what technology dictates, the law transcribes
“Journalism is publishing something someone does not want published.”
– George Orwell
Without journalism, democracy could not exist.
The Fourth Estate’s ability to check abuses by those in power is the last line of defense between us and tyranny. But this ability is under threat, and may soon – barring some unexpected breakthrough in secure computing – disappear entirely.
The printing press created journalism. We take the press for granted today, but 450 years ago, Gutenberg’s invention was as novel as the Internet, and equally disruptive. For the first time, mass communication decoupled from both space and time was possible. Revolutionaries like Martin Luther seized on this new power to report on – yes, report on – the extreme abuse of power by the imperial power of his day, the Catholic Church.
It is no coincidence that America’s Founding Fathers – themselves revolutionaries against an imperial power – enshrined this technology in the First Amendment to their Constitution. Without the printing press (and the rifle) the American Revolution could never have happened.
Without the printing press, we would still be living in the Dark Ages.
Like all disruptive new technologies, the printing press redistributed power. By automating the work previously done by scribes, the press drastically lowered the cost of copying – and thus spreading – information. A small number of people with modest wealth (needed for the purchase and maintenance of a printing press) could trumpet a new idea far and wide. The press took the power concentrated in the hands of the few (clergy, nobility) and gave it to the people.
That power gave the people a voice – and what’s more, a voice resilient to censorship. A printing press is a physical, decentralized machine that can easily be hidden in a basement or a barn. If a tyrant wishes to prevent the spread of an idea, they must send soldiers to confiscate or destroy the printing presses. And then what about all the printed copies? They must also find a way to destroy all those books as well. This might involve, as it did under Hitler in 1930s Germany, whipping the public into a frenzy so that they throw their books onto bonfires in the street. But even then, a few printing presses will survive, and many readers will still keep their books.
It is not impossible to censor the press in a dictatorship. It can and has been done – but at great expense and with much difficulty.
George Orwell once noted in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb”:
Ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons.
(One need only consider the Tiananmen Square massacre: What would have happened in the absence of tanks?)
When law and technology collide, law always loses. Even a brief glance at history shows that might makes right, and law picks up the pieces.
Or to be more precise: Technology redistributes social and political power, and law codifies that new power balance.
Let me give you three quick examples to demonstrate my point.
First, the stirrup. By permitting horsemen to stand up in the saddle, this startling, disruptive new technology created a new class of warrior: heavy cavalry. And medieval gangsters/knights used this newfound power to create a feudal system, a pecking order in which laws were written to normalize this new social order.
Law did not create this new social order. Technology did.
Consider next democracy in ancient Athens. To survive and prosper, Athens was forced to become a sea power. But in order to man those triremes, thousands of willing rowers were needed. Elsewhere in ancient Greece, top-down social structures were the norm, imposed by the elite hoplite (heavy infantry) class. Only the wealthy could afford body armor, shield and sword. But to be a rower, all you needed was an oar and a cushion for your backside. The laws of Athens normalized democracy for most of that city’s Golden Age (5th-century BC).
Law did not create this social order. Technology did.
Last example. A modern one. Information technology has redistributed social and political power to the spies. The NSA, CIA, GCHQ, etc. have the power to surveil, to sabotage, to deceive, to harass, and even to murder. Look at the new laws in the UK, France, Australia, and New Zealand that have now codified these powers. Have I made my point?
Law did not create this social order. Technology did.
What technology dictates, the law transcribes. Human-made rules do nothing more than normalize the new power balance. It’s a bit like those who expect legislation to rein in the NSA. You can no more legislate how the mafia should be run. Criminals, gangsters, and spies have nothing but contempt for the law. I can’t say that I blame them. Technology trumps law every time.
Technology determines political and social organization.
The printing press, we may conclude, is a democratic technology. But the printing press is now obsolete, replaced by the Internet.
At first glance, the Internet would appear to be the ultimate democratic technology – even more so than the printing press. Indeed, when the Internet was first invented, journalists hailed it as the greatest tool for freedom and democracy in the history of mankind. It has lowered the cost of copying and transmitting ideas to practically zero. One voice can trumpet a new idea far and wide. Marginalized voices dispersed around the world can come together in common cause. How can this possibly be a bad thing?
