With every new technology comes the potential for either good or evil. How will the U.S. government’s use of digital technology to spy be judged?
Dynamite can clear the way for a new road through a mountain or blow up someone’s home. Splitting the atom lets us warm homes or demolish cities. Online banking gives us ease to manage our accounts and gives hackers the chance to steal without leaving their homes. In his book, “The World is Flat”, Minnesota native and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Friedman talked about the potential dangers of the Internet’s light-speed communication and increased connectivity if used to facilitate a terrorist attack.
The use of such digital communication enabled the Obama administration to collect emails and phone conversations of over 100 million American citizens. This scenario is intriguing because it’s not “bad” (terrorist attack) nor is it “good” (heating our homes). It is defended by some as interfering with nefarious plots; it is abhorred by others for the invasion of privacy. How do you feel about the collecting of our emails/phone calls?
But more than dynamite or even computers, the Internet and online communications are more than just another technology. It’s a true game-changer. It has created a “critical juncture”.
I didn’t come up with this term. It was coined in the book “Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. In this perspective-broadening book, the authors describe their theory on why it is that some nations are rich and others maintain impoverishment. Part of the theory has to do with events they call “critical junctures”. These are times in history when the trajectory of the societies are interrupted by sudden technology, disease, exploration, war, etc.
One example was the Black Death of the Middle Ages. After wiping out half the population of Europe in the 1300s, this scourge provided a new chance for the population to reorganize. How it would do so was in the balance. England was situated in such a way that peasants came out with more leverage to demand more from landowners and nobility. Thus, they gained more freedoms and the ruling class forfeited some power. In Eastern Europe though (Poland, Russia), things went the other way. The situation allowed for the ruling class to squeeze even more from the peasants (taxes) and so these societies became even more authoritative.
Whether the Black Death or the Industrial Revolution, critical junctures are an opportunity for societies to evolve or stagnate (and perhaps even devolve). It’s about whether the people can use these windows of opportunity to wrest control from the ever-grasping hands of those in power. I see the Internet as one such pivot point.
In many ways, we’ve seen how citizens have gained from the Internet. Justice today is less likely veiled with favoritism and corruption when bloggers and cell phone cameras are keeping everyone informed and inline. Certainly on a global scale it seems that the connectivity of the Web helped bring about more power to the people in the Arab Spring. But domestically–even despite the power of grass roots movements from the Left and Right–the empowered are also utilizing this window for their maintenance and increase of power.
The threat of terrorist attacks continue to be the official reason the U.S. government takes these measures. They’ve been using this leverage since the critical juncture of 9/11. I’m sure this is part of the reasoning as certainly with omniscience comes the ability for the government to prevent heinous acts. But these technological tools have too often been outed as means to spy, accuse, and eventually detain those not just out to bomb an airplane, but those who deflate the power of the government balloon by way of leaking government activity. The government also goes after those who express their disagreement and intent to vote out those in power and change the power structure. Are these groups “terrorists”, too?
When you realize the history of the human world, and ways in which societies have wrestled with power and control, you realize that the U.S. government is out to protect itself just as any other empowered group of people is likely to do. The sad realization about this, though, is that America was supposed to be different, and I think a lot of Americans don’t want to believe its government is not that different from any other.
Yet simply put, there has never been a more threatening, close-to-home invasion into our lives than the one posed by this administration. If you believe that American society will ultimately use the power of the Internet for good, then maybe this government grasp will be looked back on as a losing attempt by the empowered in the inevitable evolution and progress of American society. But societies don’t always improve. There are many examples in history–as shown above with Eastern Europe and as exemplified up through modern history–when things go backward.
The debate on security vs freedom has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to indefinitely. Ben Franklin said those who wish to sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither. The book and movie “Minority Report” show how a “perfect” system of crime prevention is still unfavorable. I think we need to come to grips with the notion that despite the risk bad people pose, it’s still better to let the risk ride than to try and remove it by allowing privileged power to government.
History shows, in fact, that evolving past the grips of the government moves humanity to new levels of prosperity.