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The dangers to our liberty

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump walk together south of the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea. Across the world, intolerant, fascist, racial, tribal and religious bigots are growing strong. They are most reflected in the raise of politicians like Trump. 

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.

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6 comments

  1. Panic borne of Pipopawa? They are coming……
    Habakkuk 2: “…………..
    “‘Woe to him who piles up stolen goods
    and makes himself wealthy by extortion!
    How long must this go on?’
    7 Will not your creditors suddenly arise?
    Will they not wake up and make you tremble?
    Then you will become their prey.
    8 Because you have plundered many nations,
    the peoples who are left will plunder you.
    For you have shed human blood;
    you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.

    9 “Woe to him who builds his house by unjust gain,
    setting his nest on high
    to escape the clutches of ruin!
    10 You have plotted the ruin of many peoples,
    shaming your own house and forfeiting your life….”
    This arrogance was bound to boomerang…….it is time to change bosses.

  2. Reading and re reading George Orwelll in my youth and reflecting on it today I at times wonder how this man could so easily paint the various actors at the centre of the Luwero debacle. I always like listening to Mr Mirundi Tamale and hear Squaler with his master word ‘Tactics , comrade Tactics’. The Mwendas are more subtle in their approach but that word ! Now liberty may have its dangers but like food, the benefits outweigh the dangers. Get time and listen to those good Nutrutionists the feeling you get is how much harm you do to your person when ever you eat you favourite food. All said and done the path our country has taken to attain a place at the table of human progress is wrong. Catchy phrases like ‘Middle Income’ ,wealth creation, and many other failed promises will always sound hollow to the average ear because they are not premised on real situations. Everything in life depends on what is ot your dinner table.With the price of salt at what it is today , those who discuss sugar politics are completely out of touch with the reality.These are the extremists. Cyber harassment is a small thing if you think of the millions of countrmen who sleep hungry. All the same this is a great insight and thank you.

    • Kambere, we who grew up in the 60s find it inconceivable that anyone (unless they fast willingly or starved intentionally) on the territory of Uganda can sleep hungry. People worked for fewer hours and there was time for rest and entertainment daily yet there was more than enough for everybody (including strangers,foreigners,livestock and pets) with surplus rotting by the wayside. Kenyans used to come aboard Mix train(train towing both passengers and freight cars), get off at Busembatia station, start picking oranges,lemons from the uninhabited wild, load sacks and carry to the station, then load onto the train on its Mombasa-bound journey to go and sell in Kenya; having picked free of charge because the fruits grew in the wild (or maybe abandoned settlement) ………….that was the Uganda of our days till mid 70s.
      To hear of food scarcity in Uganda means failure of the government to organise or deliberate sabotage to create famine so as to sell hoarded foodstuffs.
      The present regime is the most corrupt that ever was despite Mwenda’s tolerance of corruption…as if he has never personally felt the pangs of hunger.

  3. 1.Sometime back i met a Senior Russian Army officer in Sheraton Hotel,Kampala i asked him what he was doing in Uganda he thought perhaps i was spying on him (coz of my heavy British accent) So later on he opened up and told me that he was an expert in Guerrilla warfare; then i asked whether Guerrilla warfare was not out dated.He told me that despite the use of ICT in warfare, Guerrilla warfare was the most effective war tactic for 3rd world nations.
    2.ICT has scored triple A in the Construction, Communication,Travel,Tourism,Banking, Medical,Design and Fashion sectors.
    3.ICT has really ruined the privacy of celebrities what do i mean every Tom,Dick and Harry feels that they have the right to insult the rich and famous coz they are famous.
    4.I used to think that gossip and fake news was meant for the poor coz they have nothing to do;i was wrong the level of blackmail in the 1st world is alarming.
    5.Were the founders of Google and Facebook so naive to believe that every user of their App were up to good?
    6. Its good to see governments exert pressure on the brilliant minds at Silicon valley to provide the pass words of social media misusers .
    7.Have the Social media misusers achieved their goal of bringing down governments in the 3rd world ?No they have totally failed coz they are not any better than the leaders they attack and besides that Africans are used to receiving tough love,

  4. Rutake Tharcisse

    I am stunned to see a brilliant man like Mwenda fall in the trap of media propaganda. In America, liberal media depicts Donald Trump as a horrible and dangerous president. He is a racist, a begot. This is precisely what it means to manipulate people’s opinion.
    Trump was elected by people who were sick of being lied to by demagog like Barak Obama, the man that all black people think was the Savior of the world.

    No Kwenda. Do your homework. Don’t repeat CNN, MSNBC’s talking points. Trump is not more dangerous than Obama, or Clinton, or Bush. That’s what the Big Brother you talk about wants us to believe. We are not that naive.

    • Excellent point Rutake. I am also disappointed that Mr. Mwenda has fallen prey to the mind control of the western mainstream liberal media.

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