This was the Mont Pelerin Society’s essay contest question for 2008 and congratulations to Jessica for winning as a runner-up.  I look forward to reading the paper.

As for the question itself, I thought I would take a stab at it, but the problem is that I haven’t quite figured out which side I’m on…

If you want to look at things from the optimistic side, technological advances allow for a much faster spread of communications, which means that things which would stay hidden even a generation ago—graft, corruption, bureaucratic busybodies like the ones haunting Ezra Levant—are now available for all to see.  Congress can’t slip things through the dark of night like they could before (and like they tried to do with amnesty), we have an earmark database, we can know who’s financing whom politically and see what kind of quid pro quo is going on, and so on.  Plus, there is a salutary political effect when the entire world knows about a political situation.  The Orange Revolution could never have happened in Ukraine without constant media coverage, and even with that, Viktor Yushchenko was still poisoned (though without the coverage, he probably would have been executed, given the people he was going up against).  By lowering the cost of information, technological advances have led to good things which otherwise could not have happened, and the effect on individual liberty is positive.  In addition, strengthened network effects brought about by these lower information costs allow for the easier promulgation of ideas and the realization that “there are others like me out there.”  In a literal sense, this is also an increase in human liberty, but not one I wholeheartedly endorse given that some of these things are, to be blunt but without going into details on specific groups, disgusting.  A final positive effect—because hey, this is supposed to be the optimistic side of things—is that technological advances increase the likelihood of individuals living under tyranny receiving information about the outside world or dissenting ideas.  Back under the Iron Curtain, typed manuscripts of The Road To Serfdom and other such works were passed around among dissidents.  This was a slow and imperfect process—in no small part because the manuscripts often contained annotations which were passed along as part of the text—and today, our modern Vaclav Klaus would simply go to the Library of Economics and Liberty or the Mises Institute and download PDFs, and though you can’t find The Road to Serfdom online (as far as I’m aware), you can get the illustrated version.  So for people under oppressive governments, this decrease in information costs can have a devastating effect on propaganda attempts, and even in free countries, it means we don’t have to wait for the Reader’s Digest version.

Not all of the results of technological advancements tend toward an increase in human liberty, however, for the simple reason that oppressive governments gain the same advantages as individuals.  Yes, you could theoretically access dissenting material, but governments know this and can lock their countries down.  China, for example, has enlisted the assistance of companies like Google (shameful sellouts that they are) and Microsoft (I’d say that I expected more, but then I’d be lying) in blocking wholesale entire swaths of literature and sites unfriendly to the regime.  There are ways to get around this, just as there were ways of getting around literature bans if you were stuck in the Second World, but just because it’s easier for us to get information doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easier to get information in North Korea.

Meanwhile, increased information means a multiplier effect to government activity.  As the greatest politician ever (even better than Pitt the Younger or John Randolph of Roanoke, and that’s saying something) noted in his speech on reconciliation with the colonies, the American colonies remained so independent and free because English Parliamentary and royal decrees took literally months to make their way into the colonies, and from there, could take additional weeks to months to spread all the way through.  For that reason, it was utterly impossible to micromanage the colonies and this led to a period of salutary neglect (a term of Burke’s creation but I always credit Robert Walpole for the [in]action).  Even the concept of absolutism or a Hobbesian Leviathan was relatively benign, simply because the government had comparatively little ability to clamp down on the daily actions of the populace.  With the advent of automobiles and airplanes, telegraphs and telephones and Interweb tubes, and so on, this makes things much easier for governments to micromanage.  Before, it took King George a good 2 months to get a letter to his governor in New York and then it would take an additional 3 months for the response to come back.  Nowadays, a government official can publish a decree and almost instantaneously communicate it to subordinates.  Regulation and punishment become swifter and without the moderating factor of time, there is the potential for them also to become harsher.

