed, a spectrum of regimes from “open” to “closed” may capture more of the important nuances in what makes a contemporary government than a spectrum that gauges levels of “democracy” and “authoritarianism.” The surveillance scandals triggered by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and the censorship tactics exposed by the OpenNet Initiative complicate many governments’ claims to being democratic.
Thinking in terms of democracy and authoritarianism does not make sense in a world where authoritarian governments use digital media to measure and respond to public opinion in positive ways. A growing number of regimes permit no public displays of dissent or high-level elections but do build new ways of interacting with citizens, encourage involvement in public policy, permit digital activism on particular issues such as pollution and corruption, and allow local elections for minor offices.
The democracies in the pax technica maintain their stability by using digital media for surprising levels of social control: political and corporate data mining, digital censorship, and online surveillance are some of the activities we all wish democracies wouldn’t do.
A closed government is one in which the norms, rules, and patterns of behavior for government personnel are hidden from public view and difficult for outsiders to access. Democracies and dictatorships alike protect government agencies from domestic or international challenges. A relatively small number of people—usually from the networks employed by the government—get to determine the other items on the agenda. A significant number of government processes are dedicated to protecting or furthering that government agenda. An open government shouldn’t have these features.
Civic groups, journalists, and the public need to be ready. Governments are going to have less and less ability to govern the internet of things. Corporate actors, and bad actors, could have enormous power. Right now government and corporate priorities dominate. Civic groups are getting better at expressing their concerns with how the internet is developing. But they need to be ready for the internet of things.
Why is our imagination about the future of global affairs so rife with images of technological fixes to social problems? It is usually best to describe technological innovation in terms of evolution, rather than revolution, and the same caution should be used to describe the changing nature of international affairs.
Global politics has evolved significantly over the past twenty-five years, often because of technology diffusion. Too many pundits downplayed these changes because they want to see proof of the direct causal connections between rapid technology diffusion and instant political outcomes. I suspect they will be waiting for a while. But I am certain that they are missing the important aspects of institutional innovations for which there is a clear trail of evidence. Indeed, ignoring the impact of digital media on the organization of global politics is a dangerous strategy. Waiting is not a good mode of civic engagement—especially if the internet of things materializes as projected. So what should we do? Internationally, we must actively engage in the process of setting global technology standards, encourage as much openness and interoperability as possible, and relax over-restrictive copyright regulations. And now we need to concern ourselves with the ownership structure of mobile phone companies, especially in countries where the government directly owns those companies. Media pundits used to rail against cross-ownership of newspapers, radio stations, or television stations. When infrastructure companies also produce content, net neutrality—the idea that all data on the internet should be treated equally—is at risk.
In the first chapter, I define the internet of things. I talk about the ways in which our political lives are already being affected by this rapidly growing, barely noticeable network of devices.
In the second chapter, I analyze the important developments in technology and politics during what I call the internet interregnum: the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union in which our internet grew from a network of computers into a network of mobile phones.
The next internet, the internet of things, is going to allow us to draw even more nuanced maps of the most meaningful social networks. In the third chapter I map out some of the new relationships among people, data, and the internet of things. Chapter four moves from observations and examples to the conservative generalizations we can make about technology diffusion and political communication. In this chapter I offer five basic premises about how we use the internet in politics, and it is important because these premises render the likely consequences of the internet of things. In the fifth chapter I explore five reasonable political consequences of the emerging world order, this pax technica. What are the political consequences of an internet of things? The pax technica is not a guarantee of peace so much as a sociotechnical structure for political life, and in the sixth chapter I identify the major challenges to the stability of the evolving internet of things. The final chapter concludes with some reflections on how important it is for citizens and civil society actors to fight for their place in this new world order.
Every new technology seems to challenge our democratic values in some way. We sense threats to our privacy, and see greater potential for social control and political manipulation. But the internet of things will also provide greater opportunities for challenging power and building the institutions we want to build. What kind of new world order will emerge when everyone, and everything, is connected?