Geography and network politics

It’s the network age – but politics still count.  And borders do, too. So it’s worth pointing out that network politics are geographic… in fundamental ways.

Take the emergence of so-called ‘cyber-terrorism’.  It is sometimes claimed that – unlike the old days of ‘terrorism’ – the rise of silicon chips, databases, and the Internet mean that ‘terrorist’ actions against states, say, will increasingly come in the form of bits and btyes, launched by hostile hackers hiding behind distant (or indeed quite proximate) telecommunications networks. This spatial imaginary depicts a dark world populated by highly skilled, clandestine actors mobilizing non-human actors such as computer viruses or botnets to undertake devious acts. It’s a world of networks that overrides political boundaries and undermines the sovereignty of nation-states.

Reality already? Perhaps! Two cases stand out in the last year. The first and most recent refers to claims from US and South Korean government agencies that cyber-attacks from North Korea or North Korean supporters have hit key web sites, thereby denying citizens of both countries access to vital information. A second and probably more serious case was the attack on Georgia’s net infrastructure, which occurred around the same time that its neighbour, Russia, was looking set to take over the country. This apparent ‘cyber-siege’ and now the accusations about North Korean attacks suggests that the politics and geography – the political geography – of the network age will be determined by who can most effectively mobilize and mediate technology.

Of course, this is all very geographic! Understanding network politics demands that we address questions such as: Where are computer chips, say, or software suites designed, tested, built? Where are data-centres located? Which universities are the ‘silicon education capitals’? Which places are connected by what sort of Internet infrastructures? How do states, companies, even trade unions defend against cyber-sieges e.g. what are the modern-day equivalents of pots of boiling oil? And how do small countries, like Ireland, find a niche in the battle for technological supremacy or the quest to create technological hearths [Answer: fund the education system!]. Finally, borders matter here. Cyber-attacks enter or cross some territories and stop at or avoid others. In short, attacks on places such as US, South Korea, and Georgia show that ‘where-ness’ definitely matters in the age of network politics.

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One comment

  1. […] Cyber-China For geography tech-geeks, Danny O’Brien’s weekly Wired column in the Irish Times are essential reading. His work often highlights some fascinating aspects of the place of technology in contemporary society, aspects which geographers can often use to develop how they understand technological geographies. This week O’Brien draws attention to China’s so-called ‘patriotic hackers’: the “roving gang of justified vigilantes, attacking and taking down websites that demean or criticise China.” In Cyber-China, these hackers “defend the honour of their homeland” and even enrol in “hacker schools”! It’s a further case of the web’s network politics. […]

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