THE LAST WORD: Why we should be wary of the influence of new communication technologies in the hands of extremists
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | In 1948 George Orwell published his novel, 1984. It is a classic statement of the danger to individual liberty posed by increasing technological sophistication, especially in the hands of the state. The novel is set in a country with an all-powerful state, otherwise called Big Brother, characterised by a state-controlled economy with few monopolistic producers and controlled labour. Yet this is not what made Big Brother all-powerful. Two factors did.
The first was technology’s perfection of state-power. According to Orwell, the growth and spread of television would make it easy for a self-perpetuating elite to manipulate, condition, and monitor the masses without explicit resort to using terror. So, every citizen (or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching) could be kept for 24 hours a day under the watchful eye of the police and being indoctrinated by official propaganda. This created a real possibility of enforcing complete uniformity of opinion.
The second factor supporting the rule of Big Brother was the threat of perpetual war. Orwell’s book is set in a world of three giant powers with unstable frontiers – Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. The possession of nuclear weapons made it impossible for any of these powers to be attacked and defeated by another. However, for purposes of domestic control, each one of these powers needed to create the illusion that they were permanently at war with one another.
This assumed threat to national security is the crux of Orwell’s message: the danger of slipping into totalitarianism did not simply arise from new technologies of manipulation, control and surveillance. Rather it arose from these technologies being pressed into the service of “national security”. Using the power of television, for example, people would be conditioned to believe that their nation is at war on a large number of fronts – wars without any apparent end. America’s “war on terror” today mirrors this.
Orwell wrote in the early 20th century when all-powerful states symbolised by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Soviet Russia emerged in Europe. The state was so overwhelmingly powerful it became totalitarian. Most 20th Century thinking on democracy, freedom and individual liberty was a response to this. Yet today, we are confronted with a much more complex problem.
First, the state and its national security complex is no longer the only actor in mass surveillance. Giant IT companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, etc. have developed powerful technologies not only to keep us under surveillance but also to condition and control what we read, eat and wear and think. While there are many benefits we derive as consumers, the market has joined the state in the lexicon of surveillance, manipulation and control.
Second, the spread of mass communication technologies has empowered citizens to communicate easily and effectively without recourse to traditional media who have historically been gatekeepers. It has made it possible for ordinary people to expose corruption and resist tyranny. Every citizen with a phone has a publishing and broadcasting house from whence they can challenge authority and place their demands on the national political agenda. The tendency is to uncritically embrace this development.
For instance, these technologies have strengthened extremely intolerant groups hostile to liberal democratic values. They use social media to bully and psychologically terrorise their critics. Across the world, intolerant, fascist, racial, tribal and religious bigots are growing strong. They are most reflected in the raise of politicians like Donald Trump. John Stuart Mill saw this danger in the 19th century, warning, in his famous essay, On Liberty, that the threat to liberty was not just from the state but also from majorities willing to use the weight of numbers to suppress and regiment minorities.
Third, the challenge faced by most poor countries is not the presence of a strong state but the lack of an effective one. In many of these countries, the state is too weak to perform its most basic function of ensuring law and order and the protection of individual life and property. The growth of new technologies of communication make it ever more difficult for such states to control the passions of the masses especially when radicalised. This allows majorities to hold the state hostage and suppress minorities.
One of the leading liberal thinkers of the 20th Century, Karl Popper, was critical of the myth, which attributes to “the voice of the people” a kind of final authority and unlimited wisdom. In the chapter on “Public Opinion and Liberal Principles,” in his book `Conjectures and Refutations’, Popper is critical of our blind and naïve faith in the ultimate common-sense rightness of the “man in the street.” He says that the avoidance of the plural is telling since people are rarely univocal on any issue. There are as many opinions in as many streets as the people who live in the city.
Popper’s greatest contribution was the recognition that public opinion is very powerful. It can change governments, even despotic ones. So he cautioned that liberals “ought to regard any such power with some degree of suspicion. “Owing to its anonymity,” Popper wrote, “public opinion is an irresponsible form of power, and therefore particularly dangerous from the liberal point of view.”
He went on: “The remedy in one direction is obvious: by minimising the power of the state the danger of the influence of public opinion, exerted through the agency of the state, will be reduced. But this does not secure the freedom of the individual’s behaviour and thought from the direct pressure of public opinion. Here the individual needs the powerful protection of the state. These conflicting requirements can be at least met by a certain kind of tradition…”
Popper argues that it is easy to see the state as a constant danger, an evil, though a necessary one. But this is because for the state to fulfil its functions, it must have more power than any single private citizen or public corporation. He argues that even though people may design institutions to minimise the risk of the powers of the state being misused, that risk can never be completely eliminated. Therefore, people have to continue to pay for the protection of the state not only in taxes but also in the form of humiliations suffered – for example at the hands of bullying officials. Since the danger of abuse of state power cannot be eliminated, Popper argued, the only thing we can hope for is not to pay too heavily for it.