By:Edoardo Maria Landoni
Geography and Cyberspace: The Forgotten Value of Territory
Globalization and Territoriality
The ongoing discussion on globalization has bolstered the stance of those who contend that physical distance and geographical location have become less significant, and that nation-states – the quintessential territorial entities – are experiencing a gradual erosion of their territorial integrity. These concepts are by no means new, and as early as the 1940s, Wright (1942) recognized the diminishing importance of geography and distance in the face of rapid technological advancements, particularly in the fields of transportation and communications. Herz (1957) anticipated the reasons for the gradual erosion of the territorial and spatial aspects of state power, giving rise to something different and undoubtedly less well-defined. The same reasons were subsequently embraced fervently by commentators who still perceive globalization as the unifying force behind diverse territorial entities. According to Herz, the borders of nation-states are indeed constantly subject to being bypassed, breached or, paradoxically, closed due to potential “economic necessities”. This can drive both border openness and occasional closures (such as economic blocs or embargoes), as well as the swift dissemination of political ideologies, advancements in aerial warfare capabilities and certainly the threat of atomic warfare. Sprout (1963) proclaimed the end of the significance of geographical configuration and, consequently, the value of territory itself in international dynamics. Sprout observed how the scientific and technological revolution has undermined the basis of traditional strategic speculations based on geography. The speed and capabilities of surface and aerial transportation have reduced the strategic significance of narrow seas and, in general, nullified the potential tactical benefits of natural barriers like large rivers, mountain ranges or expansive plains. Moreover, Sprout argues that the ability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads – from any location on Earth, whether on land or in the middle of the ocean, with precision and accuracy to target and destroy any urban centre – signifies the irrelevance of geography and traditional notions of territoriality. The technological innovation discussed by Sprout is undeniably the defining characteristic and the driving force behind the process of globalization. Wright, Herz, and Sprout were early observers of globalization, predating the popularization of the term and its widespread prevalence in today’s world. Their insights served as a prelude to numerous discussions and analyses surrounding this phenomenon, particularly since the 1990s. The advancements in telecommunications technology during this period have contributed to a perception of the world heavily influenced by globalization. This perspective has prompted the publication of influential works such as “The Death of Distance” (Cairncross, 2000) and “The End of Geography” (O’Brien, 1992). These authors emphasise how the erosion of state territorial sovereignty has been hastened by the emergence of new electronic communication systems and the creation of the wholly artificial realm of cyberspace. In this environment, communication becomes instantaneous, and the cost of interactions is no longer bound by physical distance. Consequently, territorial sovereignty appears to relinquish many of its traditional powers, compelling states to reconsider their security systems. The defense of territorial integrity and borders becomes more nuanced and less linear, necessitating a shift in military doctrines toward a novel concept of warfare: a war that transcends physical territory.
The Geographical Dimension of Cyberspace
The increasing strategic importance of cyberspace in international politics is undeniable. However, it is often perceived and analyzed solely in virtual terms, disregarding its connection to physical and geographical dimensions. Cyberspace undoubtedly collapses time and space in numerous evident ways (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967; McLuhan & Powers, 1996). Nevertheless, this does not imply that our post-telecommunication revolution world has transformed into a complete “global village” – as the advocates of globalization often argue – where physical distance is irrelevant and holds no sway over our social and political life. Surprisingly, there are limited analyses exploring how cyberspace is linked to and influenced by geographic constraints, and the current understanding of this relationship remains ambiguous. There is a distinct lack of comprehensive scholarly discourse on how geographic constraints shape cyberspace, despite the likelihood that such influences will profoundly impact political actions and attitudes toward this domain (Sheldon, 2014).
Indeed, cyberspace is intricately connected to the other operational natural domains, which interact with each other but are not mutually dependent. Unlike the other domains, cyberspace relies on all of them, and thus it would be misleading to consider it completely isolated. It is a human-created reality that unfolds and traverses through the natural domains, merging with them and enabling the formation of an interconnected system that starts as physical and only later becomes virtual. The physical infrastructure that supports the network includes fiber optic cables spanning across the globe – underground, under the oceans, seas, and lakes – as well as land-based radio cells, satellites in space, and the electromagnetic spectrum traversing the airspace. This segment of cyberspace is intertwined with geographical space, which means that geography imposes both constraints and opportunities on the space that is typically perceived as purely virtual. The physical infrastructure forms the foundation for the virtual superstructures (syntactic or logical level and semantic level (Libicki, 2009) comprising protocols, languages, and programs that sustain this artificial environment as a whole. Yet, even within its logical dimension and virtual relationships, glimpses of the geographical dimension can still be discerned (Limonier et al., 2021).
