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date: 24 February 2018

Power and Space in Electronic Communications

Summary and Keywords

Electronic communications refer to forms of communication where ideas and information are embedded in spatially mobile electronic signals. These include the internet, telephony, television, and radio. Electronic communications are linked to state power in a complex and, at times, contradictory manner. More specifically, a tension exists between divergent pressures toward constructing electronic communication spaces as spaces of state power, as spaces of escape, and as spaces for contesting state power. On the one hand, states often invest in infrastructure and empower regulatory institutions as they seek to intensify their presence within national territory, for example, or project their influence beyond territorial borders. The widespread use of electronic communication technologies to facilitate governmental power is especially evident in the realm of cyberwarfare. E-government platforms have also been created to foster interaction with the state through electronic means. On the other hand, communication systems thrive through the idealization (and, ideally, the regulatory construction) of a space without borders, whereby individuals might bypass, or even actively work to subvert, state authority. Just as the internet has been seen as a means for state power to monitor the everyday lives and subjectivities of the citizenry, it has also been employed as a tool for democratization. Various institutions have emerged to govern specific electronic communication networks, including those that are focused on reproducing the power of individual states, those that operate in the realm of intergovernmental organizations, those that devolve power to actors in local government, and those that empower corporations or civil society.

Keywords: electronic communications, internet, state power, cyberwarfare, e-government, democratization, electronic communication networks, intergovernmental organizations, civil society, electronic communication spaces


The relationship between communications and state power has long been complex and, at times, contradictory. On the one hand, states frequently invest in infrastructure and empower regulatory institutions in an effort to facilitate communication. Through improved communication systems, states attempt to intensify their presence within national territory, foster economic development, increase feelings of citizenship, and project their influence beyond territorial borders. On the other hand, communication systems thrive through the idealization (and, ideally, the regulatory construction) of a space without borders, wherein ideas and information can freely flow. Even as states utilize communication systems to secure their borders and enrich their territory, these very systems suggest new means for making connections across borders and within state territories, where individuals might bypass, or even actively work to subvert, state authority.

In this essay, we discuss how this tension prevails in the arena of electronic communications. Following two brief sections in which we define electronic communications and outline the debate surrounding the relationship between state power and electronic communications, we turn to a discussion of the institutions that have emerged to govern specific electronic communication networks. These institutions range from those that are dedicated to reproducing the power of individual states to others that operate in the realm of intergovernmental organizations, and from those that devolve power to actors in local government to others that empower corporations or civil society. This section is followed by a discussion of some of the specific ways in which states use electronic communications networks to further their goals, and how citizens use those same networks to subvert them, through institutions as diverse as e-government and cyberwarfare.

Defining Electronic Communications

Communication encompasses all activities associated with the movement (or transmission and reception) of ideas and information. Thus it is somewhat analogous to transportation – the movement of objects – although there are significant differences as well (for instance, transportation infrastructure is almost always built and maintained by the state whereas communication infrastructure frequently is constructed by public–private partnerships, parastatal corporations, or the private sector). Communication occurs in numerous forms and is effected through numerous media. Although speech is typically pointed to as the classic communication act, one may communicate through numerous other media, including “body language,” visual art, written texts, music, or material artifacts that transmit a meaning. Furthermore, the movement of ideas and information can be through time as well as space. While a conversation moves ideas and information across space, from one person to another, a longforgotten diary that one finds in a corner of one’s home communicates meaning across time. Indeed, in this example the diary obtains its meaning in large part due to its relative immobility across space.

In this chapter we restrict our focus to electronic communications: forms of communication where ideas and information are contained within spatially mobile electronic signals. This definition excludes cases where electronics are employed but the communication itself is not contained in an electronic signal (e.g. when electricity is used to power the presses of a newspaper). It also excludes information transmitted by devices like compact discs (CDs) or digital versatile discs (DVDs). In these instances, although the information is embedded electronically, the actual transmission of the information (i.e. the communication) is performed manually.

Although the internet is perhaps the arena of electronic communication that attracts the most attention, other key electronic communication media include telephony (in which signals may be transmitted via landlines, networks of land-based towers, or satellite signals), television (in which signals may be transmitted via radio waves, cables, or satellite signals), and radio. Increasingly these distinctions are becoming blurred as, for instance, television signals are received by wireless telephones, internet connections are provided through cable television lines, and person-to-person audio communications are routed through internet connections.

