For better or worse, we live in fast-changing times. Advances in physical and digital technologies have made it possible to gather, store and analyse data on a scale and in ways that would have been unimaginable a short time ago. With this comes a number of new challenges. Questions over the threat of autonomous weapons, rise of mass surveillance, and new domains of warfare in cyberspace abound. These developments hold serious ramifications for the way wars are fought, peace is kept and trade is conducted. Technology, it seems, has never felt so important to International Relations. Unfortunately, however, despite the significance of these new technologies to IR, innovations in how they are conceptualised have been slow to materialise. Until now.
This is the intriguing opening gambit of Marijn Hoijtink and Matthias Leese in their book Technology and Agency in International Relations. Questions of technology itself are not new to IR – everything from gunpowder to the atomic bomb has had a profound impact on how relations between states are structured – but the old ways of answering them are no longer adequate. In their introductory chapter, How (not) to talk about technology, Hoijtink and Leese make the shortcomings of previous approaches abundantly clear by identifying two main failings.
The first is seen in what they regard as a prevailingly “determinist” reading of technology throughout the history of IR scholarship. Characterised by a binary assumption that technology is either fully controlled by or completely distinct from human agency, this causal perspective oversimplifies to the point of distortion. It neglects to consider how these technologies are developed and the politics at play in the process. Treating technologies as a given in this way inhibits sophisticated analysis.
The second failure stems from more broadly from how agency is conceptualised in IR. Mainstream scholarship has long been preoccupied with the traditional agent-structure problem, i.e. whether human action or social structures are more important in analysing international politics. In an age of human-machine partnering and “autonomous” technologies, one wonders if this duality is still appropriate.
The old ways of talking about technology and agency are unable to capture the essence of new technologies at a time when understanding them is more important than ever. For all the rhetoric of robots replacing humans, it seems more likely they will be assisting them. This nuance of how these machines are built and how we interact with them will therefore be critically important to understanding modern technology in IR. In a “human-machine assemblage” or “socio-technical system”, how do we identify agency? Who or what can be said to be producing an effect? Can a machine ever truly act “autonomously”?
Hoijtink and Leese are explicit in their efforts to remedy these failings. They propose a new conversation around the old themes of technology, agency and IR in two ways.
First, they seek to unpack technologies to “render them political.” This means turning our attention towards precisely how these technologies are constructed, implemented and used. By broadening our horizons to consider not just the technology itself, but “the politics that go into technology, as well as the politics that emanate from technology”, they introduce an important new dimension of analysis these debates have previously lacked.
Second, they seek to understand agency as relational and interactional, prioritising how technologies “(co-)produce, alter, transform and distribute agency within international politics.” When it comes to questions of technology, they suggest moving away from focusing solely on what actors do (i.e the outcomes) and towards examining how agency is produced (i.e. the process). From this perspective, agency is contingent, emergent and dynamic – not an attribute of actors but a product of interaction between them.
What Hoijtink and Leese propose is a marked departure from mainstream IR scholarship. They are therefore wise in looking further afield for inspiration, drawing upon Science and Technological Studies and New Materialism to substantiate their proposals. The rejection of anthropocentrism and a willingness to embrace non-human ‘actants’ common to these fields opens entirely new avenues of analysis for IR scholarship at a time when bold and creative thinking is greatly needed. It is a welcome development that this turn is rapidly gaining traction.
Heeding the call for a new approach and armed with a more refined understanding of how we should talk about technology in IR, the contributors to this book tackle a wide array of topics. Familiar subjects such as drones and autonomous weapons are engaged from creative new angles while less prominent technologies such as electronic visa systems and algorithmic policing are subject to timely scrutiny. The diversity of technologies examined reiterates the importance of these questions to contemporary IR scholarship.
There is a clear need to think broadly and creatively about technology in IR today, which Hoijtink and Leese prove highly capable of. Their book poses a number of perceptive questions in this regard. From where we stand, at the advent of physical and digital technologies equipped with AI and Big Data analytics, the feeling of dramatic transformation is palpable. IR scholarship must keep pace. Talk of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS), algorithmic counterterrorism monitoring, and “smart” (surveilled) cities is already generating profound implications for relations within and between states. At this exciting and disorientating juncture, the need for conceptual clarity is profound. And while the potential of many “revolutionary” technologies may not yet be realised, this book is a welcome guide to how we can adequately discuss and proactively address them.
Hoijtink, M., & Leese, M. (2019). Technology and Agency in International Relations. Routledge.