Disclaimer: this is a reproduction of a train of thought I had Sunday morning while washing dishes in advance of preparing brunch. It’s not meant to be a formal argument. I may be right or wrong, justified or way off base, or simply paranoid. In any case, open and polite discourse of all persuasions are welcome in the comments section.
Bringing down the Berlin Wall
I have listened to some podcasts lately that either deal with, or touch upon, the subject of the Berlin Wall. The basic history goes like this: after World War II the allied power divide Germany into four regions among the U.S., Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. The whole idea was to reconstruct Germany into a self-sufficient, non-threatening nation through the use of reconstruction efforts, but the Soviets refused right off the bat to play nice, and instead turned the Eastern portion of Germany into a Soviet state with future plans of taking the rest of Germany too. About three and a half million people in East Germany decided to get out of Dodge before the Berlin Wall was erected. After that, anyone could come in, but East Germans could not go out — although they weren’t above rappelling down the sides of buildings adjacent to the wall to do so.
Fast forward to the 1989. After decades of tension, mounting political pressure, and the leadership of more liberal minds in the Soviet Union, they decided to let East Germans go wherever the heck they wanted to go.
The natural assumption was that the East Germans wanted through that wall, but unsurprising to anyone familiar with the helpless, frustrated rage of the long-oppressed, they started tearing it down by hand. Germany found itself whole again just a year later. Western Europe was whole again, and it seems as though everyone took some practical lessons away from this — including the American government, which may have found a chink in the Communist armor that gave them a cogent standpoint on this business of maintaining a totalitarian regime under the guise of a state in which all men are equal.
It’s obvious that they had been doing it wrong the whole time.
How did Communism come down?
It wasn’t long after the fall of the Berlin Wall that we saw an about-face in Russia’s government as well; the breakup of the Soviet Union and the transformation from Communism to Democracy was a big deal, but after the better part of a century, what had convinced them to pull the trigger? Was the same kind of political pressure that brought down the Berlin Wall also responsible for changing the Iron Curtain, or was the Wall’s destruction in fact a precursor known to some as a prelude to the end of Soviet-style Communism?
In either case, I can almost imagine that there may have been a conversation at some time between the Soviets and the West whose argument boiled down to this: Communism is going to get you nowhere. You run it the way you should be running a state, but Communism is the wrong way to go because you’re making the majority of your people miserable, and when it comes to a head they will revolt and take you down, and guess what? We will be there to help them when they inevitably ask us for assistance. This Cold War is coming to a close, and its death knell will resound from within. Now is the best time for Russia to consider democracy, because there is nothing to lose. You see the technology that we have and that on the horizon. That technology will enable Russia to become a state in which you can enjoy the same level of power while the majority of the people are able to prosper, and if you do this we will stand by you and make sure that it works. The people can have what they want, and you can maintain the status quo. The newly-liberated nations of the former U.S.S.R., in the meantime, will require assistance to develop into healthy nations of their own, and you can only benefit from those relationships.
A surveillance device in every pocket
The technology in question has become as ubiquitous as any clairvoyant politico could have hoped. A surveillance device in every pocket – or rather, in every hand, and one so compelling that most people can hardly put it down. Wouldn’t it be great if I never got lost on the way to my bankruptcy hearing in Detroit? Wouldn’t it be handy if I could check the price of my small-cap fund periodically, just to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake by splitting off ten percent of my target-date retirement fund (which only takes two days to change?) How is the weather going to hold up for that Labor Day picnic?
In the face of unstable and uncertain paradigms that often shift against prophetic prose, we turn to our devices to give us up-to-the-moment information as the best weapons we have against the uncertainties of the stock market and the weather. It’s as practical as getting street directions, and so these uses become the hooks that drag us deeper.
This is technology that has already overturned empires: the GPS navigation device. The handheld video game. The 35mm camera. The microcassette recorder. The pocket radio. The pocket television. The paperback novel. The spiral-bound notepad and the #2 pencil. The black book. The day planner. The pocket calculator. The humble compass. Even a deck of cards! And just like the empires of old, these items remain to this day, but they’re overshadowed by the new, younger technology. It’s convenient, it’s ultralight and portable, and it lends more utility to every facet of life than there ever was before.