Within the various forms of electronic communications, a key distinction is made between synchronous and asynchronous communication. Synchronous communication occurs in media like telephony, where the sender and recipient of information are required to be actively communicating at the same time. By contrast, asynchronous communication, such as occurs when one sends a message via an electronic mail (e-mail) system, does not require that the transmitting and receiving individuals be simultaneously engaged in communication. Researchers also make a distinction between unidirectional and interactive communication. In a unidirectional medium, like television, one party is the transmitter while the other is the receiver, while in an interactive medium, like an internet chatroom or a telephone conversation, all parties have equal capabilities to transmit and receive information. Finally, while communication is often referred to as occurring in a “network,” networks themselves display a wide array of topologies, each of which reflects (and reproduces) a specific vision of the organization of society (Adams 1998).

State Power and Electronic Communications

Given the prevalence of electronic communication technologies, not just as tools that enable one to navigate the modern world but as indicators of a certain postmodern lifestyle (e.g., when we speak of the “internet generation”), it is not surprising that a wide range of views persist regarding the relationship between electronic communications and state power. In the early years of the internet, many social critics were optimistic about the potential for this non-hierarchical medium of interactive communication to facilitate new communities. Theorists and futurists speculated that as individuals used the relative anonymity of their presence in cyberspace to connect with other individuals they would build new vectors of connection, in effect launching new, virtual social movements that might rise to rival the nation as the foundational community of modernity (Turkle 1995). Futurists predicted that new modes of electronic communication would not only transform society; they would transform space, as people’s lives would increasingly revolve around the connecting spaces of electronic pathways alongside (or, perhaps, substituting for) the place-based points of habitation that characterize the material world (Castells 1996; 1997; 1998). Furthermore, this transformation would engender a new diffusion of power, as authority would be distributed through capillary networks rather than top-down hierarchies.

More recent scholarship has stressed that the online world exists in a continual articulation with the offline world, and that the communities and identities that exist in one medium of interaction influence those in the other (Chabrán and Salina 2004; Hafner 2004). Increasingly, electronic communications media are viewed as empowering not because they offer a realm of escape nor because they provide an arena wherein one can form new identities or communities, but rather because they provide a foundation from which one can make the same kinds of connections that individuals historically have constructed offline. The true power of electronic communications media like the internet, according to these scholars, occurs when one transfers virtual connections into face-to-face interpersonal relationships. In other words, the world’s spaces of electronic communications are a medium for making connections that then can be used to effect reconfigurations of space and social power in the world beyond the computer screen or the mobile phone interface. This theme has been developed by a range of scholars looking at communities of individuals as diverse as children (Holloway and Valentine 2001) and political activist groups (McCaughey and Ayers 2003).

Still others maintain that the most significant aspect of electronic communications networks is not that they empower individuals to make new connections that could potentially be used to challenge state power, but rather that they provide new tools by which states can increase their control. When Braman (2007) likens the twenty-first century information state to the twentieth century’s welfare state, she notes that both require, and provide the tools for, the centralization of state power. In both instances, she writes, states use the powers associated with the provision of a public good to intensify social control.

Governing Electronic Communication Spaces

In other words, there is a tension between divergent pressures toward constructing electronic communication spaces as spaces of state power, as spaces of escape, and as spaces for contesting state power. This tension can be seen particularly clearly in struggles over the governance of electronic communication networks. On the one hand, providers of communication services typically seek global reach, and thus they have an incentive to construct what seems to be a world without technical or bureaucratic borders that might interfere with the free flow of information. At the same time, however, these networks typically require investors to make substantial fixed investments in the territories of specific states. Thus, even as communication is promoted through rhetorical references to the ideal of constructing a space of friction-free mobility, the actual operations of a communication systems are dependent on strong states that implement technical standards, guarantee property rights (to intellectual property, dedicated areas of electromagnetic spectra, and land- and outer space-based infrastructure), and engage in intergovernmental relations with other states to ensure global interoperability (McDowell et al. 2008b).

