Emergence of a digital natural environment

Reading time: 13 minutes

Translation by AB – May 1, 2020


One lives, it seems to me, like Gran’s knitting, from one stitch to the next, and only after a long time you realize it’s a jersey.

André Brink – The Wall of the Plague

Technics

The revolution in digital technology is unparalleled in history. It is overwhelming and our representations are struggling to adapt. We are therefore engaged in a conceptual marathon, in the hope of being able to speak in time about this new world and to find our place in it. Puissance & Raison is only one of the participants in this “Semiothon” and everyone, whether researcher, journalist, philosopher… follows his own method to take up this challenge: to share with as many people as possible his convictions, lexical work, prophecies, about a revolution that is first of all technical.

This is a real challenge because technology in itself is not a subject for the vast majority of people who are primarily concerned with living and, for the luckiest, consuming useful and pleasant things. This is quite normal. But for those who want to continue to exercise a right to freely control their destiny, understanding the technical environment has become a necessity.

We dived with Trevor Paglen along submarine cables. Now it’s time to get out of the water and continue with an “impressionistic” exploration into the atmosphere and into space. We will be able to observe that the digital network is becoming a digital medium, a “biotope” whose biocenosis is the set of “informational agents” (From the infosphere to a gaseous ethic), connected humans, machines and objects.

Growth

In 2018, just over 50% of the world’s population is connected to the Internet (4 billion Internet users). But humans are not alone: to date, there are 25 billion connected objects. Seen from the network, a human is an object like any other. This network thus sees around 30 billion “elements”. Integrating more and more of these elements is the main dynamic of the “digital system”, a term that does not allude to a hypothetical conspiracy of machines but simply refers to the digital infrastructure and its dynamics.

First, connect the other half of humanity. This is not the most profitable, but let us remember that the issue at stake is neither economic, nor social, nor even political. It is simply a matter of mechanical growth. Second, add as many objects as possible (“Internet of Things – IoT”, etc.). This movement is not motivated by the need to serve more uses, potentially useful, pleasant, etc. It’s pretty much the reverse movement. The nature of the system is to integrate more elements, not to serve needs a priori identified. These needs are also completely indifferent from the point of view of the digital system, for which all is only flow of numbers (the “need” of an object or of a human are technically equivalent). So, it’s sort of a technical manifestation of a blind “will to power”.

Let’s explore some actions, technologies and players that serve this dynamic of growth.

Stratosphere

A player like Alphabet (Google etc.) must push the most global connection to the Internet in order to “drill” into the largest possible number of data fields. At first, we resist a little but we end up accepting a very simple “deal”: the more data we provide (so the more we are connected), the better the services. This is perfectly true in the digital world but it is now becoming so in the physical world thanks to Connected Objects. The deal then gradually turns into an injunction. Without sufficient data supply via smartphones, social media, bracelets, objects, GPS… we are going offside.

Alphabet (or Facebook, Amazon and the like) must force the development of infrastructures to secure the supply of data and connect more and more elements. Alphabet first focused on those excluded from the Internet and how to bring them into the common home. It is obviously impossible to wire the surface of the globe and to develop this rhizome down to the smallest house, hut, yurt… It must therefore be done by air.

For example, Alphabet/Google has taken an interest in a solar-powered UAV project and, in 2014, bought Titan Aerospace, a company specializing in this type of equipment. Let’s imagine thousands of drones maintained at an altitude of around 20 kilometers all around the world:

Google Titan Drone

Drone Titan Aerospace

This project was stopped at the end of 2016. Another project called “Loon”, launched in 2011, was more successful. The idea is similar, but this time it involves using stratospheric balloons:

Projet Loon de Google - Ballon stratosphérique

Projet Loon de Google – Ballon stratosphérique

The first commercial contract was signed in 2018 with Kenya1:

Rather than broadcasting via fixed antennas, which are heavy in terms of infrastructure and not very efficient in mountainous topographies, Project Loon uses helium balloons, equipped with antennas and powered by photovoltaic panels. These fly in the stratosphere at an altitude of 20 kilometers, well above storms and airliners. Each can provide 4G over 5,000 square kilometers of surface area […]. Artificial Intelligence raises or lowers the balloon in the sky to take advantage of air currents, and thus move optimally. The balloon has a lifespan of six months before making a controlled descent to the ground.

Of course, this great improvement for the local populations has a counterpart:

While the contract is broadly welcomed, it also raises concerns about the establishment of a possible monopoly. Users covered only by Loon would not be able to turn to competition if prices were too high.

