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2019/01/14Turning to the Datasphere for Insight into Strategic Challenges in Digital Transformation, by Frederick Douzet and Alix Douzet, GEODE

‘Géopolitique de la Datasphère’ (GEODE) is a research and training centre dedicated to the study of the strategic and geopolitical challenges of the digital revolution.  Backed by Université Paris 8 as part of the French Geopolitics Institute (IFG), it is rooted in a pure tradition of innovation in the human and social sciences as well as the experimental sciences. Its multidisciplinary team, which brings together researchers from Université Paris 8, Université Paris 5, the Saint-Cyr Military Academy, Université Savoie, the French National Research Institute for the Digital Sciences (Inria) and the École normale supérieure (ENS), is clearing the ground for a new field of research, namely strategic studies of the digital space, and developing a new discipline that combines geopolitics and data science.

GEODE has been short-listed as a candidate for the “Centre of Excellence” label of the French Ministry of the Armed Forces. Its ambitions are twofold. One is to study the datasphere as a geopolitical entity in its own right, with an analysis of the defence and security challenges involved and specific mapping. The other is to use datasphere resources to conduct geopolitical analyses — i.e. to develop tools to collect, leverage and represent large volumes of data for purposes of geopolitical analysis.

The advances being made in the global interconnection of information and communication systems are transforming the strategic environment in profound ways. They are giving rise to new threats as well as new opportunities. They are placing within everybody’s reach powerful tools for expression, influence, propaganda and intelligence as well as large volumes of data — but also formidable attack vectors, for better or for worse. They are promoting the rise in power of new private players in cross-border activities, possessed of an unprecedented ubiquity on the international scene and behaving as both a challenge to State sovereignty and a sometimes essential partner in States’ exercise of their sovereign powers. Thus they are transforming power relations, not only between one State and another, but also among States, non-State players and the private sector.

The concept of cyberspace has contributed significantly to shaping the strategies of the States that have embraced it since the mid-2000s. Examination of the representations of cyberspace in the strategy literature reveals States’ apprehension about this new environment. This apprehension is also reflected in the organisation of the State and the establishment of new organisations to deal with these new threats. These are becoming increasingly complex and multifaceted as the technological breakthroughs and strategic surprises underpinning the digital revolution continue to unfold unpredictably.

However, the concept of cyberspace hardly conveys the magnitude of the challenges confronting States as they grapple with digital transformation. The notion of the datasphere encompasses, in a single concept, the strategic challenges tied to cyberspace as well as the geography of the movement and management of data, the understanding of the information space, the cartography of topological networks, and the merger of geolocated and non-spatialised data. It also allows us to apprehend the challenges to come in a world increasingly governed by algorithms and artificial intelligence, with the augmented power of quantum computing — a world whose geography we must endeavour to understand.

The datasphere must be understood as a social and spatial construct that reflects challenges tied to power as well as political, social, technological and organisational choices with strategic implications. These data, then, are not neutral. They are the products of social groups and reflect the strategies and representations of the players who produce them. They are transforming the strategic environment and geopolitical power relations. Therefore, the concept of the datasphere encompasses the challenges of cyberspace in a broader outlook that takes into account data’s growing importance and disruptive power.

The major scientific challenge lies in developing concepts, methods and tools to process, analyse and visualise massive amounts of data with a view to better understanding the geography of the datasphere as well as the geopolitical power relations and contemporary conflicts that it exposes and engenders. The time has come to combine geopolitics and data science in order to understand the strategic challenges of the digital revolution.