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Superhighway to Dystopia

The construction of a Global Information Superhighway is being hailed as a yellow brick road to a new age of information and wealth for all. Instead, argues privacy activist Simon Davies, it is likely to be the final nail in the coffin of individual freedoms.

Superhighway to Dystopia

By Simon Davies

Just on a generation ago, academics and human rights scholars throughout the world went through a period of intense speculation about the future. The pace of computer evolution had sent chills up the spine of old and young alike. For many people, the spectre of George Orwells 1984 was a nightmare waiting to happen. Between 1965 and 1975, hundreds of books, papers and reports analysed the Orwellian vision.

Most writers warned that these new computers would vastly increase the power of governments and corporations. The individual would be diminished and made to be an insignificant cog with limited independence. Privacy would be decimated as the State intruded into more and more areas of private life. Ultimately, because information is power, democracy itself would be weakened.

This speculation seeped into the public consciousness. A 1971 national opinion poll in Britain revealed that the fear of a Big Brother state was the number one public concern. In the US Canada and Australia, a similar expression of fear began to emerge.

It is now more than a decade since 1984. At first sight, most of the gloomiest predictions appear not to have materialised. Computers have indeed become powerful beyond the wildest dreams of technologists, but the individual has survived. The Orwellian nightmare seems to have been contained. Most people go about their lives without giving Big Brother a second thought.

This lack of consciousness is dangerous. Technology is poised to become the greatest threat of all time to individual rights. Silently, as the information society has evolved, the power of the information Tzars in control of the technology has hyperbolically increased.

Although Big Brother might not be the threat we imagined, something far more sinister has taken his place: complacency. Technology has spawned an age of mass pacification.

The Big Brother society imagined by the world in 1970 depended on coercion and fear. The society we are developing now is more like Huxley than Orwell. It is Brave New World. Instead of the repressive tyrants and their omnipresent, brutal and intrusive technology, the public is being brought to heel by a lethal expectation of compliance. Big Brother entailed conflict. Instead, ours is becoming a society based on Harmony Ideology. Technology is our friend - our partner. Compliance and agreement are the natural order. We have, after all, become components of a new order based on the surrender of information. And it is not just governments who are to blame. The division between private and public organisations is fast disappearing, as both spheres increasingly reach accord. Public interest and privacy bodies become more ineffectual by the day as pragmatic solutions are struck in the backroom by the key players. There is no disquiet over these trends, and little discussion. That is the greatest danger of all.

The history of this state of affairs is fascinating. Ten years ago, a series of events began which silently changed the course of human history. One by one, governments and corporations across the world started to reach agreement on ways to link the information contained in their computers. Isolated, cumbersome machines progressively became part of a giant web of information touching every aspect of our lives. A Global Information Infrastructure - potentially the greatest force since the birth of the aut omobile - is being forged. And hardly a dog is barking.

Mass surveillance is developing through a vast range of computer based information systems. Most are designed to improve efficiency, to maximise revenue, or to serve law enforcement and national security. The systems, increasingly, are linked, so that information is shared throughout the government and the private sector. The justification is seductive, and difficult to oppose. The danger in this justification is that it knows no bounds. Within a decade most countries will have a voluntary ID card, a national DNA database, a national grid of CCTV surveillance, mass data matching between computers, and an astonishing web of computer networks linked to an international information linkage. Presently, the interests of the individual are hardly in sight.

Law has failed entirely to stem this breach to our privacy. Privacy law in every country is little more than a means of legitimising intrusion, and mandating the orderly establishment of surveillance systems. Nothing more, nothing less.

The Ultimate Scenario

Its no longer fashionable amongst intelligent folk to admit being scared or even concerned about computers. Smart people embrace technology. The most drab and unimaginative politicians are advised to climb aboard the Superhighway, and get hep about new technology. Cabinet Ministers without the guts or perspicacity to deal squarely with the policy challenges in their own domain, publicly embrace computers and smart cards as a Great Solution. Young people, mesmerised by the magic of computers fail to see the universe that lies behind the screen. But some people still feel the old nightmare as if it were forgotten wisdom from another age. Beyond the slick technology, there is an emerging Big Picture, and it is not an entirely pleasant one.

We are living in the second decade, of the second phase of an unwritten strategy of planetary management. The first stage involved the establishment of a web of international agreements and conventions. The second stage involves the construction of a borderless, global information economy. The threat of nuclear, environmental and economic holocaust has hastened this process. Problems of terrorism, the arms trade and human rights abuses increase the alleged urgency for reform.