In other words, even as telecommunications providers rhetorically seek to transcend state power, they frequently are dependent on strong states to implement that power. This symbiotic, if contradictory, relationship between electronic communications and the state is intensified because the relationship flows in the other direction as well: Just as telecommunications providers need strong states, states need robust telecommunication infrastructures. Political economists have long recognized the crucial role of transportation and communication infrastructure in providing a means for binding the nation’s territory and fostering development (Innis 1951; 1972) and this theme has been picked up by many proponents of the role that electronic communications development can play in fostering national growth (Mansell and Steinmueller 2000; Singhal and Rogers 2001; Wilson 2004). Telecommunications policy also is often mobilized by states to further their international agendas, as when, for instance, international standards and regulatory organizations are designed so as to create conditions favorable for a specific country’s multinational corporations (Hills 2007).

Given these many intersections between telecommunications infrastructure and state power, it is not surprising that many states historically have placed the management of electronic communications networks within the domain of state-run monopolies. Conversely, when these states have chosen to adopt new economic systems based on neoliberalism, telecommunications systems have been among the first state institutions to be privatized in the hope that they would achieve new levels of economic efficiencies and spur national growth. Nor is it surprising that some of the most innovative global governance regimes, in which the power of states, corporate actors, non-governmental organizations, and intergovernmental organizations are fused together to create a stable environment for trans-border flows, have been implemented in the arenas of transportation and communications (Zacher and Sutton 1996).

The complex relationship between state power and the governance of electronic communication systems is exemplified in the history of internet governance. Despite its image as a global system of non-hierarchical connectivity, the internet’s origins were in one of the paradigmatic hierarchical institutions of state power: the military. The first precursor to the modern internet emerged in the early 1960s, when researchers funded by the United States Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) began developing a series of protocols that would allow computers to exchange information with one another, in a network known as ARPANET. As more and more of the network’s uses moved to the civilian arena, the military slowly relinquished control, culminating in the system’s transfer to the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1986 and the founding of NSFNET.

Eventually, in the 1990s, non-governmental actors (first educational institutions and later increasingly corporations) were given direct access to this network of networks, and the federal government came to see its primary role as maintaining the naming and numbering system that was necessary for one to find one’s way around the network. Thus, the role of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), first created in 1972, grew over time, eventually evolving in 1998 into the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based not-for-profit corporation that is contracted by the US Department of Commerce to perform a number of internet management functions, including assigning the managers of generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs, like .COM) and country-code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs, like .UK), authorizing new gTLDs, and establishing the system for adjudicating disputes over the right to claim a specific website address (URL) (Abbate 1999; Mueller 2002).

In short, states (and, in particular, the government of the United States) have always played a strong role in internet governance. At the same, however, the internet does not operate like a state agency. Individuals wishing to influence internet governance policy likely would not appeal to the US government (or to their own national governments with the expectation that they would appeal to the US government via an intergovernmental forum). Instead, individuals representing “civil society” are given the opportunity to participate in a complex round of deliberative meetings and document exchanges characterized by white papers, requests-for-comments, and user forums. The democratic nature of this decision-making process has been challenged, with many critics charging that it effectively cedes power to commercial interests who determine policy in the name of “civil society” (McDowell and Steinberg 2001; Mueller 2002; Paré 2003; Thierer and Crews 2003; Palfrey 2004). Nonetheless, it is clear that the global community of states has less power in the process than it would if internet governance were managed by an intergovernmental organization like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

In response, a number of national governments, particularly from countries whose economic sectors are too small to offer them significant power in the “civil society” forums, have attempted to redefine internet governance as a concern for the intergovernmental community. A key theme at the ITU’s first and second World Summits on the Information Society (WSIS, held in 2003 in Geneva and in 2005 in Tunis) was an effort by states to move internet governance into the intergovernmental arena. However, this effort was largely thwarted by the United States (McDowell et al. 2008b).

Nonetheless, state power continues to creep into internet governance, as can be seen particularly clearly in the evolution of the internet domain name system. Originally, the founders of the modern internet naming system at IANA had intended for all locations to have one of seven gTLD addresses: .COM for commercial entities, .EDU for educational institutions, .NET for networks, .INT for organizations established by international treaties, .MIL for the US military, .GOV for governmental entities within the United States, and .ORG for all other registrants. As IANA’s director Jon Postel later recalled, the parallel system of ccTLDs was established as “pretty much an afterthought […]. Most people didn’t think the country codes would be used for much” (cited in Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition 1997). Over time, various entrepreneurs received permission to manage individual ccTLDs, and some of the most creative of these entrepreneurs set their sights on countries whose ccTLDs happened to spell out words or refer to products (such as .TO for Tonga or .TV for Tuvalu).

