Academic journal article Independent Review

Information Technology as a Universal Solvent for Removing State Stains

Academic journal article Independent Review

Information Technology as a Universal Solvent for Removing State Stains

Article excerpt

The government's been in bed with the entire telecommunications industry since the forties. They've infected everything. They can get into your bank statements, computer files, e-mail, listen to your phone calls ... every wire, every airwave. The more technology you use, the easier it is for them to keep tabs on you. It's a brave new world out there.

Brill (played by Gene Hackman) in Enemy of the State, 1999

Therefore ordinary information, mere facts, exploded like grenades, tipping the system and its legitimacy. How many skeletons, each with an NKVD bullet hole in the skull, were buffed in Kuropaty Woods outside Minsk? Who were those classy apartments being built for? What can you buy on an average day on an average salary in an average American supermarket? The answers to such questions appeared in the pages of official newspapers, resounded from millions of radios and televisions, began to bounce around the country on photocopied leaflets and telefax news services.

Scott Shane, Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union, 1994

The two passages quoted here give two alternative views of telecommunications technology. Both have some basis in reality. The tone of each suggests a common, fundamentally libertarian premise, namely, that it's bad for government to have control over people's lives and it's good when that control breaks down. The first view, which might be called the "Orwellian," is that telecommunications technology in relatively totalitarian societies is primarily antifreedom because it allows totalitarian governments to track closely what their citizens are saying and doing. The second view, which I shall call the "liberationist," is that telecom technology undermines totalitarian governments by uncovering lies and spreading truth.

Which view is correct? I could create suspense by waiting until the end of this article to give you my answer, but I won't. After having held the Orwellian view from about age seventeen to age forty, I now strongly believe that it is flawed, and that the liberationist view is correct. What has convinced me is the evidence of the last ten years or so, combined with some reasoning. A large part of the relevant evidence pertains to the Soviet Union in the 1980s; much additional evidence has poured in from China and other countries with oppressive governments during the 1990s.

Government Lies, Glasnost, and Information Technology

A good case can be made that information technology helped bring down the Soviet Union. I am not referring here to the Internet, which was not in widespread use until the mid-1990s. I have in mind instead information technology that had been around a long time, including television and print media.

Harry Truman is reputed to have said that if you put a Sears catalogue in every Russian's mailbox on a Friday, by Monday communism would be dead.(1) Although the point is exaggerated, it contains a core of truth. To survive, totalitarian governments must squelch opposition. In extreme cases, they go so far as to murder millions of people, as the Soviet and Chinese governments did. In less extreme cases, they imprison tens of thousands of people. But taking such actions undermines the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of its subjects. Therefore, the government must concoct excuses for murdering and imprisoning. The typical excuse is that those who have been killed or incarcerated were spies or were somehow undermining the state. To gain acceptance of this "big lie," the governments use massive propaganda apparatuses: according to a Soviet political dictionary, in the late 1980s there were 2.5 million propagandists, volunteer and professional, in the Soviet Union (Shane 1994, 54).

Moreover, for reasons compellingly articulated by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek during the 1920s and 1930s, socialism doesn't work; it doesn't produce goods and services for the vast majority of people who live under it to nearly the same extent that free markets do. …

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