The new omnipotence:

Global opportunity or global threat?

Chris Williams

What is the oldest organisation within the UN? What is missing from Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’?

What fuels the richest organisations in the world?  

Is the digital revolution an opportunity, or a threat, to the emergent global community?

While reading this on a smartphone, how many of us immediately recognised the answer to all three: information and communications?

From 1865 the ITU standardised the use of telegraph across nations. Joining the UN in 1947, the ITU now regulates satellites, broadband, Internet, wireless technologies, navigation, radio astronomy, meteorology, mobile phones, radio and TV. The 19th century ITU had recognised a ‘global interest’. It then built a ‘global community’ of a kind – across European countries and their world-wide colonies.

Other UN agencies were slow to recognise comms as a theme. UNESCO set up a Communication and Information Sector in 1990, which runs the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) and the Information for All Programme (IFAP). 

Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), realised the significance of new ICTs, setting up the Centre for Humanitarian Data, and ReliefWeb which provides free real-time data on emergencies.

Maslow’s oversight is curious. A defining feature of a living organism is the ability to receive basic information from forces such as gravity and the sun, and to use ‘signalling’ to attract pollinators, warn-off predators and participate in bio-cooperation. Without internal and external information and communications, there is no life, no social activity, and so no ‘needs’.

Maslow’s present-day psychologist counterparts converted our evolutionary need for information into the ‘click-bait, attention economy’ of social media, now often seen as addictive and compulsive. The human need for information is on a par with sex, and binge-eating sugar, salt and fat.

The third answer then falls naturally into place. Apple and Microsoft top the rich-list, with Google (Alphabet), Samsung, Alibaba and the social network platforms included in the same league – richer than many nations and more powerful than most.

Security is an issue. Concern now exists over Huawei providing 5G coms infrastructure in the US and Europe. In the 1930s, similar concern was expressed about the presence of Siemens in Britain. It was realised that Germany controlled Siemens, and eventually a Nazi employee was found spying on British companies.

The Catholic Church is a precursor of these new power elites. It created the concept of ‘propaganda’, and hired Marconi to set-up Vatican Radio in 1931. The omnipotent power-towers around the world are not now the church spires, pagodas or minarets. They are the comms aerials. People who identify themselves by their type of religion are declining, except in Africa. Those who identify themselves by their brand of Smartphone are increasing, particularly in Africa. The Tablet predicts that 1000 Catholic churches will disappear by 2025. Since 2018 the UK permits churches to rent their towers to host cell aerials and satellite dishes.

Global security explains much of the telecoms infrastructure, and coms towers tell their own stories. The Cold War communications ‘backbone’ of concrete towers in Britain started from London’s GPO (now BT) tower. The towers are round because the designers had noted that a dome was the only tall structure to withstand the nuclear explosion over Hiroshima. Now denuded of their old microwave horn-antennas, they are now virtually redundant.

The USSR followed with a ‘radio curtain’ centred on the Berlin Fernsehturm, which included beautiful towers in Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius. In 1989 they signalled the end of the Cold War when utilised by resistance groups. Two million people then created the ‘Baltic Way’ by holding hands to link the three radio towers across 700 km.  Their beautiful ‘Singing Revolution’ deterred further Soviet occupation, without any need to threaten nuclear holocaust.

What is the interest of the ‘global community’ in all this?  In short, it requires information and communications to be acknowledged as ‘global public goods’, along with the atmosphere and oceans.

The current UK Labour Party manifesto promises free fibre-optic broadband for all. New Zealand’s distinctive contribution is to Google’s Project Loon – a series of balloon-mounted coms aerials to link remote areas. In 2013, a pilot experiment in the Tekapo area connected local users around Christchurch. This will extend around the world. along the 40th parallel, linking NZ with Australia, Chile and Argentina. 

Communications intersects the global security concerns. The political and commercial power has long been recognised. Yet comms is often missing from our conceptualisation of ‘global communities’ and the ‘global interest’. Why?

In part, this is because comms companies create dependencies and vulnerabilities – a now vital service that could be wiped out by a mega-virus created by a teenager in Albania or a few solar flares. They facilitate both (in Ulrich Beck’s words) the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ of the modern world. This creates cognitive dissonance and denial. Teachers punish pupils for using smartphones, but rush to the staffroom to check their tweets. Psychologists treat people for excessive screen-time, and check online for new therapies. Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han points out in Psycho-Politics that smartphone users now willingly submit to self-surveillance by comms companies and states. The digitalised, networked subject is a ‘pan-opticon of itself.’ So we don’t notice and question, we ‘collaborate’.

In the field of information biology, Gregory Bateson provided a crucial insight in 1979: All receipt of information is necessarily the receipt of news of difference...’ .  As he pointed out, we cannot readily perceive information that is too slow or too fast, too small or too big. ICT works at the extremes. The 20th century Cold War comms towers were too big to see; the six aerials in smartphones are too small to see. The burgeoning cell towers are static; radio waves move at a speed that is imperceptible to human senses.

For the sake of the global community – to the extent it can be meaningfully identified in this context – we need to do two things: first, make the invisible power of ICT visible; second, recognise, and better conceptualise, the omnipotence of the new gods of communications - their ‘goods’ and their ‘bads’.

It is quite a challenge; perhaps something for the NZ Centre for Global Studies.

Dr Chris Williams is Visiting Fellow at the International Education Studies Centre, University of London. He is a member of the Centre’s International Advisory Panel.

International Advisory Panel

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