Wed, Feb 20, 2013 - Page 9 News List

The information revolution gets political

Events in Egypt and elsewhere have shown that we are only just beginning to comprehend the effects of the information revolution on state power

By Joseph Nye

However, it would be a mistake to “over-learn” the lessons that the Arab revolutions have taught about information, technology and power. While the information revolution could, in principle, reduce large states’ power and increase that of small states and non-state actors, politics and power are more complex than such technological determinism implies.

In the middle of the 20th century, people feared that computers and new means of communications would create the kind of central governmental control dramatized in George Orwell’s 1984. And, indeed, authoritarian governments in China, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have used the new technologies to try to control information. Ironically for cyber-utopians, the electronic trails created by social networks like Twitter and Facebook sometimes make the job of the secret police easier.

After its initial embarrassment by Twitter in 2009, the Iranian government was able to suppress the country’s “green” movement in 2010. Similarly, while the “great firewall of China” is far from perfect, the government has managed thus far to cope, even as the Internet has burgeoned in the country.

In other words, some aspects of the information revolution help the small, but some help the already large and powerful. Size still matters. While a hacker and a government can both create information and exploit the Internet, it matters for many purposes that large governments can deploy tens of thousands of trained people and have access to vast computing power to crack codes or intrude into other organizations.

Likewise, while it is now cheap to disseminate existing information, the collection and production of new information often requires major investment, and, in many competitive situations, new information matters most. Intelligence collection is a good example, and the elaborate Stuxnet worm that disabled Iranian nuclear centrifuges seems to have been a government creation.

Governments and large states still have more resources than information-empowered private actors, but the stage on which they play is more crowded. How will the ensuing drama unfold? Who will win, and who will lose?

It will take decades, not a single season, to answer such questions. As events in Egypt and elsewhere have shown, we are only just beginning to comprehend the effects of the information revolution on power in this century.

Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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