16 March 2014

The Legal and Technological Matrix for a Brave New Dystopia (1/4)

Orwellian is a term that is often thrown about in the media. Usually this is not meant in terms of Totalitarianism (at least not yet) but in the sense that we live under constant surveillance. Some think in terms of the American government wielding great fear in that it has claimed the right to take anyone away at any time and with no explanation.

The courts have ruled that security absolutely trumps the 4th Amendment. I would contend that given our new technological society, the 4th Amendment is effectively dead. The Patriot Act sealed the coffin.

Thinking of '1984' we tend to think of Winston's experiences and point of view because his eyes had started to open to the restrictive society he lived in. But what about all the others who blindly believed in the lie? We don't really know how they saw things. The narrator doesn't take us into their heads. We wonder how they could be so blind? Wasn't it obvious to them? That same line of thinking applies to the citizens living in Germany under Hitler, in the USSR during its darkest days and certainly those living under the Kim dynasty in North Korea. We ask ourselves how did they let this happen?

I contend we've already moved far beyond what Orwell could have even imagined. And perhaps what is more troubling, we have a Church which is supposed to be antithetical to the world but instead has all but baptized the world-system. I will elaborate on that a bit later.

Many have debated the futuristic views of Orwell and Huxley. Who was right? Was the Huxley world of drugs, sex, consumerism and entertainment the accurate vision or the dark Orwellian state that controlled all thoughts and actions? Which model represents the future we should look for? It has seemed to many people that the two were mutually exclusive visions, but reality and history are moving us toward a strange blend of the two.

There's a great quote from Neil Postman regarding the two works:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Postman added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

It's turning out that both men were correct. We increasingly live in a society with both tensions at work. How long can the tensions remain before the one cancels out the other? Given the choice between the two which is optimum for Christian living and gospel propagation?

We can't even begin to answer that unless we reflect on what is happening. I fear many have not even grasped it.

How many people realize how truly profound the past few years have been? We are living in the midst of what can only be called a titanic social upheaval and yet I sometimes get the impression that not everyone is recognizing it.

We might be aware of the fact that the Internet has become commonplace but not very many people have thought through the implications of this... especially in light of the state and the powers it has assumed in the wake of 11 September 2001.

I always explain to my kids how people didn't wake up one morning in 476 or 501 and say, "Hey, Late Antiquity is over. We're in the Dark Ages now!"

History doesn't work that way. Our brackets and divisions are the result of organization and analysis. With 20/20 hindsight we look back, categorize events and prioritize them.

And yet I think we can clearly see that while the Industrial Revolution was one of the most earth-shattering events in all of history, it was but prologue to the Technological or Computer Age we have now entered. The steam engine and the automobile changed the world. I don't think we are able to yet appreciate the effect of the computer. It's too soon, but the hints are there and they are breathtaking.

And it's happening so rapidly. As recently as 2000 I still recall hearing people referring to the Internet as a fad and expressing no interest in it. In 2000 there were no Smartphones, YouTube or hardly any video capability at all. Social Networking barely existed. The Internet was still young and people were as likely to not have email as they were to have it.

I know some don't feel the change. If you live out in the country you might miss what is happening. Actually I would argue that living out in a rural area actually helps you feel it more acutely. When we visit the city and interact with the mainstream of society we have something to contrast and compare with. We can 'feel' the difference in a way many urban and suburban Americans do not.

I live in a county with no stoplights. Mobile phone service is pretty limited. A lot of people around where I live still don't have computers. That said, when we go out we see the Smartphones and all the rest. But I can assure you it's nothing less than culture shock when we go into the city. Lives have changed. The technology has taken over. I say this as someone who was lived in various parts of the United States and overseas.  I'm not viewing this through ignorant or provincial eyes. I'm someone who is 'plugged in' but not anything like mainstream society.

A New Era

Today I frequently tell my kids that if the world is still here two centuries from now people will be talking about today, this very time in which we live. We live at the dawn of the computer age.

There are so many fundamental social changes that are occurring right now it is literally like we are entering into a new civilizational era. We are truly leaving something behind and moving into a new period. This is a shift analogous to the transition from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages or the Middle Ages to Modernity.

Those of us who can clearly remember the time before computers were in almost every home are part of what will soon be a very unique generation. When we're old, people will marvel as we will tell of the days before the Internet and the home computer, or of the days of television with but a few channels, and no 'on demand'. Or how about research by microfiche? It reminds me of talking to World War I veterans when I was a kid. They belonged to a different era too. And yet 2050 may well be farther removed from today than 2014 is from 1914.

