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Wednesday, October 13, 2021 Leer en Español

How I’m Responding to Australia’s Techno-Autocracy

The internet and the devices used to access it increasingly are being used to monitor and control rather than create. But there is a solution.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Last month, the government of Australia introduced a new monitoring app for citizens under house arrest due to COVID-19. The app will use a combination of geolocation and camera tech to ensure citizens are where they’re supposed to be.

The app will message citizens and wait for a response.

“We don’t tell them how often or when, on a random basis they have to reply within 15 minutes,” Australian Premier Steven Marshall explained .

Defenders of the app argue this is just a replacement for the current relocation plan, where Australian citizens are required to quarantine away from their homes.

However, critics point out this sets a new and dangerous precedent of citizens being monitored by their own technology, complete with facial recognition technology. FEE’s own Dan Sanchez points out:

This wasn’t the only tech policy the Australian government passed recently. An Australian surveillance bill now allows police to access phone data, modify the phone’s contents, delete the data, and take over social media accounts of suspected criminals.

This new expansion of government power illustrates a trend developing worldwide. The internet and the devices used to access it, once the Wild West of the 21st century, is increasingly being used as a tool to monitor and control rather than create.

Returning to the Wild West

It’s unclear whether technological improvements will lead to political freedom or be harnessed by states for more totalitarian control. However, you don’t need to learn to code or engage in political action to insulate your freedom from such forms of control. Instead consider this modest proposal.

In the words of Tyler the Creator, “just walk away from the screen.”

When I first read about Australia’s new app, rather than being shocked by the Orwellian nature of the policy, I laughed. The whole idea was preposterous to me because, if I were an Australian, I wouldn’t be able to comply even if I wanted to. Here is the list of “apps” on my phone:

  1. Phone
  2. Alarm
  3. Calculator
  4. Directions
  5. Music
  6. Podcasts.

These are all the apps available. No camera. No browser. I ditched my smartphone one year ago in favor of the minimalist Light Phone II.

Why? The personal reasons were simple. I felt my phone distracted me from the people around me, and I didn’t think it was necessary to have a computer in my pocket—especially one that’s designed to increase my use-time.

I also believe now is an important moment for a degree of technological secession. It’s becoming increasingly clear that actors in governments, foreign and domestic, are leveraging cronyist relationships with ostensibly private companies to monitor citizens.

Politicians have begun to explicitly work with social media companies to ban spreaders of “misinformation,” only to later admit the news was plausible or true the whole time (such as with the lab leak “conspiracy theory”).

Online comment histories are forensically examined for any opportunity to take past comments out of context to use ammunition in political disagreements. The internet is transforming from the Wild West into a religious convent (without beautiful stained-glass windows).

There is a Wild West out there, though. Literally out there. In your day-to-day life with members of your family, community, church, and workplace there is no data mining and no shadow bans. There are no apps installed in your physical books which will require a 15 minute response.

The general response to this approach may be the criticism that a government powerful enough could just make me carry an iPhone. This is true to some extent, but consider what happens to the cost of implementing smart technology surveillance on a society for which the technology integration is largely alien. As integration of technology declines, the cost of implementing technological tyranny rises.

I’m not claiming everyone would be better off with technology bonfires. Nor do I think everyone should buy dumb phones; I’m no Luddite. But the point stands that as we as a society grow less attached to our smart technology, it becomes more costly for the state to leverage it as a tool for control.

Spiritual Secession

My retreat from technology goes beyond my phone. It’s no secret that the great political “battleground” of our times exists on social media. Our last president existed on Twitter more than in the physical world, it often seemed to many of us.

When I got rid of my smartphone, I also deleted my social media presence entirely. I noticed the world became a less contentious place. When you step away from the screen, you step away from the conflict. Leaving the modern political battleground is spiritual secession, and you’ll become more free for it.

Some may argue that this decision is giving up on winning the battle for whatever political cause is important to them, but I have a much different understanding. When individuals fighting for the cause of liberty, for example, engage with the prevailing regime, they provide more support for the regime than for their own cause.

To understand why, let’s consider an example from the dystopian fiction book, Eumeswil.

Eumeswil tells the story of Martin, a unique type of hero called an anarch (not an anarchist) whose goal is to remain free under a totalitarian state in a crumbling country where nihilism and cynicism have stolen the beauty from language, religion, and learning.

Martin’s pursuit of freedom does not involve opposition to the totalitarian ruler, “the Condor.” Instead, he recognizes his spiritual freedom exists regardless of the political environment. He explains, “[The Anarch’s] own measure is enough for him; freedom is not his goal; it is his property.” In fact, Martin can best be understood in contrast with an opponent of the Conder: Zerrwick.

Zerrwick is a supporter of the self-proclaimed liberal government that existed before the Conder took power—the Tribunes. Zerrwick writes for an underground resistance paper. However, Zerrwick has defined his existence in relation to his enemy and lost all freedom of thought in the process.

“Whatever Zerrwick thinks or writes, he always means the Condor. This will be so even if he survives the Condor; he will remain Zerrwick’s topic for decades. Zerrwick would then become a scavenger himself. Pursuer and pursued are always made for each other.”

Similarly, when I argued on social media, I energized the political conversation, convinced very few (or none), and sacrificed minutes (or hours) that could’ve been used improving my family and local community with the freedom I own. I’m not claiming that convincing people is an impossible task, only that the medium of replying to a stranger’s Tweets frequently costs more than often non-existent benefits.

I’ve since recreated social media accounts, but I use them strictly for sharing my work and messaging friends. I no longer sacrifice my freedom to provide energy to a political conversation beyond my influence. Without a phone linked to them I can’t access them much, anyway.

As the political temperature rises, it seems there are two options. You can shout at others in a hot room and increase the temperature, or you can walk outside and use your property to improve the things you actually can control. For me, spiritual secession from the room is the clear answer. My advice is, accept ownership of your freedom.

  • Peter Jacobsen is a Writing Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.