Although IANA had an unwritten policy that if a government wanted to directly administer its ccTLD it would receive priority over all other applicants (Shaw 1997), it was only in 1999 that IANA declared, “The desires of the government of a country with regard to delegation of a ccTLD are taken very seriously. The IANA will make them a major consideration in any TLD delegation/transfer discussion” (ICANN/IANA 1999). Even then, national governments were given nothing approaching sovereignty over what could be seen as a (virtual) extension of their national space. In 2000, the role of governments became slightly more solidified, when ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee released a document that asserted that governments had a special role because they are presumed to represent the public interest of the country for which a ccTLD is allocated (ICANN 2000). This role was further clarified in subsequent years when ICANN developed a model memorandum of understanding for ccTLD administrator designation, in which governments were to have a formal role even in instances where they had elected not to become the national administrator (ICANN 2002). This growing power of state governments on the internet, symbolized by the increasingly popularity of nationally linked ccTLDs but indicated as well by the intergovernmental agenda at the WSIS, has been decried by Mueller:

By incorporating [ccTLDs] into the domain name space, Jon Postel inadvertently helped to reproduce the political geography of the ancien régime in cyberspace […]. Remarkably, these casual delegations of top-level domains were transmuted into the basis of a sovereignty claim by national governments.

(Mueller 2002:243)

This quotation implies that one must choose between one of two spatializations of the internet. In one case – the world of ccTLDs – the internet is constructed as a space that reproduces, and indeed extends, the power of national governments that divide land into stable, bounded sovereignties. In the other case, the internet is organized in a manner that is disassociated from the divisions of space that prevail “on the ground.” Under this scenario, communities of affection, be they corporate entities (signified by the .COM gTLD) or civil society organizations (signified by .ORG), construct new virtual spaces wherein they produce and reaffirm their fundamentally non-territorial identity. The very recent history of the internet suggests, however, that a third route is possible. Since the 1960s, the list of seven original gTLDs has expanded to 21 and among the two newest gTLDs are .ASIA (which is for the “Pan-Asia and Asia Pacific community”) and .CAT (which is for the “Catalan linguistic and cultural community”) (IANA no date). These two gTLDs break new ground by suggesting a division of the internet that is based neither on reproducing state power nor on constructing new communities that transcend space (McDowell et al. 2008a). Instead, in this instance the internet, like countless communications technologies before it, plays a complicated role as it provides a means for individuals to simultaneously challenge, ignore, and reproduce the spatial division of the world that is normally associated with the modern state system.

Internet Usage: For the State, by the State, against the State

There is a long history of states using communication technologies to extend practical control over space and thereby operationalize their power. The development of the telegraph and, by extension, undersea cables simultaneously allowed the advancement and coordination of European military and colonial outposts and fostered greater coordination among economic actors. This coordination, when combined with the military power enabled by communications, played a large role in facilitating the core region’s exploitation of peripheral zones (Hugill 1999). A similar logic undergirded the development and regulation of radio and television technologies. There too, innovations that frequently were driven by the state in the service of short-term military goals had the secondary benefit of allowing national economic actors to extend their reach and, in the process, reproduce hegemony (Horwitz 1989).

Just as state intervention in the development and regulation of electronic communications was put in the service of global hegemony, it also has frequently served the ends of domestic power interests through facilitating certain kinds of economic transactions. For instance, in the United States the development of the Federal Communications Commission during the New Deal era reflected a desire to enhance economic competition while simultaneously providing a regulatory landscape that would maintain technical standards for operations in areas that were becoming national markets. Early on, the concept of a natural monopoly dominated the regulation of telecommunications companies and infrastructure. Regulatory agencies supported these ideas in the United States until the mid-1970s, when the political right began calling for a more competitive regulatory environment as part of a general national (and global) trend toward neoliberal macroeconomic policy. The goal of opening up the telecommunications market to new entrants and, by extension, new services was central to the deregulatory effort and was exemplified in the United States by the breakup of American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) in 1984 and, in many other countries, by the privatization of state-owned telephony assets (Warf 2003). Similar deregulatory impetuses have occurred in arenas such as cable television, radio, and broadcast television, changing the relationship between the state and providers of telecommunications infrastructure and services. For developed economies, deregulation has produced comparative advantages, as oligopolies use their newfound commercial strength to dominate the global telecommunications market and bring profit (and political and economic power) to the states in which they are headquartered.