Our mobile phones are the utopian dream of the past generation, but they are not inviolate. That is a fact that has been brought to our attention and has wholly affirmed our gnawing suspicions recently. We now know that our government’s security agencies keep detailed records of every transmission made on our devices. Every phone call, every text and tweet, every picture of your girlfriend’s boobs or the Chinese takeout you had last weekend (or both) is stored for future analysis. It creates a web of surveillance that not only covers the entire American nation, but it actually spreads beyond the borders and stretches out into the larger world. Unlimited power.
This wealth of information allows the security agencies to trace out the network of a threat to the Nth degree, creating a specter that innocent civilians will be caught and implicated in the wrongdoings of a seemingly innocuous person, the entanglement with whom could potentially ruin a person’s life and reputation. How this plays out in the future remains largely to be seen, but allowing that kind of access is opening a door to that kind of oppression.
What really ties this all together are the common social paradigms in which we function online: the communities, or as we call them in the popular vernacular, the social networks. Facebook, undoubtedly the top player in this domain, has recently changed the access rights of their applications to allow access to more features of the device than previously requested, and this caused a lot of furor on the Internet about what Facebook is doing behind our backs. Are they watching our every move? Can they hear everything we say, even while the phone is in our pockets?
Again, time will show how this plays out, but I suspect that what Facebook is really after is to provide the same functionality with messaging that we have on normal computers, which are slowly fading into the background of our lives. Because of the private nature of our mobile phones (whose hardware and software architectures have been designed from the beginning with security in mind, unlike those of standard computers) demands that we give permission to an application for the use of a specific feature – say, the camera, or the microphone, and even the address book – there’s no way we can send a picture in a message or pull up a contact and message them from there if the app is disallowed from using that feature of the device. Thus, permission is required to use those features.
This is not to say that all of our gripes with Facebook are mere conspiracy theory. The way the newsfeeds are managed and geared toward advertisers rather than our social connections is terrible. Some people don’t like the targeted advertising, while others don’t mind. Facebook is obviously in bed with the people who actually pay for it to run, and that should come as no surprise. These are things that have nothing to do with the real issue, which is that every bit of information that flows back and forth from your device is potentially being handed to the government for storage and future analysis, and social networks across the Internet only serve to lubricate the sharing of this information. Our lives are greased lightning that is easily bottled for future reference.
Watching the waves ripple out . . .
So in a sense, the social networks are only doing what they have to do to operate in a world where we demand access to them for free, but at the same time they play our personal information right into hands whose motivations are as clear and unpredictable as the weather. With the owners of those hands always ten steps ahead of the common man, we fear what we do not yet understand, and rightfully so. It’s ironic that in this way we find ourselves in the same group as some (recently late) foreign governments.
Social networks are a hotbed for public sentiment. We learned this well during the series of uprisings in the Middle East that are now collectively called the Arab Spring. Both Twitter and Facebook, among others, were instrumental in sustaining protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Some of these were more successful than others, as we know that the unrest in Syria continues unresolved for the opposition groups, who are now starting to turn on each other.
As dominoes fell across the epicenter of humanity, we saw the power of the mobile device in every pocket. News flooded out uncontrolled, and from all perspectives. The powers of the Middle East found themselves unprepared for a fight against a resistance that was unprecedented in history in that it was powered not by the flaming rhetoric of a single person, but by a technology that kept the herd united in purpose and confidence in their scope.
Is it a mere coincidence that this is what the American government would have liked to see?
In politics, there are no coincidences. In this realm where every move is strategic, where every player is trained to outthink, outmaneuver, outsmart, outwit, and outtalk their opponents, it’s hard to believe that this wasn’t part of the larger plan even if the timing of its occurrence was coincidental. Where before the mission of the American government seemed to be to spread democracy to every corner of the world in any way necessary to facilitate access to scarce resources, we now understand that the power of the mobile device in every pocket is that people can demand democracy for themselves, they can demand to bring about positive change in their own societies that will elevate the standard of living for the majority of their nation’s peoples. For a little bit, the government sat back and watched the Internet do part of their work for them. When the call for support came in, they debated and ultimately sent in help where they deemed it was necessary.
They weren’t forcing democracy on anyone at that point. How much easier is that? We watched the triumph of the young over the old as the technology of the mobile Internet toppled existing power structures that were based upon power so oppressive that the miserable populace rose up in a bid to break that power and create a better life for themselves, and guess what? We were there to help them when they inevitably asked for assistance. This is the disaster that the Soviet Union avoided by converting to the religion of democracy, and compared to them the Middle East is cupcakes – in part due to the power of the mobile Internet.
