Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up

By Philip N. Howard

Yale University Press (2015)

ISBN: 978-0-300-19947-5

Review by Matt Homer, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

On Tuesday, February 28, 2017, Amazon Web Services' (AWS) cloud servers went offline. This outage caused many websites and software such as Netflix, Reddit, Spotify, and Buzzfeed to go offline for a four-hour period. These sites and others use Amazon's cloud service to host their content and services. A typo in programming was found to be the cause in the outage; however, this was not the first time AWS had gone offline. The outage on February 28 was just the most recent outage. Many people, including myself, did not know that all of these services were single-handedly hosted by Amazon. This is indicative of a general unawareness of infrastructure at large. A greater examination into the infrastructure of information technology allows for a greater awareness not just of how technology is maintained, but also how sociotechnical systems shape infrastructure and our place within it. In Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up, Philip N. Howard (2015) attempted to bring attention to infrastructure of information technology and how it is increasingly in the possession of private corporations. Howard argued that this shift of power away from state governments and toward private entities constitutes a new era, that of the Pax Technica. Howard's book is an articulation of what this new stability of power means for civilians and their agency within the Pax Technica.

Image of Pax Technica book cover, which shows a pathway lined      with floor-to-ceiling servers on each side.

In Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up, Philip N. Howard (2015) wrote that more and more everyday objects such as mobile devices, cars, and even kitchen appliances are connected to the Internet than ever before, and the same is true for their users. This dependency on interconnected devices takes great infrastructure to maintain, and there is a lot of political power in controlling it (p. xxi). Howard used the term Pax Technica to connote a new power shift in the world, based on how control of the majority of information technology infrastructure has shifted from state governments to privatized information technology companies, and how this shift signals to "a political order constituted by the relationships between devices as much as the relationship between people" (p. 35). That is, information technology companies now hold power over state governments. Howard even goes as far as to posit the Pax Technica as an alternative to global liberal democracy (p. xix). Howard also used the term to denote the current stability of infrastructure in contrast to past configurations of infrastructure—Pax Romana, Pax Brittania, and Pax Americana (p. xx). Howard also stressed that a pax does not equate to peace, but instead "is about stability and predictability of political machinations that comes from having extensively networked devices" (p. xx). So, the Pax Technica is not just about how network devices provide agency to people against oppressive government regimes, but also how network devices act as agents for social control of populations in favor of government regimes. Howard emphasized that

In this new era, it may make less sense to speak of unambiguous categories of democracy and dictatorship. Instead it may be most revealing to characterize a government on the basis of its policies and practices regarding network devices and information infrastructure. (p. xxi)

In the Pax Technica, information technology infrastructure is the basis for social agency, and the control of such agency is increasingly in the hands of private corporations.

Howard's text should be of relevance to scholars of both computers and writing (C&W) and digital humanities (DH) because he intersected with habitual topics within these fields in interesting ways, though indirectly. Howard offered many rhetorical strategies for mobile or digital composing, with civil discourse in mind, similar to other works in C&W (Farman, 2011; Reed, 2014). For instance, he documented public digital composing that helped government services, such as the mapping of aid requests during the Haiti earthquake. Additionally, Pax Technica fits well within critical infrastructure DH scholarship (Liu, 2016; Mattern, 2013; Svensson, 2016). Similar to these other works, Howard recognized that the ubiquitous use of mobile devices and cloud computing, in addition to the infrastructure that supports such computing, deserves a critical gaze.

Howard's insights into how powerful control of infrastructure truly is in addition to mobile technology as a tool for social action make Pax Technica a productive and valuable read; however, there are a few issues throughout the book, including a misleading title (insofar as the neoliberally minded book focuses on mobile technology rather than everyday-networked devices) and a problematic definition of ideology, as defined further in the Chapter Summaries section. Still, with the conglomeration of information technology infrastructure, Pax Technica is relevant in understanding how control of this infrastructure configures power and how people maneuver within it.

Chapter 1. "Empire of Connected Things"

In his first chapter, Howard laid out the main idea of the "Pax Technica"—that power lies in the control of infrastructure. In previous eras, Rome's empire grew through their control of roads, the British empire through their navy, and America's empire through its control of global economics. Howard differentiated the Pax Technica from past empires by claiming that control of infrastructure is no longer controlled by governments, but private corporations, and this shift of power could equate to a "new world order" (p. 12). This shift indicates the emergence of a "political order constituted by the relationship between devices as much as the relationship between people" (p. 35). Positive effects of this shift are digital devices and media that give people new ways to affect civic and environmental matters. Conversely, surveillance is built into the infrastructure of the Internet, and the Pax Technica also allows for an enhanced surveillance state (p. 26–27). Digital devices and the private corporations that provide them have replaced infrastructure that state governments have traditionally controlled.

