This report, emerging from ODI’s Power and diplomacy in data ecosystems project, sets out the findings of research unpacking the stakes and challenges related to what we came to consider as ‘critical data infrastructure’, namely the physical architecture enabling the internet and our societies to function. For this project, the ODI’s Data as Culture programme has been commissioned to collaborate with the research team to conduct joint interdisciplinary research and enable new ideas and innovative multi-disciplinary methods, processes and outcomes. Building on her long-term research into nature, data and complex systems, artist Julie Freeman has created a new kinetic data-driven work of art, named ‘Allusive Protocols’, due for launch on 19th May at City Hall, London.
The internet is a complex and multifaceted entity that exists in both virtual and material forms. While the virtual dimension of the internet is often the focus of analysis, governance, regulation, discussions and criticisms, its materiality is equally important to consider and way less well understood. The physical infrastructure that underpins the internet, such as data centres, fibre-optic undersea cables, and satellites, is vital to its functioning and is responsible for the transmission and storage of the vast amounts of data that circulate online. To make the most of this constant flow of data, it is essential to consider both its virtual and material dimensions.
In this report, we investigate how the physical aspects of the internet reveal its vulnerability to global issues like climate change and geopolitical structures. We examine:
- The power dynamics at play in data infrastructures and the (im)balances they reveal worldwide, as well as how the wielding of power by a few groups of actors is changing international power dynamics and relationships.
- The ecological cost of the internet’s material infrastructure (the cloud seems to have a greater carbon footprint than the airline industry) and the necessity of highlighting and investigating this impact further in order to build efficient and sustainable advocacy work around climate change.
- The ways in which data, digital technologies and the technical infrastructure underpinning the internet can be used as a tool for diplomacy, showcasing how the state and private companies are embedded in a complex system of influences, and subsequently redefining traditional international diplomatic rules.
At the ODI we will continue to reflect on global and local dynamics within data ecosystems and we encourage other relevant stakeholders to do the same. We are recognising the tensions within advocating for a world where data works for everyone and some of the findings in this report. We would like to collaborate with organisations who are similarly contemplating these topics, including those working in public sector and civil society, academic and industry researchers, artists and arts organisations, journalists and thought-leaders.
Building on the analysis within this report we suggest further areas of research to be explored with interested partner organisations, including:
- The environmental impact of digital technologies and data infrastructures and how to be more responsible with the volume of data created, stored and processed.
- How to encourage regulatory domains to consider not just international data sharing but also energy use and environmental harms.
- How to counter the commerce-oriented visions of the future being pushed by private sector organisations, by exploring alternative futures that better benefit people and the planet, including those envisioned by other organisations, artists and academics.
If you have any thoughts or feedback on this work, or if you would like to collaborate on Power and Diplomacy, please get in touch via email at [email protected].