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Reprogramming the World: Political Places

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02.12.2019

This is an excerpt from Reprogramming the World: Cyberspace and the Geography of Global Order. Get your free copy here.

In the novel Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie interweaves his signature magical realism into the political geography of India surrounding the specific time, 12:00am 15 August 1947, that India came into existence as a nation state.[1] Rushdie identifies this moment of national political identity as inseparably linked to individual identity. In one of the many turns of the novel, the reader is presented with the sale of Methwold’s Estate. In the story, William Methwold sells his estate to an Indian family with the contractual stipulation that the family must continue to live exactly as the English inhabitants before them had until the moment of Indian independence, at which point the family could again live as Indians. The fictional contract imposes an English (read colonial/imperial/Western) geography over the estate being sold. The contract extends a political identity as well by defining the identity of the inhabitants concurrently with the state’s political borders. The family lacked the possibility to live as and be Indian until the stroke of midnight, because until that point there was no such place to bound such an identity. Borders are what Kamal Sadiq, borrowing Rushdie’s phrase, calls “midnight’s children.” Decolonization led to “[n]ew borders,” and “paths that were legal and customary became illegal overnight” forcing, through both inclusion and exclusion, new identities on the local inhabitants as the result of international geopolitical shifts.[2] In Rushdie’s tale law enforces political identity congruent with state geography. At midnight, though, everything changes.

In this example, we can see that the law (i.e. the contract) is the expression of political identity across a territory, rendering a condition in which “[l]ocation equals identity.”[3] Rushdie illustrates that an individual’s location is a construct that can change without physical movement. In other words, “space changes … meaning.”[4] Political space is the space in which negotiations about how social rights and obligations will be allocated among the governed and the government. This negotiation itself gives identity to the participants in terms of membership, which legitimates their role in such negotiations. International borders, therefore, are expressions of legal geography mapped onto spatial geography through an expression of a political geography bounded by common community.[5] As a result, legal arguments “presuppose spatial knowledge,” and human rights actions are “struggles for spatial normativity.”[6] These values structure public space in which discourse and deliberation take place. Of course, such uniform identification of individuals with political values compartmentalized by borders is a mythical construction, but it is the construction that underlies international space.[7]

Thus far in this research, Cyberspace has been described in terms of its spatial and legal geography. Legal space is not sui generis; it has origin and history. Specifically, law is the product of negotiations that occur within the constructed public space of the state. Law is a mechanism used to articulate the parameters of public space as a reflection of the values negotiated by the political membership of the space.[8] At the heart of the concept of legal jurisdiction are “fundamental questions of order and legitimacy,” which describe the political geography.[9] This chapter turns its attention to the project of identifying how values shape the political geography of Cyberspace through its code and architecture. If code is law, then the coder makes political “[c]hoices among values, choices about regulation, about control, choices about the definition of spaces of freedom.”[10] This section argues that there are underlying values that organize Cyberspace as well as guide and legitimate power distribution in the governance of Cyberspace. First, this chapter will build a framework for understanding how constitutional values structure political space and legitimate action therein. Then, it will analyze how constitutional values were implemented into the open network architecture through a historical analysis of its design across the technical layers. The final section will then reflect on the value of interoperability and argue that it is the core organizing logic for the political geography of Cyberspace.

Code and Constitution

At the heart of modern governance is the idea of the constitution. Constitutions are legal documents that are foundational in scope. They serve as the blueprints for the construction of public space, and are distinct from the legal geography they deploy.[11] Effective constitutions organize and distribute power among the actors within a governance space in such a way that a tenable imbalance of power is created between the citizen and the state.[12] So for instance, Sajo argues that constitutions embody shared emotions and values of the political community that it organizes,[13] and as such, constitutions can be seen to organize the “communicative conditions for a reasonable political will formation.”[14] These value-laden “communicative conditions” are a political geography that structures public discourse and deliberation. The flow of information and boundaries to its flow are connected to build the “public sphere” within which political identity is formed.[15] Constitutions set the limits of jurisdiction, meaning that they extend communicative conditions across space, and demarcate the limits of community as defined by values embedded through founding political practices.[16] The constitution shapes the political geography in which “the process by which we reason about how things ought to be” takes place.[17]

Political geography can be observed in the communicative conditions deployed by code. Code when observed in the layered model constitutes both the spatial geography of Cyberspace (i.e. its architecture) and the legal geography of Cyberspace (i.e. its architecture). This compression is important. In physical space law and politics are extended over and, thus, contiguous with territory. In Cyberspace, space is extended by code, and code is law. It should be no surprise then that code imposes communicative conditions as well, which requires probing the extent to which code functions as a constitutional force. This will reveal how values are architected directly into Cyberspace. Code is of course not the same as a formal constitution, but code does perform many of the same functions as a constitution, which makes the analogy tenable.[18]

The concept of legitimacy will be helpful in articulating the constitutional values that define a political geography. Legitimacy addresses the “justification of power” within a governance structure and is a “fundamental problem of politics.”[19] It is a measure of the distribution of power that “concerns first and foremost the right to govern.”[20] The right to govern is defined through a network of social values, laws, and founding principles that together define the critical “division that separates those individuals who command from those who obey.”[21] In other words, legitimacy is articulated and observed at points that structure the division of power among entities that govern and entities that are governed.[22] Societies use constitutionally constructed political institutions “to settle conflicts that threaten the cohesiveness of the community.”[23] These institutions are the “guarantors of the public space” in which communicative conditions foster a “network of sociability.”[24] Constitutions construct a political geography by bounding “exchanges to unfold in a fixed framework and under the form of reciprocity” that “tangl[es] together … rights and duties.”[25] The constitution expresses what it means to be a member of a political space by expressing the bounds of that space in terms of rights and obligations in an “unequal distribution of power.”[26] The rights and obligations themselves, often expressed through law, institutionalize shared values of the community.[27]

Legitimacy, then, is fluid across space and time,[28] but actors within a given political community will often invoke foundational or constitutional values in order to legitimate contemporary actions by framing them within the communicative conditions.[29] Constitutional values shape “rules of conduct [that] are indissociable from a historical context.”[30] Legitimacy is not a universal norm, so each political geography must be examined in the context “of social facts . . . set within the ongoing flow of history.”[31] Legitimacy, as the link between the power and values, is an analytic for examining the political geography deployed by code in Cyberspace.[32]

Code is Politics

Technology as it progresses through its technical life span, from development to operations, is laden with politics.[33] Technology, often advertised as of the future, is always a product of history.[34] As a result, design decisions made in early stages of development entrench design values in a technology, and such decisions are often influenced by politics.[35] Cyberspace is no different, and this section will use history of its development as a tool to reveal foundational values embedded in its architecture that shape its political geography.[36]

This historical inquiry focuses on the source of code: coders. As with any discussion of values, the ability to articulate them with specificity that also applies with generality is limited.[37] This section will examine the political values that the coders designed into Cyberspace. In the same way that an American constitutional lawyer might consult the Federalist Papers to discern the values of the constitutional designers, this section will examine how these coders articulated the values they held into the code they........

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