Australia & the Internet of Everything

Dr. David A. Bray

Distinguished Fellow

Stimson Center

Over the last week I’ve been in both Canberra and Sydney, Australia meeting with industry and government leaders regarding cyber strategies for the Internet of Everything (IoE) as part of a five-week Eisenhower Fellowship. During the week, I’ve been reflecting upon the different views I’ve heard across sectors, pondering how I could synthesize these conversations differently than the two personal views on Taiwan and the IoE that I’ve already done.

Of note, Australia and Taiwan both are “bridges” between the West and the East. They both are export-driven economies: Australia = raw materials, Taiwan = manufacturing. Both nations are home to approximately 23-24 million people, though with sizable differences in national land mass. As multi-party democratic nations (noting Australia’s parliamentary system and ties to a constitutional monarchy), they both are experiencing changes in how the public electronically interfaces with industry and with government through the internet.

Perhaps then, for my time in Australia, it makes sense that a similar set of themes compared to the IoE in Taiwan have arisen – particularly regarding the disruptive nature of advances in technology not only to industry, but also to modern national governments.

If one adopts a world view that technology itself is amoral, i.e., nuclear energy can be used both to power homes and create bombs, gunpowder can provide self-defense or aid in committing murder, biotechnology can feed millions or create weapons of mass destruction – then a central question becomes how do we as a world organize to make deliberate choices in how we use globally accelerating advances in digital and physical internet technologies?

Nation-States and the Peace of Westphalia

Ever since the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the concept of co-existing sovereign states has been one means by which we humans organized our social use of technology to live our lives, grow economies, and operate political systems to determine state goals.

Yet for democratic nations, rarely does the internet stop at national borders. Ideas and intellectual property can be digitized and shared transnationally. The rise of the IoE, combined with the rise of 3D mass fabricators, means that new inventions developed in one nation can be digitized and transmitted half a world away for fabrication. This means as both consumer adoption of the internet and the IoE accelerates, this adoption will also disrupt some of the concepts of Westphalian nation state to include the idea of national physical borders.

The speed of information sharing and decision-making on the internet also may disrupt the democratic multi-party system for nations which historically relied on tension between different parties to provide checks-and-balances in decision making.

Specifically: tensions within multi-party democratic systems intentionally slow down the process of committing to a course of action and moving forward to implement it -- in exchange for introducing safeguards against corruption and abuse of power. While I, for one, like the checks-and-balances present in a democratic multi-party system, as technology and globalize accelerates it is worth asking: will single-party systems be able to capitalize on technology change faster?

For example: every ten years, Singapore as a government adjusts its “fifty year” plan for the nation’s success. By the admission of several leaders in Australia, Singapore over the last thirty has surpassed them in transnational shipping on global exports partly due to their ability to focus on a continuously updated fifty year plan.

In contrast, Australia currently faces challenges of friction between parties and a combination of election cycles and the ability to launch a “no confidence debate” against the Prime Minister that generates significant uncertainty for both government agencies and businesses planning for two years ahead, let alone ten or fifty years ahead.

The transparency of the internet also removes the ability for multiple parties in a democracy to return to their constituents and claim victory over a political compromise, without revealing what they gave up as part of the compromise to other parties. It could be that internet transparency erodes the ability for moderate members of any party to work in collaboration with members of other parties. What might this mean for the health of long-term, modern democratic processes?

One refrain I heard in Australia was a lament that government was “too slow” or “too uncertain”, that the individuals wanted “faster, concerted action” – yet it’s worth asking, if such multi-party systems were to move faster, would it be at the expense of checks-and-balances or even being a multi-party democratic system? Are there ways we can achieve both speed and democratic representation without becoming single-party political systems?

The IoE and 3D mass fabricators

I have no doubt that significant benefits from 3D mass fabricators will be realized by society. Yet one would be remiss if we didn’t consider already troubling signs that 3D mass fabricators may in the future allow production of items at home once limited to only nation-states or sophisticated companies.

Unfortunately when the terrorists attacks occurred in Mumbai in 2008, the same technologies used by consumers for benefit in our lives – mobile phones, GPS, search engines, and social network sites – were also used to plan and execute the tragic attacks.

Human nature hasn’t changed: as a species we use technology to do great things and also do not-so-great things to each other.

3D printing no doubt will have both great and not-so-great uses by individuals. In the future, bad actors could use the internet for distribution of digital designs to build explosive drones or other incendiary devices using 3D mass fabricators. In addition, the fact that 3D printing of bio materials currently is both a reality today and one that’s rapidly maturing should give pause.

How will either the public or private sectors provide stability and security to people in a world 10-12 years from now, when commercially available 3D printers will allow individuals to print custom-designed biological or chemical materials?

Also from my conversations in Australia (and also Taiwan) – at what point does the accelerating future of the IoE, combined with the rise of 3D mass fabricators, challenge the central tenets of multi-party democracies to adapt both to a changing global, technological environment and also provide stability and security to its people?

In 2013 there were seven billion network devices on the planet, 2015 there will be fourteen billion, and 2020 experts expect between 50 and 200 billion network devices globally. At the same time the amount of digital content on the planet is doubling every two years, such that by 2022 there will be more digital content than all human eyes on the planet see in the course of one year.

When does the speed of the public sector relative to such global, technological change disrupt the successful model of a Westphalian nation-state?

Closing Thoughts (For Now)

Personally I hope that we can use 2015 and the next few years ahead to make deliberate choices now on how we can reinforce the tenets of multi-party democracies with internet technologies to empower the people further, protect privacy and security in concert, and improve global collaborations. Yet as human nature hasn’t fundamentally changed – and thus the question that I began with: how do we as a world organize to make deliberate choices in how we use globally accelerating advances in digital and physical internet technologies?

Some early ideas are starting to arise from my conversations in Australia. Together we need to experiment in how we organize to make and provide choices regarding technology.

It could be a combination of public empowerment and bottoms-up, public-private hybrids that might offer solutions for our changing world ahead; however I’ll save details until next week after I’ve had further conversations in Sydney and Melbourne.

Sep 17, 2015