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The new global technological divide

Posted By on July 11, 2019 @ 15:17

This year is proving to be something of a watershed in technology. Government and professional bodies are considering or acting on controls around technologies such as artificial intelligence and encryption. The United States, like Australia and New Zealand, banned high-risk companies from being involved in its 5G systems. Data sovereignty policies are aiding protectionism and contributing to global economic decoupling. Social media, of as much interest now to politicians as it is to the average citizen and foreign operatives, is polarising opinions and potentially influencing elections.

For the first time since the Cold War, technology is re-emerging as a strategic, and not merely a political, instrument. The difference this time is that it’s thoroughly civilian rather than military technologies and information that act both as enablers and sources of vulnerability. And there are key differences in how different Western political cultures understand the strategic significance of technology.

In Europe, the political aspects of technology are well appreciated. For example, European conferences on the uses of technology focus much more on the human and the role of technology in mediating, for example, relations between managers and staff. In contrast, sister conferences in the United States tend to focus more on the technology itself.

The differences reflect a long tradition in Europe. The old continent has powerful memories of conflict and has frequently been at the receiving end of the application of new technology in war, including by authoritarian regimes. Moreover, the formation of the European Union, determinedly created to reduce conflict, holds consensus above all other concerns and so has established predictable—if elaborate—processes to consider, agree on and regulate all manner of internal affairs. As a result, the EU has developed an extensive regime around data, data privacy and human rights that has proved challenging for US-based companies and consumers to appreciate and meet.

Further, European strategic concerns remain focused on Russia, a product of long-term familiarity augmented by more recent concerns over energy vulnerabilities and the revanchist behaviour of its president, Vladimir Putin. But Russia, while threatening, is not the technological powerhouse that China has become, and only recently have European policymakers become sensitised to the challenge that China poses.

In contrast, America’s way has been to focus on building technology, leaving individuals and companies to take advantage of the opportunities as well as sort out the consequences. (The Manhattan Project and moon missions are something of an anomaly in that regard.) Technology helped America to win World War II and the Cold War. Long used to technological superiority, the US is now threatened by a genuine rival and is struggling to harness its more free-wheeling technology sector for national strategic purposes.

Efforts to bring the technology sector to heel have been more difficult than anticipated. Many of the big US tech companies—such as Facebook, Amazon and Google—are products of the post-Cold War world. Their leaders have little or no experience of true geostrategic competition. Nor do they have an institutional memory of an existential threat based on a contest of ideologies, despite the fact that the very technological advances underpinning their business models were born during the last time the world saw such a contest.

Those differences are making a broader Western strategic approach to meeting the challenges of technologically enabled authoritarianism harder to achieve. Witness the pushback from US companies on European data regimes and Europe’s determination to ensure its citizens are protected from the rapacious data collection practices of predominantly US companies. US tech giants and their adherents are now arguing that they are ‘too big to fail’, and that in a geostrategic competition, attempts to break them up or bring their practices under greater control would actually harm US interests.

But it’s hard to argue that the business interests of Facebook, Google, Amazon or lesser-known companies will automatically align with the national interests of the United States, let alone the rights of individual citizens or the interests of allies. Google’s project Dragonfly aimed to build a search engine for China that enabled surveillance and censorship. More common is ‘neutral’ technology, developed by ostensibly law-abiding Western businesses that is now used for surveillance and oppression in China, and exported to more illiberal regimes elsewhere. The same belief in the political neutrality of technology is also apparent in US President Donald Trump’s responses to the threat posed by Huawei and ZTE.

The power and consequences of modern technology are not as easily reduced to a Huawei component, a social website or a held-held device. Western governments understand only dimly the challenges presented by the data and technology platforms, and then mainly through their own cultural lens. Traditional societal concepts and tools of statecraft are proving ill-suited to the task.

We need new, shared conceptual understandings around technology and its strategic value to help strengthen the West’s position against digitally enabled authoritarianism.

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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-new-global-technological-divide/

[1] Government: https://consult.industry.gov.au/strategic-policy/artificial-intelligence-ethics-framework/

[2] professional: https://standards.ieee.org/content/dam/ieee-standards/standards/web/documents/other/becoming_leader_global_ethics.pdf

[3] artificial: https://www.nist.gov/sites/default/files/documents/2019/07/02/plan_for_ai_standards_publicreview_2july2019.pdf

[4] intelligence: https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/ethics-guidelines-trustworthy-ai

[5] encryption: https://www.politico.com/story/2019/06/27/trump-officials-weigh-encryption-crackdown-1385306

[6] United States: https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-securing-information-communications-technology-services-supply-chain/

[7] Australia: https://www.minister.communications.gov.au/minister/mitch-fifield/news/government-provides-5g-security-guidance-australian-carriers

[8] New Zealand: https://www.smh.com.au/business/companies/new-zealand-joins-australia-in-banning-huawei-20181128-p50iz5.html

[9] Data sovereignty policies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_sovereignty

[10] aiding protectionism: https://www.computerworld.com.au/article/575087/data-sovereignty-data-protectionism/

[11] global economic decoupling: https://www.ft.com/content/0e6c322e-8c4e-11e9-a1c1-51bf8f989972

[12] polarising opinions: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/03/largest-study-ever-fake-news-mit-twitter/555104/

[13] potentially influencing elections: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0213500

[14] conferences: https://ecscw.eusset.eu/2019/

[15] conferences: http://cscw.acm.org/2019/

[16] harm: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-11/facebook-antitrust-rebuttal-revealed-in-zuckerberg-hearing-notes

[17] Facebook: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/05/technology/facebook-emails-privacy-data.html

[18] project: https://theintercept.com/2018/09/21/google-suppresses-memo-revealing-plans-to-closely-track-search-users-in-china/

[19] Dragonfly: https://theintercept.com/2019/03/04/google-ongoing-project-dragonfly/