Today, military and economic power is coordinated through control of telecommunications infrastructure that is unevenly distributed at best, despite the diffusion of technology (Warf 2001; Chakraborty and Bosman 2005; Crang et al. 2006). Satellite technologies, now in reach of regional powers such as China, India, Israel, and Turkey, have been used for military intelligence for several decades. However, state use of satellites is not limited to espionage. Satellite technologies and remote sensing imagery increasingly are being used by states to enable private and public actors to exploit their national territorial resource bases more efficiently. Satellites are also vital for fostering the telecommunication connections that enable global flows of civilian data. Indeed, in the past twenty years, satellites have joined the long list of communications technologies whose primary usage has shifted from military to commercial applications, and this has been accompanied by their global diffusion. At the same time, however, even as these technologies spread around the world, they represent embedded power relations, worked out through decades of state sponsorship and technological coordination, primarily around military objectives, so that the spread of satellite technologies replicates a familiar geopolitics of technology centered on core countries (Warf 2007).

As was noted earlier, a similar reproduction of hegemony occurred with the growth of the internet, as it devolved from the military to the civilian sector and from the United States to the world at large. The shift of control over the internet, from the military to state-funded civilian institutions to the private sector, has fostered shifts in power that were unforeseen by the technology’s original developers. The diffusion of the technology from the military to the research arms of universities led to the development of new applications that supported wider state interests in the exchange of knowledge and information management, as well as commercial possibilities that provided yet another means for the United States to reproduce its dominant position in the world economy.

The United States is hardly alone in approaching the internet as a potential vehicle for economic development. Neoliberal policy advocates around the world frequently make the argument that the internet and related technologies and applications may bring about more open societies, thus increasing transparency in state–economy interactions and enabling more efficient distributions of foreign aid (Ciborra and Navarra 2005). Others have asserted that information technologies will foster new forms of community participation, thereby spurring new arenas of economic activity (Sealy 2003).

While there is a general consensus that the diffusion of internet connectivity and access is key for fostering economic development, differences in technological capabilities (e.g. electric grids and telecommunications infrastructure), as well as differences in governments’ views toward the relative freedom of information that widespread internet connectivity engenders, have resulted in a broad range of approaches around the world as states seek to improve internet access (Ogunsola and Okusaga 2006).

In South Korea, for instance, a combination of government and free market approaches has resulted in a very high level of investment of public funds and political capital to foster a highly competitive, deregulated market for internet services. These efforts have made South Korea one of the world’s most connected countries and a leader in fostering forms of e-commerce (Lee et al. 2003; Choudrie and Lee 2004).

In the Arab world as well, a number of leaders, such as King Abdullah II of Jordan, have been vocal proponents of increasing internet access and usage. In addition to hoping that increased access and usage will spur economic development, leaders of these countries specifically hope that the promotion of new communication technologies will contribute to the modernization of regional cities such as Cairo and Dubai so that they can retain their status as regional hubs for commerce and culture. At the same time, however, many governments in the region (such as those of Saudi Arabia and non-Arab Iran) actively seek to monitor and control information flows. Thus, even as governments in the region have expended funds and effort to modernize telecommunications infrastructure in the belief that enhanced internet connectivity is an investment in the future, many have sought to limit the information flows that this increased connectivity would engender (Abdulla 2007).

E-Government and the Notion of E-Governmentality

With expanding access to internet services, states and supranational institutions have eagerly greeted the creation of e-government platforms aimed at allowing interaction with the state through electronic means. Multiple impetuses for e-government development and adoption exist. Conservatives typically tout the budgetary benefits of e-government, as well as noting its compatibility with a general ideological predilection toward shrinking the number of government employees. Through automation, they assert, back-office functions such as information provision and low-end form processing can be eliminated or privatized, leading to a gain in efficiencies and, in some cases, a diminution in the power of public-sector trade unions. Liberals note that e-government can be a vehicle that fosters more responsive government as information technologies may be used to facilitate public participation in decision making (Papacharissi 2002). In practice, however, consultative or participatory models of interaction are rarely integrated into e-government initiatives (Chadwick and May 2003), and in the European Union (EU) e-government is being implemented less to facilitate public participation than to support broader policy goals associated with the agenda of EU integration (Nixon 2007).

