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This book examines the internet as a form of power in global politics. Focusing on the United States' internet foreign policy, McCarthy combines analyses of global material culture and international relation theory, to reconsider how technology is understood as a form of social power.



1. Introduction

Technology has been central to the discipline of International Relations (IR) throughout its history. The formal inception of the discipline emerged in the aftermath of the First World War, in which the horrific destructive potential of modern military weaponry had been amply illustrated. The industrialization of warfare and the utilization of the most advanced technological artefacts for the slaughter of a generation formed the background for the varied intellectual responses that the war engendered, ranging from institution building to reinforcement of the balance of power.1 Alfred Zimmern, Leonard Woolf and Norman Angell, central figures in the early development of the field, emphasized industrialization as driving the process of international integration. It was this integration that made war both terribly destructive and pointless, as interdependence altered the material benefits bestowed by conquest. Zimmern — holder of the world’s first chair in International Politics, created in Aberystwyth in 1919 — stressed the centrality of industrialization and modern communications technologies in the creation of the discipline of International Relations itself (Osiander 1998: 424). For Zimmern, international integration was a ‘result of technological innovation, more specifically the increasing speed and ease and hence volume of global communications’ (Osiander 1998: 417; Zimmern 1928: 154). Technological change formed a central conceptual and empirical referent point for interwar ‘idealists’.

Daniel R. McCarthy

2. Power and Information Technology: Determinism, Agency, and Constructivism

Information communications technologies (ICTs) have occupied a curious place within International Relations Theory. ICTs have often been accorded a central role in changing the international system, with new media altering interaction capacity, posing problems of political control for established actors, and opening up new spaces and new possibilities for different political actors to emerge and exercise influence (Buzan and Little 2000; Buzan and Albert 2010; Keohane and Nye 1998; Deibert 1997;Krasner 1991;Rosenau 1990, Scholte 2005). Implicitly, ICTs affect international power dynamics, enhancing, eroding, or altering the distribution of power and the context in which power is exercised. Yet, for all the apparent weight that ICTs carry in such analyses, the design, development and diffusion of these technological artefacts — the actual physical development of these technologies — has remained relatively understudied within the discipline. Instead of inquiries into the construction of technological objects, IR Theory has tended to treat non-human artefacts as given.1 Whether technological objects are viewed as neutral tools or as having inherent properties that cause social change, a deterministic technological rationale has been prominent in the field (Herrera 2006: 27–30; McCarthy 2011a, 2013; Peoples 2009).2 As a result, a precise conceptualization of the relationship between forms of social power and the creation of biased technologies has been foreclosed.3

Daniel R. McCarthy

3. A Historical Materialist Approach to Technological Power in International Relations

The discussion in the previous chapter highlighted some of the problems in current International Relations (IR) approaches to technology as a form of power in global politics. Technological instrumentalists and essentialists bracket the social construction of technology and the power relations that surround its creation and maintenance, reifying a relatively contingent order as natural. They share an underlying determinist conception of technology and, as a result, do not adequately conceptualize how technology functions as a form of power in global politics. Theories influenced by Social Construction of Technology approaches overcome the limitations of determinist work and represent a significant advance for IR Theory; this chapter will elaborate their implicit conception of technology as a form of institutional power. However, SCOT approaches neglect the centrality of structural power relations and wider forms of social power in shaping technological design. Moreover, these approaches do not theoretically account for the significance of ‘the International’ in creating the conditions necessary for this form of institutional power to operate. This chapter will develop an alternative theoretical perspective to address these issues.

Daniel R. McCarthy

4. US Foreign Relations and the Institutional Power of the Internet

With the theoretical framework in place it is possible to outline how the different facets of social power have enabled the United States government to construct and maintain the Internet in line with its foreign policy aims. This chapter will demonstrate how these aims — the pursuit of an international system comprised of liberal capitalist democracies — have informed the construction and reproduction of the Internet. This will be undertaken by first outlining the nature of the Open Door policy and its central role in American grand strategy, up to and including the Obama administration. The story told here is one of the overall continuity of American foreign practices. While certain changes are apparent both within and between administrations, with the Bush administration being a standout in this regard, these changes take place within coordinates established by the set of cultural values and material interests that comprise the Open Door. Second, we will note how American grand strategy, driven to open markets to foreign capital and to open polities to become liberal democracies, has informed international communications strategy and policies in their political and economic aspects. Third, we will proceed from the discussion of American policy to note how the bias of the Internet meets these goals, acting as a form of institutional power for the United States internationally.

Daniel R. McCarthy

5. Pursuing Technological Closure: Symbolic Politics, Legitimacy, and Internet Filtering

The institutional power of the Internet for US foreign policy cannot function in the absence of a supporting ideological construction which legitimizes a specific form of the technology. The norms and values of technological institutions must be continually reproduced (Sims and Henke 2012) — the momentum of a technological institution relies on precisely these forms of reproduction. Symbolic politics are central to this process (Althusser 2008 [1971]). This chapter and the following will outline how US government discourse attempts to secure an Internet with values that reflect its interest in the promotion of liberal capitalist democracy globally. We will see that US foreign policy officials use a variety of discursive strategies and construct a number of interrelated narratives to assert that the Internet must be a medium for the ‘free flow of information’. Drawing upon dominant norms in international society the US government asserts that the free flow of information guarantees the right to freedom of speech and promotes open democratic government. In the process, the US government casts alternative arrangements — those which would interrupt the free flow of information due to social, cultural, or political concerns — as illegitimate.

Daniel R. McCarthy

6. The Narration of Innovation in US Internet Policy

As the United States government has attempted to mobilize international norms in the promotion of its political vision for the Internet, it has drawn upon values surrounding economic development, material progress, and innovation. The flat, formal equality that characterizes the Internet leads to misrecognitions of the substantive inequality that the rules and norms of the network maintain.1 The network, by not actively discriminating against information, ensures a form of liberal negative freedom over its wires. This enhances and maintains the structural power of capital, and specifically American capital, in the Internet economy (Curran, Fenton, and Freedman 2013: 4–7; Mansell 2011; cf. Mueller 2010: 133).2 The formal equality of the network hides the substantive inequality which shapes the design and development of Internet hardware and software architectures, favouring actors in dominant economic positions over those with fewer resources. Again, we see here the need to place the development of the Internet within a wider context in which structural power positions are considered. Globally, this formal equality favours Western, and particularly American, corporations, due in large part to their historical advantage as first movers in the sector.

Daniel R. McCarthy

7. Conclusion

Technological design, development, and diffusion is a complex historical processes. Technological objects are not created according to any ahistorical rationale of efficiency and do not possess any necessary form beyond that given to them by human beings. The course of technological advance is multi-linear and under-determined. Technological design is imbricated with social power relations, and it is these power relations, in their varied facets, that lead to certain design decisions being taken over others. Social property relations — the institutionalized right to command, control, and dispose property — are the primary axes that determine how technological institutions develop. At all moments in the process of technological development, capitalists possess the capacity to shape the design process to meet the needs of capital accumulation. While capitalists possess this right, it is important to note that it is ultimately sanctioned by the power of the state. The role of the state, as an institutional apparatus embedded in civil society, is thereby critical; an alteration in the social basis of the state will produce a concomitant alteration in the technology a given social order creates. If structural power forms the analytical starting point for analyses of technological creation, productive power — the ability to legitimize both structural-power relations and the technological institutions they generate — remains central.

Daniel R. McCarthy


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