The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age
Anonymous. WikiLeaks. The Syrian Electronic Army. Edward Snowden. Bitcoin. The Arab Spring.
Digital communication technologies have thrust the calculus of global political power into a period of unprecedented complexity. In every aspect of international affairs, digitally enabled actors are changing the way the world works and disrupting the institutions that once held a monopoly on power. No area is immune: humanitarianism, war, diplomacy, finance, activism, or journalism. In each, the government departments, international organizations and corporations who for a century were in charge, are being challenged by a new breed of international actor. Online, networked and decentralized, these new actors are innovating, for both good and ill, in the austere world of foreign policy. They are representative of a wide range of 21st century global actors and a new form of 21st century power: disruptive power.
In Disruptive Power, Taylor Owen provides a sweeping look at the way that digital technologies are shaking up the workings of the institutions that have traditionally controlled international affairs. The nation state system and the subsequent multinational system were founded on and have long functioned through a concentration of power in the state. Owen looks at the tools that a wide range of new actors are using to increasingly control international affairs, and how their rise changes the way we understand and act in the world. He considers the bar for success in international digital action and the negative consequences of a radically decentralized international system. What new institutions will be needed to moderate the new power structures and ensure accountability? And how can governments and corporations act to promote positive behavior in a world of disruptive innovation? Owen takes on these questions and more in this probing and sober look at the frontier of international affairs, in a world enabled by information technology and increasingly led by disruptive innovators.
With cutting edge analysis of the fast-changing relationship between the declining state and increasingly powerful non-state actors, Disruptive Power is the essential road map for navigating a networked world.
“The 21st century state is using new technologies both to serve and protect citizens and also to control them. Citizens are using the same technologies to fight back. Taylor Owen’s analysis is the one you want to read on this battle and the way it will shape the 21st century.”
–Michael Ignatieff, Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice, Harvard Kennedy School
“Cyber technology has led to disruptive power in the form of hackers like Anonymous and crypto-currencies like Bitcoin. How should states respond? Taylor Owen offers a provocative analysis and recommendations.”
–Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Harvard University, author of The Future of Power
“In Disruptive Power, Owen gives us a tour of the digital challenges to the nation-state, from newly flexible protest groups like Occupy and Anonymous to the rise of algorithms as weapons, often in the hands of non-state actors and often targeting civilian life. He weaves these observations into a forcefully argued thesis: the model of a world governed by stable nation-states is in crisis, forcing most state-led institutions into a choice between adaptation and collapse.”
–Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations
“Taylor Owen gives us an incisive set of reflections on the ways in which the decentralized, collaborative, and resilient power of digital networks is undermining the state’s ability to govern. Even more disturbing is the resulting existential dilemma for democratic states: the best way to fight back is to become a surveillance state. Disruptive Power does not provide answers, but it poses important and unsettling questions.”
–Anne-Marie Slaughter, Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University, and Director of Policy Planning, U.S. State Department, 2009-2011
Media and Book Talks
The Violence of Algorithms, Foreign Affairs
Why the U.S. should but won’t partner with hactivists Anonymous, San Fransisco Chronicle
Why governments must embrace the new global digital reality, The Globe and Mail
The promise and peril of digital diplomacy, The Globe and Mail
More Data, More Problems: Surveillance and the Information Economy, Review in Foreign Affairs
Rescuing Democracy in the Age of the Internet, Review in Ethics and International Affairs
CIGI Signature Lecture, Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age
World Affairs Council, San Fransisco: From Bitcoin to WikiLeaks: Shaping the World in the Digital Age
Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, Plenary Session: Foreign policy in 140 Characters: How technology is redefining diplomacy
International Conference of Crisis Mappers: Historical Mapping and the US Bombardment of Cambodia
Highlights from a talk at USC Annenberg: Disruptive Power
Losing Control outlines how in a wide range of international areas of influence, the state is being challenged by new, digitally enabled actors. Grounded in the theory of disruption, this chapter explores the rise and power of the activist collective Anonymous, the paradox of dual use surveillance technologies, and the recent revelation on the extent of NSA surveillance. The chapter serves as an introduction to the book.
Disruptive Power traces the development of the modern state and drawing on disruption theory, explores how the introduction of digital technology presents a crisis to state power. The state began as a mechanism for centralizing and exercising power and over time became hierarchical, bureaucratic, and, in democratic states, accountable to the rule of law. In a networked world, however, groups like Anonymous wield power by being decentralized, collaborative, and resilient. These two models of power are fundamentally at odds and the resulting disruptive power threatens the institutions that have preserved the balance of power since the end of World War II.
