Infrastructure is boring, expensive, and usually someone else’s responsibility/problem. Which is perhaps how the UK finds itself at what Jeremy Fleming, head of GCHQ, describes as a moment of reckoning. Simon Wardley analyses this in terms of digital sovereignty.
Digital sovereignty is all about us (as a collective) deciding which parts of this competitive space that we want to own, compete, defend, dominate and represent our values and our behaviours in. It’s all about where are our borders in this space. … Our responses all seem to include a slide into protectionism with claims that we need to build our own cloud industries.
Fleming is particularly focused on “the growing challenge from China”, expresses concern about UK potentially losing control of “standards that shape our technology environment” which apparently “make sure that our liberal Western democratic views are baked into our technology”. Whatever that means. Fleming’s technological examples include digital currency and smart cities.
Fleming talks about the threats from Russia and China, and regards China’s potential control of the underlying infrastructure as more fundamentally challenging than potential attacks from Russia as well as non-state actors.
Fleming notes the following characteristics of those he labels adversaries:
- Potential to control the global operating system.
- Early implementors of many of the emerging technologies that are changing the digital environment.
- Bringing all elements of […] power to control, influence, design and dominate markets. Often with the effect of pushing out smaller players and reducing innovation.
- Concerted campaigns to dominate international standards.
If [any of this] turns out to be insecure or broken or undemocratic, everyone is going to be facing a very difficult future.
It would be easy to hear these remarks as referring solely to China. But he also sounds a warning about corporate power, acknowledging that their commercial interests sometimes (!?) don’t align with the interests of ordinary citizens. And with that in mind, it’s easy to see how some of the adversarial characteristics listed above would apply equally to some of the Western tech giants.
If the goal is to bake Western values (whatever they are) into our technology infrastructure, it is not obvious that the Western tech giants can be trusted to do this. Smart City initiatives associated with Google’s Sidewalk Labs have been cancelled in Portland and Toronto, following (although perhaps not entirely as a consequence of) democratic concerns about surveillance capitalism. However, Sidewalk Labs appears to be still active in a number of smaller smart city initiatives, as are Amazon Web Services, IBM and other major technology firms.
Fleming talks about standards, but at the same time he acknowledges that standards alone are too slow-changing and too weak to keep the adversaries at bay. “The nature of cyberspace makes the rules and standards more open to abuse.” He talks about evolutionary change, using a version of Leon Megginson’s formulation of natural selection: “it’s those that are most able to adjust that prosper”. (See my post on Arguments from Nature). But that very formulation seems to throw the initiative over to those tech firms that preach moving fast and breaking things. Can we therefore complain if our infrastructure is insecure, broken, and above all undemocratic?
For most of us, most of the time, infrastructure needs to be just there, taken for granted, ready to hand. Organizations providing these services are often established as monopolies, or turn into de facto monopolies, controlled not only (if at all) by market forces but by democratically accountable regulators and/or by technocratic specialists. However, the Western tech giants devote significant resources to lobbying against external regulation, resisting democratic control. And Smart City initiatives typically embed much the same values everywhere (civic paternalism, biopower).
So here is Fleming’s dilemma. If you don’t want China to make the running on smart cities, you have to forge alliances with other imperfectly trusted players, whose values are sometimes (!?) not aligned with yours. This moves away from the kind of positional strategy described in Wardley’s maps, towards a more relational strategy.
Jeremy Fleming, A world of possibilities: Leading the way in cyber and technology (Vincent Briscoe Lecture @ Imperial College, 23 April 2021) via YouTube.
Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder, Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces (Information Systems Research 7/1, March 1996)
Simon Wardley, Digital Sovereignty (22 October 2020)
Related posts: The Allure of the Smart City (April 2021)