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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Technology: A Threat to Liberty?

Joseph Kennedy told his boys John, Robert, and Edward not to write down anything they would not want to see on the front page of The New York Times the next morning. Even if the Times may be going out of style, Joe Kennedy’s advice is not.
David Petraeus—director of the CIA and one of the most powerful men in the world—was recently undone by Gmail. Threatening e-screeds led the FBI from a Florida socialite to General David Petraeus’ biographer. Its monitoring easily connected the biographer to the CIA director. And if he was vulnerable, we certainly are.
Our real concern is not with the technology itself, but how its novel uses might make us more vulnerable. Most people can’t resist using cheap, powerful computing devices that channel nearly all the world’s information. Can we count on those people to use these tools in the service of truth, justice, and freedom?

The Cloud

Life in The Cloud can be as whimsical and convenient as it sounds. After a long day of work, I tapped out ideas for this piece, including this sentence, on my phone to revise a Google document I created soon after the Freeman’s editor accepted my pitch via Facebook. Later I confirmed the topic on Facebook via SMS.
As more of our information and interactions migrate online, we are recording things we never recorded before. Minutiae previously confined to rolodexes, diaries, and midnight whispers are as accessible as pocket lint. Only, what if we could just as easily grab strangers’ pocket lint?
My legal, personal identity resides online. Anyone who stole my laptop or smartphone would be able to fiddle with my finances or savage my reputation in minutes. A decent hacker with a free afternoon could do the same—without stealing either one. It’s happened even to particularly tech-savvy people, like Wired senior writer Matt Honan, who described how thoroughly—and quickly—his life was turned inside out in a recent cover story.   
The government has easy access to anything we put online, often without need for a warrant. Law enforcement at all levels can track GPS-enabled devices with a surprising lack of drama. The NSA mainlines Internet and telecommunications traffic into colossal data centers for analysis and storage archiving. Defense and intelligence agencies use highly classified “tag and track” systems to keep unbelievably close tabs on specific individuals to an incredible—almost supernatural—degree. The same basic technologies that allow our smartphones to navigate unfamiliar cities and make video phone calls allow governments, particularly our own, to deploy drone aircraft that drop bombs on the other side of the world and patrol domestic skies with little oversight and unclear consequences. That scares a lot of people. 

The Silver Lining

Still, diligent students of economics and liberty must ask whether having our heads in The Cloud represents a significant departure from the past. Are we more vulnerable? Arguably not, in view of censorship and other civil liberty abuses during the Wilson, Lincoln, and Adams presidencies. The Defense and State departments have suffered massive leaks. Hosni Mubarak tried to kill the Arab Spring resistance by shutting down Egypt’s Internet, but that brought the movement vital popular attention. North Korea’s leaders are virtually powerless to stop the influx of mobile phones linked to the outside world via satellite. Information asymmetries between governments and citizens will only increast. The NSA already has a tough time processing the oceans of data we all generate. This should give us hope.
My alma mater has two mottos. One of them makes sense: Sapientia ipsa Libertas. Knowledge itself is liberty! Digital technology is radically democratizing information, making it more difficult to control. Abuses are easier to document. (Some major media firms are using iPhones and small drones to cover events.) The Internet does not even need an inch to throw a door wide open, only a few bytes. 
Once a concept—in a video, for example—goes viral, virtually no one can control public exposure or reaction to it. It takes on a life of its own. The case of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign demonstrates that critiques sometimes go viral more intensely than the subject of those critiques. Buzzfeed contributor John Herrman called Twitter a “truth machine” to describe how the service handled falsehoods as Hurricane Sandy hit the United States. Good information tends to be shared online. Bad information tends to be discredited and discarded. This should make us optimistic about the viability and vitality of a truly free marketplace for ideas.
Technology exposes people to ideas (like libertarianism) that they might never have been exposed to otherwise. I owe more of my intellectual and ideological growth in the last five years to Facebook than any other means. If people encounter a new concept or fact, they may not care, but information is now more likely to reach those who find it compelling. This is crucial to the Hayekian theory of social change advanced by FEE, among others.
When an admirer asked Hayek whether he should enter politics, Hayek admonished, “Society’s course will be changed only by a change in ideas. First you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers and writers, with reasoned argument. It will be their influence on society which will prevail, and the politicians will follow.” If an idea is firmly held by a sufficient minority (pegged by researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at around 10% in a widely-covered study), it will become part of a group’s culture. Then their society will be transformed.
Technology gives ordinary people unprecedented power. We should be optimistic that it will be a force for liberty and good in the long term.

  • Luca Gattoni-Celli (@TheGattoniCelli) is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C. and an alumnus of the June 2010 FEE Introduction to Austrian Economics seminar.