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The Northern Spy
November 2002

Big Brother, Little Sister

Rick Sutcliffe

The Spy has written and spoken many words concerning the fourth civilization or, as some term it, the information age. The universal availability of information via the Metalibrary that is its paradigm and premise is not yet been fully effected, but is clearly nascent in the primitive web we now have.

Availability provokes some to worries about information ownership, accuracy and security, and there have indeed been some unpleasant incidents surrounding these issues. But far more pressing are the concerns surrounding privacy and control-- whether of the information or of the individuals it describes. We all understand that knowledge is power, and those who control the flow of information can control the whole of society. Moreover, since technology created the information age, how it is used determines the shape of that society.

Big government, little citizen

Are we being herded blindly through the gates of a big brother society, as some think? Perhaps, but the effect of universal information availability upon governments per se may prove neutral or even positive, for there is a counterbalance in information availability that promotes individualism, and empowers greater democracy. After all, universal availability implies individual access to knowledge of government activities would also increased. So too could the opportunities for citizens to express themselves and change the course of government. It is not hard to envision a participatory democracy emerging--one in which citizens have daily opportunities not just to express opinions, but to learn the facts and decide the issues.

Thus, even while people lose some ability to act as "private" citizens, governments may also lose much of their capacity to operate arbitrarily and in secret. That is, loss of personal privacy does not necessarily mean a gain in centralized power--it just means that nothing can be hidden from anyone. Some argue that the former Soviet Union fell for just such reasons--little brother and sister came to know too much. The two Germanys, the two Chinas and the two Koreas instruct us in similar ways.

Still the worry persists. Does not information technology provide totalitarianism with a potential tool to destroy freedom once and for all, creating a state that can be managed comprehensively? Those who want the latter undoubtedly slaver over what may seem a golden opportunity to achieve a goal they have utterly failed at in every previous try.

The rejoinder is that while we may have to redefine privacy, or seek it in other ways than protecting personal data, having everybody able to find out everything prevents any one person or institution from gaining power through information.

That is, the modern state exists in a tensed condition, balanced between big-brother statist collectivism and little-brother individualist participatory democracy. While, on the one hand, new and increasingly complex and expensive techniques seem to require or promote massive state involvement in administration and regulation, the ordinary citizen has greater knowledge and therefore broader power than at any time in history. The state is clearly at a crossroads. With its citizens' consent, the modern state could continue to grow in size and influence until it encompasses the entire economy and technically regulate every aspect of its citizen's lives. Such a prospect cannot be ruled out even in the relatively free West, despite its obvious failure in communist states.

Alternatively, the state could give up administrative power and regulatory authority, and turn decision making into a participatory democratic process. There could be great danger for the liberties and rights of minorities on the latter path, however, for unless safeguards were built in, majority expression via computer tabulated voting could become just another kind of mob rule driven by the demagogues most efficient as disseminating their virulent memes. Moreover, the state, though somewhat amorphous, might be equally powerful under participatory democracy as under more explicitly statist regimes. One Ought never to underestimate the power of a bureaucracy to maintain itself,

Of course, there is also the danger that liberty could become rugged individualism taken to the point that the state fragments into ungovernable chaos. Modern Lebanon, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan, if there can be said still to be such entities, are archetypal examples of fragmentation. In these situations, power eventually devolves to the strongest available tyrant, but not before many die to feed the ambitious in their quest for control.

No, individual liberty and freedom depend more upon the general consensus that these things ought to be fostered and practised than they do on the specific form of democracy within which they are attempted. If a free people ceases to act free, they have already lost their freedom, and may not get it back. There is a delicate balance between the need to govern, and the need for freedom--too much of either one destroys the other.

Similar observations are true of law. If a majority will not obey a particular law, it cannot be maintained except through force, and not very well even then. At the very least, the general population must be convinced that a law is both fair and in its best interests, or the law will fail. It is even better if they are convinced that the law is right in the absolute sense--that it expresses a moral principle they all agree with. The judiciary, policing, and legislative functions have been separated in some democracies in order to improve perceptions of the law and its enforcement. This separation has blurred almost to nothing in recent years; perhaps it will have to be sharpened once more to restore the old balance of power. It is also worth observing that, if on the one hand, technology is creating new difficulties with laws and their enforcement, it is providing new tools to these on the other.

