Every act of regulation by authority is an erosion of liberty. That tells us what liberty is, and that you can have too much of a good thing. Liberty pushed to extreme is anarchy. Regulation pushed to extreme is dictatorship. Millions of words have been devoted to finding the balance, and the question remains open. The collective drift towards more regulation in the western liberal democratic model is driven by good intentions and by a mad dream of perfect fairness in which individual discretion and individual responsibility are intrinsically subversive. Infants and madmen used to be the traditional exceptions to the general notion that people should be trusted to make their own accommodations with each other, and that authority is not there to do our thinking for us. We are all halfway to being treated like infants and madmen now. As civilisation advances in complexity, liberties give way. So be it, but it’s as well to know and name the retreat of liberty for what it is, and not to call it something else, before the retreat becomes a rout.
The Independent revealed in October 2013 that Paterson [Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] has never been briefed on climate change by the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Ian Boyd and refused to take a briefing offered to him by Professor David MacKay, the chief scientific adviser at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). On Monday, a cabinet colleague of Paterson’s told the Mail Online: “He isn’t climate sceptic, he’s climate stupid.’”
What is at work is a powerful vision of a world without inwardness, one in which the external record of a life is the same as our experience of it. He quotes something the science writer John Brockman said about the “collective externalised mind” promised by the internet. For Brockman, that’s not dystopia, it’s utopia. Yet, as Cohen points out, there’s another name for it: “totalitarianism” – the slogan of the Khmer Rouge, for example, was “Destroy the garden of the individual”.
I read the Schnitzler right away, and that’s when I had my early inkling of how smart Stanley really was. Traumnovelle, published in Vienna in 1926, is the full, excruciating flowering of a voluptuous and self-consciously decadent time and place, a shocking and dangerous story about sex and sexual obsession and the suffering of sex. In its pitiless view of love, marriage and desire, made all the more disturbing by the suggestion that either all of it, or maybe some of it, or possibly none of it is a dream, it intrudes on the concealed roots of Western erotic life like a laser, suggesting discreetly, from behind its dream cover, things that are seldom even privately acknowledged, and never spoken of in daylight.
If you look at what people were saying about the Internet in general, say 15 or 20 years ago, in terms of its promise, it was incredibly wide-ranging, from political liberation to eliminating economic inequality to just individual growth. It was literally conceived of as — I don’t mean by the people who created it, but by the people who started using it — as this instrument of personal and political freedom.
And I think the surveillance state is not only threatening to undermine that promise but to completely reverse it, so that as we do more and more on the Internet, as we live more on the Internet, as we engage in more activity on the Internet — all of which we’re doing — states are exercising more and more control over the Internet, and especially monitoring over the Internet, and that means this instrument is being degraded from what its promise was, which was an instrument of freedom, into probably the worst means of — the most effective means of — human control and oppression ever known in human history, because there never existed a technology before to allow people’s every thought and word and conversation and interest and reading and just interest level and fears to be comprehensively chronicled in the way that the surveillance state allows.
And there’s an irony to the fact that this technology that once held such great promise in these areas is now posing the greatest threat to those same values. But I think that’s how all technological innovation ultimately ends up being fought over — that any technology can undermine the interests of the prevailing power factions and therefore it’s targeted for co-option by those same power factions, to prevent it from being used as a challenge against them, and ultimately to be used to further shield their power from challenge. And I think that’s exactly the battle we face when it comes to Internet freedom.
Do people in Silicon Valley realize the mess that they are dragging us into? I doubt it. The “invisible barbed wire” remains invisible even to its builders. Whoever is building a tool to link MOOCs to biometric identification isn’t much concerned with what this means for our freedoms: “freedom” is not their department, they are just building cool tools for spreading knowledge!
This is where the “digital debate” leads us astray: it knows how to talk about tools but is barely capable of talking about social, political, and economic systems that these tools enable and disable, amplify and pacify. When these systems are once again brought to the fore of our analysis, the “digital” aspect of such tool-talk becomes extremely boring, for it explains nothing. Deleuze warned of such tool-centrism back in 1990:
One can of course see how each kind of society corresponds to a particular kind of machine – with simple mechanical machines corresponding to sovereign societies, thermodynamic machines to disciplinary societies, cybernetic machines and computers to control societies. But the machines don’t explain anything, you have to analyze the collective arrangements of which the machines are just one component.
In the last two decades, our ability to make such connections between machines and “collective arrangements” has all but atrophied.