Planetary management involves some radical changes to the way things have always been done. No event or decision can be made in isolation. Those days have gone. Our society is becoming tuned into consensus, compromise, agreement and conformity. Indeed, the BBCs James Burke has complained Togetherness is the flavour of the millennium. It is beginning to be politically incorrect even to mention difference. Modern information technology assists this process by providing practical templates for social change and conformity.

The information revolution has three goals in mind. The first is to create maximum efficiency within each information system. The second is convergence: the achievement of perfect compatibility and communication between computers. The third goal is to create perfect and total identification of human subjects. In its quest to achieve these aims, the computer industry must bring about a subtle but profound change to the human spirit and to our way of life.

The most important development in computers is not their size, speed or prevalence, but the phenomenon that most of them are converging to form one mass - a sort of seamless technological web. This web is important for the organisations controlling the information systems. It will mean that computers will talk easily to one another, and it will ensure that all people are constantly visible.

Now that the bleak Orwellian image of computers has been softened and re-designed in gentle pastels, the awe and pessimism has almost disappeared. The harsh edges of technology have been smoothed; the whole concept has been made user-friendly. All around there is an air of acceptance. Slowly, however, we are being fused with the technology. And, as we become fused with the technology, human identity becomes less distinct.

There are two ways of viewing this new relationship between humans and technology. We are certainly encouraged intellectually and culturally to see it as positive and necessary. The architects of modern computer systems have successfully argued their technology can solve the ancient curses of social dysfunction and administrative expense. Bureaucracy, they claim can be made more efficient through the automated management of information. Society can be made safer. Economies can run more smoothly, and education conducted more effectively. Yet, in spite of its carefully crafted image, information technology is neither friendly nor neutral, and almost never benign. With notable exceptions, it is developed by unethical corporations, peddled by apathetic salesmen, and implemented by large organisations as a means of maximising control over the individual.

The widespread use of information technology is increasing the power and influence of government and corporations. One inevitable consequence is that the individual is subject to increased monitoring, regulation and control. Cash machines and electronic road tolls may be seen as useful or necessary, but they will establish a real time geographic tracking system over the entire country. ID cards may be viewed as a weapon against criminals, but history shows they will be used ultimately as a tool of authority against the ordinary citizen. CCTV in town centres may reduce the incidence of bag snatching, but it also creates a means of enforcing public morals and public order on an unprecedented scale. Our movements, transactions and personality are becoming known in a way that Orwell could scarcely have imagined. And yet, our dependence on technological systems is greater than at any point in history.

The key rule to ensure personal autonomy and independence is never to get too familiar, reliant, or friendly with the power centres around you. In embracing the exciting new fusion with technology, we have broken this ancient law. One result is that have now formally entered the first phase of the Post Orwellian State. The future should offer an expanding gulf between the illusion of personal autonomy, and the power of large organisations.

Whatever rationalisation is adopted to defend the construction of the information web, one thing is clear: if present trends continue, your children will have very little to keep secret - and that is where the nightmare truly begins. For unlike the village system of other centuries, the new information web will not allow you to pull up roots and leave. You cannot start fresh in another town, go to the big city, or emigrate for a new life. The emerging web is unlimited and unforgiving. Unlike the character in the Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin, there will be no second start for a population whose personal identity is irrevocably fused into the technological web.

The assumption that technology is entirely good for us is misguided and dangerous. Some technologies are just plain malevolent, and their uses should have been outlawed years ago. Sadly, the people who know about the rancid underbelly of technology often reluctant to sound the alarm, for fear of being branded luddite or heretic. It is no exaggeration to say that there has been a conspiracy of silence about the threat of information technology. In the process, normally intelligent and thoughtful professionals have let us all down. The discourse and debate necessary in a free society has simply not taken place.

There is no Big Brother enforcing compliance with this New Order. People will happily surrender their most intimate data. The nightmare vision we sensed in 1971, is about to materialise.

Simon Davies is the Director General of Privacy International, a Visiting Law Fellow in the University of Essex, and the author of Big Brother - Australia's growing web of surveillance (Simon & Schuster 1992).

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 32 (September-October 1995)

Reprinted from:

The Truth is Out There   May 16 2002
Moving Toward a Cashless Society  May 16 2002
The Future, Big Brother and You  May 16 2002
Superhighway to Dystopia  May 15 2002

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