In my previous article, I was mentioning that Atos had intended to be the first company listed on the French stock market index to submit its raison d’être to its shareholders. It starts with these words: “Our mission is to help shape the information technology space”.

In this sentence, each word is important. But first of all, what are we talking about when we talk about the digital space or the IT space?

 

The digital space is a space like any other

The term information technology space can be surprising at first glance. This space is where our data and information circulate, where they are stored and processed. However, we tend to think of data as an immaterial element, antithetic to the idea of a physical space.

But this vision is largely false: back in 1997, Professor Henry Bakis analyzed the interconnection between cyberspace and geo-space, between the world of data and human geography. He thus announced that data would redefine the use of space, providing the “framework of the geographical space of the 21st century”.

And, when you look more closely, the digital space looks like those that man has conquered and shaped before him: land, sea, air and now space.

 

The three-step journey from exploring to shaping a territory

The history of the digital space, just like our conquest of land, sea or air space, has followed a familiar series of steps.

First comes the time of exploration, when pioneers experience high levels of risks discovering a new, unchartered territory. Sailors embarking for the Americas, passengers boarding on the first planes and early Internet users heard the same caveat: if something bad happens to you, you only have yourself to blame.

Then comes the time of conquest: technologies become more reliable, which allow increased use. Big players emerge – from the Union Pacific Railroad to their distant heir, Facebook. They establish a strong position, become unavoidable and are able to set the rules of the game to their advantage.

This is usually the moment when the question of the large-scale regulation of the new space emerges. The first disputes over the regulation of the Internet were thus reminiscent of the 17th-century controversy between supporters of the Mare Liberum, or Free sea, like Grotius and the Mare Clausum, or closed sealike John Selden. They also echo the debates around the liberalization of air travel in the 1970s and 1980s.

 

The time has come to shape the information space

Then comes invariably the third age, the time to shape the territory, to structure it, regulate it, and make it safe and accessible.

This is the moment when space becomes precisely mapped, when checks and balances are set to limit the powers of the powerful. In the maritime field, for example, this was the role of the modern international conventions, four centuries after Grotius and Selden.

 

It is this third phase that the information space is entering now.

The only thing that has changed is the time scale: it took mankind millennia to shape the land space, centuries to set the rules of maritime transport. The question of how to shape the information technology space will have taken center stage in the public debate in only three decades – and, as far as technology is concerned, it may be the one major issue of the next few years.

 

Shaping a space means making it safe, reliable and eco-responsible

Why this long analogy? Because it sheds light on the path that we must take today.

Shaping a territory in all these areas meant securing it, making it reliable and allowing as many people as possible to use it and enjoy it. Today, when I fly commercial, I don’t feel like I’m on an adventure, or taking wild risks. I take the fact that my train or tram brings me home safely for granted.

We have not achieved this level of “near zero” risk in the information technology space. We still face a higher level of risk than in the other spaces – from cyberbullying to misinformation, hacking or data leaks. This dimension of risk is still part of our daily life online.

This is why Atos has set itself the ambition to enable as many people as possible, and in particular our employees and customers, to “live, work and progress sustainably and with confidence in the information space”.

To be fulfilled, this ambition requires two components: one is security and safety from harm; the other is responsibility and awareness of our social impact. Both are essential conditions – which is why they will be the topics of my next posts.

 

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