given a large enough set of people and a long enough span of time, power always corrupts
“Knowledge is Power” – Sir Francis Bacon
“Power tends to corrupt” – Lord Acton
Behold! The Information Age is come!
What lucky men we are to live in such a time, where the knowledge of anything – or anyone – may be had at the click of the keys, and no act or word escapes unseen.
For centuries we, the Ruling West, have made this our signature obsession – the collection of knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself. From Diderot and his Encyclopedie to Babbage and his machine, from the ignorant transcribings of a barely-literate monk to the Internet, this painstaking collection of data, this trend, points toward the culmination of centuries of collective desiring – to our apotheosis – Total Information Awareness, Total Power.
This will to knowledge reflects a deep insecurity about our own lives, an unwillingness to face death, and, indeed, a latent desire for godhead. Our striving not just to know, but to know all, reflects our unbounded craving for omniscience – and, so, omnipotence.
And this power we now wield, with information, with knowledge, is a greater power than man has ever yet endured. We have survived nuclear weapons, at least so far; but can we endure the terrible burden of power this knowledge brings?
As the information awareness curve nudges its infinitesimal way towards both galaxies’ edge and the hidden secrets of the human heart, and the record grows more and more complete, it is now possible for governments and corporations (or, indeed, any sufficiently-endowed party) to know where you live, where you work, what you buy, who you talk to, what books you read, what music you listen to, and an increasing array of trivial and non-trivial details of which your life consists.
This is an awesome power; and, as Lord Acton reminds us, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Our knowledge is not yet absolute, and thus neither our power; but where there is power, there is the desire to use it.
Indeed, the nature of power is that it wants to be used. It infects us with the thought that it would be somehow wrong not to use it. It is an itch, an unbearable itch few men can bear not to scratch.
And why is this? Surely there are good men who can be trusted to wield power. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of power itself. There is no man who does not believe what he does to be good. The parent, in beating a child half to death, may earnestly believe he is delivering just vengeance for some perceived slight; the dictator who orders mass executions may firmly believe he is doing his people, and the world, a service; the prettier lover, who rules the roost, cannot conceive that things should be any other than his way.
The road to hell is, indeed, paved with good intentions.
And this power, this will to knowledge, continues apace. It will be the final keystone of our Culture, and usher in what may well be millenia of Civilization – that is to say, tyranny devoid of art or colloquy; the final, permanent death of citizens’ privacy; in short, a world far worse than even George Orwell could have imagined.
This is Free Will on a grand scale, humanity looming large. A man, to be human, must be capable of both good and bad actions. It follows, therefore, that each man will do bad actions; indeed, for who among us is free of sin, and prepared to cast the first stone?
The man of few gifts and small position will sin small, for this is all his power permits him. But the man of many gifts, or of great power, will sin on a grander scale; and the man of absolute power will shadow the earth with his well-meaning oppression.
This is a statement of pure human nature, and the collective, unconscious wish of the Western peoples. Our fate is unavoidable; it is unstoppable; it is the tragedy of the human race, and with the terrible, all-seeing eye of information, man shall oppress man, the tyranny of the majority (i.e. democracy) will crush all opponents and brutally enforce conformity, and so shall fare our grandchildren, in the unendurable final chapter of The West.
This essay was first published in 2005.
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