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Narratives of the Tech War

I’m pleased to announce the start of a new research project. Following up on our successful project on digital sovereignty narratives in Germany, Kai Oppermann and I want to extend this line of inquiry. Our initial project was mainly concerned with reconstructing how actors speak of digital sovereignty. We now move to a part of the question why they do it, focusing on the idea that there is some kind of international „tech war“ or innovation race going on. We are very grateful to the German Foundation for Peace Research for funding a one-year pilot project which we will use to collect data and develop a full-scale grant proposal.

The project

In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that artificial intelligence (AI) would define the future – whoever led in this technology would rule the world. Since then, there has been widespread discussion about an „AI arms race“, which refers not only to the dynamics of autonomous weapons systems, but AI technology leadership in general. AI technology is thus a prime example of a broader trend in which great powers compete for dominance over technological innovation in the new era of great power politics. High tech is both a means of power and a status symbol. While this is not historically unique – remember the „Sputnik shock“ – the rhetoric is much harsher than it has been for decades.

The research project aims to analyse the international conflict potentials of the digital „tech war“ between the USA, China and the EU. To this end, the prevailing interpretations of digital technology competition in the interaction between the USA, China and the EU are to be elaborated, thereby highlighting their security policy implications and possible escalation dynamics. While the US and China are clearly the more important actors in this field, special attention will also be paid to the EU. Specifically, it is a question of how the EU positions itself in the face of increasing US-Chinese tensions and what political positions and strategies it derives from this.

Method

Methodologically, the project assumes that the security significance of the digital technology competition is constructed in political discourse. The effects of this competition on peace and international security are not objective constraints, but arise from the patterns of interpretation of the actors involved. For this reason, the project chooses a narrative-analytical approach that can make these patterns of interpretation visible through the reconstruction of political narratives. For this purpose, relevant strategy and position papers will be evaluated, supplemented by analyses of think tank publications and expert interviews.

This is done for two reasons: Firstly, narratives are constitutive for political discourse and the intersubjective attributions of meaning that take place in them. Secondly, narrative analysis offers a structured and innovative approach to the scientific study of political discourses. For the approved pilot project, the field of artificial intelligence will first be examined in this way as a paradigmatic case study, from which we also hope to gain indications for the analysis of other digital technology fields intended in the overall project.

Contributions

The research project closes a gap in exisiting social scientific treatments of the topic, which have mainly focused on the material dimension of the great power rivalry in the field of digital technologies. In contrast, the project’s social constructivist approach promises new insights into future lines of conflict in the US-China-EU triangle, which are not revealed by a materialist analysis but are conditioned by the respective political interpretations of this rivalry. On the other hand, the project develops points of departure for broader discourse analyses of the emerging systemic conflict between the USA and China.

The relevance of the research project for policy advice lies in the fact that it sheds new light on the significance of digital technologies as an arena and object of international conflict, not least in great power relations. The project shows that the implications of digitalisation for peace and security do not arise solely from the materiality of digital technologies or their practical effects, but that international conflicts can equally be conditioned or exacerbated by the significance attributed to these technologies politically, for example with regard to status, reputation or strategic autonomy in international politics. To share these ideas, the project uses practices of open science and disclose our progress in blogs (like this one) and through social media. In addition, results are to be disseminated through a variety of channels.

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