What Is Digital Power?



Jean-Christophe Noёl | French Institute of International Relations

What is meant by digital?

Digital data can be recorded, stored, compressed or transferred without any loss of information and quality. The enhancement of these characteristics has been essential for the development of computing, to the point that the term digital has entered into everyday language to generically refer to computer science applications. The development of ever more sophisticated algorithms, combining this data through calculation, makes it easier to solve problems previously considered as too complex.

The continuously improving power of microprocessors is reducing calculation times. The implementation of common protocols to easily exchange data between computers is redefining the concept of connectivity between people. Information, commands and stimuli are circulating in ever greater numbers and dramatically changing how complex systems interact and operate.

Digital technology: a political issue

Therefore, the trend of long-distance communication, which started with writing and continued with the printing press, telegraph, telephone and radio, carries on.

The digital revolution is dramatically changing large areas of human activity. It is shaping globalization by changing the distances between people. Transport, logistics, energy distribution, international finance and critical infrastructure management systems could not function without its applications. The volume of email exchanges is also impressive: 44.7 billion SMS and MMS messages were sent in France in the first quarter of 2018. As of 12 August 2019, more than 45,584 billion emails had been shared worldwide since the beginning of the year.

In the military field, the most advanced armies have integrated battlefield digitalization into their thinking. Military headquarters operate in a more decentralized way, taking advantage of the resources provided by computerization, materializing the advent of a “revolution in military matters”.

From a cultural point of view, games are played on a network. The most talented players earn their living by participating in media tournaments. Special effects are pervading cinema screens, bringing artificial universes to life. A digital culture is emerging.

Digital technology is at the heart of economic, military and cultural issues. It has entered into the everyday life of all people connected to the Internet worldwide. It provides resources in terms of wealth, power, control of society and privacy. For example, Denmark, which is aware of these issues, appointed a Tech Ambassador in 2017. It is legitimate to talk about digital power.
What is power?

Defining the concept of power is a challenge. Common sense accepts that “power” on the international stage is the equivalent of “authority” within societies. However, such an understanding is of limited use. The national and international stages operate under different rules. Authors seeking to understand it acknowledge that it is one of the most controversial terms in international relations.

However, two major themes regularly recur in discussions. The first attempts to make this concept operative. If power exists, it must be possible to define its components and assess them, to measure them in order to act rationally. In this context, power has long been reduced by the realist school to geographical location and to the sum of military, demographic or economic resources.

The most intangible components, such as national pride, the quality of staff and policy, could also count. This accountable and analytical approach, however, is criticized insofar as it only reveals the potential of power. If a state actor does not combine them effectively, it does not guarantee any results. The Soviet Union had many of these advantages, but collapsed without fighting.

Another theme often recurs in discussions on the nature of power. Power is what decides the outcome of the interaction between two state entities or actors in the international system. It no longer refers to a potential, but “to taking action”. In a seminal article, Robert Dahl defines it as: “A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something that B would not have otherwise done”.

Power restricts, but not necessarily in a violent way. It can be exercised through seduction, rather than by the brute imposition of will. Finally, power corresponds to an actor’s ability to change the behavior of other actors on the international stage in a favorable direction.

What is digital power?

How can we describe digital power, sometimes called cyberpower, in this context? We will consider digital power as any actor’s ability to exploit digital data to help change the behavior of other actors on the international stage and to achieve its own ends.
It extends beyond the conventional state framework and reconfigures the standard categories, since all connected actors are theoretically likely to have a part in it.

Furthermore, the sources of digital power lie in the exploitation of a synthetic environment and data. This study aims to understand how “intangible” power manages to influence events in the real world and to describe its potential, its applications, and its restrictions.

Digital power transforms the real world through enhancing cyberspace’s network properties (1) and new practices of domination that are imposed on it (2). Its components can be deduced from this (3). However, it is likely that its exercise will be changed in the future through a more assertive, proactive approach by actors in the real world (4). Finally, it is like a kaleidoscope, with several aspects whose coordination sometimes generates considerable tension.



To view the full report, click here.