The “problem” with American democracy
The thing about our brand of democracy is that there’s a low-level and a high-level of knowledge regarding how it works, where the majority of us are brought up to understand the high-level because it’s as simple as it gets. Every citizen gets a vote for those in office, and then those in office administrate our nation in the popular interest. Bam, that’s democracy. The low-level is what we have to learn for ourselves: we vote, but our vote doesn’t always count. There’s an unresolved tension between the popular vote and the electoral vote, because everyone’s votes for public office are funneled into a much smaller (and more manageable) voting body that can choose to vote against the popular vote. Our elected officials tend to legislate and dictate in favor of moneyed and corporate interests. Any pretense which can be found to employ the military is used to do so. Thus we find both our political and military establishments are enslaved to big money and corporations in what can at best be called a nominal democracy – a democracy in name, but at any given time it can be something else.
This is what the government is selling the world powers: a twenty-five cassette Tony Robbins’ Personal Power of nation-building. Some governments resist, thinking that upsetting their traditional ways is tantamount to destroying their civilizations and thus their own personal ways of life. In effect, they believe that American democracy threatens their totalitarian grip and their wealth, not to mention what the people would do if the military were not there to protect the most terrible of them. The smart ones give in, understanding that making their people happy on a superficial level will do much to keep the big boys in power. From that position, they can keep playing the nation-building game, which enables them to be part of the world’s feng shui flow of goods, services, and technologies and puts more money directly in their pockets.
In short, they call it democracy, and they give it enough lip service to keep us more or less happy. The poorest people in America have access to things that the poorest people in the world can only dream of, if they even bother to dream anymore. Still, the lowest level of poverty in America seems to run counter to the much higher level that it should be, and this points to the tensions within our brand of democracy. In a more ideal democracy, our nation would have the money to help those unable to help themselves lead something approximating a normal life while getting those who could help themselves on a steady enough ground to do so. It does this to some extent, but it falls short much of the time because the resources that aren’t there are being funneled into the interests of the privileged few.
This brand of democracy – the nominal sort – short-sells a future in which there should be more power on a personal level, but it can never be there while it serves a relative few with enough money to work it to their advantage. The growing web of a surveillance device in every pocket helps both the government and their big money sources in different ways, while serving little in the way of real political utility to the people at large, who rightfully should have it now and into the future.
If this is the Democracy we’re selling to the rest of the world, when will we get a chance to elevate ourselves above it? Will we be the first, or will someone with a new way to play the game come along?
We are a sophisticated and relatively well-educated nation of individuals who hold the ability in our hands on a frequent basis to effect social change for the better, and yet we are hamstrung by the bottlenecking of power to do so. In the run-up to the 2016 election, why is it that we have no way of voting from our phones? Why can’t we eliminate the Electoral College and vote directly over the Internet using mobile phones, personal computers, and public kiosks, and watch the vote tally up the evening of November 4th from our chosen media consumption device? It has the potential to be faster, more reliable, and more accurate than existing methods. Naysayers point toward potential weak points in such a system as though there are systems that do not have weak points, while ignoring the weak points that exist in our current voting system. I maintain that the weak points of a popular digital vote are not only surmountable, but they’re able to be effected quickly and with much less expense than the current system – the problem being that a true popular vote threatens the existing power structure of American democracy, and so they choose to suppress such technology as would facilitate that.
This is the nature of American oppression. We as a people do not oppress other nations, nor do we steal their resources for our own profit. This is done by and large by a government that is funded mostly by rich men and corporations with their own motivations, none of which are likely to be world peace, the elevation of the common man, or the public good. We find ourselves attached to it, like serfs in a medieval feudal society, and like cogs in a machine.
It’s hard to detach ourselves from what we view as “normal”, especially when everything is so well-integrated into our lives, but the onus falls on us to tear down this wall brick by brick and unite the two sides that have been held apart by mutually exclusive interests: the people, and the government that operates under the pretense that it is “of the people, by the people, for the people”. One hundred percent of our tax money should work for our benefit, otherwise we should not have to pay taxes to a government that is funded by wealthy corporations and individuals. In that case it should be free, like Facebook, because just as with Facebook we have little to do with, and even less control over, what the government does.
That is, unless we choose to come together and tear down the wall.