Modern Communications Technology—Savior or Soma?

In recent years, I have noticed that many—seemingly a great majority—of my libertarian friends express an optimistic outlook that sooner or later freedom will triumph against tyranny, even in the United States of America, because of technological developments, especially the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web, along with all the hardware and software that facilitate these means of communication and expand their reach. The idea seems to be, at bottom, that technology in general and these technologies in particular are intrinsically anti-state and pro-freedom. Some people regard them as decisive factors in the struggle for liberty. I have never been persuaded.

The Internet and the Web are obviously employed to some extent for anti-state and pro-freedom purposes. Probably their most important effect is to loosen the state’s hold on information about its leaders, their motives, and their actions, and thereby to speed the spread of truth to greater numbers of people who might otherwise have been taken in by the rulers’ habitual resort to distortions, evasions, cover-ups, and outright lies. Such fabrications have always proved most useful to the U.S. state in its foreign relations and imperial actions, where the matters at issue are out of sight of the great mass of Americans. Because the new technologies of communication are not only powerful—allowing the instant transmission of photos, audio recordings, and video recordings, as well as written texts—but also available worldwide, they have the power to prick the state’s balloons of misrepresentation about events abroad in short order.

Despite these anti-state effects, one must recognize that the state itself has hardly remained mired in ancient technologies while the public embraced the new ones. Drive from Dulles International Airport to Washington, D.C., and peer out at the huge office buildings inhabited in many cases by information technology companies that have put themselves—for a handsome reward, of course—at the disposal of the U.S. government. The rulers have in the past decade added to their longstanding military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC) a comparably vast security-industrial-congressional complex (SICC). Perhaps the individual and small-scale tech wizards working their magic in the non-state backwoods will always remain a step or two ahead of the CSCs, Microsofts, and Oracles; I don’t know enough about technology to speculate on this “IT arms race” in an informed way. I do know, however, that the state is not standing helplessly in place while the pro-freedom people innovate so as to render it toothless.

Much more important, however, is that whereas the new information technologies can spread information in the raw, as it were, they cannot so readily alter the mental filters—essentially the ideological screening and focusing—that the public uses to interpret and evaluate the information it receives. Consider, for example, the public’s reaction to the recent disclosures about the state’s all-encompassing spying on the American people’s electronic communications, whether by ordinary telephone calls, e-mails, or other means. At this point, the situation appears to be that the rulers have unashamedly excused their unconstitutional conduct and painted the bearer of the bad news, Edward Snowden, as a traitor for exposing their secret snooping on one and all without warrant or any plausible reason, aside from technological overkill in the alleged search for terrorists; and the public appears to be more approving than condemning. Revealing the state’s crimes serves no purpose in preserving or reestablishing liberty if the public receives such revelations with a yawn or, worse, with enthusiastic approval.

It is instructive to compare modern communications technologies and firearms as means of preserving liberty. The Founding Fathers expressed great faith in the power of an armed populace to resist tyrannical government. They went so far as to embed this conviction in the Bill of Rights. Yet, even though Americans have always been and remain today armed to the teeth, these guns have availed them nothing in the preservation of their liberties, which the state has steadily, and sometimes abruptly, stripped from them. Even if the armed populace had risen up, guns in hand, to resist these invasions of their rights, however, they would have been defeated by the state and its legions of more heavily armed police and troops. It is silly to suppose that today the people’s being armed provides any protection of their rights whatsoever against the state’s violations.

What decides the issue in the end is neither guns nor information technologies, but the people’s ideologies. These belief systems, however foggy and ill-formulated they are for most people, determine how people “see” the world, how they evaluate what they “see” as good, bad, or neutral, what political actions or programs they embrace in response to their understandings and evaluations and, finally, what personal identities they adopt as members of political or ideological communities of like-minded comrades. If people’s ideologies are friendly to a vast, invasive state, as they are to an overwhelming degree in today’s United States, flooding them with information will avail nothing in the struggle against an overweening state. They will either dismiss anti-state information as worthless to them—the product of cranks and crazies—or, worse, they will perceive those who spread such information as acting in opposition to what they believe to be proper, protective, and productive for the state to do. Indeed, they may look upon those who spread anti-state information as they now look upon Edward Snowden, as traitors.

Of course, the new communications technologies can deliver not simply raw information, but also ideological argumentation. In this way, many libertarians seem to believe, the public can be detached from their statism and brought over to pro-liberty views. In some cases such conversions may occur. On the whole, however, this view of how people adopt or give up an ideology is highly oversimplified. Only for a relatively small group of people—those unusually given to rational thought and self-education and unusually immune to social and cultural pressures—will such conversion by education be possible. In general, people’s ideologies reflect not only intellectual and informational factors, but also, and usually more significantly, the nature of their own experience. If, for example, their lives are going swimmingly, they have good jobs, and they are not being personally bothered by police or other state functionaries, they will be disinclined to raise serious questions about the state’s actions, however criminal those actions may seem to others. If life is good, electronic toys are abundant, and entertainment is nonstop, why should they concern themselves with the state’s mayhem in places beyond their immediate milieu?

Indeed, by providing unlimited means of diverting the public with funny videos, full-length movies, photos of cute cats or of rabbits nursing piglets, porn galore, and all the rest of the “information” transmitted in overwhelming volume by the Internet and the Web, people need never take any interest whatsoever in politics and the state’s shenanigans. What’s it to them? As the saying goes, If they’ve done nothing wrong, they have nothing to worry about. Thus, although the new technologies have the capacity to awaken people—to be more precise, certain sorts of people in certain sorts of circumstances—they also have the capacity to lull billions of people worldwide into a virtual coma of apathy in regard to the state. In the dystopia of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, people were lulled into contentment by popping a soma. Today’s amazing communications technologies, notwithstanding their potential power to aid resistance to the state, may have an even more powerful capacity to serve as the modern state’s soma.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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