For the past couple of years I have taught an undergraduate module called “Digital Societies” and this time round I am going to try to write some blog posts alongside it. These are not summaries of lectures are broader reflections on some of the issues hooked around examples or news stories which are not necessarily covered in the teaching.
In our first session by way of an introduction we introduced and looked at a bit of the history of the Internet, World Wide Web and big data. These are the infrastructure and technological developments that have helped produced our current hyper-connected world.
While teaching this session there was a lot of discussion in the news about whether the UK would (or should) allow the Chinese communications giant Huawei to provide infrastructure for their 5G network. I realised that the mobile network is somewhat different to the other two aspects I have been including in the class but provide a really interesting entry point into thinking about the poltical economy of communications and digital networks in general.
There is a really useful episode of the BBC’s “Beyond today” podcast which discussed the potential impacts of the decision to allow Huawei to provide some of the “non-core” parts of the network. This is essentially the same role which the company have with the existing 4G network but also remains the same is there is a cap on the amount of the network they are allowed to control (35%).
Also interesting is when concerns were first raised about giving a Chinese company access to our communications networks UK intelligence and security services established a unit called “The Cell” which monitors their activity and strips apart their technology to investigate what kind of data they might be collecting to send back to China.
The question is why is it considered to be such a big deal for such a company to be providing technology for our mobile Internet access. The main reason why it seems to be a big political issue is because USA claim to not trust the company and I think there are lies should either. While Huawei is an independent, employee company it is well established that the Chinese state has strong control over integration with all of their biggest companies. Western governments are suspicious that Huawei might install spying technology or software into the network and uses for their own advantage. Presumably the main reason why they assume this to be the case UK, US and other intelligence services have been doing this throughout the world for many years as the Snowden revelations demonstrated.
But this suspicion towards Huawei and China comes in the broader context of Donald Trump’s trade war with China and the fear that allowing Chinese companies to control such essential infrastructure will push out American companies from highly profitable opportunities. One of Trump’s biggest fears is no doubt listening of America’s global control over capitalism.
Huawei have made strong inroads into Africa through similarly providing mobile networks (this is especially important as many parts of Africa have essentially bypassed broadband infrastructure). This is part of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative which sees them investing in development projects (mostly in Africa) to stimulate local economies and also reshape global trade routes with China at the core. This would see Africa being freed up from the economic control of Western countries and potentially represents a reshaping of the global order but has been characterised as a “digital silk road” which increases the power and influence of China.
This case demonstrates the significance which communication networks have for global politics and economics and made me think of the great work on information, networks and capitalism by Dan Schiller (see his excellent books How To Think About Information and Digital Depression). He emphasised the central role which information and networks have come to play in processes of capital accumulation. The appropriation of communication networks by capitalism (when these could have been collectively outside the commercial realm) have enabled the repeated reinvention of labour processes. But for Schiller most importantly they have enabled the delaying or diverging of capitalism’s inherent tendency towards crisis by providing new opportunities for the generation of value and the control of flows of value back to the economic and political centre (usually the USA).
America, Trump and the West in general are not keen to give up control over communication networks and the political and economic benefits they bring. But now more than economies can run without access to these networks and there are very few companies able to provide this infrastructure. For a country such as the UK develop its own 5G networks would be highly expensive and time-consuming.