Book Review

Pax Technica (Philip Howard)


With a subtitle of “How The Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up”, I was optimistic for Philip Howard’s book on the Pax Technica. The premise of the book may be summarized as

Just as eras of stability arose from the dominance of the Romans, British, and Americans, a new stability is being forged, not in the physical world per se, but online. The “Pax Technica” arises from the alignment of the wishes of states, the desires of people, and the know-how of technology firms.

The Idea of Pax

Many people are familiar with the Pax Romana, a period of (relative) global stability brought about by the hegemony of the Roman empire, and the city of Rome in particular. After the collapse of the Roman state, stability had to wait until the Pax Britannica, when the British colonial empire connected the globe and increased trade. After the fall of the Empire, the Pax Americana arose after World War II, when the United States helped rebuild Europe.

Characteristics of a Pax

One of the main features of a pax is that, for the most part, the actions and desires of other actors, be they nation-states, companies/businesses, or citizens, can be reasonably anticipated. That is, essentially everyone knows what everyone else wants, and, crucially, that those wants are aligned. There are few, if any “rogue actors” who threaten the stability.

Notice that “pax” does not equal “peace”. Battles and conflict may break out but for the most part the relative strength of the players involved will not change.

The Pax Technica

Howard argues we are entering a new pax, the Pax Technica. This pax arises due to several factors:

  • More and more people are connecting themselves via the internet.

  • State actors are increasingly concerned about cyberwarfare, promoting the knowledge economy, and becoming more efficient in how services are rendered.

  • Citizens and civic groups are demanding more transparency and openness in government.

  • The barrier to entry for developing a basic technological good or service has been lowered, making it possible for people to help themselves and organize if the state will not or cannot.

Individually, these factors are not sufficient to generate a set of shared expectations and common beliefs. For instance, citizens demanding increased transparency in government often find themselves at odds with states which operate on a closed-door basis. When taken together, these factors suggest that citizens, governments, and businesses all have similar goals; namely, to use data to inform better decicision making, to provide openness, and to foster collaboration.

The Pax Romana worked by the strength of the Roman state. The Pax Britannica worked because of both Britain’s military strength and its economic dynamism. The Pax Americana works because of America’s economic wealth. How could the Pax Technica work? I would conjecture it’s by providing real, useful information to those who need it, and by lowering the barrier to entry for working with that information. The Pax Technica could work because the Internet of Things will be created.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

Although the phrase IoT is still being defined, for the sake of discussion let’s define it as “a set of devices - computers, servers, sensors, etc. - all communicating with one another over the Internet”. The IoT stands in contrast to the Internet of People, which we experience surfing the web, sending an email, or posting a link. The IoT may operate in the background of our lives - devices communicating and interacting in ways we may not necessarily know, but whose effects will be seen in the course of our day-to-day lives.

The IoT helps bring about a Pax Technica by providing a valuable resource - data. Data is what helps firms decide what product lines to develop. Data helps citizens understand the needs of their community, be it potholes that need to be fixed or how to pay their taxes. Data helps the state understand the actual behavior of its citizenry, and allows it to craft policies appropriately.

Howard provides several examples of how the beginnings of the IoT are already providing tangible benefits to the Pax Technica:

  • In Nairobi, Kenya, there is an area known as Kibera. Despite being a place where hundreds of thousands of peope were living, prior to 2009, there were no official maps of the area. By providing the locals with access to GPS devices and mobile phones, a map was created, revealing a diverse and flourishing community in a place previously labeled as forest on official maps.

  • Data on networks and communications between members of gangs and government administrations betrays so-called “dirty networks” of influence and corruption. Banking records, travel information, etc. can all be put together to identify people who are unjustly appropriating resources of the state for their own personal gain.

  • In sub-Saharan Africa there is a lack of traditional banking systems for poorer customers, who often reside in rural areas and for whom transit to a major city or village is difficult. In 2007, M-Pesa brought a novel money storage and transfer system to the area using cell phones. No branches necessary.

These examples show that while the Pax Technica is not yet here, individuals and other groups are taking steps in that direction, ableit unconcsciously.

Recommendation: Skim It

While the premise of the book’s title is bold, the actual text is a little repetitive. Several examples are repeated across the book. In addition, Howard sometimes brings out technical content in a way which struck me as trying to impress people by making them afraid of technology. Of course, the intended audience for this book is policy makers, not scientists, so perhaps one should not have expected otherwise.