Because e-government reframes the relationship between the citizen and the state, establishing a seemingly direct path by which the state and its inscriptions of power enter into the everyday lives of its citizens, Allen (2003), after Foucault, writes of a new era of e-governmentality, wherein citizens use e-government to incorporate the state into their lives, normalizing it and actively seeking to reproduce this form of interaction. The diffusion of internet technologies facilitates citizen arguments for more services online, and over time increased expectations of government accessibility in digital environments become the norm, which, in turn, facilitates the expansion of new digital services in an ever expanding number of government functions. Academics participate in the phenomenon through scholarship that rates the relative e-government capabilities of nation-states, thus diffusing and reinforcing the impression that a nation-state must be online (see West 2008, for example). News coverage of a high or low ranking serves to ratify e-government success or cause the citizenry to critique the online presence of its own government. Whether or not the majority of the populace has an interest in interacting with the state online is irrelevant. E-governance is promulgated as inevitability as the state advances to assume its proper role in the modern world.

Democratization and the Internet

Just as the internet has been heralded (or feared) as a means for state power to filter into the everyday lives and subjectivities of the citizenry, others have turned to the internet as a tool for challenging autocratic rule and facilitating the diffusion of democratic forms of governance, even though it is far from certain that the increased use of communications technologies will lead toward greater openness and engagement with alternative perspectives (Sunstein 2007). Critics note that the position that advances in communications technology necessarily beget democracy or enhance nascent democratic practices is technologically determinist and that it fails to account for the social context within which technologies are adopted. In their comparative study of nine Asian states, Kluver and Banerjee (2005) discuss how China’s efforts to censor and track internet usage contradict the techno-optimist view of internet technologies as truly unfettered and free of supervision or surveillance, despite the distributed nature of the networks and online news providers (see also Deibert 2002).

One factor often overlooked by the techno-optimists is the ease with which internet technologies can be used to foster and legitimize authoritarian regimes. As Boas points out:

Implementing government services online […] can increase efficiency and boost public satisfaction with the regime. If it is possible for authoritarian rulers to have the best of both worlds – reaping the benefits of Internet diffusion while staving off any potentially destabilizing political effects – they will certainly want to do so.

(Boas 2006:362)

Control over the internet is not perfect, as long as there are individuals willing to risk severe punishment in order to put forth a political message or access content prohibited by the state. In fact, perfect control would be problematic for states such as China and Saudi Arabia that have invested in internet infrastructure for economic development. In both China and Saudi Arabia, however, the state has achieved effective control through institutionalizing norms that large swaths of the public either support or accede to under pressure. This includes tacit support for Saudi filtering of content deemed pornographic or China’s selective crackdowns on cyber-dissidents that send a clear message as to the risks to individuals and firms who might violate state policies (Boas 2006).

In short, several studies of uses of the internet by governmental entities have demonstrated that the optimism of e-government supporters for the technology’s democratic potential ignores social and political contexts. Indeed, although the examples discussed here have focused on relatively oppressive regimes, internet technologies to restrict or monitor usage are not restricted to authoritarian states, and can be used for a range of purposes by ostensibly democratic governments as well. This widespread use of electronic communication technologies to facilitate governmental power is especially evident in the realm of cyberwarfare, which is discussed in the final section of this essay.

Cyberwarfare and the Noosphere

The idea that the internet could be a terrain for military contestation was first put forth by Arquilla and Ronfeldt (1999), invoking Catholic theologian Teilhard de Chardin’s early twentieth-century concept of the noosphere, a universe of connections and communications through which individuals would increasingly come to a global consciousness. For Arquilla and Ronfeldt, the noosphere was emerging as a terrain of ideas and images that state interests (in this case, the United States) must make sure to win, in order to rebut images put forth by competitors. The practices recommended form the basis of a “noopolitik […] an approach to statecraft, to be undertaken as much by nonstate as by state actors, that emphasizes the role of informational soft power in expressing ideas, values, norms, and ethics through all manner of media” (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1999:26).

Arquilla and Ronfeldt advise the state to engage global opinion via information networks, so as to put forth a coherent view of state policies and goals while simultaneously helping to construct and diffuse the network to allow more voices to participate in the activities of the noosphere, thus facilitating a semblance of dialogue. In the policy arena, Nye (2004) has argued for the United States to invest in agencies constitutive of soft power, which would include a broad use of telecommunications media.