Chapter 2. "Internet Interregnum"

Howard began the second chapter with the argument that mobile devices are the major influence that pushes political and social change (p. 37). This is because of the rising number of device networks and people who are able to connect online. To make this point, Howard used the examples of the Anonymous hacks of networks belonging to Brazil and the Philippines (p. 43), as well as both the Zapatista movement in Mexico (p. 47) and the Arab Spring in Tunisia (p. 50–51). He described how they used digital devices and media in opposition to incompetent or oppressive governments. But Howard also used the example of UglyGorilla, a hacker working for China's government, to demonstrate how governments can be on both sides of the rise of digital devices and networks (p. 38). After this, Howard shifted gears to write about information as currency in the economy of the Pax Technica and how the infrastructure of information is now privatized. This puts private information infrastructure in a position of power over both governments and civilians who depend on their technologies (pp. 53–66).

Chapter 3. "New Maps for the New World"

Howard focused the first half of the third chapter on a particular form of digital media, maps. He detailed acts of digital mapping during the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and in the Kibera community in Nairobi, Kenya in 2007. He used mapping as an example of how civilians can use digital devices and media to provide services and infrastructure for themselves if governments fail to do so. As Howard wrote, "[i]nformation technologies have started to fill in for bad governments and become a substitute venue for public deliberation" (p. 72). In the second half of the third chapter, Howard focused on the dilemma authoritarian states face in whether to allow open networks in their countries. That is, open networks allow for greater economic growth, but also grant opportunities for oppositions to organize and grow. Howard claimed that Hosni Mubarak's decision to embrace information technologies and open networks in the late nineties eventually led to his overthrow in Egypt in 2011. Also in the third chapter is an account of the We Are All Laila movement that happened in Egypt in 2006. While only tangentially connected to Howard's thoughts on Mubarak, his writing on We Are All Laila shows writing as content and how rhetorical strategies spread writing in digital environments.

Chapter 4. "Five Premises for the Pax Technica"

Howard outlined and explained his five premises of the Pax Technica in the fourth chapter. They are:

1) Political leaders, governments, firms, and civic groups are aggressively using the Internet to attack one another and defend their interests.

2) Citizens are using the Internet to improve governance, and the success or failure of a government increasingly depends on a good digital strategy.

3) People are using the Internet to marginalize extremist ideas, and authoritarian governments lose credibility when they try to repress new information technologies.

4) People are using digital media to solve collective action problems.

5) People are using big data to help provide connective security. (p. 107)

While most of these premises are easy enough to agree with, the idea that the Internet marginalizes extremist ideas seems exceedingly outdated, especially after the events of the 2016 presidential election in the United States. It seems obvious, in fact, that the opposite is true. Howard's explanation for his idea falls flat because of his faulty definition of ideology as "meaning in the service of power" (p. 125). This definition confuses ideology for hegemony, or at least, takes ideology as a false conscious that hides an actual reality. That is, Howard doesn't recognize how ideology is always inherently tied to the semiotic process of meaning making, though not always toward hegemonic ends. Thus, Howard equated ideology purely with oppressive thoughts and actions and mobile technology only as anti-oppression tools. In fact, Howard only used the term ideology in relation to totalitarian leaders and never to describe the mobile technologies and their uses. This definition of ideology makes Chapter 4 less useful than some of the others.

Chapter 5. "Five Consequences of the Pax Technica"

Chapter five contained Howard's explanation for what will happen as a result of the Pax Technica:

1) Major governments and firms will hold back on inflicting real damage to rival device networks for fear of suffering consequences themselves—a kind of cyberdeterrence against debilitating attacks.

2) Even more communities will be able to replace their failing governments with institutional arrangements that provide distinct governance over the Internet of Things.

3) The primary fissures of global politics will be among rival device networks and the competing technology standards and media ecosystems that entrench the Internet of Things.

4) People will use the Internet of Things for connective action, especially for those crypto-clans organized over networks of trust and reciprocity established by people and mediated by their devices.

5) The great news flows of data from the Internet of Things will make it much easier for security services to stop crime and terrorism, but unless civil society groups also have access to such data, it will be difficult to know how pervasive censorship and surveillance really is. (p. 149)

Howard seemed to think that technology will overtake ideology (p. 162), which is another symptom of his problematic definition of ideology. Howard's definition obviates a critical examination of his own neoliberal-trending positionality throughout the book. What I believed Howard tried to posit is that open-networked uses of technology will overtake closed-network or restricted uses of technology; however, his framing of this thought as technology versus ideology is vexing. Howard didn't recognize that open-network use of technology lends itself to differing ideologies, and one that possibly has its own drawbacks, such as the marginalization of the bodies and labor that manufacture technologies. Technologies can mediate and act as agents for ideology, but can never themselves be positioned against or outside of ideology.