Another variation on participatory is possible: require potential voters on given issues to qualify by demonstrating both an interest in and a knowledge of the subject--perhaps by reading and participating in the debate preceding the vote. There are few technical obstacles to such direct decision making, only political and traditional ones. The full facilities of the Metalibrary are not required, only those of a much smaller and more easily implemented political data system. Since the chief danger of participatory democracy, as opposed to representative democracy, is the one inherent in all situations involving zero-time information flow--instant and therefore ill-considered decisions, the qualifying of an electorate for an issue might cause sufficient delay to prevent this. Perhaps some classes of decisions will need a constitutionally guaranteed debating period in order to ensure that a resolution will come out of mature deliberation.

Thus, although we now have proof that comprehensive statism cannot work, the opposite extreme--no government, only daily electronic democracy--may well be too unstable and discontinuous to work unless it too is hedged about with careful safeguards and technology-aided props.

The most likely outcome is a situation involving gains and losses to both privacy and democracy--not a swing of power to either the individual or the state, but a realignment that changes both. Information availability may create the potential for a new kind of tyranny, but also provides for new kinds of checks and balances by giving individual citizens greater knowledge and therefore more power.

Big corporation, captive customer

But there is another possibility, another player in the game. What if power over information storage and transmission becomes concentrated in the hands of a few private technology managers and corporate suppliers? Such developments are commonly advocated to achieve efficiency, security, or convenience, but these are not the central issues. Control is. Given the lessons of history, one must assume that where there is centralized control, there will inevitably be abuse of power, regardless of whose hands hold the reigns of power and how (why) they obtained it. To date information technology may indeed have had some decentralizing and democratizing effect, but there is no reason to suppose this situation will last indefinitely. Those who wish little brother and sister to win out in the long run must be diligent to retain their freedoms or they will surely lose them, perhaps in this scenario, to big brother-in-law private sector corporations whose power dwarfs government.

These opposing trends (central control and individualism) are certainly present in the computing industry itself, and since this sector's direction is likely to profoundly influence society, it is here we ought to look to see which way the wind is blowing for our society's future.

The early days of computing were ones of heady freedom from control. "Personal computer" was an exciting and liberating term. People could write their own software, do their own thing, all the while having no worries about anyone watching over the shoulder or trying to break into their files. Timesharing was out, the personal desktop was in. It wasn't the government one had to fear knew ones private information, it was the kid down the block with a modem one worried about.

More recent years have seen a dramatic reversal. Industry control has largely slipped into the hands of a few giants holding virtual monopolies in large sectors, to the point where government lacks the will to prosecute, or to impose penalties when convictions are accidentally obtained. Crackers and vandals have made sufficient mischief with their worms and viruses that security concerns have begun to override freedoms. Organizational efficiency and conformity are watchwords used to centralize control of technology in managers' hands. Predictably, these people have systematically eliminated easy-to-use computers and software in favour of brands requiring higher degrees of technical intervention to maintain. After all, their jobs are at stake if they bring in products that require little or none of their arcane expertise.

But monopolies never last indefinitely, and cracks are showing in the hegemony at last. Linux and FreeBSD having taken over the server space, are edging into the personal desktop. Open software licenses have become prevalent, and much is now free. Monopoly prices still bring in big bucks paid without thinking by institutional technology moguls, but individuals are becoming more likely to consider other alternatives. Meanwhile, Apple has climbed out of the morass of bad press days brought on by years of wretched marketing and worse customer relations. In the process, it has become the industry innovator again, stopped its market share slide, and gained respectability by the month. The move to a UNIX base for OS X, derided by the faithful at first, is starting to look promising, even if we "aren't there yet".

And, if we know anything about this industry, it is that small pebbly trickles become landslides in a very short while. The monopoly appears strong at the moment, but only on the glories of past momentum, not for any current innovativeness. Its competitors look better than they have for years, and appear poised to take major chunks of the market. Perhaps there is room in the computing industry for little brothers and sisters to step up to the plate after all. Perhaps we can also keep the vandals at bay without selling our souls to big brother government or corporation for the pottage of security. Perhaps these trends will be reflected in the broader society, increasing both freedom and choice throughout.

Perhaps. Do enough people care?

This article incorporates occasional material and ideas adapted from The Fourth Civilization--Technology Society and Ethics Fourth (2002-2003) Edition by Richard J. Sutcliffe and available through http://www.arjaybooks.com

--The Northern Spy

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