Spaces of Dissent
Spaces of Dissent explores the rapidly evolving space of digital activism, or hacktivism, through the example of a group of hackers called Telecomix, who served as a form of tech support for the Arab Spring. Such cyber activists have taken on a role of social and cultural provocateurs; they are dissenting actors in a culture that is increasingly hostile to protest. What’s more, they see, observe, and quickly react in ways that boggle the state and corporations – all of this instrumentalized by digital technology. This argument is grounded in an exploration of hactivism as a form of civil disobedience, though one that looks markedly different, and is potential more powerful, than the placards and megaphones of old. The chapter details how the state has responded to the perceived threat of online civil disobedience through its prosecutions against Chelsea Manning and Anonymous, and argues that their excessiveness stems form a paranoia over losing control. Finally, it explores the costs to society when we eliminate social deviancy.
New Money details how the rise of crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin represent a threat to the power the state derives from the control of currency. This chapter first outlines the history of the close connection between the control of currency and state power. It then details the rise of crypto-currencies, explain how they work, and their potential real-world benefits. Finally, it explores the potential challenge to state power posed by this decentralized and technologically enabled currency. I argue that if the use of Bitcoin were to proliferate, as it likely will, then the inability of the state to either collect revenue from, or regulate commercial activity, poses a threat to the control it currently holds over the international financial system.
Being There considers the evolution of international reporting news by juxtaposing the death of seasoned war corresponded Marie Colvin during the bombing of Homs, Syria with the new digital tools Syrian citizens used to document and stream the war to the world in real time. In an age of live-streaming, citizen journalism, drone journalism and coming advances in virtual reality, do we even need foreign correspondents? What’s more, do these technological advances result in new forms of knowing and understanding international events, do they shift how we understand the traditional power of the media and their capability to control information, and are they ultimately affecting how we see, and act in, the world?
Saving the Saviors
Saving the Saviors looks at the impact of collaborative mapping and advances in satellite technology on humanitarian and development agencies. The world of aid, humanitarianism and development have long been dominated by state-based agencies and large international organizations. For nearly a century, organizations like the World Food Program, The Red Cross, USAID and Oxfam have attempted to lead a transfer of expertise and resources from the developed world to the developing world. But new models are emerging. In the first week following the 2010 Haiti earthquake 14,000 citizens used their cell phones to upload emergency information to a live online crisis map. How do we know if the information uploaded to a crisis map is real? How do we hold these projects to account, without the oversight that states and institutions once provided? Using examples of disruptive humanitarian actors and recent academic work assessing their impact, this chapter explores how aid and humanitarianism are being transformed from the ground up.
Diplomacy Unbound explores the emerging practice of digital diplomacy. First, it outlines how we valued the efficacy and power of diplomacy before Twitter and Facebook and mesh networks by tracing the notion of diplomatic power. It then argues that we need to view digital diplomacy initiatives in two categories, those that simply expand the practice of public diplomacy into a new medium, and those that seek to fundamentally engage in the digital space, using the tools and capabilities outlined throughout this book. I argue that when the bounds of diplomacy are extended into influencing not just states, but also digital actors, then they overlap fundamentally with other foreign policy programs and objectives. And this invariably leads to conflicting methods and outcomes. The undue negative costs associated with coercive digital diplomacy demonstrate the weakness of the state in a major realm of its foreign policy. And if the state can’t be effectively diplomatic in the digital space, then what does this tell us about the contemporary relevance of diplomacy itself?
The Violence of Algorithms
The Violence of Algorithms looks at how advances in computational power and automation have produced military weapons and surveillance tools that blur the boundaries of the battlefield and the lines between domestic and international. While much of this book focuses on diminishing state power in the face of empowered actors, here I look at how the state is fighting back. What does it mean when the state extends the use of military technologies and tactics far beyond the battlefield? How should we view advances in automated warfare, and the power that these new technologies embed in complex and secretive algorithms? And for how long can we expect the state to have a monopoly on these news forms of pervasive violence? Put another way, where is the line between war and peacetime behaviour with the deployment of computation and surveillance based weaponry?
The Crisis of the State
The Crisis of the State outlines four challenges that together threaten the state’s traditional mechanisms of power and control, but that also might provide models for 20th century international institutions seeking to adapt— if they are structurally capable of transformation or meaningful reform. This crisis of the state has at least four key components: democratic legitimacy, reversing the surveillance state, algorithmic accountability, and internet governance. Solving any one of them, will not prove a panacea to this crisis, nor is this list exhaustive; there are many more innovations being developed and important questions being addressed. But luckily in each, there are individuals and groups experimenting on new models and proposing potential solutions. This is the new landscape in which the state must constructively engage.