Rise of the cybernation

In 1993, I wrote a paper with two colleagues, outlining how East would meet West in Cyberspace. We suggested that the internet would allow people to link up in new ways, to mobilise their combined power from grass roots upwards, and sometimes be able to put great pressure on geographic governments. We didn’t put a time-scale on it, but later we did, and suggested that 2005 would be the time when people discovered the net politically. I guess we could argue that wasn’t far off – people really only started using the net in elections around then. But that wasn’t the real story of what we were saying. But only slightly later, people started using the net to coordinate demonstrations, and the adventures in the Middle East now are a demonstration of a slightly more advanced use. So, we were only a couple of years early, and people are starting to wake up to the political power that the web offers. Geographic government has already shown that its first reaction is self-defence (not of its citizens, but of its own institution), to try to prevent people from exerting their will, to shut off communication by disabling the net as far as it can. And while the net still relies on 20th century telecomms networks and 20th century web architectures, government can switch it off at the points in enters the country.

I later wrote a follow-on paper, from Cyberspace to Chaos and Back, which argued that cyberspace is not dependent on particular networks, but is essentially impossible to limit or censor. I still hold by that. Cyberspace is much greater that the world wide web, mobile phone networks, or even the whole internet combined with all the world’s telecomms networks. Cyberspace is a notional mathematical place, infinite in scope and dimensionality, that exists only virtually, but parts of it can be manifested physically in many ways, and has very different properties from physical space. Governments can only ever cut some of the links to some of the parts of it. They can never disable it in principle. Although physical networks will always be limited to some degree, cyberspace isn’t. And it is cyberspace that really lends itself to politics. The reason people use mobile text messages or emails or Facebook is because those are the tools they have available to them. They are merely scratching the surface of what is possible. As better political tools become available, they will use them too, though history already shows it takes a few years for the penny to drop. Cyberspace will lend itself well to politics, but we can only begin to speculate the magnitude of effects or the mechanisms that will be used. Anyway, we are still only in 2011 and the tools available now or in the near future are much easier to deal with conceptually, so I will stick with a few easy bits. Suffice it to say that even if there are limitations in any particular network type, with an infinite domain, there is always another way in which cyberspace can survive and be used, just around the corner.

Some governments are quite effective at preventing most of their people from accessing the web, but their are usually holes in their systems, even if they do require good IT skills to exploit them – e.g. anonymity servers, strong encryption or disguising information in seemingly innocent pictures. For most people, access to the net for political campaigning in such regions is still at the mercy of their geographic government, but it isn’t over yet by a long way. Technology stands still for no-one. Social web tools are developing extremely quickly now, and this year will almost certainly turn out to be an inflection point in the political use of the web, where ordinary people realise that it isn’t just a minor tool to be used to sway opinions during elections, or to help coordinate demonstrations, but can actually allow them to make demands and force leaders to listen. As these tools develop, doubtless some governments will learn in the background how to turn off networks more effectively. But resistance is futile. Cyberspace ultimately doesn’t need the web, the internet, or mobile phone networks. Controlling these only buys a little more time, it can’t stop the slide towards political use of cyberspace.

If the networks are controlled, and even the latest generation internet-based social networking tools can’t get through, then people will try to bypass them. Two developments at least in the next few years will allow very effective social networking without even going near the net. One is the use of wireless memory sticks, the other digital jewellery, essentially the same thing but even smaller. Today, memory sticks store lots of data but most can only communicate via USB ports. Many of us use radio dongles to access wireless or mobile nets, and these are often about the same size or slightly bigger.  Obviously memory sticks and wireless dongles could be combined in the same stick, with addition of a little processing and even sensing technology. We will then have high capacity memory sticks that can communicate well with one another, as well as to many other devices. Of course, devices such as laptops have been able to set up networks directly with other machines for some years, but they are not so easy to hide. Mobile phones were once expected to fill the gap too, with bluetooth and ad-hoc networks, but direct web access and cheap mobile comms has stifled innovation in direct device to device comms, so the niche remains largely empty, certainly for small devices that can easily be hidden.

