On Internet Topology and Sovereignty

What I wish to parse out is this very contentious fault line between eras past and our own. Some people refer to it as the proximity crisis but this is just one aspect of a simultaneous and worldwide collapse of distance. Physical distance was cut down by cars and boats and airplanes, while information distance was cut down by the printing press, the telegraph, and the Internet. Today, the front line in this conflict is found in the world of finance, which resists valiantly against pure submission into abstraction. Money sent by internet is not merely a data packet, it must satisfy complicated and jumbled procedures if it is to be accepted by a reputable financial institution. And only reputable financial institutions are allowed to trade internationally, that’s the rule. International efforts to cut back on money laundering and terrorist funding have slowed the movement of money through digital means for decades now. It is therein that I find the fiercest struggle of state interests against the connective forces of the Internet, the effort to maintain the boundedness and special territorial rules associated with money.

The difference between geographic territory and Internet territory from the perspective of the state is problematic in the sense that it is cost-prohibitive to secure and thus to satisfy traditional notions of sovereignty, which depend on boundedness. Yet in the Internet, which has properties of a scaleless network, fundamental notion of boundary and distinction between two territories is complicated by simultaneous proximity with every other territory, nullifying the notion of distance. A problem that is trivially solved by the dawn of the first city-states: borders, patrolling armed forces, and walls, resists the world’s most powerful and their persistent efforts to secure cyberspace. The reason is that one deals with fundamentally different topological spaces, and these necessarily determine the actions available to the bodies acting on these spaces.

The internet as territory is more similar to multidimensional foam than it is to the plane. This has profound implications for those institutions that transfer or that originate wholly within the space of the Internet. Many studies such as Barabasi’s choose to model the Internet as a network, where notions of centrality and degree of connectivity are more consistent than boundedness and adjacency in traditional 2-dimensional territory.

A corollary of this principle determines the behavior of actors within the system, and particularly that of the state, which is intrinsically tied to the notions of expansiveness and boundedness that I propose to be meaningless in the Internet as territory. With this in mind I set out to outline the topological space of the Internet, and contrast it the understanding that countries have of their territories, as Cartesian coordinates on a plane.

It satisfies to show that in hyperdimensional territories as the Internet carves out, the fundamental problem is not that of demarcation as it is in planar, horizontal, nation-state territory. Indeed the notion of demarcation loses meaning. The fundamental problem is that of search, of finding in what is otherwise radically homogenous and nondifferentiable substance, devoid of intuitively accessible parallels to measurements of distance, scale, color or flag. And while obvious now that Google and a few others (but Google mostly) cashed in on the reward of solving it, the problem is in reality far from solved. The real problem of search is not just determining the path to the many diverse nodes that exist on cyberspace, as we could call websites, multimedia, group chats, servers, etc, but rather that of searching through the flows that transit through cyberspace so that these can be allowed or denied access. And it is in this regard that even basic encryption stymies all but very motivated actors, and even then only in specific instances. Passive enforcement of flows is impossible in this scenario, and this is what is meant by Nick Szabo when he describes the leveling of power that encryption plus internet gives the individual, which is now capable of subverting very powerful actors, such as states, in access and transmission of information, a historical outlier.

Internet topology renders the exercise of traditional sovereignty impossible, which is control of bodies within some defined territory, because territory as such does not translate into this space, and because the space is itself supported by these very flows. To resist against the flows coming towards and away from some arbitrary territory is akin to razing down one’s own territories, for you destroy what was by removing yourself from it. The idea then is not to set conditions for inclusion, but rather for exclusion. That is the difference between a whitelist and a blacklist. One defines a whitelist for a country as the list of people that can get a visa and enter the country legally. A blacklist consists of a ruleset that declares conditions for exclusion, which allows flows to take place without the bureaucratic process that updating a whitelist (or getting a visa) usually amount to. Whitelists are the natural choice in planar space because territories in these spaces exclude by default. In horizontal spaces like the Internet, the blacklist makes more sense. And even then, the problem of search and differentiating between flows one wants to keep out and benign flows remains unsolved in the face of public encryption standards. What was done was instead to regulate that which was most abstract and thus readily absorbed by digital symbolic systems: money. And we see this most clearly at the level where the internet is most subject to our territorial limits today, in its interface with money the power of the state projects as much as possible, and remains a vestigial link to territorial space in the Internet.

The state, however, does not stay still, it continuously evolves and tries to secure ever greater security for its own powers. This is related to the notions of Foucaultian notions of sovereignty, which took a turn in the last century towards one of controlling the bioinformational environment of the citizens as opposed to mere political loyalty.

‘Modern’ governmentality marks a shift in discourses of rule away from the state’s sovereign power–its ability to make life and/or render it bare–and toward its fostering nad regularizing of life in biopolitics. To this end biopolitics requires that the conditions of life of the population be made visible and assayed, and practical knowledge be made available to improve them. As a result, with modern governmentality we see the emergence of both panoptic surveillance and numerous specialized discourses–of education, political economy, demography, health, morality, and others–the effect of which is to make populations knowable and subject to the regularization that will make for the ‘happy life’.

What the hand giveth it also taketh away. Even as the powers of individuals have been permanently augmented thanks to the rising access to incredible information networks, as well as asymmetric encryption tools which render access to this information accessible in practice to nearly everyone already connected. However, we also know that a very small fraction of the population ever takes advantage of this ability, and that most private companies are allied to the general tendency of the state to “make populations knowable,” through expansive and systematic measurement of political will, location, and association, as well as the overarching apparatus of biological control, which includes the healthcare system as well as the control apparatus, understood as education and prison systems. The state has already vastly expanded into the borderless sphere of influence, where the conflicts between states over propaganda serve as proof of the increasing relevance of this theater. I argue that it is primarily financial flows that serve as instrument of capture and control for both citizens and other states.

The flow of money from planar space to hyperdimensional foam is tightly regulated because the primary competitive advantage of those that control the flows is precisely the exclusion of those that they compete against. Control over the Bank of International Settlements, SWIFT, the Petrodollar market, Black Rock, etc etc is more than sufficient to intricate state interests into what otherwise should account to the settling of abstract flows. Usually these are states under sanctions, terrorists, criminals, and the like. And the infrastructure of money is tightly coupled with the state, to the extent that the state gets to write the blacklist as it pleases. There is no neutrality to the system. Bitcoin emerges as a notion of money that is coupled to the hyperdimensional space that it inhabits. By virtue of its residence, bitcoin reproduces through means that are available to individuals and small groups. The language of guerrilla takes over. Bitcoin is a line of flight from planar space into millionth-dimensional space. Money as a vector of individual interests disaggregates from localized bubbles and penetrates and synchronizes with the rest of the world. The key distinction is one of sheer speed, and with competitive edge the incentive to participate in abstract, digital transactions will become more more necessary and take up an ever greater portion of the economy. And for now it will satisfy the elusive dreams of cypherpunks and hippie anarchists: that there may be no borders, that information may travel freely, that people may associate freely and treat each other as equals. But as the state too grows more powerful and adept at countering the release valve of bitcoin and other examples of applied cryptography, perhaps it will only be sufficient to maintain some degree of control over one’s financial future. In a global climate of increasing financial instability that borders on the edge of collapse, there is now more than ever the means of exit and therefore keeping the state accountable. Let us hope that as development and adoption of the technology progresses, we may steal an ever greater sliver of freedom from this growing state apparatus.

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