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This research topic will be undertaken by the makrolab team and one of the resident researchers Riemens P. (ml_crew2) during March and April 2000.
Cryptogeography. The Political Economy of Space in the Age of Intelligent Machines
Jean Christophe Rufin commanded
quite some attention at the beginning of this decade with a book on the
world’s ‘new white spots’. He was refering to countries like Mozambique,
Campuchea, former Soviet Republics, etc. where the State apparatus had
imploded and where the effective control over the teritorry was exercised
by violent groups without clear political motives or even
Seemingly following Rufin’s lead, Robert Kaplan undertook ‘voyages of discovery’ to these really existing grey zones effectively in the process of falling of the map. His travels, sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly, first took him to the ‘Third World’, and then to the new heartlands of the North American super-power. The picture he brought back was the same everywhere: a landscape of no-go areas, deftly summed up by Tony Blair MP in a recent speech to the press as “No Pictures, No News”.
Despite the diverseness of location and circumstances, all these areas have one thing in common: they are shutting down on us, becoming inaccessible, impervious to our observation, and rapidly receding from our perception (save in a sensationalist manner). Those who are in command abhor scrutiny and will do all they can to convey an impression of utter chaos and anarchy in their domain. “Ungovernable Chaotic Entities” (entités chaotiques ingouvernables’ -ECIs) is the term Oswaldo de Rivero coined for them in Le Monde Diplomatique (April 1999). ‘Ungovernability’ of course refers to our ideas in the matter, since such ECIs are characterised both by a, albeit violent, form of governance and by the existence of an - usually thriving - economy, however distorted.
Probably the best approach to the current ‘devolution’ (a fairly terminal one) of increasingly large tracks of real space may come from more recent theories in the political sciences which try to come to grips with the changing nature of processes of decision-making and control under the influence of the (so-called) liberalisation and deregulation of the economy. These processes are affecting both governments and corporations, and they reach far beyond the usual cliches about ‘shrinking government’, ‘the end of the Nation-State’, not to speak of the latest hype, the ‘New Economy’. Saskia Sassen has shown that decision-making is shifting to ‘new loci of power’, which are by no means less powerfull than the old ones, rather the contrary. These shifts can probably be best explained in terms of the ‘natural’ tendency of actors to externalise costs and internalise benefits, a process exacerbated at all levels of the ‘global’ economy, as exemplified for instance in the eulogy of competition. The crisis of the welfare state might then be a relatively inocuous symptom of a phenomenon in which ECIs are not a metastase at the extremes, but the inherent, universal and inescapable conclusion.
Thus, contrary to the widespread opinion that such developments represent aberant, and abhorent, outgrowth of a world-system in rapid transition, and a (temporary?) reversal to primitive barbary, I would contend that ECIs are the manifestation of an infra-modern form of political and economic dispensation that far from being limited in scope and extention, may very well become our common fate in a not too distant future.
This evolution in ‘real’ space has now for some years been reduplicated at the level of what has become our ever-expanding second social realm: that of ‘Cyberspace’ - William Gibson’s famous vocable of 1986. This domain ruled by the electronic telecommunication networks has, according to Manuel Castells, now transformed our lives and societies to the extent of constituting a world sui generis which he calls our “real virtuality”. It is in this realm that globalisation - economic, but also political, and cultural - takes its clearest and most unalloyed appearance.
Eight years ago already, Saskia Sassen shed light, but did not resolve, the paradox of those quintessentially placeless and footlose electronic network structures consolidating the concentration of economic activities and decision-making in a selected few traditional locales such as the “Global Cities”. Conversely, she has also emphasised that the crucial data- and information transfer and the modalities of decision- making and control, have been even further screened of and holed up thanks to massive use of information and communication technology (ICT). So there also, observation and intervention have been made more difficult than ever: the real virtuality too is increasingly a patchwork of grey zones and white spots.
And thus we are faced with developments
in real and in virtual space that are running parallel, but are also very
much intertwined. They have an immediate, and yet not easily defined, or
even discerned, influence on society and the agencement of physical space.
Mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion are at work in both realms. In the
realm of the ‘real’, these are well-known and fiercely debated. in
that of the ‘virtual’, observers (and critics) of the ‘Information society’
are noting with concern a growing rift at all levels between ‘information-haves’
and ‘information have-nots’, even though it is hard to seize up precisely
where this new form of inequality resides and what it amounts to. Differentiation
processes are of course more concrete (and brutal) in real space: from
the sub-Saharan wholesale disaster zone to the rust-belts of ‘second wave’
bankrupt industrial areas, the desolation is for all to see. At the
same time, new hotbeds of power and wealth have come up. Alongside the
well-known ‘Global Cities’ these include specific regions or areas (sometimes
hi-tech enclaves in an ocean of misery, as in Nigeria or Congo/Zaire),
and small islands or other miniature states that have become new players
in a geo-political game where the stakes are as high as the mechanisms
Post-modern political theories will provide a good headstart in studying rearangements taking shape in physical space, aka ‘the real world’, but they are only partially appropriate in the description and analysis of developments in ‘cyberspace’. While monitoring issues that were recurring over the past ten years, I have come to the conclusion that the compelling ‘idées fortes’ increasingly crystallise around the concept of traceability (of actors, places, routes, and usages) and are basically underwritten by one single and unique phenomenon: cryptography. I hasten however to add that this is an hypothesis. Yet I have become convinced that the mere possibility to render the data flow completely impenetrable by making use of strong encryption (‘strong crypto’, in specialists parlance) will completely alter the nature of information (exchange) as we know it. ‘Strong crypto’ embodies in an awovedly limited way, yet in a world so much dependent upon ICT, an essential one, the will to power that lays at the core of and cannot be exsised from the social convenant. Since strong crypto tends nowadays to escape the traditional establishments of power, or, within the same, tends to be in the hands of structures that have gone ‘out of control’ to a very large extent (eg. the intelligence services), the very notion of hermetic encryption quite simply signifies the end of the “Order of the Discourse” (Michel Foulcault) that has been ours since the days of Enlightment and the French Revolution.
