Modem Operandi: I Wonder Whether a Sort of Totalitarianism, or Something Readily Convertible to It, Isn't the Natural End Point of Advanced Nations. Technology May Make It Inevitable

By Reed, Fred | The American Conservative, July 28, 2008 | Go to article overview

Modem Operandi: I Wonder Whether a Sort of Totalitarianism, or Something Readily Convertible to It, Isn't the Natural End Point of Advanced Nations. Technology May Make It Inevitable


Reed, Fred, The American Conservative


A popular illusion is that we use technology to serve our ends. In fact, we seem to follow it to ends inherent in the technology. It has a will of its own.

For example, the automobile once invented made a dense network of roads inevitable, which made suburbs inevitable, which made malls inevitable, which made community and localism impossible and utterly changed the nature of society. This wasn't planned. Neither was the Internet, which grew as it chose while we watched in astonishment.

Today we hear much fuming about electronic surveillance and whether we should allow it. A better question might be whether we can not allow it. It is too easy, too convenient to be avoided.

The technical capacity exists for detailed watchfulness that Stalin would have envied. For practical purposes, the power of computers is now without limit. You can buy a commodity computer with a terabyte of storage. Global networking is a reality, the Web being the obvious example. Databases of virtually unlimited size can be searched almost instantly from around the globe. Google indexes billions of pages. How long after you hit the Enter key does it take for search results to appear?

This is new--not that governments will spy, but that they can do so easily, massively, and undetected. In 1950, police agencies could clandestinely open mail or tap phones, but it took time and manpower. Today enormous volumes of e-mail can be read automatically and copies sent to whoever wants them. The intended recipient has no way of detecting the interception. You can use encryption, yes. But unless you have the source code for your encryption program, and know enough cryptology and programming to read it, you can't tell whether it has been backdoored.

An insidious quality of modern surveillance is its inconspicuousness. If jackbooted storm troopers kicked your door in and rifled through your papers, you might object. This seldom happens. Yet every use of your passport, every phone call, every purchase you make with a credit card or check, where and when and what, goes into a database. Cameras can (and in some places do) read the license numbers of all passing cars. This is not the place to go into the details of radio-frequency identification devices and cellphone tracking, but both exist.

My point here is not that any particular government is intentionally using the technology to impose totalitarian control. …

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