Having decided to study Politics and Economics around the issue of cyber-warfare, I started by finding some books in the subject which I have had the least experience in – Politics (having an A-Level in Economics). After a quick library search I found a number of books which should be suitable: “Politics An Introduction” by Axford, Browning, et al; “Key Concepts in Politics” by Andrew Heywood and “Comparative Politics in a Globalizing World” by Jeffrey Haynes. This all seemed like quite a lot to be getting on with, so I (naturally) started with “Politics An Introduction”.
One of the things that I find most intriguing about Politics is the concept of Political Science, how something which to me seems fundamentally about how people interact with each other and make decisions can be studied in a scientific manner. The book starts by seemingly agreeing with me and makes a number of points on how Politics cannot be studied scientifically:
1) One cannot disprove theories such as “is democracy a better form of government that dictatorship”. It is rare that a political questions can be boiled down to a true or false answer. This is further complicated when many disagree on the definitions of certain concepts.
2) It is nearly impossible to replicate methods and results through experimentation or statistical methods. Most political experiments are severely hindered by ethical and logistical implications. There are often only a few number of cases that can be studied when conducting comparative analysis and the use of statistical data often falls foul of representative issue and disputes over the integrity of data sources.
3) Political science relies on visible and measurable phenomena. This is illustrated with the example of ‘false consciousness’ (in which individuals demonstrate a social understanding that is mainly false). One political thesis states that in capitalist societies, the working classes are always in a state of false consciousness, however it is not possible to prove that people are suffering from false consciousness and that as a result they do not act in their own interests.
4) When studying Politics it is essential to consider both facts and values and values may vary considerably between different societies and nations. It is very difficult to incorporate “fuzzy” concepts such as values in to scientific methodology.
5) Finally in social sciences there are no laws (or as the book points out, there are no laws yet). Political phenomena can be classified and probabilistic associations can be made between variables, but it is not possible to state causal relationships.
Therefore having established the constraints of what can and cannot be done when studying Politics (which may seem obvious to some readers, but having never studied a social science (except the rather mathematical Economics) is all quite new to myself) I then started to look into some of the issues that Politics concerns itself with, the first of which the role of people in Politics.
Upon seeing that the first chapter was about the role of the individual in Politics, I thought this had little to do with cyber-warfare and therefore maybe I should skip the chapter and head to some of the juicier stuff on international relations (at least I envisage it to be juicier). However the concept of the individual and identity (and I hope I’m not making too much of a faux pas by treating them synonymously) has cropped up a number of times in Web Science so far and so I thought I should read on and see how these ideas may apply to the Web.
First comes the question as to whether we should study individuals or structures? We can either treat these mutually exclusively, where the study of one does not infer things about the other and also introduces the concepts of individualistic fallacy (treating institutions as a single – large – individual) and ecological or systematic fallacy (treating individuals as if they take on the characteristics of their organisations). Both of these concepts I feel can be important to consider when studying Web Science and the groups and networks that form in the online world.
An alternative way of looking at individuals or structures is that of the reductionist, in which one set of variables can be explained wholly or in part by reference to another set. In this view collective structures are viewed simply as the aggregate behaviour and attitudes of the individuals. This strikes me as being similar to the construction of an object-oriented computer program in which the problem is broken down into smaller solvable problems which combined form the overall solution.
Thirdly there is the structurationist point of view in which structures are the product of day-to-day interactions of individuals. For example shoppers reproduce capitalism when they buy goods in shops even though they are not consciously doing so. This point of view can also seemingly be applied to the Web, for example social networking sites are products of the interactions between users (although I suppose the difference here is that the site is provided to allow people to interact rather than a production of the interactions). Nevertheless the social network site would fail without these constant day-to-day interactions.
To bring this back closer to the topic of cyber-warfare, Enlightenment, the process by which the concept of the individual came into being along with modernity, has also lead to some of histories worse atrocities. The concept of the individual can lead to some groups being excluded or persecuted for their collective attributes, with the book using the examples of the near genocide of the Native American peoples and the Holocaust. Could similar events take place online (without the horror or devastation caused by the aforementioned examples)? The online world can certainly be used to rally groups against other groups in society. The concept of the individual can also be used to illustrate how cyber-warfare could be used by a government against its own people, to restrict the level of individuality any one person may have (similarly to Georeg Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four) – the Web provides a medium with which Big Brother could easily monitor our actions. However it must also be taken into account that the Web helps to further a person’s individuality, giving them access to a wealth of new opportunities (aiding pluralism – a concept which many believe to be a contributor to a healthy political system).
This blog post has got quite lengthy now, however there are still many more points which could be discussed including the use of terror to control society, how the Web has effected citizenship and our rights and what impact cyber-warfare may have upon these issues and how the Web may change an individual’s political competence. The book so far has certainly made for some very interesting reading and its been fascinating to look at a subject which has a very different approach to study. Next I shall try and delve into Economics, before I get too carried away with Politics.