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Technologies of Control and Liberation

July 17, 2010

Patri has often made the point that new technologies have a greater impact on society than attempts to reform rules. This is what seasteading is all about: the development of a new technology to unleash the power of decentralized innovation in the market for governance.

In an introduction to the new Persian edition of his novel Little Brother, Cory Doctorow makes the case for technology as a disruptive force. Some technologies facilitate repression; others, liberation. The relative power of the individual and the state fluctuates as new technologies are developed. Doctorow begins by telling the story of his grandparents’ escape from the Soviet Union to Canada:

They left because the Stalinist program was a nightmarish marriage of totalitarianism and technology. There have always been repressive governments that declared that they had absolute dominion over their citizens’ lives. But without technology, the state’s power was always constrained to what could practically be accomplished: a state can only employ so many secret policemen before everyone is spying on everyone else, and no one is keeping the trains running, no one is harvesting the fields, no one is making sure the lights stay on.

But technology multiplies the secret policeman’s power. With wiretaps, hidden cameras, powerful databases and data-mining, the state is able to turn every snitch into a superman, whose ears can hear sounds from across the nation, whose eyes can be everywhere.

That was the disastrous nature of Stalinism: the authoritarian urge, coupled with technology to realize it.

He goes on to describe the rise of technologies of liberation:

And then the citizens of the Soviet Union dismantled their society with technology. Old technology was inadequate: typewriters could be uniquely identified based on the idiosyncrasies of their keys; printing presses were huge and hard to disguise; tube radios were bulky and easily detected. But new technologies – computers, electric typewriters, fax machines, miniature radios – made it possible to fly under the surveillance state’s radar.

The liberating power of technology, however,  is offset by new tools of control:

But technology disrupts. Even as technology was liberating a generation, another generation was finding in it an oppressor.

By the time I was leaving university, high school students were discovering that their schools were using technology to spy on every click, every IM, every email. Little kids discovered that their parents could install software on their phones that used the in-built GPS to track their every step, like a paroled felon wearing an ankle-cuff.

The arms-race between technologies of control and technologies of freedom seems likely to continue forever to some extent. The key question is whether one will come to dominate in the long run.  Seasteading, it seems to me, has the potential to fundamentally change this dynamic: if the power of exit is guaranteed by the laws of physics – it’s easier to move large objects in water than in land – states will have less reason to develop technologies to control citizens. The hard problem for seasteading, though, is whether it can get off the ground before existing governments decide they don’t like the competition.

Hat tip: Charles Johnson.

  1. June 9, 2014 7:08 pm

    On the other hand, Brother. The 32 MBs of on board memory
    will see to that, giving you a capacity for up to 600 pages worth
    of data, not to mention up to 208 phone numbers you wont have to retype.
    Business environment has been changing rapidly.

  2. July 22, 2010 8:11 pm

    Interesting thoughts along lines that should be appreciated by ATN readers here:

  3. July 20, 2010 8:20 pm

    In the digital sphere, we have other interesting technologies with the potential to be disruptive, such as Bitcoin. It will be interesting to see if it reaches a critical mass of users.


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