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Political Implications of Technology

We have become a culture of gadgeteers. We have become a society of shiny objects. We love our technology, despite its blemishes, its shortcomings, and its treachery, and we tend not to question it too much.

When we do, we question it on its relative technical merit. We say that the Samsung B 7 2000 is better than tha iThing 8 or that Windows RK PS .net pro advanced super is superior to whatever.

But whenever we make decisions about technology, all the way from the simplest choices about whether to have fixed width processor instructions or not all the way up to where we source our tantalum from and whether to buy products manufactured by slave labor, there are political implications.

We have willingly chosen to blind ourselves to those political implications to a very large degree. Or, even when we do acknowledge them we often write them off when convenience outweighs them.

And then we’re all shocked when the NSA happens to us. A lot of people have cried foul at the NSA and GCHQ and so on, saying they shouldn’t have been spying on everybody. Even Bruce Schneier, a person who is normally quite level-headed, has said that the NSA betrayed the American people.

Actually, you know what? They were doing their job. Sure, they were breaking a handful of laws, but let’s not for a minute pretend that the political class was unaware of that.

They knew. They might have chosen to ignore it, the same way as people who use iPhones chose not to think about all the slave labor required to build their phones.

Note that I’m not justifying the actions of the NSA, I’m just saying we should at no point in time have had any illusions that an organization that works entirely secretly is playing nice.

But it was not choices made by the NSA that made the world plyable to their ubiquitous surveillance. Technologists and consumers set the stage by making choices which were absolutely oblivious to the political implications. We left the door open, they just came in. Coming in may well have been illegal, but we sure as hell voided our insurance policy.

And this is true generally of technology. People sometimes say that technology is neutral. It isn’t. It is indifferent. It is amoral, and any morality derived from technology is contextual. It can be used for good or bad. Technology does not care.

Once the axle was invented, the Hittite empire was inevitable.

Transparency and secrecy

Yochai Benkler stated that the purpose of transparency is to expose the powerful to the scrutiny of the powerless, and that the purpose of privacy is to protect the powerless from abuse by the powerful.

Eben Moglen broke privacy down into three parts: anonymity, secrecy, and autonomy.

When we talk about secrecy, we tend to be talking about state secrets. If we accept the notion of state secrecy, then we are implying that states have some right to privacy. But that goes against Benkler’s definition, as states tend to exert vast power against all of their citizens, and frequently citizens of other countries too.

So let’s reframe that and then I’ll link it back up to technology.

The enlightenment’s demand can be distilled, politically, down to two statements: a demand for democracy, and a demand for enlightenment. Enlightenment is all about access to information, about having the requisite knowledge to make informed decisions. Democracy in turn is about having the ability to make decisions at all.

If we follow that logic, then transparency is a democratic prerequisite, and that if democracy can survive state secrecy, then it survives in a severely diminished state that might hardly be called democracy at all.

This leads me to believe that states do not have a right to secrecy. And insofar as they have any right to exist at all, they are charged with executing the democratic will of the public on the one hand, and informing the public of the results of their efforts on the other hand.

At this point somebody always shouts, “hey, what about national security?”

When people talk about national security, they mean one of two things: the security and continued existence of the state as an instutition, or the security and continued wellbeing of the people who are subject to the state.

This dichotomy is one of my favorite examples of doublespeak in existing political parlance, because it allows action to be taken against the public in the name of protecting them, only they aren’t.

Transparency for whom?

When we make technological choices, two of the decisions that are implicit are to which degree the technology protects the weak against abuse by the powerful, and to which degree the technology exposes the powerful to scrutiny by the weak.

The wheel, in that sense, is predominantly democratizing, even though it does also lead to the occasional empire. Similarly, the rifle, when contrasted to the nuclear bomb, seems highly democratizing. Nukes are a very undemocratic form of warfare.

The a lot of the important choices that have been made around the Internet over the last decades have posed a direct threat to “national security”, by which I mean the security of people, regardless of whether they are subject to a state or not. Some of that history is political, such as the American cryptographic export controls, while other parts of it are technical: your iPhone is not subject to your authority, in fact no phone is. The entire mobile phone system is a surveillance network. SSL is a severely broken protocol, in that it is almost impossible to implement correctly and almost impossible to use correctly.

This and many other poor choices has led us to a point where we are entirely transparent to certain states, but those states are entirely opaque to us.

In order to change that, we must do two things. First, we must start making much better technical decisions. Second, we must weild what little political power we, as a public, have left, to cause this model to flip.

This can be done through the means of what some have called “radical transparency” - the industrialization of the exposure of secrets. This helps. Just this morning I saw a reference to a US Embassy cable in a research paper on EU-Russian relations. This can also be done through the creation of political pressure through “traditional”, “legitimate” means.

I’ve been supporting the Pirate Parties for this reason, although they still suffer some level of political naïvity in some places. Their shortcomings do not outweigh their benfits, and they are worth supporting.

But the primary means I’m pushing right now are two: trying to raise awareness, always a good thing, and trying to improve the available technologies as much as possible, with the goal of, quite simply, pricing the NSA and the GCHQ off the market of ubiquitous surveillance.