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Ambiguity as a tool for both changing and stabilizing classification systems

Last weekend, I attended a conference at Stanford University on “Uncertainty: Ambiguity and doubt in knowledge production”.  At it, I presented a paper on how the Wassenaar Arrangement uses ambiguity to both stabilize and change the classification system.  For instance, it was by purposefully creating ambiguity in the areas of concern for Wassenaar that countries such as Russia were able to buy into the Arrangement.  By not being directed at any state or group of states, Wassenaar may not be as clearly defined as its predecessor CoCom, but it gains the legitimacy of having major producers of militarily significant technology – like Russia – on board.  A more subtle point in favor of ambiguity in the target of the Arrangement is that it allows for more focus to be placed on harmonizing national export control systems to ensure that the distribution of what are considered militarily significant technologies only occurs with state discretion.  This allows states to retain sovereignty over deciding who gets their technology (something CoCom took away from them) while helping to ensure that those technologies do not lead to “destabilizing accumulations”.

Ambiguity can also help classification systems change.  I showed this in my presentation by walking through the history of controls on computers, from the first public lists of CoCom in 1954 to their current definition.  Each time the controls changed, they did so because arguments were made that the current definition  had some flaw in the conception of what a “dual-use computer” should be.  Is the definition of a dual-use computer based only on its processing rate?  When computers entered the market with multiple processors, that became problematic.  The same problem in definition occurred when multiple memories were introduced.  Each time, the definition of a dual-use computer became ambiguous, and each time, it was resolved by picking another parameter to define it.  However, with the development of grid computing, where every computer connected to the internet could, in theory, be part of a global grid supercomputer, the definition of a dual-use computer was no longer able to be satisfactorily resolved.  As a result, controls shifted to defining the software needed to harness grid computing.  It was by creating enough ambiguity in the definition that such change came about.

That’s the basic point of the talk.  I hope to put it in a paper at some point, and it is in much more detail in my thesis, which should be going online within the month.  Stay tuned.