Soft power, however, is not the sole province of states. Specific communication technologies often favor implementation by oppositional social movements that may use these technologies at the expense of the state or other configurations of power that are not as responsive to technological changes. Deibert (1997) outlines this idea in his idea of media as environments, wherein various actors either thrive in a particular media environment or fail to adapt and lose power and influence, or ultimately disappear. Thus, the environment can “‘favor’ the interests of some social forces and ideas over others” (Deibert 1997:30). States seeking to gain some semblance of voice in the international system have deployed information and communication technologies (ICTs) to varying levels of success (Brunn and Cottle 1997; Chadwick 2001) as states and various apparatuses prove capable of adapting to the new communications environment. Others have argued that technologies of the internet require a rethinking of the geopolitical system and the Westphalian state system itself, reflecting a radically changed communications environment (Brunn 1998).

Non-state actors and social movements have proven adept at marshalling communication technologies in order to facilitate resistance to states and international organizations (Rahimi 2003; van de Donk et al. 2004). Groups articulating regional autonomy and outright independence seem adept at using internet technologies to work for a greater share of a country’s resources, as is revealed in the examples of nationalist/separatist movements in Chiapas (Froehling 1997), East Timor (Cardoso and Neto 2004), and the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka (Tekwani 2003). In all three cases, the movements in question combined the redirection of information and power flows with a commitment to the reassembling of identity at scales not congruent with nation-state boundaries. In one sense, there is nothing new about separatist groups using communication media to support their goals; consider, for instance, the extensive use of pamphleteering in the eighteenth century by separatists in what was to become the United States. Now, however, the barriers that might prevent one from contributing to such media, such as lack of basic HTML programming skills, access to an internet service provider, or possession of a computer or internet-enabled mobile telephone, are fairly low for increasing numbers of people.

While some social movements have used electronic communications networks in their efforts to seize state power, other groups that do not seek state power still use it to affirm community and, in the process, establish alternative political ideals. This use of the internet is particularly apparent among diasporic groups. For instance, Bastian’s (1999) study of the Nigerian online community Naijanet has revealed how Nigerian expatriates’ use of the internet to connect to other Nigerians is an extension of Nigerian communities’ use of other, older forms of media such as public access television. Naijanet’s content ranges from critical assessments of Nigerian politicians to unconcealed boosterism promoting economic and tourism opportunities. Adams and Ghose’s (2003) exploration of multiple uses of the internet by the Indian diaspora underscores the linking function of this technology. Through a multifaceted process of connecting virtual places and maintaining cultural ties, the Indian diaspora uses electronic communications to construct what the authors term “bridgespace.” Tynes’s (2007) study of Sierra Leone’s diaspora expands on these findings, revealing how the “virtual nation” established by Sierra Leonean emigrants can be used to generate transformative social capital.

Situated as they are in a complex location vis-à-vis the “home” country, diasporic communities use the dispersed network of the internet to reproduce state-based national identities, even as they challenge them. Thus, for instance, expatriates from the People’s Republic of China participate in virtual communities wherein electronic communication technologies are used both to resist the dominant nationalist discourses of the PRC and to foster an imaginary of China as a resisting superpower that can challenge the hegemony of the United States (Chan 2005; 2006).

Organized political parties that seek to rework nation-state boundaries also have heightened access and power online. Nationalist movements use the full range of the media to highlight goals, invoking layers of symbolism to potentially put forth a rich, multilayered, multimedia view of the nation and its territorial aspirations (Jackson and Purcell 1997) and using connections over electronic space to put forth a vision of an imagined community that can go on to serve as the basis for claims to nationhood (Anderson 1991). In the world of electronic communications, the nature of this “imagined community” is itself open for contestation. For instance, although political parties and social movements are not usually termed communities in the material world, some of the most successful movements online have promoted a sense of belonging and shared experience among members of the online community that rivals that traditionally felt by members of a nation (Bakker 2001). In instances when the feelings of affinity and commitment generated by these online communities have been transferred into offline political action, the world has seen new political forces emerge, and these may have far-reaching ramifications for the future of state power and global politics (Small 2008; Greengard 2009).

Thus, while the rise of electronic communications technologies, infrastructures, and networks have not, in and of themselves, challenged the base of the state as the foundational actor on the world stage, these technologies constitute one component of the environment within which states are reworking the basis of their existence. Even as communications networks provide a number of means for the state to exert its authority in economic competition and civil society, these same networks provide a means for alternative political formations to assert their presence.


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