And if that weren’t enough, there is another factor to look into as well:  the relative lack of anonymity.  Two generations ago, your average person was very well-known in a relatively small circle (a town, neighborhood, or other close geographical region) but almost entirely unknown or unknowable outside of this circle.  I could be a rabblerouser in Philadelphia but if I moved to Topeka (or the other way around), nobody would necessarily know a thing about my past without a real investigation or the luck of having somebody who knew me over there.  Today, however, we tend to communicate in ways which are less secure—instead of face-to-face conversations or letters written to a single person, we send e-mails (which anybody could read), leave messages on blogs or websites, and willingly put up sometimes-compromising information on social networking sites.  Even if you think you’re posting anonymously, you generally aren’t—IP addresses can be traced and even if you’re on a public computer using an anonymous account, there are still ways of figuring out who you are.  Meanwhile, if you have a bank account, a credit card, or a cell phone (or landline, for that matter), you could be traced, have your purchases inspected, or your conversations listened to.  All of this is significantly easier than 30 years ago, especially with merchants and companies finding it in their best interest to track consumer behavior for advertising, marketing, proof of sales, and business research reasons.  Thus, a government committed to oppression could use existing tools in a way that was impossible to do on a wide scale 50 years ago.  It becomes much easier to track the activities of individuals and a simple geographical move doesn’t mean that the trail becomes cold.  Combine it with probabilistic portraits of behavior based on solid data mining and you can figure out who’s likely to be a dissident much easier, even without a network of spies like the Stasi had.

In an ironic twist, there is a mitigating factor to my last point:  most of the data collected in any database is, from the standpoint of a researcher trying to solve a single problem, irrelevant.  If you’re interested in finding out who’s been criticizing the government, you don’t want to—or have time to—listen in on all of the phone calls and even software designed to track keywords or do data mining on databases containing web logs is in its relative infancy and isn’t nearly as effective as your average person thinks.  Given a lead (a name, site, or other distinguishing mark), you can use present technological advances to track down a person.  But if you’re starting from a blank slate, probabilistic methods aren’t as efficient as spadework and the aforementioned network of informants.  These are tools which assist humans in solving problems (even if the problem is something evil, such as governmental oppression), but still require a solid foundation and good sense.

So what’s the summary here?  Technology is a tool and tools can be used for many purposes.  The tool which I consider the great equalizer and ensurer of life and liberty (the firearm) is also quite useful mass execution and maintaining control over a populace.  Technologies evolve and develop in response to problems, and these problems are often morally ambiguous or indeterminate.  Without a way of preventing technological developments from falling into the wrong hands, there is no way to guarantee salutary results.  What is necessary is a set of institutions promulgating liberty and a freedom-loving people, but getting to the former reminds me of an old joke about economists:  an economist is trapped on a desert island with nothing but unopened cans of food.  How does he survive?  Answer:  first you assume a can opener…

Because technology is just a tool, it is by itself neutral in the question of liberty.  The net result of technological advances, however, is that we must maintain a constant awareness of the tensions between liberty, security, and obligation to family (and, to a lesser extent, community and the other little platoons of society).  Technological changes can disrupt our existing set of compromises, necessitating a regular re-establishment of the same obvious principles on the same battlegrounds as generations past.  As the TS Eliot maxim goes, no cause is ever truly lost for no cause is ever truly won, and the reason for this fundamental truth is that exogenous shocks are constantly hitting our world of ideas and political compromises, interrupting any attempt at intellectual equilibrium.  The benefit of this is that we often have an opportunity to fix our mistakes and when incentives and circumstances change (such as the fall of the Soviet Union or the deposition of tyrants like Saddam Hussein), moves toward the gradual establishment of liberty and good institutions are possible, but at the same time, these changes can also bring about new forms of oppression, both dangerous (in the form of decentralized, international terrorism or Russian and Chinese teams of crackers who attempt to destabilize free countries) and annoying (like the nanny state).

If I were writing a full(er)-length essay, I would go into some of the reasons for the incentives and motivation for the establishment of the modern nanny state and quite possibly use the term “anomie” despite my dislike of where Durkheim took his ideas.  Fortunately, however, the contest is over so I can end on a bit of a cliffhanger and leave my thoughts half-fleshed-out…  On the plus side, if I were to re-write this essay, I would at least know which side I’m on:  the middle.


4 thoughts on “Technology As Liberator Or Oppressor?

  1. and i agree …

    “technology is neutral in the question of liberty”

    i excerpted some of your article over on my blog, i thought it was very good!

    p.s. are you making fun of yourself over there on “kevin’s jooooo ranking” or are you jooooo-ish for real … is that a strange question? i am in the middle of johnson’s “a history of the jews” & truth be told, i have always been a little obsessed with all things jewish. now i know that’s weird.

  2. I am simultaneously Jewish and making fun of myself. That sidebar has to do with the fact that I’m an Orthodox Jew who really isn’t very good at it. And when I went to college in Dayton, I had friends point at me and yell “Jooooo!!!” when they saw me. It might be entirely shocking from that anecdote when I say that I went to a Catholic university…

    I’m glad to hear that we’re in at least considerable agreement on the issue and I’ll give your essay a good reading when you’re able to show it to the world. I still want that autographed copy, however…

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