The Culture of the Internet and the Fallacy of Fair Play

Part of the issue with the cyber realm is the difficulty in conceptualizing it in a way that is meaningful and understandable to the broader public. It’s everywhere but everyone’s experience of it is completely unique. With that in mind, the following line from Peter W Singer discussing Fred Kaplan’s new book ‘Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War‘ is particularly interesting:

…leaders in Washington are having a hard time accepting a simple fact — that while the Internet may have been created by a United States government research program, it is no longer under American ­government control, or even American in its makeup.

The internet has moved from an American majority to a non-American majority place. There are two issues with this worth noting.

One, I think is what I call the Fallacy of Fair Play that has dogged the thinking of US businesses and organizations on the internet. Because the internet was created in the US there is an assumption that US values, derived from courts and law, are its natural operating environment. The truth is US values no longer predominate. In fact, the understanding of the internet is very different depending on where you are on the globe.

I would compare it to how kids often understand a technology’s application in a new way from the older generation’s intentions for the technology’s use. Nations like Russia, Iran and China may have initially seen the internet as a Made-in-the-USA threat to their domestic power structure. Over time, these same nations have come to see blind spots in the America’s use of the internet – the openness, the ease of accessibility, the expectation of transparency. All of it can be subverted and exploited from outside. In addition to the spoofed emails used in APTs, there are social cyber attacks, viral news manipulation, etc.

For those of us who remember the 1980s, when the computer-to-computer communication was popularised in films such as War Games (referenced, apparently in the Kaplan’s book), the internet also spawned its own sub-culture: conspiracy theory,  RPGs, sci-fi, libertarianism, the hacker ethos, and if I recall: talk of the Illuminati and the Church of the Sub-Genius. Being a wild land that knew no distances, but brought likeminded strangers together, there were shared codes of conduct that simply emerged, drawn from the other cultures, including gaming, that many early internet users knew.

A lot of that culture informs sites like Boing Boing today. For them, the culture of the internet has been about information being free. But now nations like China and Russia make it their business to have a say in what kind of information is published online, how the conversation progresses, etc. The goal is to shape the internet-using public’s views.

The second issue: in this new world, internet users in the the US, and other open democracies, constitute a kind of outpost in a global environment not so tolerant of Western standards. As I’ve argued before, one upside is that this may offer a meaningful way for Americans to think about the internet. After all, a hostile, unknown terrain, rife with unforeseen danger (cyber aggression) and opportunity from afar are themes of the explorer and frontier days. They speak to a Wild West of sorts.

This concept could provide a cultural shorthand which American stakeholders from all walks can rally around online. It would mark a change to the existing libertarian techno culture that prevails today and that is dominated by ‘heroes’ such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. But judging from the current US election, Americans themselves may be tiring from the grandiose promise of libertarianism.

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What to think of the Obama-Xi summit this weekend

The US recognizes that China is on course to overtake it as the world’s number one economy by size. This is because an economy’s size is basically per capita GDP times population. There hasn’t been a really major technological advancement allowing an intensive boost to economic growth, that has allowed successive generations in the past to achieve a higher quality of life. The examples in the past are electricity and plumbing and steam engines, that would allowed economies in Europe and then the US to be more productive and grow rapidly. Author Neal Stephenson got at this when he talked about the lack of game-changing technological breakthroughs in recent times. He compares the experience of US technology 50 years ago to today and asks: Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Because it was such progress innovations, culminating in the US space program, that in the past allowed countries with smaller populations but more technologically developed economies (like the US) to outpace larger, less efficient ones (like China). The Economist breaks out the arguments nicely in a piece called “Innovation pessimism

For most of human history, growth in output and overall economic welfare has been slow and halting. Over the past two centuries, first in Britain, Europe and America, then elsewhere, it took off. In the 19th century growth in output per person—a useful general measure of an economy’s productivity, and a good guide to growth in incomes—accelerated steadily in Britain. By 1906 it was more than 1% a year. By the middle of the 20th century, real output per person in America was growing at a scorching 2.5% a year, a pace at which productivity and incomes double once a generation. More than a century of increasingly powerful and sophisticated machines were obviously a part of that story, as was the rising amount of fossil-fuel energy available to drive them. But in the 1970s America’s growth in real output per person dropped from its post-second-world-war peak of over 3% a year to just over 2% a year. In the 2000s it tumbled below 1%.

Technological breakthroughs are needed to increase growth in output per person. But some speculate there won’t be so many new breakthroughs.

It’s interesting to note that China’s rapid investment-led growth coincides with a period of innovation stagnation globally. This is happening as the historical norm of China’s economic dominance returns. Basically, it’s closer to a pre-industrial revolution order.

The US recognizes that if it’s going to be the home of the next technological breakthrough, bringing about a new era of economic growth, the US needs to be able to develop the best technology.

If that technology is continually siphoned off by China, then the US can effectively be muscled into a permanent second place. This would create a vicious cycle, with less money for less research, and basically, would make the country resemble Mike Judge’s critically-overlooked satire “Idiocracy

This is why cyberhacking is becoming a major issue now. American businesses – bastions of government welfare and civil disobedients in their own right – must begin coordinating with the US government to allow themselves to protect their inventions.

If the US doesn’t confront China on cyberespionage, either face-to-face at Obama to Xi summit, or through more aggressive cyber responses, the outlook for the US economy’s key area of strength dims.

But in order for that to happen, there has to be at least a nod of acknowledgement about American company’s relative Americanness in the face of the globalized market. This is no small feat. The internet has opened the playing field, luring companies to the corners of the earth in pursuit of profit. There has been little prohibition on global tax dodging, wage arbitrage, playing local employees against low-cost alternatives overseas, and a basic attitude that the public exists to enrich shareholders, with no corresponding responsibility back to society.

If the US can transition to a new, more dynamic economy, it must find a way to balance the need to foster innovation at home without closing the door on foreign engagement. This this brings up another important point about China’s rise. While there’s no doubt China’s economy has grown dramatically, that does not mean it can successfully convert to a dynamic economy, capable of spawning successful new game-changing technologies and ideas. Just look at Malaysia’s trajectory of progress and stagnation.

Finally, there is no promise that Xi, who has consolidated his power with the military, can actually stop PLA cyber hacking, even if he promises to.

Naming and shaming China over cyberspying

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks at the opening plenary session of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, June 1, 2013. Hagel will meet with defense ministers at the event and then travel to Brussels to meet with NATO defense ministers.

That seems to be the US’s strategy, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calling China out at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia Security Summit in Singapore on June 1. It’s pretty ballsy but apparently after the Mandiant report was published and publicized, some of the relentless cyberbreaches slowed for a while, so the US is just testing out a new public-shaming strategy.

China, predictably, has countered by questioned the US claim about its Asia pivot is not about containing China’s rise.

In any case, the world will watch to see what kind of language on hacking Obama uses in public with Xi when they meet next week. 

I suppose this US shaming behavior would be unthinkable if China were a Western power. Different times call for different types of diplomacy. 

(Photo: courtesy US Defense Dept)