Countries are masters of their own territory and frequency bands, but once installed, digital equipment or services become immovable. Whoever masters this equipment or service leaves a definitive trace of his or her power over the territory of use. Facebook, for its part, has attempted a drone project, the “Aquila” project, abandoned in 20182The company has apparently decided to stop investing directly in these technologies. Whatever happens to these initiatives, the way ahead is clear. The digital system may temporarily retreat or take other paths, but it is growing tirelessly …

Constellations

A satellite constellation is a collection of several hundred satellites positioned in low orbit (a few hundred kilometers) and offering full internet coverage of the earth’s surface. The idea is not new. Alcatel explored this possibility in the late 1990s with its SkyBridge project. It was to compete directly with an older project, Teledesic, funded in part by Bill Gates (Microsoft). But all these projects (such as Iridium, Globalstar…) were swept away in 2002 by the bursting of the Internet bubble3. This lost generation gave way to the one we know today (GAFAM…) and which, having amassed sufficient means, launched its own constellation projects. These began to emerge in the years 2013-2014 as O3b (“Other 3 Billion”, a clear reference to unconnected humans) and WorldVu (descendant of the late SkyBridge)4.

Developing and maintaining a constellation of satellites requires a lot of resources. So, the big internet players, telecommunications and space are leading the way. Around these initiatives, Google, SpaceX (Elon Musk), Virgin Galactic, Facebook, Airbus Defence and Space, Arianespace, Qualcomm… not to mention China, of course. These projects are now becoming operational. The full global network has been launched. The commercial launch of OneWeb (new name of the WorldVu initiative) is thus planned for 2021. On February 27, 2019, Arianespace successfully launched the first 21 satellites of this constellation (out of a total planned of more than 6005.

Constellation de satellites OneWeb

Constellation de satellites OneWeb

After some setbacks, SpaceX has been authorized at the end of 2018 to launch its Starlink constellation of 7500 satellites6. The first two test satellites have been in orbit since last month. Of course, China is in the race with its project for a Hongyan constellation of more than 300 satellites7. It should be operational in 2022.

The battle of the constellations is launched and the least square centimeter of land, sea, mountain, desert should have access to the internet around 2022. It remains to be seen who will be master of this digital biotope (and who will be in charge of circulating it and cleaning in a severely congested nearby space).

Fifth Generation (5G)

However, it is on earth that the most intense battle is being fought, that of mastering 5th Generation (5G) telecommunications infrastructures. This subject does not seem unusual: after 3G (which appeared in 2000 and against which we swear when we only have that available …), 4G (massively deployed in Europe from 2013), here comes the 5G. A little better? A little more…. Because the 5G is not quite a generation like the others. Let’s use an image. Particle accelerators launch atoms against a target at high speed. These atoms “break” into small pieces (electrons, protons, quarks…) that can then be studied. The greater the speed, and therefore the energy, the “smaller” these pieces are, the more physicists have access to the “secrets” of matter. The history of particle accelerators is a succession of energy levels. Each step opens the doors to a new physical world.

Similarly, 5G is a fundamental step forward in terms of “flow” (amount of information) and “latency” (time between action and reaction). The latter “throughput/latency accelerator” opens the doors to a new digital world, which will enable every element of the network, human or object, to communicate massively and in real time with the global network. the network becomes an environment.

Things talk to things

There is a difference in nature between a speaker connected locally via Bluetooth with a computer or smartphone and a speaker connected globally, via the Internet, like Echo directly connected to Alexa Artificial Intelligence at Amazon. This connection goes through a “box”, a cable on the Internet, and thus fixes a place of use. But, thanks to 5G, each object will be virtually connected to the Internet by the waves, therefore from anywhere. Each object will theoretically be able to communicate in real time with any other, opening the way to an unprecedented global network, not only informational, but also physical (smart city…). The acceleration of our uses will be phenomenal8. The example of the autonomous car is iconic:

Autonomous vehicles are emblematic of the era of the data. […] A massive amount of data is produced by the vehicle itself; different sensors collect a lot of information to represent the environment during the journey. The vehicle borrows data from other vehicles further down the road to find out the traffic conditions. It can also be weather information or information from the connected infrastructure. There is a lot of data behind this activity that requires capacity and low latency.

Latency”, the time between action and reaction, will become imperceptible with 5G. This is a sine qua non condition for the control of the physical environment by the digital environment and, sometimes, for “illusion”, as suggested by augmented reality devices (which could soon relegate the smartphone to the antique shelf). The possible uses seem to be limited only by imagination. But, in accordance with the thesis of the “strange world” (Adam Curtis and the strange world), they will conform to the concretization of projections that have already been made since the world became technical.

Guerre froide numérique

The economic stakes of 5G are enormous. The key is the renovation of all the infrastructures, the deployment of a new generation of mobile terminals. But above all, there is control of the economic and social infrastructures of tomorrow. Chinese Huawei is now leading the way in 5G technologies. Its ambition is now to become the world’s leading smartphone manufacturer (300 million units expected in 2020). But Huawei is also a network equipment manufacturer and supplier of 5G antennas.

