The Big Picture: Globalization 4.0

I went to Dubai this week for the annual meeting of the Global Future Councils, a project of the World Economic Forum that sets the agenda for the Davos meeting in January. The theme was “shaping a new global architecture” to ensure that the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution roll out to everyone.

These terms need some unpacking. “Global architecture” means institutions, laws, and norms that affect trade, development, and human rights; the fourth industrial revolution is broadband (especially 5G) networks, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and robotics.

4IR, as it’s called, underpins the global economic system, hence Globalization 4.0 goes along with it. The current perils to global cooperation are the return of nationalism, income inequality, and environmental devastation. But this isn’t just some hippie whine-fest, it’s a serious attempt to maximize the good side of technology while reducing the bad side.

Tantalizing Intellectual Buffet

The trouble with gatherings of this sort is deciding which sessions to attend because so many great topics are on the table, from Geopolitics to Augmented Reality. Fortunately, invitees are assigned to specific councils that deal with narrower subjects.

Mine was information and entertainment, which includes personal data collection, content distribution, fake news, social networks, and intellectual property.  We distilled the subject matter down to the essentials and devised a few concrete projects that can be implemented in a year.

The projects with the best chance of success are management of personal data collection – digital privacy – and measures to reduce the impact of fake news. The former needs technical means to audit data collection similar to credit reports but with the additional capability for revising permissions after giving initial consent for data collection. This is very doable.

Fake News is a Very Hard Problem

It’s tempting to say the solution to fake news is media literacy and education, but that falls short of the mark. A key factor is understanding why people are so easily seduced by fake news and how much work we’re willing to do in order to identify it.

Facebook is, of course, the world’s number one hub for the sharing of false information. There are large Facebook groups dedicated to just about every false and misguided belief system and conspiracy theory you can name: anti-vaccination, antisemitism and other forms of racism, food myths, medical placebos, economic isolationism, and dubious forms of technology regulation.

These groups thrive because they provide validation to people whose identities are bound up with false beliefs and alternative facts. People who hold these beliefs don’t like being told they’ve been fooled, but they’re not going to escape until they realize this. There are several ideas about how to do this, all of which overlap with the deprogramming that enables people to escape from abusive cults. Just milder and more persistent.

I suspect that nudging firms like Facebook and Google toward less destructive business models is essential, but that’s obviously not going to be easy and is certainly not a short-term project.

The Globalization 4.0 Theme

The councils recognize that Globalization 3.0 has been good for most people but not for all. Extreme poverty has been radically reduced worldwide over the last 20 years, life expediencies have increased, education is more pervasive, and health is improving.

But extremist movements are on the rise in developed countries, institutions are failing, and social polarization by income and ideology is increasing. Many of these problems are local to nations, but the harder ones are global.

I think it’s fair to say that there’s a consensus among this group that China has radically destabilized international institutions. We see this in trade, banking, and aid, but it’s also a factor in technology.

International Standards are Essential to Technology Development

Those of us who develop networking technologies are acutely aware of the roles played by standards bodies such as IEEE 802, the Internet Engineering Task Force, and the ITU in ensuring interoperability. We can access the Internet from wireless devices all over the world because these standards are uniform across the globe.

It’s not even remarkable that I can engage in chats, open and close my garage door, or schedule a video recording from Dubai, it’s just a fact. This capabilities depend on a long history of technologists making agreements about the way things are going to work.

This system of global agreements falls apart when we’re unable to reach consensus. The Internet we have is fairly fragile and limited because engineers were unable to reach agreement on a better one in the Open Systems Interconnection project of the 1980s. John Day tells the tale of the failure of OSI in his book, Patterns in Network Architecture.

China is Disrupting Networking Standards

Fractured standards aren’t good, and we’re seeing more of them. China devised its own security protocol for Wi-Fi LANs in 2003, WAPI. It was alleged to be compatible with real Wi-Fi, but it wasn’t. The specification was only shared with Chinese firms, and it was mandated by the Chinese government, so it effectively shut out US firms.

In 2011, China devised its own standard for the management of  MPLS optical networks, MPLS-TP OAM, through ITU’s Study Group 15. This standard violated an agreement between the ITU study group and IETF to develop a joint standard. The ITU group was effectively controlled by China and had no real reason to exist.

SG 15 has continued to lend a stamp of approval to other China-driven standards such as Slicing Packet Networks for 5G. This is despite the international consensus that 3GPP is where 5G standards are devised. These standards advantage Chinese firms such as ZTE.

A Pattern of Parallel Institutions

It’s not surprising that a nation that constructs institutions that depart from international norms in trade, banking, and development aid would also create its own technology standards. But it’s not good to bifurcate the complex international norms and agreements that support the global economy.

Hence, it’s important to heal this rift as soon as possible. Technology should be a field where expertise wins and geopolitical manipulation is relatively silent. When the next phase of economic development depends on emerging technologies, control of technology standards has pervasive, global impact.

It’s great to have a nation with China’s resources developing technology products that can be used all over the world. This keeps US firms such as Cisco and European firms like Ericsson on their toes. But at the end of the day, users of these products need to be allowed to choose on the basis of product quality rather than nation-of-origin leverage.

With any luck, this topic will be discussed in Davos. I raised it in a session on geopolitics lead by Julie Bishop, the former Foreign Minister of Australia, and Paula Dobriansky, the Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs in the Bush 43 administration. That’s what I’m doing in the photo.