Alternatively, ultrasound or optical communication could also be used to let sticks talk to each other, though short range radio is certainly the most likely to be implemented in the next few years. Without looking at all the various short range radio standards already being developed, what they have in common is that short range radio systems (a few metres or less) generally allow high data rates with low power consumption, but allow only very small cells because the air absorbs the signals they use very quickly and they are low power anyway. The reuse of radio spectrum in each cell increases overall bandwidth and capacity enormously, and that is the primary advantage driving their development, but the rapid absorption of the signals is extremely valuable too in making it difficult to intercept the signals from any distance. It is this factor that will make them an ideal platform on which to build a bypass to officially controlled networks. Unless there is a receiver within the very short range, any communication between the sticks would be hidden. Memory sticks are also generally anonymous – they don’t indicate who it is that owns them. Wireless memory sticks would make an ideal starting point for a network that can be used to bypass officially monitored nets, whatever the motivation, be it criminal or political activity, but a memory stick network also presents an alternative platform for perfectly ordinary everyday networking. A memory stick network could be formed out of short-distance and short-lived links between memory sticks owned by total strangers passing by in the street, a highly dynamic ad-hoc network. Information could progress across a wide area via such random organic connections, albeit much slower than with a conventional end to end network. Connections across long distances would sometimes only be possible via the physical movement of the devices or the use of special links.

In this approach, political messages or any other information would jump from one stick to another and then on to another, hopping organically from one place to another, quickly spanning a whole country with an ad-hoc network. The network would have a relatively long transmission time end to end unless density was high or if it used the main networks for long hauls, so is not suited to real-time comms.  A bypass network avoiding main network use would have lots of gaps in it, but this may well be an acceptable trade-off to gain secrecy for political activities.

Security and authentication could be added to such networks by any group, making sure the right protocols are used, otherwise barring sticks from the communication and making infiltration harder. It is relatively easy to design such a network with such built-in security, and will get easier as technology progresses to digital jewellery. People then may wear several pieces of electronic gadgetry, and this enables very sophisticated security approaches, with an infinite number of potential combinations of chips, pins, gestures, passwords, biometrics and so on. Large social groups could thus coordinate activities away from the eyes and ears of the authorities or rival groups. At the ordinary social networking level, this functionality may develop out of natural desire for people to want to communicate with others of similar interest, fellow club members, or even just others on their friends lists. Political uses may not even be on the design goals for the manufacturers. Nevertheless, political uses would quickly be found by users. This could be highly scalable, extending to political groups that could reach billions (billions of people care about the environment for example).

Clearly, such networks could be used in revolutions where existing government is trying to stifle opposition by denying communications. Of course, they may try to limit imports of such tiny devices, but their size might make this impossible, and detection could be made difficult too. It could be a valuable tool for democracy, but it could equally well be used by groups that intend harm, so it will not all be good news.

At some point, network based groups could become as large as nations, and perhaps some will demand representation on international political committees. The term cybernations has often been used to describe this potential, but the theorising will likely soon become reality. It is also obvious that groups could cross geographic boundaries. Even though most political parties only exist in single countries, their core ideologies are often held in common with parties in other countries. So we ought to expect that as the web becomes an increasingly political platform, that international parties would rise and grow on the web. Some of those may require some degree of secrecy, and memory stick networks would make a good platform.

The skills to wield power on the net will not be the same as those in current politics. Just as the soap box, the newspaper, radio, TV, and lately the web have changed politics (and indeed still are), memory stick and digital jewellery nets will do so in the further future.

Cybernations may use any and all of the tools available, and can be as anonymous as required. If groups are large, but their membership can act anonymously, that will make them dangerous, because they may be more willing to wield their power without fear of reprisal. Large numbers of people command large resources, spending power and influence, and if they are networked effectively, then their actions can be coordinated and orchestrated. Infiltration at human level is always possible of course, regardless of any technology, but self-organisation tools can be used that allow general principles and guidelines to be followed in small groups without everyone in the whole cybernation knowing what is happening in any local detail. This approach is already used in terrorist groups to good effect, and electronic networking will only make it more effective.

Not all cybernations require secrecy, and some need secrecy for only some parts of operations. If the cybernation can access global networks freely most of the time, then it can openly wield economic weapons such as boycotts effectively. Being able to pick on a large company if they ‘misbehave’, damaging their market almost immediately, would be a powerful weapon, especially if backed up with cyberwarfare, and using the mass of machines owned by the group members. Doom-mongering is always fun, and this is an especially easy field in which to do it, but the harsh likely reality is still worth worrying about.What is happening now in the Middle East is interesting and owes some of the starting activity to the web, but it is a mere glimpse of what is coming in the next few years. Network use in politics is only a tiny embryo so far, and we have little historical precedent on which to base any deductions as to what it is likely to look like. The best we can do yet is to identify a few of the minor features in its genome.

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