Monaco Huawei

Une anecdote parmi mille : la conquête de Monaco (février 2019)

The Americans do not understand it that way and are doing everything possible to hinder Huawei’s conquest of the globe (after ZTE). They have thus closed their access to their territory under the pretext of “national security” (fear of espionage by Chinese equipment), a rather vague term which allows above all to circumvent WTO rules. The associates of the “Five Eyes” (United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom) have already followed. The United States is thus increasing the pressure on its “partners”: they can threaten to cease their military collaboration with a country considered (rightly or wrongly, whatever) dangerous because it is equipped with Chinese networks. This same country, especially if it is European, will obviously hesitate to compromise its economic relations with China … In a fascinating article (in English), journalist David E. Sanger gives us an account worthy of the great moments of the Cold War9:

A delegation of American officials showed up last spring in Germany, where most of Europe’s giant fiber-optic lines connect and Huawei wants to build the switches that make the system hum. Their message: Any economic benefit of using cheaper Chinese telecom equipment is outweighed by the security threat to the NATO alliance.

One can imagine the embarrassment of Germany (already threatened by the protectionist policy of the United States), or the United Kingdom, which is counting on China for its post-Brexit development. France is facing the same dilemma and is moving forward step by step. Thus, an amendment to the Pact law, presented by the Government at the end of January 2019, makes the installation of radio networks subject to the authorization of the Prime Minister. When the time comes, the issue will therefore be dealt with at the first political level10 :

While operators are required to comply with certain implicit rules (no use of Huawei core network equipment in the Paris region, and no more than 50% of equipment on the networks), SFR’s willingness to override these measures in the Paris region would have prompted the government to take the lead, while trying not to offend the telecoms giant (and the Chinese government), which is well established in France through its many research centers.

Europe, lacking a power strategy (Chine and IA : imperial!), has only the wrong solutions. This is already manifested by the delay taken on the United States and China, which do not waste time in meaningless debates.

Under the guise of an economic and technological battle only understood by specialists, a global “tectonic” repositioning is being played out that will definitively mark the 2020s and seal for a long time the world order that will follow.

The new territories

The digital system thus pushes, on earth, in the stratosphere and even into space, a digital mesh of the globe that tightens into a continuous and latency-free, therefore natural, information environment. The term “network” has often been used to describe the structure of the digital system. However, this term is no longer appropriate. There will certainly remain access and, above all, routing “nodes” (5G antennas, satellites, data centers, etc.). But it will be a true digital environment, a “digital air”, which will make it possible (then necessary?), at any time and in any place, a kind of digital breathing.

Basically, this is the mode of “concretization“, in the sense of Georges Simondon, towards which a global information system, an “infosphere”, in which tens of billions of “informational agents” would circulate (and perhaps cross the number of terrestrial vertebrates whose numbers follow the opposite direction).

We have just seen some of the modalities of this movement of concretization. A planetary race engages the most powerful States and technological actors. In this race, Europe today has neither the political power nor the technological actors that would allow it to remain master of its own digital environment, its own infosphere, within which we could still envisage a form of authentic freedom. As a digital environment, Europe could become a kind of “digital Middle East”, the theater of the Sino-American struggle for digital hegemony.


1. Victoria Castro / Le Figaro – July 30, 2018 – Les montgolfières de Project Loon distribueront Internet au Kenya
2. Business Insider – >June 27, 2018 – Facebook abandonne son projet de drones géants et licencie 16 salariés
3. Jamal Henni / Les Echos – January 2, 2002 – Satellites : Alcatel gèle son projet de constellation SkyBridge
4. Peter B. de Selding / SpaceNews – September 3, 2014 – WorldVu, a Satellite Startup Aiming To Provide Global Internet Connectivity, Continues To Grow Absent Clear Google Relationship
5. Michel Cabirol / La Tribune – February 28, 2019 – Les premiers satellites de la constellation OneWeb en orbite 2019
6. Loren Grush / The Verge – November 15, 2018 – FCC approves SpaceX’s plan to launch more than 7,000 internet-beaming satellites
7. Andrew Jones / gbtimes.com – December 27, 2018 – China to launch first satellite for Hongyan global internet satellite constellation on Saturday
8. Caitlin McGarry / Tom’s Guide – February 25, 2019 – The Truth About 5G: What’s Coming (and What’s Not) in 2019
9. David E. Sanger / New York Times – January 26, 2019 – In 5G Race With China, U.S. Pushes Allies to Fight Huawei
10. Christian D. / Génération Nouvelles Technologies – March 5, 2019 – Huawei : la France aussi chercherait des idées pour freiner la présence du groupe chinois

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