Because the cost of seeking out and destroying ideas, and those who express them, has also sunk to practically zero.
Let’s go back to our Orwell test. Is the Internet cheap and simple? Or complex and expensive?
Cheap and simple to use, yes. To publish. To copy. But from the Internet rise two columns of power out of reach of everyday man: The powers of mass surveillance and targetted hacking.
Security is the Internet’s Achilles hell.
One need only understand how email works – unencrypted text copied dozens of times from point A to point B – to see the potential for abuse. People like Richard Stallman have been complaining about NSA spying since the 1970s. Edward Snowden’s revelations have finally brought to the public consciousness what programmers and sysadmins have known since the Carter administration.
If the Internet, and computers in general, were secure, unhackable, encrypted in a manner impossible to crack – a perfect world, that is – then the Internet would be that utopia of freedom and democracy.
But this is not the case, nor will it ever be the case.
As long as the powers to spy and to hack remain out of reach of the common man, this new technology will centralize in the hands of those who mean us harm. And that power will be used to silence dissent, shut down leaks, harass journalists, and even prevent/disrupt the publication of unwanted information.
It has been a commonplace observation, in the wake of the Snowden revelations, that when journalists can no longer securely communicate with their sources, journalism suffers. So far as it goes, they are right. But the truth is far worse.
What the Internet gives us in ease of copying and sharing information takes away from us in the impermanence of that information. Information on the Internet can too easily be found, monitored, and destroyed. The ability to censor – and, indeed, to rewrite history – has never been more real and immediate.
And information that has spread so far it can no longer be nipped in the bud? Sow enough fear, uncertainty and doubt as to the the truth – a signal-to-noise ratio attack, like the Peñabots of Mexico, or the “fake news” of a disinfo op – and most people will no longer be able to tell what is true and what is false.
The Internet, like the printing press before it, has redistributed power. In this case, from the people to the security apparatus. As a result, we now live in a totalitarian dictatorship run by spies, with a thin veneer of vestigial democracy to keep society ticking along, worker bees humming to the hive every day. The only check on the power of the spies is the need to operate on the principle of plausible deniability – they cannot act openly against their enemies.
The time is coming when this pretense will no longer be required. A manufactured crisis, a false flag attack, and the people will rise up in alarm and demand to be “protected” from this threat – and the spies will be able to publicly declare martial law on the Internet. The Great Star-Spangled Firewall of America will protect us from both Chinese hackers and uncomfortable truths.
Remember, on the Internet, journalism is no different from spam or child pornography or cyberwar. It’s all zeroes and ones. It’s all data. And it can be filtered, blocked, and disrupted with ease.
Once this happens, once martial law on the Internet is complete, once no email, no blog post, no tweet traverses the network without the permission of the government, then the power of the security apparatus will be total, and they will be free to kidnap, interrogate, torture, imprison and murder at will. To think that such awesome power will not be misused – that any human being can be trusted with such power – is naive.
You could argue, this hasn’t happened yet, why should we expect it to happen? What about our democratic principles? What about our long tradition of democracy?
In times of great technological disruption, predicting the future is hard. However, certain timeless rules of human nature remain constant.
Power corrupts. Always, eventually, power corrupts.
One need only ask, how can this power be misused? And then you will know the future. Could be next year, could be ten years from now, could be fifty. But possibility is necessity. In the absence of a real check on power, you should always assume that power will be misused.
Remember the stirrup. Technology redistributes power and alters the social and political fabric. And the Internet is a technology that has tyranny baked in from day one.
The unthinkable can and will happen, and in our lifetimes. Power always corrupts eventually, and the power the Internet affords is so awesome, so unbelievable, that it is naive in the extreme to think that it will not be used for evil.
The Internet is hurtling us into a new Dark Age, such as mankind has never before seen, and far worse than the one the printing press helped us escape. History, as Oswald Spengler reminds us, is a form of tragedy, and we, the last free generation, can do little more than gaze in horror as our fate approaches, powerless to stop it.
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