"The man who prefers his country before any other duty shows the same spirit as the man who surrenders every right to the state. They both deny that right is superior to authority."
Lord Acton

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Internet, Technology and the Totalitarian state

Government by idea tends to take in everything, to make the whole of society obedient to the idea. Spaces not so governed are unconquered, beyond the border, unconverted, a future danger. - Lord Acton

We live in a time where the social forces, like the tides pull towards state control.  Correspondingly, technology has risen to meet the demand of a modern-day police state on a scale previously unimaginable; Patriot act authorized wiretaps, secret searches, secret prisons, etc.   As depressing as this may be at first glance, there's a less dark side and a bright side as well:  

First, the government lives in a world of constraints.  Even though you wouldn't know it by looking at the moment, there really is only so much money the government can tax, print allocate (inefficiently) and spend.  The government, especially the US government doesn't do anything very well.  It's a lumbering overweight bureaucracy (like many of it's workers), that functions in a world of rules and procedures (some rules may be secret and unknown to you, but they still exist).  Individuals on the other hand, are small, fragile, but quick and nimble (hare vs. elephant). To imagine that the US government could ever possibly dream to execute Hollywood level feats in totalitarian efficiency will luckily remain just that, a dream... a very bad dream.  There's simply not enough money or smart people to build the systems and the bureaucracy precludes efficient allocation, design and implementation.

Next, the same technology that aids some forces of the state in central planning, and modern functional components of a police state are the same forces of it's own destruction in a couple of ways.  First,  commoditized technology in the hands of the masses (video camera phones, and cheap mobile computers - technological force multipliers) coupled with a ubiquitous communications network, like the Internet is like antiseptic against secrets.  We all know this to be double edged.  We've seen a video on Youtube of someone you've known doing something really stupid (career limiting move).  It also has released some uncomfortable state secrets (some that are debatable whether it would have been better to keep secret - not just through wiki-leaks).  On the other hand a totalitarian government must maintain a level of secrecy about what it's doing to maintain momentum in an evil and totalitarian direction.  Secrecy of activity increases power of the state when the state is able to maintain it's privacy and individuals are not.  When the government maintains absolute power and privacy of it's actions, we have an inevitable police state.  When state privacy is exposed to the people, arbitrary power diminishes.  We have witnessed this first hand in recent years with videos of abuse of power by law enforcement and some mistakes on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.  These abuses and mistakes are not met with silence.

The ability for individuals to communicate ideas and secrets across the world in seconds amplifies individual power.  It also threatens to revolutionize government as we know it.  Technology and the Internet is the state's greatest threat (the bureaucratic machine, not the people that  operate in it).  An Internet based social network facilitates self organized systems of people who can move, mobilize and conduct some type of action (flash mob enhanced) in the real world faster than could ever be imagined before by traditional means.  It threatens the very relevance of government, states, and state power as we currently see them.  Transnational communication, business and friend groups are much like the new red phone we had with the soviets, and the effect of the Christmas truce in 1914 during WWI - the soldiers wouldn't fight afterwards.  It took severe action by senior officers (threats of treason and artillery) to restart hostilities.  Peace and true Liberty has a chance in our lifetimes, but we must work to reach it. 

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