The mid-1990s marked a turning point in how information would be distributed electronically for years to come. The world wide web ushered internet technology into common daily life on an unprecedentedly broad scale. The next major revolution in information technology arguably took place around 2007, when smartphones and mobile internet devices began to proliferate in the digital space at an accelerating rate. The internet played a limited role in public life up until that point, when ubiquitous connectivity suddenly seemed to become imminent.
The word “infrastructure” was not introduced into the English lexicon until fairly recently. It is a word with many applications. It generally refers to physical facilities that serve as a foundation for our functioning society. Roads, buildings, power grids, waterways and thoroughfare all make up a large part of our infrastructure.
Risk and Vulnerability
The digital world we inhabit is rapidly branching off into wider networks, to which points of access increase with the dramatic, exponential rise of mobile device use. The growing of these networks introduces new vulnerability to their security, and these new risks have implications that are profound as well as global.
The “Internet of Things” (IoT) refers to the growing phenomenon of common everyday objects joining networks and in turn becoming inter- and intra-connected with people and the world wide web. IoT can encompass common household technology (such as appliances or home security) as well as municipal structures and facilities (like traffic lights or irrigation systems). It epitomizes the fusion of the physical and digital worlds. (To learn more about the Internet of Things, see Internet of Things: Great Innovation or Big Fat Mistake?)
And as the physical objects of our daily lives absorb the technology and connectivity of the modern web, so also do they inherit its vulnerability and insecurity. Exploitation of vulnerability in network technology in order to gain access to privileged data – commonly known as hacking – remains a growing concern not only for individuals, but also businesses, financial institutions and governments.
The potential of alternative, decentralized currency is apparent in the rise of bitcoin. This digital currency utilizes a chain of data that collectively represents the entire bitcoin treasury, which grows by way of a validation process that rewards users who essentially prove the existence of previous bitcoin transactions. (To learn more about bitcoin, see How the Bitcoin Protocol Actually Works.)
Although digital currencies have been in development since at least the 1990s, bitcoin has become arguably the most viable of e-currencies ever circulated. First introduced in 2008 (concurrent with the boom in mobile technology), bitcoin has created new sectors of economic activity that reward users for strengthening the chain with wealth, making it seem almost like a real meritocracy.
But 99 percent of bitcoin users have no wealth, which hurts its image as a potential economic leveler. Like the U.S. dollar, the majority of bitcoin wealth is currently in the possession of less than 1 percent of bitcoin users. Still, electronic commerce is already edging out physical transactions throughout every developed economy, as digital commerce evolves and enables new avenues for monetary circulation.
Technology and Policy
American software engineer and businessman, Eric Schmidt, explains how our digital and physical worlds have a way of governing one another. If somebody commits a crime online, Schmidt argues, law enforcement will make a point to pursue that individual, taking physical action if needed and/or justified. Inversely, he continues, the digital world has developed the power to hold individuals and organizations accountable through the scrutiny of digital technology.
Schmidt cites the Chinese microblogging platform known as Sina Weibo as an example of the virtual world exposing the misdeeds of corrupt governments and balancing the scales in favor of the public. When the Yongtaiwen high-speed trains derailed in Wenzhou in 2011, the Weibo platform was able to document the crisis even as the Chinese government (who had a lot at stake with the success of the railway) relentlessly tried to cover it up.
English philosopher and author, Francis Bacon, famously said that “knowledge is power.” On the international stage, power is taken or transferred in a number of ways. Scholars and diplomats have framed international relations in terms of “hard power” and “soft power,” but there is a third form of power that is developing in the digital space.
This new power transcends cultures and governments. Access to mobile technology will increase dramatically in coming years, which will connect people of all walks of life by way of highly accessible means. This will mobilize many and shift a great deal of power to the highest of network administrators.
The methods by which we’ve established and maintained societies, laws and international protocol are being edged out by technology that evolves faster than regulating bodies can often keep up with. And although electronic networks are proliferating and becoming more stable by the day, the world wide web remains a lot like the wild wild west.