Thoughts on Technology and Liberty
One is kind of passive, but awesome for audio/video geekery; a DVD recorder. Not only does it play DVD’s (and music and picture CD’s) very well, but it records just about any sort of DVD you might want, including DVD+/-R, DVD+/-RW and DVD+R DL. And it does it from my satellite receiver, TiVo, iLink from our DV video camera and an extra input on the front to allow adding just about any other device you might want to add. The front input includes S-Video, so I could probably hook up my laptop and record from there if I wanted to. Of course, this doesn’t really have a lot to do with liberty, except that it certainly makes things easier for accumulating entertainment without being quite so beholden to media monopolies. Of course, since it’s a Sony DVD recorder, they prevent you from recording movies with “copy protection”, even though you should be able to under fair use. Not a really big deal to me, but it is typical of the media industry that they want to prevent you from reasonable and legal activities because you might do something illegal.
The other geek toy I got, though, is what had Robert and I talking and got us onto the topic of technology and liberty. I got a Palm Treo 650 for Christmas from my wife. Now, for a computer tech geek, this is one of the ultimate in geek toys, in my opinion. Especially if you are into continous communication, network and data access. Aside from the normal, and very cool, PDA functions you can get in a Palm, the Treo is also a cell phone compatible with GSM/GPRS/EDGE cell networks (i.e. 2.5G and 3G cell networks). With a data connect plan from your cell provider, you can access the internet at somewhere around high end modem speeds. Then, with the addition of GoodLink, VersaMail or XpressMail (depending on your situation), you can get access to your personal and corporate email. On top of that, I discovered KMaps, a completely free open source geo-mapping tool for PDA’s using Google Maps. And much, much more, including instant messaging, calendard, universal address book capabilities, bluetooth connectivity, MP3 player ……. okay, I guess that gets the point across.
Anyhow, the driving force in technology is really to accomplish a vision of access to any data that you need, at any time, from any where. We humans have been working towards that goal since the first set of grunts used for communication between our ancestors a million years ago. Once we have the data, we can turn it into knowledge. And that is what has allowed us to reach the point we are at today, on the verge of leaving our planet with enough humans to assure the survival of the race even if our planet were to die. Not that we will accomplish that in the next year, or even the next decade, but it isn’t that far off. The point of data and knowledge is survival, of course. But the survival we are talking about has changed significantly. For tens of thousands of years it was survival of the individual, the family, the local group. About 200 years ago that began to change dramatically. To the point where, today, the typical individual in an industrial nation doesn’t need to be concerned with individual survival, as a general rule. We have reached the point today where the focus of our data and knowledge is a whole different level of survival. And our drive for access to data has led us to the point where we are getting very close to the realization of any data, any time, any where. My Treo is one of those major steps towards it, as is the Internet, worldwide cell networks that carry data and so forth.
The question is, from a perspective of individual liberty, is this good, or bad? There are a lot of truly negative things, things that governments, unscrupulous individuals, monopolistic companies, etc. can take advantage of and gain much more control over individuals. Databases that allow querying of information about individuals. Cell phones can be tracked within the cell network, which is why a cellular tower lease buyout is so lucrative for the seller; they are in high demand. Spy satellites can take pictures of individual humans. And on and on the list goes. It seems that every new technology enables new ways to control and monitor us.
And yet, if it weren’t for these technologies and the knowledge they give us access to, we as humans would be mired in the life of a peasant in the middle ages. As, indeed, many humans on this planet still are. Without the printing press we could not have spread knowledge far and wide so that the Anglo-Saxon traditions of individual freedom, constitutionally limited government and rule of law was considered the norm in much of the world today. Liberal ideas about the value of individuals and the role of the market would not have been possible. The American Revolution was almost completely enabled by technology that provided easy access to knowledge. Indeed, the printing press was a two edged sword, giving government bureaucracies enormously more data, easily accessible, for the constable and the tax collector to use. Two hundred years later the Czech’s used fax machines to communicate rapidly and securely and create the Velvet Revolution that led to the downfall of communism in Czechoslovakia. And today the Internet enables the rapid spread of information that every government would much prefer is not even spread slowly.
The truth is, technology is, itself, neutral. The question is what we humans will do with the power the technology confers upon us. We are quick to see the negatives, the NSA eavesdropping on conversations, police forces maintaining databases on all citizens, networked camera systems tracking people’s movements, and so much more. But what we miss is that this technology empowers the sovereign individual. Loosely coupled networks of humans are inherently becoming uncontrollable. We have seen it time and again, in the Soviet Union, China, our own country, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Rumania and many other places. We have seen the failure of first IBM and now Microsoft to stop the rise of loosely coupled developer and user networks bringing better, more usable, freer technologies to the table. The truth is that ignorance is the weapon of the oppressor and knowledge is the weapon of the free individual.
I wouldn’t be scared of things like always on connections to the network. The police can never keep up with all of us. I wouldn’t be scared of things like massive databases available to government bureaucracies. Those bureaucracies cannot make decisions as fast as the same number of peer to peer networked individuals can. I don’t worry that Microsoft and Chevron and GM will forever dominate what choices we have as consumers. Open Source methods are already proving to innovate faster and more effectively, while proving to be more resilient than the big guys ever imagined. Open Source is so effective that the methods, perhaps not called that, are popping up all over the place. Like blogs, for example. And look how fast a blog swarm happens, and how effective it can be (e.g. Rathergate). Decentralization, loose coupling of networks (whether computers, people, or businesses), and rapid dissemination of knowledge are the tools that the oppressors fear. They try to make them work for them, but we see, time and again, where that fails and we “little folk” win out.
Don’t fear technology and what it brings. Embrace it, use it, enjoy it.