Cyberpeace: post-war is war, only more so


Part II of our series on cyberpeace
Cyberpeace-Logo Taube 'digital': CC BY-SA 3.0 mit Nennung "Sanne Grabisch für die Cyberpeace-Kampagne des FIfF"

Matthias Schulze very competently argues that 'cyberwar' is not war in any way that we usually understand war. I'm sympathetic. But in deconstructing the term 'cyberwar' Matthias also hopes to eliminate the term 'cyberpeace' because, as the implied binary of 'cyberwar', it would no longer be necessary. I'm going to argue that 'cyberpeace' is more than semantic nonsense. It's a term that makes cyberwar more salient in the public imaginary of the Internet and implicitly militarizes the discussion.

Almost too pretty to kill. CC BY-NC-SA by Elisabeth D'Orcy

Almost too pretty to kill. Source: el arma homicida by Elisabeth D'Orcy under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Most of us can still remember 2008, when Obama won the election to become the President of the USA. This was initially taken as a sign that America had become 'post-racial', i.e. that race was no longer politically or socially relevant and the obstacles had been overcome. However, within hours there were also calls for Obama to focus on fixing racial inequality, and it was also observed how odd it was for voters and the media to obsess about his race while declaring race to be irrelevant. Six years later, Obama is pleading for calm during a wave of 'race protests'.

Attaching the label 'post-' to something is often a way of justifying an obsession with the thing by means of analytical detachment. A colleague of mine once quipped that 'good post-structuralists are really all structuralists', and he's right. Similarly, a post-modernist loves nothing more than to bemoan modernity (take it from me). Calling a place post-Soviet emphasises the relevance of the Soviet past on whatever the present is supposed to be, so the 'Soviet' is still very present despite the 'post-' disclaimer.

So the first way of interpreting the term 'cyberpeace' is as a binary to cyberwar that tacitly reinforces the concept of cyberwar. If cyberwar is what we have now, cyberpeace is the glorious post-cyberwar future, but until then we have an indefinite period of cyberwar. By accepting the dream of cyberpeace, one also accepts the reality of cyberwar. But it might be more insidious even than that.

Educated Germans have always been very conscious of how the language and - to a lesser extent - how society is gendered ever since I've been able to follow the conversation. There is a range of candidate conventions to make German more gender-neutral or inclusive and opinions about which is best. There are also occasional suggestions that gender-neutral language should be mandatory in certain kinds of public communication, like advertisements and news stories. Enforcing the proper use of pronouns and underscores is, however, much cheaper and easier than actually changing structural inequalities. Arguing over grammar is politically much easier than, say, giving women legal control over 50% of a country's GDP or a corporation's capital. Saying 'ProfessorInnen' is cheaper and easier than actually hiring them, but it feels like a painless and constructive change. Meanwhile, only 12% of corporate executive boards are staffed by women, and men in Germany make about 22% more money than women. What's the feminine plural of 'sucker' in German?

Peacemaker or Peacemaker_In? Public Domain

Peacemaker or Peacemaker_In? Public Domain

The analogy of gender-neutral language is meant to demonstrate that the topic of a public discussion can distract from its actual substance, and that this usually helps those who prefer the status quo to whatever real change the discussion is ostensibly about. If we consider this in terms of cyberpeace, we should ask ourselves who will be in charge of pursuing cyberpeace. (I say 'pursue' because we can safely assume that, just like conventional peace, it will never be achieved.) Which ministry or interest groups would be most likely to be made responsible for this 'good' and receive the resources to secure it? Generally, when it comes to peace, we look to the most heavily armed in society, like soldiers armed with weapons and politicians armed with soldiers (or killer robots nowadays). There is no reason to assume that cyberpeace would be any different. If we assume that militaries will be the providers of large scale peace in meatspace instead of, say, parents and teachers, why wouldn't we give the responsibility to pursue cyberpeace to the same structures rather than, say, libraries, who are incidentally desperately looking for ways to demonstrate their continued relevance and have experience in helping people be civil around words and pictures?

Of course, this argument doesn't apply to all instances of 'peace'. When someone is looking for 'peace and quiet' or says 'rest in peace', those are moves in different language games and potentially even different forms of life. Cyberpeace, however, is a move in the language game where, thanks to linguistic trolling, states and militaries have already established themselves as the primary players and the form of life is, tragically, distributing death. Cyberpeace might have been a good word before anyone had ever heard of cyberwar, but that genie is out of the bottle.

If you're with me this far, then the term 'cyberpeace' is not only dangerous because it implies a binary of cyberwar in a topically acute discussion, but it reinforces the chronic structures whose business is enmity and war.


To achieve peace, extend an olive branch - with a good scope. (Source: "United Nations soldiers, part of United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), monitoring Eritrea-Ethiopia boundary." by Dawit Rezene under CC BY-SA 1.0)

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