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[liberationtech] Technology & the Ruling Party | TechCrunch

Yosem Companys companys at stanford.edu
Sat Jul 27 09:10:09 PDT 2013


http://techcrunch.com/2013/07/27/technology-and-the-ruling-party/

Technology and the Ruling Party

JON EVANS

“Power tends to corrupt,” said Lord Acton, “and absolute power
corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

The sexism needs updating but the sentiment remains true. That’s been
all too obvious this week, during which the powers that be did their
damnedest to protect their once-secret surveillance programs…while the
NSAresponded to Freedom Of Information Act requests with the claim
“There’s no central method to search [internal NSA emails] at this
time.”

The black-comedy message is clear: surveillance is something that the
powerful do to the powerless, in their own perfect secrecy. Two-way
transparency is but a pipe dream in the minds of civil libertarians.
Which puts me in mind of science-fiction guru Charles Stross’s recent
blog post A Bad Dream:

Is the United Kingdom a one party state? [...] I’m nursing a pet
theory. Which is that there are actually four main political parties
in Westminster: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and
the Ruling Party. The Ruling Party is a meta-party…it always wins
every election, because whichever party wins is led by members of the
Ruling Party, who have more in common with each other than with the
back bench dinosaurs who form the rump of their notional party [...]
Any attempt at organizing a transfer of power that does not usher in a
new group of Ruling Party faces risks being denounced as Terrorism.

Of course in America this is old news. The one thing that the Tea
Party and the Occupy movement have in common is their desire to throw
the Ruling Party bums out of Washington. It’s an accepted axiom in
American politics that anyone who has been in Washington too long is
suspect and probably corrupt. (More than 75% of Americans think their
political parties are corrupt.)

The wave of hope that drove Obama into office was fuelled in part by
the belief that he wasn’t a member of the Ruling Party. Well, even if
he wasn’t then, he sure is now. That’s what usually happens to
successful politicians:

Similarly, the recent spate of antigovernment street protests in
Turkey, Brazil, etc., are–arguably–protests against the various
international incarnations of the Ruling Party. As Slavoj Žižek writes
in the London Review of Books:

What we first took as a failure fully to apply a noble principle
(democratic freedom) is in fact a failure inherent in the principle
itself. This realisation – that failure may be inherent in the
principle we’re fighting for – is a big step in a political education.
Representatives of the ruling ideology roll out their entire arsenal
to prevent us from reaching this radical conclusion.

Žižek’s a Marxist, and I’m a staunch capitalist, but even I have to
admit that he may be on to something there. it’s possible that
multiparty democracy suffers from an inherent and fundamental flaw:
the eventual installation of an entrenched, parasitical Ruling Party.

So of course, as a techie who instinctively thinks in terms of hacking
and fixing systems, of course I immediately find myself wondering: is
there a technical fix? Can better technology save us from the Ruling
Parties, or at least alleviate some of our governments’ more glaring
flaws? Or, alternately, will technology further entrench and empower
them?

These days it’s hard for Silicon Valley to look at Washington with
anything other than dismay trending towards horror, along with a
powerful sense of “there has to be a better way.” I expect that’s why
people have seriously called for Google to buy Detroit. I suspect
that’s what Larry Page had in mind, at least in part, when he mused
aloud about the desirability of a mad science islanduntrammeled by
antiquated laws and politics, where we could experiment with new and
better systems:

We’re changing quickly, but some of our institutions, like some laws,
aren’t changing with that. The laws [about technology] can’t be right
if it’s 50 years old — that’s before the Internet. Maybe more of us
need to go into other areas to help them improve and understand
technology.

Google is, after all, the apotheosis of the Valley; a company that
muses about offering eternal youth to its employees somewhere down the
road, a company that oozes scientific method. Doesn’t that sound a
whole lot better than the Ruling Party? Doesn’t it seem like the best
thing we could do is import the Google Way to Washington, and turn our
government into a genuinetechnocracy?

Sorry. No. Silicon Valley thinks of itself as built on merit,
innovation, iteration, and rational thought, and to some extent it is,
but its worldview can be even more blinkered and bubble-bound than
that of the Ruling Party. Technology does not solve all of the world’s
problems, and it’s dangerous hubris to think that it might. Rational
thought is a flawed tool in a world full of irrational people. And
most of all, power corrupts; anyone who replaces the Ruling Party will
probably eventually become a member.

But on the other hand, avoiding politics and/or pretending that it has
nothing to do with us is no longer an option for the tech industry.
Edward Snowden has shown us that much. We have becometoo important and
too powerful. As I wrote here almost three years ago:

You probably don’t want to read about political idiocy here, and I
can’t blame you. But it may be time for the tech industry to start
paying much more attention to the political world, because as
Wikileaks vividly illustrates, these days almost every political issue
has tech aspects—and hence, down the road, tech repercussions.

Can’t help but think I wasn’t wrong. But that doesn’t mean the tech
industry should be trying to directly shape what happens in Washington
and Westminster. We provide tools; we don’t dig trenches. That’s not
what we’re good at. (Witness FWD.us.) Instead we should collectively
be trying to ensure that tomorrow’s technologies, and tomorrow’s
networks, support individual authority (and privacy), rather than
building centralized panopticons which increase and cement the
existing hegemonies.

I realize that this all sounds simultaneously paranoid and naïve. But
I believe we’re nearing a crucial point at which, depending on a
myriad of separate decisions ultimately made by individual
people,tomorrow’s technologies can–and will–either increase or
diminish our individual and collective freedoms by a very significant
degree. The direction we will take seems finely balanced, and could
still go either way. So keep your fingers crossed, and your eyes wide
open.



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