Does Technological Romanticism Blind Us to Real Threats To Our Freedom?

  • Does Technological Romanticism Blind Us to Real Threats To Our Freedom?
    In MIT’s Technology Review, Richard A. Muller argues that Orwell’s 1984 prediction that technology would ultimately be used by a totalitarian state to utterly constrain our freedom did not come true because not even governments can completely control technology. As evidence, he cites the inability of the Soviets to effectively jam shortwave broadcasts from the West, along with the effect of the fax machine in China. And, to the extent to which technology has been an instrument for freedom, he’s correct. But I also think he’s incorrect in asserting that technology is essentially uncontrollable and thus fundamentally an instrument for freedom.

    Muller fails to take proper account of the fact that the Soviet and other totalitarian regimes exist in a larger world context that is not totalitarian. They have borders, both geographical, political and social, with other nations that are not so strictly controlled. Technologies in these nations — like the US — has a social and political history of not being monopolized by the state. For example, the US has a strong belief in the ideology of the individual inventor and scientist — like Edison — who pursues technology independent of the state. Thus, in the US and most of the West, technologies and scientific discoveries that birth technologies happen outside the sphere of direct state control.

    This Western model of technological development is not natural nor essential. It happened both by plan and accident. The US patent system is a strong element of this plan — it’s the manifestation of the Founders’ valuation of individual invention.

    But it didn’t have to happen this way. Indeed, the Soviet system was effective for forty+ years. What if, by accident of history, the Soviet system came to be predominant in the world? What if the US had lost a war with the Soviets, rather than existing in a chilly state of detente? Would technology have been such an effective tool for freedom?

    I don’t know, but I can’t say for sure that it would be. If a citizenry has access to tools and the knowledge to use them, it is difficult for the state to control their use. But that’s still an ‘if’ which is presaged on there being a system and society that allows these tools and information to be dispersed in the first place.

    I’ll agree that once let out of the bag, technology is a hard cat to catch. Still, hard does not equal impossible — we’re just lucky that our current government does not yet bring the full potential of its force and violence upon us to steal our technology from us. But I don’t think we can take that for granted and trust things to stay this way.

    A false belief that technology is essentially freeing only serves to give us a false sense of security, and makes us less wary of the real encroachments on our freedoms. Sort of like how wearing a helmet causes some bicyclists to take more risks because they feel more immune to injury. Technology can be used for many ends, and it can be taken away from us. To realize its most postivie potential, we must be aware of it and put it to that purpose. But we cannot take that potential for granted nor believe that it exists without us.

    Otherwise, technological romanticism threatens to be the opiate of the techno-masses.

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