You and Information

This article leads off the magazine’s special feature, “Prepare for the ‘Information Warfare Crisis.’” Yet, it is intended neither as an introduction nor as a summary of the other essays following this one.

By Hiroshi Nakanishi


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This article leads off the magazine’s special feature, “Prepare for the ‘Information Warfare Crisis.’” Yet, it is intended neither as an introduction nor as a summary of the other essays following this one. Instead, my aim is to prepare the reader mentally before reading other essays which inevitably involve some technical discussions. That is why I titled this piece “You and Information.”

The title is a reference to George Orwell’s famous essay, “You and the Atom Bomb.” Published in October 1945, shortly after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the essay argues about the political impact of the atom bomb. It is known as the first writing to use the phrase “cold war,” meaning, “peace that is no peace” among the few superpowers.

At the time, most people did not understand this new invention, the atom bomb. Today it is not much different in the sense that technological advancements bring new concepts and mechanisms at a bewildering pace—way too fast for ordinary people to understand. For example, we now see ChatGPT mentioned in the media every day, but before it was released in November 2022, this service did not exist. In the future, it is quite possible that a mechanism with a tremendous impact on human society could appear out of the blue and turn entirely the previous discussions. At the end of the day, most of us can only discuss new inventions of enormous impact with mere superficial knowledge. Meanwhile, the very few experts who understand the potentials and limitations of the technology do not necessarily have adequate knowledge of politics and society. Yet the situation proceeds—that is the world we live in.

Hence, information, the buzzword in today’s world politics, is, just like the atomic weapon in the past, something we talk as if we understand but we don’t really understand. In truth, the rising interest on information is the amalgamated product of the revival of the elements that were important in the past but had been forgotten, and a new aspect that emerged with the advancement of technology.

The Birth of Propaganda and Its Changes during the Cold War

The former aspect is the element of propaganda in power politics. Words like political warfare, psychological warfare, information warfare, and ideological warfare popped up and became popular from World War I to World War II. These are all concepts derived from the concept of propaganda. For example, The Twenty Years’ Crisis by E.H. Carr, a classic book on international politics, lists “power over opinion” alongside military power and economic power as clout in global politics. Economic and technological development—specifically, the radio, movies, and mass publication—significantly boosted the power to control group opinion. It is said that the communists during the Russian Revolution were the ones who began systematic propaganda. Yet it was the U.S. during World War I that established the modern sense of propagation for the word “propaganda,” which used to refer to Catholic missionary work.

Even today, valuable insight on political use of information could be found in another classic on the subject, Public Opinion published in 1922 by Walter Lippmann, who himself engaged in such activities. “Man……is learning to see with his mind vast portions of the world that he could never see, touch, smell, hear, or remember,” but in that case, man creates a stereotype of the outside world inside his head, and interprets information and behaves to suit that stereotype. “The subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes.”

These phrases are still fundamental for understanding the mechanism of human recognition. For example, those who believe in conspiracy theories have rooted stereotypes, or stories or narratives in today’s terms, that match that theory. Therefore, they cannot help interpreting and selecting information in line with that. The purpose of propaganda is not pouring propagation into people’s mind, but to generate a stereotype that suits their interests within people’s minds.

Later in the interwar years, English-speaking countries avoided the word “propaganda,” and the term “public relations” was invented. However, the interest in the relation between propaganda and politics dwindled after World War II, not because the name was changed and made harmless. Rather, it was because the Cold War stabilized the ideological confrontation structure, while those carrying out the publicity became organized, and the government and those organizations came to share ideologies and worldviews during the Cold War. In the U.S., the three major television networks and national newspapers played this role, while in the U.K. and Japan, it was the public broadcasting corporation and major newspapers and TV companies. In the socialist bloc, the media were under direct state control. But even in liberal democracies, the information space was regulated by information distribution oligopoly by media organizations, as represented by press clubs which allowed exclusive access to the government.

The Spread of Disorder, or Totalitarianism

It was the second element, modern information technology, that changed this equilibrium. Despite current supersonic evolution, its technological base was invented around the time of World War II. They were the Turing and Neumann type computers, which stored both the program and data in the memory, and the information theory framework by Claude Shannon et al., which allowed transmitting digitized information via telecommunication. The atom and hydrogen bomb development and the nuclear strategy were the big motives behind the development of these mechanisms that later evolved as the internet. Therefore, we could say the current cyberspace is the twin sibling of nuclear technology. In the early post-war period, Norbert Wiener advocated the idea of cybernetics. As various words combined with the “cyber“ prefix were born, electronic media encroached upon print, broadcasts, and other existing media.

The base of these information technologies is designed to expand its range of application ubiquitously. Already, electronic information has gone beyond the scope of the existing media that operates separately and in parallel with the real world and is becoming part of an essential infrastructure in our real lives. The COVID pandemic accelerated this trend.

So, it seems there is no stopping this expansion and infiltration of electronic information technology. Yet, it is difficult to foresee the political influence of information technology in the way Orwell did on the atom bomb. Orwell believed if nuclear technology required a high degree of national power, the likelihood of the few with the technology sharing world domination was higher than the world being wiped out. Contrary to the atom bomb, electronic information technology is an extremely diffusive technology, and there is no way to stop the flow. In this sense, electronic information technology will work toward diffusion of power and disorder.

Conversely, future electronic information technology may work to empower governments to exert totalitarian control over individuals through information to an unprecedented degree in history. Indeed, the growing interest in information warfare stems from the potential resurgence of superpower competitions. In using electronic information technology to strengthen state control, China is at the forefront of the world. Also, the Kremlin is spreading phony information in cyberspace. Obviously, we in the free world need to counteract these activities. However, if we go beyond detecting “what is a lie” and try to determine “what is the truth,” we will create our own “Ministry of Truth” as depicted in Orwell’s 1984.

The necessary condition (and not the sufficient condition) to avoid such tragedy or dystopia is to recognize and maintain a sphere of knowledge, wisdom, ideology, and thought that cannot be turned into information. This means we should not focus on information alone but turn our interests to the human brain or cognitive capacity. The human brain is not a precise information processor but rather, because it makes mistakes, there lies the source of creativity, according to Machigaeru no [The Brain that Makes Mistakes] by Yoshio Sakurai. When we attach meanings, which is essential in recognizing something, humans seem to need imagination and unconscious capacities. Even when thinking about revolutionary information technologies within international politics, we should not be too taken away by the dazzling advancements in technology but turn our eyes to the ways of the deep-seated ideologies that provide the framework of people’s perception, and not lose our ability for sensible judgement.

This is a translation of the Japanese article published in vol. 80 (Jul./Aug. 2023) of the Gaiko (Diplomacy) magazine.

Hiroshi Nakanishi is a professor at Kyoto University and the Chairman of the Gaiko magazine editorial board. With an M.A. in law from Kyoto University, he specializes in international politics. He is the author of Kokusai seiji to wa nani ka [What Is International Politics?] and a joint editor of Kosaka masataka to sengo nihon [Masataka Kosaka and Post-War Japan], Nihon seijishi no nakano rida tachi [The Leaders in Japan’s Political History], and other books.


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