Modern Communications Technology – Savior or Soma?

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In recent years, I have noticed that many – seemingly a great majority – of my libertarian friends express an optimistic outlook that sooner or later freedom will triumph against tyranny, even in the United States of America, because of technological developments, especially the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web, along with all the hardware and software that facilitate these means of communication and expand their reach. The idea seems to be, at bottom, that technology in general and these technologies in particular are intrinsically anti-state and pro-freedom. Some people regard them as decisive factors in the struggle for liberty. I have never been persuaded.

The Internet and the Web are obviously employed to some extent for anti-state and pro-freedom purposes. Probably their most important effect is to loosen the state’s hold on information about its leaders, their motives, and their actions, and thereby to speed the spread of truth to greater numbers of people who might otherwise have been taken in by the rulers’ habitual resort to distortions, evasions, cover-ups, and outright lies. Such fabrications have always proved most useful to the U.S. state in its foreign relations and imperial actions, where the matters at issue are out of sight of the great mass of Americans. Because the new technologies of communication are not only powerful – allowing the instant transmission of photos, audio recordings, and video recordings, as well as written texts – but also available worldwide, they have the power to prick the state’s balloons of misrepresentation about events abroad in short order.

Despite these anti-state effects, one must recognize that the state itself has hardly remained mired in ancient technologies while the public embraced the new ones. Drive from Dulles International Airport to Washington, D.C., and peer out at the huge office buildings inhabited in many cases by information technology companies that have put themselves – for a handsome reward, of course – at the disposal of the U.S. government. The rulers have in the past decade added to their longstanding military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC) a comparably vast security-industrial-congressional complex (SICC). Perhaps the individual and small-scale tech wizards working their magic in the non-state backwoods will always remain a step or two ahead of the CSCs, Microsofts, and Oracles; I don’t know enough about technology to speculate on this “IT arms race” in an informed way. I do know, however, that the state is not standing helplessly in place while the pro-freedom people innovate so as to render it toothless.

Much more important, however, is that whereas the new information technologies can spread information in the raw, as it were, they cannot so readily alter the mental filters – essentially the ideological screening and focusing – that the public uses to interpret and evaluate the information it receives. Consider, for example, the public’s reaction to the recent disclosures about the state’s all-encompassing spying on the American people’s electronic communications, whether by ordinary telephone calls, e-mails, or other means. At this point, the situation appears to be that the rulers have unashamedly excused their unconstitutional conduct and painted the bearer of the bad news, Edward Snowden, as a traitor for exposing their secret snooping on one and all without warrant or any plausible reason, aside from technological overkill in the alleged search for terrorists; and the public appears to be more approving than condemning. Revealing the state’s crimes serves no purpose in preserving or reestablishing liberty if the public receives such revelations with a yawn or, worse, with enthusiastic approval.

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