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Technology and data in great power rivalry

Published onJul 11, 2022
Technology and data in great power rivalry

Introduction

Our societies are built on various types of transactions which form flows. These flows can be, for example, financial flows, flows of air and maritime traffic, human migration, or flows of energy (e.g. gas, oil). Data and information flows are constantly increasing their importance for our way of life.

The flows of data between different nodes create a topological system which, in essence, forms the lifeline of the western way of life. This topology can be seen as an evolution of geopolitics where a topological system exists in conjunction with the ‘old’, topography-based geopolitics.

This topology of data flows is dependent on technology, the importance of which is elevated in our contemporary lives. Accordingly, the President of Finland has commented (tweeted) that technology is irreversibly intertwined with great power competition where technology is both the stage of the competition and the prize of the competition.

The importance of data

Yet, without data, the technologies are useless. Moreover, data is the prime ingredient for developing AI – you cannot have AI without data. Indeed, the ability to refine and utilize data increasingly correlates with the transforming global distribution of power. The US Department of Defense calls data the “primary and permanent asset” for a data-centric approach in which data “is the core element in the ongoing geopolitical competition and an integral part of the mission”.

There has been a lot of discussion on how “data is the new oil”, how data is the source of power and wealth. The oil analogy is great as it nicely articulates the importance of data when we think about the role oil has played in great power politics. As with oil, the key question becomes “who has the most data”?

While the analogy is great to spark the imagination, we should also be mindful how data is not ”the new oil”. For example, data is not a scarce resource, there is more data tomorrow than there is today. Further, data is not bound to any geographic area like oil.

Gravitation towards US and Chinese hubs of refined data.

Increasingly, data is gravitating to companies whose origins are either from the US or China; the rapid evolution of data-driven technologies is propelled by US market-based and Chinese state-centric companies. In consequence, the convergence of data towards these two hubs accelerates the divergence of states into the haves and have-nots of data and is likely to result in a realignment of partnership systems.

China has many assets in systemic competition, for example an expanding economy, and investments made in technology. Yet one of its advantages is often overlooked: the amount of data it can collect from its population and utilize, for example for AI training purposes, without the limitations of Western norms and values. This gives China a unique advantage in innovating new data-centric solutions which bring human behavior patterns to the fore. These can be security related (ie can challenge the security architecture) or they can help to create new businesses to disrupt existing businesses.

Further reading

  • Department of Defense, ‘DoD Data Strategy’, 2020.

  • Vuorisalo, Valtteri and Mika Aaltola. ’Towards a data-centric great game.’ Finnish Institute of International Affairs Briefing Paper, November 2021.

  • Wigell, Mikael, Sören Scholvin, and Mika Aaltola. ‘Geo-Economics and Power Politics in the 21st Century: The Revival of Economic Statecraft.’ 1st ed. Vol. 1. Milton: Routledge, 2019. 

  • Zegart, Amy B. ‘Spies Lies and Algorithms. The History and Future of American Intelligence.’ Princeton University Press, 2022.

Valtteri Vuorisalo, Professor of Practice, University of Tampere

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