Between Xanadu and 1984

To be honest, I did not expect to be so engaged by the topic of Digital Citizenship.  By just reading the sources given to us, it appeared that there was not too much to talk about how the Internet will affect the government.  On the surface, it appeared to be optimizing things left and right, but after having this session with Professor Eaves, my views of the Internet started to change to be less optimistic and hopeful about it.

The one analogy that I cannot forget from this discussion was the one Professor Eaves made about how the printing press and the Internet are very similar in their effects.  Both made access to information easier, which in turn, has caused revolutions from the national-level to the individual level.  The effect on individuals is quite clear: increased access to information has broadened our knowledge of the world, enabled us to dig into the diverse past, and peer into what the future can potentially be.  It is really empowering for individuals, but according to Professor Eaves, not as empowering as it was for governments.  He gave the example of Napoleon and how without the printing press, would have not been able to organize an army of a million to invade Russia.  The printing press enabled standardization to occur, which in turn helped created nationalism.  A common identity, history, and language is shared easily because of this invention, and it is this unity that enables governments to become stronger.  Professor Eaves argues that we are now in the age where the Internet is going to help the state, which might not be as sunshine and daisies was we expect.

Let us look at the Snowden leaks, which frankly deserves its own chapter in human history.  Snowden exposed to the world that a government has the capability of spying upon its own people.  He believes that although they might use it for the sake of national security, the fact that they have this ability to invade the privacy of millions is something that we should have a conversation about. This level of surveillance could have not happened if it was not for the rise of the Internet.  From this, one could see that we are at the point in time that the government has the potential to radically change the way it rules over the people.  Dystopias where government surveillance is omnipresent, such as that of 1984, is now possible in the foreseeable future.  

However, the caveat is how fast can a government adapt to this change.  Just as Jeff Bezos has said to HBS, large, established organizations have a hard time changing itself.  Physical retail stores never caught up to using the Internet the way Amazon has because they did not catch on quickly enough.  Usually, I facepalm at the thought of slow progress, whether it is in business or government, but this is the time where I start to think that a slow government is something worthwhile to have.  It gives us time to think and to come up with a solution to the problems that could arise.  

Before I end, I want to cover two more things, identity and the law, both of which are at stake when it comes to the rise of Digital citizenship.  Governments want to keep track of who is a citizen of their country, both for good purposes and not-so-seemingly good purposes.  For example, they want to know who will pay taxes or who receives welfare, which is good for the people, but they also want to know what are we searching or looking at online for the sake of “national security,” which is not so good.  Digital citizenship can pave the way for instantaneous passport renewal, but it can also pave the way for increased surveillance.  

Before leaving, I asked Professor Eaves what would be a potential solution to the possibility of 1984 happening, and his answer was surprising.  “It’s the law, not technology, that would protect us.”  Being a technophile, I find this disappointing, but thinking about it, it really is the law that would enable us to live in a world with an uncorrupt, efficient government that does not trample upon our privacy.  Laws enable us to take the nuanced choice rather than a binary one.  One might be worried that governments are the ones who make the laws and are in control, but if you live in a democracy, laws are made for the people and by the people.  Laws might appear to chain us from progress, but they could be what prevents us from jumping into an abyss.  

Sometimes we think that outcomes are black and white, but we forget about the shades of grey that occur in between.  Almost nothing in this world is binary, and that is what makes the Internet both beautiful and complex.  

2 Comments »

  1. Mike Smith

    October 28, 2017 @ 9:13 pm

    1

    I very much like how you continued the thought started by David around the latent power of the government after the release of an initially individual-empowering technology. I hadn’t connected this threat with the countervailing pressure of a “slow government.” Of course, we can come up with solutions in time only if we notice what is happening. There are many interesting threads coming together, as David mentioned with his comments on open/closed governments and those interested in stability or instability. I’m excited to see where this topic heads next year; every year has been a surprise!

    On “increased surveillance” I think it is important to keep in mind that we’re not talking about the degree of surveillance for any particular individual, but the breadth of deep surveillance on so many people. Technology has increased (i.e., made much more efficient) this potential government activity.

    Like you, I am intrigued by David’s answer to your final question. I might add to it given my experience. I worry when the law is written by individuals with very little understanding of technology. Are the Supreme Court justices of this country having the kinds of discussions we’re having? I worry that having knowledge of philosophy and the law is no longer sufficient to produce the system of rules that will protect us.

  2. robjmal670

    October 31, 2017 @ 5:07 pm

    2

    I do agree with that Professor Smith. Having the understanding of how our technology works and the developments of it are critical to making laws about the Internet. Hopefully, although unlikely, politicians and law-makers could have discussions like ours.

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