It is now more ten years ago that the American science fiction writer Bruce Sterling started to prophecise about these developments and elaborated on them in a fictional, but nonetheless very challenging manner (cf especially “Islands in the Net” 1989). His collegue, ‘cyberpunk’ author Neal Stephenson provided further reflections about the socio-political consequences of the radical embrace of technology within a ‘new economy’ running wild (“Snowcrash” 1992, “Diamond Age”, 1995), before finally coming to terms with the political economy of a dispensation governed by cryptography (“Cryptonomicon” 1998). It is without reserve or reluctance that I attest that these books of fiction were one of my principal sources of inspiration in undertaking this research.
And this possibly (for an academic) unsettling admitance brings me finally to the methodology I intend to use in conducting this research. By necessity, it will be unorthodox in comparison with the standrad procedures of the social sciences. But then, this is an unorthodox subject, which, for various reasons, has not been delved into by mainstream academic enquiry. It has however, been extensively discussed already in fora which, again for a number of reasons, are falling outside, or rather, beyond, the purview of, at least, Dutch universities. Accessing a vast array of (re)sources (and this in no way does exclude established academic works) is the only way to ferret out knowledge in an elusive and extremely fast paced field at the frontier of current developments in our society. By the same token, forecast will be very difficult, and I have therefore refrained, for the time being, to formulate scenarios for instance.
What predominate this endeavour,
however, is the fascination for the interplay, mutual dependence, and in
the deep communinality of what has been termed in an often mistaken opposition,
the ‘virtual’, and ‘the real’. To me, that interface is what human geography
in an age of intelligent machines and their attenant unstable media is
A very short bibliography:
(‘Hardwired’ - on paper):
Manuel Castells: The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture: 'The Rise of the Network Society' (vol 1); The Power of Identity' (vol 2); ' End of Millennium' (vol 3). Malden (MA) & Oxford: Blackwell, 1996-98.
Robert Kaplan: “The Coming Anarchy”, Atlantic Monthly, April 1994. On-line archives: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/foreign/anarchy.htm "Travels into America's Future", Atlantic Monthly, July 1998 (part 1); August 1998 (part 2). On-line archives: http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/98jul/future.htm http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/98aug/future.htm
Jansen & Janssen (action-research collective) Luisterrijk: een gids over afluisteren (An introduction to eavesdroping & wiretaping). Amsterdam: Papieren Tijger, 1999. On-line uitgave: (http://www.xs4all.nl/~respub/afluisteren)
Andrew Leyshon & Nigel Thrift : Money/Space, The Geography of Monetary Transformation. London: Routledge,1996.
Armand Mattelart: L’invention de la communication. Paris: La Découverte, 1997.
Jean-Christophe Rufin: L’Empire et les nouveaux barbares. Paris: Lattes, 1991.
Saskia Sassen: The Global City,
New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton: Princeton U.P. 1991 Losing Control?
Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization New York: Columbia U.P. 1996. “The
Topoi of E-Space” , Nettime mailing lijst, On-line archives: http://www.nettime.org/nettime.w3archives/199610/msg00086
Paul Virilio: L'insecurité du territoire.
Paris: Galilée, 1993, herziene herdruk van: Essai sur l’insecurité du territoire,
Paris: Stock, 1976. L'espace critique. Paris: Bourgeois, 1993.
(‘On-Line resources’ -
mailing lists & websites on the Internet):
Martin Dodge (University College, London) strated up & maintains the very noteworthy ‘cybergeography’ site: http://www.cybergeography.org
‘net.politics’, ‘net.culture’, and even ‘net.art’ lists:
'Cybersociety' : http://www.unn.ac.uk/cybersociety
(site in opbouw, mailing-lijst sinds juli 1999)
Day-to-day ‘cyberspace newsfare’:
More news for nerd, hackers and assorted and techies:
Specific lists & sites on cryptography, privacy, and ‘digital freedoms’/’cyberrights’ :
Cryptogram : http://www.counterpane.com
Patrice Riemens (memorandum of clarification
to an application for a research stipendium of the (Provincial) Society
of Sciences of Holland (1752) 20 December 1999.