Chapter 6. "Network Competition and the Challenges Ahead"

Howard opened the sixth chapter discussing open networks, closed networks, and paywalled networks. His discussion on these types of networks centered around how each sub-network emerges and competes with each other for valuable information streams in the new information economy previously mentioned in the second chapter. The focus of the sixth chapter, however, is on both China's alternative information technology infrastructure and Russia's political use of bots. Howard used these examples to show how countries have dealt with the rise of freedom of speech that the Pax Technica encourages. That is, countries have either built and controlled their own infrastructure to compete with private information technologies, or they have flooded already existing information technology infrastructures with pro-state discourse. What I found most interesting about the sixth chapter is how Howard brought up digital rights management (DRM) for the first time in the book. This seems like a fruitful directions to go in, but he just mentioned it and moved on.

Chapter 7. "Building a Democracy of Our Own Devices"

Pax Technica ends optimistically, with Howard's enthusiasm for it resting on five proposed stipulations. His first stipulation is that there should be a tithe of 10 percent on networked devices: "Ten percent of the processing time, 10 percent of the devices' information-storage capacity, and 10 percent of the bandwidth used by devices could be reserved for third-party, civic, and open applications" (p. 244). Howard gives examples from public health, nonprofits, and other public good organizations that could use that infrastructural tithe. Howard's second stipulation is that "data produced over the internet of things should be more openly shared" (p. 244). He called for the complete open accessibility of all data. Third, users should decide for themselves what data should be collected and used by third-parties. (This hope perhaps foreshadowed the privacy laws enacted in the European Union in 2017.) Fourth, devices need to be transparent with whom they share users' data. Finally, Howard's fifth stipulation is that information technology corporations need an open and clear plan on how to interact and collaborate with state governments. Howard seemed fairly optimistic about the outcomes of these stipulations for the Pax Technica. However, he failed to convince me that the future of information technology would be transparent and accessible. Open networks can be utilized just as perversely as closed networks, maybe even more insidiously so. Howard's optimism rests on his assumption of ethics through transparency, but that is often not how information networks actually work.

Pax Technica succeeds in ways I don't believe Howard intended. For example, Howard offered many rhetorical strategies for digital composing for civil and political ends. He detailed how movements such as Arab Spring and We Are All Laila demonstrate effective use of digital composing with a rhetorical awareness of algorithms. With these examples, Howard unintentionally fit into current trends in C&W, such as writing with bots, writing as a collective, and writing as content. Howard also ventured into mobile technology theory when he detailed how mobile devices and digital media have affected civil matters and demonstrated the great civil capability of digital rhetoric, offering strategies to effect change for social justice. All of these intersections with C&W and DH make Howard's book a worthwhile add to class or personal reading lists.

My main critique of this book is that, despite its title, Pax Technica is not a book about the Internet of Things. Howard seemed to drop the idea of the Internet of Things in favor of mobile technology and digital media. He briefly addressed digital rights management (DRM) in terms of the data that an Internet of Things creates. I was interested in DRM because it is a tangible and, so far, a less developed direction to go in, but Howard didn't address this issue until page 213 and only briefly. Issues of DRM are important because, as more and more devices that previously weren't online become connected, the proliferation of data they produce has political consequences that are currently untested.

Pax Technica also missed the mark on issues that are common in C&W and DH scholarship. Most glaringly, in my opinion, was the lack of attention to the manufacturing and labor of mobile technologies Howard praised so thoroughly in the book. While Howard shared stories of digital media and mobile devices doing good for communities, a lot of the stories contain the trope of a White savior that holds the technology and saves whichever community he comes to. Additionally, Howard's lack of attention to labor also makes it harder to buy his claim that the Pax Technica is a new alternative to liberal democracy rather than just an extension of liberal democracy. Howard invoked Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man to position the Pax Technica as a new socio-political evolution of humanity, but I found it hard to buy this claim. It seemed to me that the growth of information technology infrastructure away from the state is just a consequence of democracy so closely tied with global neoliberalism.

Overall, Pax Technica is a smart and well-written book, albeit one with a misleading title. Howard's insights are forward-looking and worth consideration; however, they seem to come with a neoliberal perspective that lacks a diverse, critical focus. That is why Howard's definition of ideology was so troublesome; by positioning technology against ideology, Howard ignored how technology mediates ideology. As simple artifacts removed from human inquiry, devices and the data they produce are neither good nor bad; they are pieces in a whole sociotechnical system that encompasses technology as a whole. Creating infrastructure is a discursive act that imposes ideology onto the use of artifacts. The thought process that guides how infrastructure of technology is constructed goes on to further influence how technology is used. Just as roads guide the paths on which we can drive our cars, information technology infrastructure guides use of mobile technologies. Howard wrote about the privatization of these infrastructures as mostly good, especially against oppressive governments. This assumption fails to consider new and subtle hegemonic ways in which neoliberal infrastructures of technology may operate. Despite its gaps, Pax Technica invited a critical examination of infrastructure within world systems and offered a political-economy perspective of how technology—in the form of digital devices, media, and infrastructures—positively and negatively affect our maneuverability within the discursive infrastructures we inhabit.


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