Vili Lehdonvirta: The digital world isn’t a separate dimension in some virtual cloud

Vili Lehdonvirta has joined Aalto University as a professor at the Department of Computer Science. He also continues to work half-time at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute. The key challenge in his research is to understand how politics and business interact to shape the geography of computation.
Vili Lehdonvirta, phóto: Mikko Raskinen, Aalto University
Photo: Mikko Raskinen.

Professor Vili Lehdonvirta, what are you researching?

For a long time, I studied the centralisation of digital markets and platforms in the hands of large technology giants as well as the resulting economic and political power and its impact on the operating environment of smaller companies. The regulation of digital giants is now being discussed more broadly than before, especially in the EU. Recently I published Cloud Empires, a book that encapsulates everything my research team and I learned about the evolution of the digital economy over seven years of research. The book was well received and is in the process of being translated into several languages.

But in recent years, there has been an ever stronger realisation that the digital world is based on physical infrastructure, which is of enormous political and economic importance. The digital world is not just a separate dimension in some virtual cloud. It is physical data centres, servers, cables, workers, energy and emissions. Their location and centralisation will ultimately determine how policy can influence the digital world. In the past, the debate has mostly taken place at the level of applications and marketplaces. My latest research extends the debate to the physical level. In particular, I examine the geopolitics of digital infrastructures and its implications to technology development. The area of my professorship at Aalto University is technology policy.

For instance, we are now collecting data to answer the simple question, where is artificial intelligence? This can be approached on different levels. Where is the company that provides the AI service registered? Where are its headquarters? Where are the people who develop and maintain it? And where is the computing power that was used to train the model and now to run the model?

If you look at this from the point of view of compliance with laws and regulations, an especially relevant level is the computation. Whoever has jurisdiction over the computation has the best opportunities to influence AI.

For the past 30 years, there has been an attempt to govern the digital world through international and multistakeholdeer cooperation. In the current geopolitical situation, international cooperation is fracturing and the national dimension is becoming more important – it’s harder and harder for countries to reach agreement on things. Different countries have also started to use the internet as a tool to pursue their own security and foreign policy objectives, and to regulate it unilaterally. States are trying to shape the physical foundations of the digital world to their advantage. National computing infrastructure projects have been launched in the US, China and European countries. Turkey and India insist that tech giants should station staff on their soil so that there is someone to target with coercive measures if their rules are not respected. A key challenge is to understand how the interaction between policy and tech company strategy shapes the geography of the Internet.

A key challenge is to understand how the interaction between policy and tech company strategy shapes the geography of the Internet.

Vili Lehdonvirta

Why are you interested in this particular area of research?

I studied information networks at Aalto University’s predecessor, the Helsinki University of Technology 20 years ago. At the same time I worked as a software developer at Jippii, a Finnish dotcom firm. At that time, data moved unhindered across borders and there was little awareness of data protection legislation. My first academic paper in 2004 was on the impact of EU data protection legislation on cross-border data traffic.

I want to make the link between the Internet and physical reality more visible. Over the last 10 years, the internet infrastructure has become increasingly centralised in a smaller number of larger and larger data centres. Despite this, we still to an extent have a romanticised 80s view of the internet as a rhizome in which data flows through countless complex paths—a bomb-proof system that won’t stop if one link breaks.

In reality the Internet has undergone the same transformation as happened in the industrial revolution. We have moved from small-scale artisanal production to hyperscale data centres, the factories of the digital age. They bring vast gains in efficiency and productivity, but also new risks and redistributions of power. This needs to be understood from a social science perspective as well, not just from a technological one. For example, the European Union's AI Act is useless if technology moves outside its jurisdiction.

We have moved from small-scale artisanal production to hyperscale data centres, the factories of the digital age.

Vili Lehdonvirta

How did you become a professor?

Life is a series of coincidences. Afterwards it is possible to weave them together into a coherent story.

I graduated from the Helsinki University of Technology in 2005 with a degree in engineering. I finished my PhD in Economic Sociology at the Turku School of Economics (now the University of Turku) in 2009. After that, I worked as a postdoctoral researcher in Tokyo and London. I applied for professorships at MIT and the University of Helsinki. When I failed to get a professorship, I started doing consulting work for digital companies.

When I was negotiating a job as a virtual economy designer with Rovio, I saw an advertisement for an assistant professor level position focused on the digital economy at the Oxford Internet Institute. I decided to give it my last, best try, and prepared thoroughly for the application process. My work started in Oxford on May Day 2013. I had a three-year contract that was made permanent as I received a European Research Council grant. 

What is the most important quality of a researcher?

Gratitude. You have to remember to enjoy small accomplishments.

It is also important to have an intrinsic motivation to explore things with curiosity and to enjoy the process. It's not worth setting out to do research with only success in mind, because there will be plenty of failures along the way.

What are your expectations for the future?

Humankind is facing big challenges. Expectations and assumptions about our future are being challenged. We are having to re-evaluate some of our most fundamental assumptions. It is both frightening and exciting. We also have agency to influence the future as humanity, the EU, Finland, researchers and technology developers.

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