17 Nov 2009
From its inception, many have recognized the Internet’s potential as a liberating, decentralizing, and, yes, destabilizing technology but also its counter-potential as a controlling and centralizing technology.
Over the last two decades, predictions about the social effects of the Internet have ranged from cybernetic anarchy (both utopian and distopian) to the instantiation of a fascistic regime of surveillance that would make Orwell look like a piker. Some see a winner-take-all economy of massive new monopolies emerging on the back of network effects, others see the growth of a new economy in which intermediaries are replaced by huge open networks of buyers and sellers trading with e-cash on anonymous electronic exchanges – and evading their taxes. Meanwhile enthusiasts of electronic democracy and popular empowerment offer a vision sharply at odds with that of Cassandras of globalization for whom the Internet provides yet another occasion for decision-making authority to seep away towards relatively undemocratic trans-national bodies.
One would think that such contrasting predictions could not possibly all be correct. Yet, for the last decade, to a surprising extent both sets of trends have manifested themselves simultaneously. The question is whether those two trends can continue, or if instead we are witnessing the start of a collision between them.
At present, ‘the Internet’ is neither ‘fraud’s playground’ nor democracy’s. (Indeed, there is more than one ‘Internet’.) Rather, different groups of people doing different things with different objectives have moved down independent paths. Now, however, these trends find themselves meeting at a crossroads: Largely well-intentioned political and legal reactions to the highest-profile risks of communications technology create a danger of at least wounding and perhaps in some areas even killing the goose that is giving us golden eggs of innovation, decentralization, and personal empowerment.
Advances in medical records technology might give patients greater control over their treatment, but could also further disempower them, and (in the US at least) seem even more likely to become another target for data mining and marketing. E-government holds out the promise of more involved and better informed citizens. The same technologies may, however, also empower nosey neighbors, or the nanny state’s evil sibling Big Sister, who knows what is best for you and has honed predictive profiling to the point where many find their liberty practically encumbered without being formally curtailed.
Most immediately, technologies, practices, and technical standards that may appear benign in a democracy – may in truth be benign in a democracy – may take on a more sinister cast when adopted in more repressive regimes faced with indigenous pressure for reform. For example, the world witnessed via YouTube as Iranian demonstrators marched to protest the theft of an election. The communicative freedom making the sending of those images possible is a fragile thing, and could fall before the creation of standards and practices intended to foil digital piracy half a world away.