IT + IA = ?

Science and Tech


In January 2008, I took my journalism and book publishing background to an International Affairs grad school program in hopes to rejuvenate both with a digital/technological focus and global reach. Once there, I found plenty of classes offered and handfuls of faculty well-versed in nearly everything but my interests. Remember, this was 2008: the Arab Spring hadn’t happened, social media was still a not-taken-too-seriously Internet trend, and the iPhone was barely a year old. It seemed my self-described “progressive, modern” university even had a hard time with the technology it used to enrich the classroom experience—the frustrating interactions with the clunky and oft-misused BlackBoard platform made that clear. But, finally, I found a course that focused on Information Technology (IT) and its role in International Affairs (IA). Little did I know then that this course would turn a professor into a friend, and some lively class discussions and research papers into a book.

Now, nearly two years after graduating grad school, I’m proud to announce the release of Cyberspaces and Global Affairs published by Ashgate, a book I co-edited and contributed to with my colleague, MIT-employee and educator at The New School University, Sean S. Costigan.

Looking back on how this project began, the main issue we had still remains: how to write—an act that takes time, patience, revision, and then more revision—about something as fluid as Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in the affairs of nations, governments, and societies? Our goal, then, was to instead focus on big picture implications and long-standing concerns. Leafing through the pages today, it seems we did a fairly good job as issues like copyright, cyberwar, mobile phones and political activism, online identity, censorship, public health, and privacy (to name a few) are still making headlines today in regard to technology.

The major impetus for this technological focus, to me, was how these advances threatened to change the power balance between loosely organized groups and official state institutions. Access to information, most obviously, rearranges this balance—but so does the mere act of virtual organization. The subtitle of Clay Shirky’s 2008 book Here Comes Everybody sums it up nicely: The power of organizing without organizations. To be sure, this kind of organization has happened before in world history—just maybe not at these kinds of speeds, and with such potent force. To paint with a broad brush, the underlying idea we had was that changes in communication lead to changes in society; changes in society lead to changes in institutions; and changes in institutions can inform a change in government or social structure and/or even a change in the contract between those that govern and the governed. Each chapter in Cyberspaces deals with this progression, somehow, some way. The Arab Spring—so far, and maybe Tunisia in particular—is an amazingly complex and ever-shifting real-world example of this idea. New expectations have been created for both the citizen and their government, all encouraged and accelerated via technology.

So with these ideas at the forefront, we see it incredibly important to stress the implications advances in technology have on how nations relate to each other—especially in an increasingly interconnected world. Kenneth H. Keller (to whom we are very grateful), Director of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ (SAIS) Bologna Center in Bologna, Italy, and Professor of Science and Technology Policy, says in the forward of Cyberspaces: “Where international affairs is concerned, understanding these interactions plays a key role in clarifying how information technology constrains certain diplomatic choices, enables others, and introduces new issues to the international negotiation agenda.”

It’s hard to imagine a discussion on International Affairs/Relations/Issues without also addressing how technology has changed the game. Indeed, we are approaching a time when the entire field of International Affairs—from conflict resolution to governance to media freedom to development to the establishment of human rights, etc.—is formed, informed, and pivoting around the addition and evolution of technology. As evidence, there are three-fold more courses being offered for the next semester at my old grad school program. The main topics of these courses focus specifically on technology, the Internet, and global affairs. A few revolutions might do that, I suppose.  

So while our crystal ball is as murky as anyone else’s and we’re certainly not looking to predict where the intersection of IT and IA will take us, it is good to reread the chapters in this publication and see, like the Antoine de Saint Exupéry quote says, that we aren’t attempting to foresee the future, but instead trying to enable it.

Follow Jake on Twitter @jakehperry