“Power tends to corrupt,” said Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
The sexism needs updating but the sentiment remains true. That’s been all too obvious this week, during which the powers that be did their damnedest to protect their once-secret surveillance programs…while the NSA responded to Freedom Of Information Act requests with the claim “There’s no central method to search [internal NSA emails] at this time.”
The black-comedy message is clear: surveillance is something that the powerful do to the powerless, in their own perfect secrecy. Two-way transparency is but a pipe dream in the minds of civil libertarians. Which puts me in mind of science-fiction guru Charles Stross’s recent blog post A Bad Dream:
Is the United Kingdom a one party state? [...] I’m nursing a pet theory. Which is that there are actually four main political parties in Westminster: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Ruling Party. The Ruling Party is a meta-party…it always wins every election, because whichever party wins is led by members of the Ruling Party, who have more in common with each other than with the back bench dinosaurs who form the rump of their notional party [...] Any attempt at organizing a transfer of power that does not usher in a new group of Ruling Party faces risks being denounced as Terrorism.
Of course in America this is old news. The one thing that the Tea Party and the Occupy movement have in common is their desire to throw the Ruling Party bums out of Washington. It’s an accepted axiom in American politics that anyone who has been in Washington too long is suspect and probably corrupt. (More than 75% of Americans think their political parties are corrupt.)
The wave of hope that drove Obama into office was fuelled in part by the belief that he wasn’t a member of the Ruling Party. Well, even if he wasn’t then, he sure is now. That’s what usually happens to successful politicians:
The GOP establishment: Obama is a tyrant, except in the areas where we want to give him sweeping unilateral power to exercise in secret.—
Conor Friedersdorf (@conor64) July 26, 2013
Similarly, the recent spate of antigovernment street protests in Turkey, Brazil, etc., are–arguably–protests against the various international incarnations of the Ruling Party. As Slavoj Žižek writes in the London Review of Books:
What we first took as a failure fully to apply a noble principle (democratic freedom) is in fact a failure inherent in the principle itself. This realisation – that failure may be inherent in the principle we’re fighting for – is a big step in a political education. Representatives of the ruling ideology roll out their entire arsenal to prevent us from reaching this radical conclusion.
Žižek’s a Marxist, and I’m a staunch capitalist, but even I have to admit that he may be on to something there. it’s possible that multiparty democracy suffers from an inherent and fundamental flaw: the eventual installation of an entrenched, parasitical Ruling Party.
So, of course, as a techie who instinctively thinks in terms of hacking and fixing systems, I immediately find myself wondering: is there a technical fix? Can better technology save us from the Ruling Parties, or at least alleviate some of our governments’ more glaring flaws? Or will technology further entrench and empower them?
These days it’s hard for Silicon Valley to look at Washington with anything other than dismay trending towards horror, along with a powerful sense of “there has to be a better way.” I expect that’s why people have seriously called for Google to buy Detroit. I suspect that’s what Larry Page had in mind, at least in part, when he mused aloud about the desirability of a mad science island untrammeled by antiquated laws and politics, where we could experiment with new and better systems:
We’re changing quickly, but some of our institutions, like some laws, aren’t changing with that. The laws [about technology] can’t be right if it’s 50 years old — that’s before the Internet. Maybe more of us need to go into other areas to help them improve and understand technology.
Google is, after all, the apotheosis of the Valley; a company that muses about offering eternal youth to its employees somewhere down the road, a company that oozes scientific method. Doesn’t that sound a whole lot better than the Ruling Party? Doesn’t it seem like the best thing we could do is import the Google Way to Washington, and turn our government into a genuine technocracy?
Sorry. No. Silicon Valley thinks of itself as built on merit, innovation, iteration, and rational thought, and to some extent it is, but its worldview can be even more blinkered and bubble-bound than that of the Ruling Party. Technology does not solve all of the world’s problems, and it’s dangerous hubris to think that it might. Rational thought is a flawed tool in a world full of irrational people. And most of all, power corrupts; anyone who replaces the Ruling Party will probably eventually become a member.
But on the other hand, avoiding politics and/or pretending that it has nothing to do with us is no longer an option for the tech industry. Edward Snowden has shown us that much. We have become too important and too powerful. As I wrote here almost three years ago:
You probably don’t want to read about political idiocy here, and I can’t blame you. But it may be time for the tech industry to start paying much more attention to the political world, because as Wikileaks vividly illustrates, these days almost every political issue has tech aspects—and hence, down the road, tech repercussions.
Can’t help but think I wasn’t wrong. But that doesn’t mean the tech industry should be trying to directly shape what happens in Washington and Westminster. We provide tools; we don’t dig trenches. That’s not what we’re good at. (Witness FWD.us.) Instead we should collectively be trying to ensure that tomorrow’s technologies, and tomorrow’s networks, support individual authority (and privacy), rather than building centralized panopticons which increase and cement the existing hegemonies.
I realize that this all sounds simultaneously paranoid and naïve. But I believe we’re nearing a crucial point at which, depending on a myriad of separate decisions ultimately made by individual people, tomorrow’s technologies can–and will–either increase or diminish our individual and collective freedoms by a very significant degree. The direction we will take seems finely balanced, and could still go either way. So keep your fingers crossed, and your eyes wide open.
Postscript: I’ll be in Las Vegas this week to cover the Black Hat and DefCon security conferences. I’m not entirely sure yet what kind of reportage I’ll be filing, but if you’re interested in occasional sardonic tweets from Sin City, follow me on Twitter.