Although cyberspace has the ability to bridge distances and to some extent equalize geographical locations, it is essential to acknowledge the presence of its physical network infrastructure, which remains subject to location constraints. The influence of atmospheric elements, the “centripetal force”of territoriality, and both state and non-state actors with political influence over the territory can directly control or potentially sabotage this infrastructure. Geopolitical factors and dynamics have played a significant role in the development of telecommunications infrastructure – from the laying of telegraph cables in the second half of the 19th century to the most advanced fiber optic cables – and have influenced the structure of cyberspace, both in terms of its physical components and its logical framework. Presently, the escalating competition between China and the United States is once again reshaping and reconfiguring the cyber realm on both its physical and logical levels. It is crucial to recognize the territorial dimension of this competition and not underestimate its importance.
Technological Race, Territorial Competition and Cyber Power
Given the increasing reliance on these technologies, it is imperative for societies to develop technical capabilities that minimize vulnerability and mitigate the risk of potential attacks. Furthermore, as advanced societies become increasingly interconnected, the potential targets also grow in magnitude (Arquilla, 2021). As a result, societies organized in less defined territorial units become highly vulnerable when they become more interconnected, lacking the protective barriers and borders that could shield them. However, it is important to note, as both Arquilla (2012) and Gartzke (2013) acknowledge, that while network disruptions to critical national infrastructure, such as transportation, energy, and finance systems, pose deceptive threats, they are temporary in nature. Unlike bombings or physical destruction of military assets, cyberwar inflicts short-term damage on its targets. Although the repercussions of shutting down power grids, closing airports, or disrupting communication can be tremendous, most of the resulting damage can be repaired swiftly and with relatively modest investment of tangible resources. In order to achieve politically significant objectives, cyber attacks must be integrated with other conventional warfare tactics. Once more, it is evident that physical presence continues to play a crucial role even in what are referred to as “cyber wars”. To accomplish their goals these wars cannot be limited solely to the digital realm; they must also project force in physical space and territories.
Despite the relatively low risk of causing extensive loss of life, a cyber-attack still possesses the capability to inflict substantial harm on contemporary societies. As technology continues to advance and become increasingly integrated into our daily lives, the pursuit of technological superiority has shifted to a race for collective security that states must actively engage in. In order to excel in this competition, major powers require both robust infrastructure and access to data. The possession of extensive infrastructure enables greater data extraction and utilization. The greater the amount of data one possesses, the greater the advantage in staying ahead (Balestrieri, & Balestrieri, 2019). While data may be intangible, they are derived from tangible elements that are dispersed across geographical and political spaces. The geopolitical organization of these spaces consequently influences the ability to extract data. Thus, the provision of infrastructure for data extraction and processing becomes indispensable for attaining a dominant position in technological competition. The United States and China, through their pursuit of zones of influence, cooperation, alliances, or even neo-colonial forms (Bills, 2001), shape the geographical distribution of cyber infrastructure, which is subsequently reflected in virtual pathways (Douzet, 2014). These two powers are actively working to strengthen their positions in the competition for technological dominance. Their aim is to secure zones of influence where they can exercise control over data flows effectively and excluding their rival power. Simultaneously, they are fueling their own technological development, particularly through artificial intelligence and machine learning. This is a real territorial clash that manifests itself on a physical level through the establishment of infrastructure and the acquisition of technologies to capture digital raw materials and drive their respective digital innovations (Pearce, 2013). Viewing through this lens, it is possible to analyse different case studies such as the 5G supply in Europe or the race between the US and China to meet new demand for connectivity in Africa. As the race for technological dominance continues, it is essential for policymakers, researchers, and society to recognize the multifaceted nature of this competition. Understanding the interplay between technology, geopolitics, and territorial dynamics is vital in navigating the evolving landscape of the digital era. It is only in the concurrent examination of the dual articulation of the “virtual” space – geographic and logical – and the political depth of the cyber phenomenon that it is possible to reassemble the exact picture of the opportunities and challenges that digital transition anddependence poses at the political communities of the international system.
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The opinions expressed in this article is of the author alone. The Spykman Center provides a neutral and non-partisan platform to learn how to make geopolitical analysis. It acknowledges how diverse perspectives impact geopolitical analyses, without necessarily endorsing them.