My kids are growing up in a very different world than the one I grew up in and I'm hardly old! I know every post-Industrial generation has said that and as I mentioned the automobile certainly changed the world, but I think the computer will be bigger and in fact already is.

We've all noticed the Internet and the Smartphones and how they've altered lives, but these are but the symptoms of far more profound changes...deep changes to the whole nature of the social order, the concept of the individual, notions of privacy and power. We're undergoing colossal shifts in these areas. Most have embraced the technology and its vales without even pausing to think about it.  

If we don't notice, then we can't explain the changes to our children and they won't know the difference. That's quite disturbing and not a little frightening. I'm already encountering this while out in public. I'm running into young people that can't understand concepts of privacy and discretion, let alone decorum. They don't understand how consumerism is shaping their thoughts. When I don't want to allow everyone to scan my driver's license, take my picture, or type in my address and phone number, I'm viewed as incomprehensible and strange.

If I'm not interested in thinking about life the way they want me to or think I should, I'm viewed as not only weird but possibly dangerous.

I was getting my son a haircut one day and we ran into a problem because I insisted they didn't need his last name, phone number or address to get a haircut. The young stylist was very irritated with me. I know they just want to send me coupons, but I don't think the data needs to be out there for everyone to utilize and steal. I also realize they have difficulties because the computer now dominates all transactions and they have problems leaving fields empty.

When I was ready to walk out rather than give up the information her manager intervened and we got the haircut. Thankfully it was a different girl who actually ended up cutting his hair. But then I kept watching the first girl giving me the evil eye and half expected she was going to call the authorities and accuse me of abuse or something. I was not hostile or confrontational. Usually my tactic is to try and be overly friendly. I go into 'experiment mode' and watch people's reactions. I acted baffled as to why they would want the information while inside (I'll admit) I was fairly miffed by the whole thing. What disturbed me was the fact that this young woman couldn't even begin to understand what my problem was.

We had another issue awhile back. A young relative was snapping away photos at a family event. In my opinion this practice is rude and quite out of control. We then found out she had posted many pictures of our children on her Facebook page. We asked her to take them down. She just couldn't understand why. She couldn't grasp that what she had done was inconsiderate and in fact rude. She removed them but was very irritated with us.

Ignorant of history and the true nature of the American government much of our society can't understand why anyone is leery of these innovations. Europeans know why and their long history of abusive state power has made them hostile to this type of data collection. This is why the US government received such a visceral and hostile response from Europe when the NSA programmes were leaked.

I'm not being a paranoid crank. We have too much data out there and it can be stolen and/or used against us. We're not just losing our notions of privacy but of personal space. Everyone is clamouring to be unique and individual but instead they are joining a massive herd. If society tweaks a little, true individuals which as Christians vis-a-vis our society we must be...then we're going to have some problems.

Free Speech which is something that should be very important to us is being subsumed and undermined by the supposed interests of Security. And that notion of Security is rapidly expanding as our society continues to interlace and enmesh itself in cyberspace. In an era of Total War, Security becomes a ubiquitous concept.

There are a handful of voices in the Church and a fair bit of commentary regarding all this. While I'm not surprised, I am nevertheless sorry to acknowledge that most of it is widely missing the mark and in reality most of the Christian pundits have in fact signed on with the system.... sometimes even while they are critiquing aspects of it. In some ways it's like they're unable to grasp the big picture. Focused on their own narrow aspect and political agenda, they're still failing to see the whole.

While I don't want to be a paranoid alarmist there are reasons to be concerned. The re-casting of speech, freedom, security and power mean there are some real and potential dangers for Non-conformist Christians.

1 comment:

Protoprotestant said...

I posted this as the lead in on Facebook for this series:

I don't want to promote fear. That's what political agitators do. But I do want us to think about some things. Talking to other people and in particular Christians I just don't get the sense that everyone is thinking through the changes that have taken place over the past 15-20 years.

And these are only a hint of what the next 20 years will bring us. I think we (as a Church) need to really buckle down and think about some basic issues. The leadership is too politicized. They're not stepping back and looking at the situation. They're enmeshed in it and part of it and in many cases they've all but baptized the system.

It's kind of a longer piece. I divided it up into 4 parts to make it easier to read. For some it's nothing new, some will find the discussion boring but I do believe some readers may find it quite interesting. I assure you it has been nothing less than riveting to look into these issues and really give them some thought. I don't give the answers. I don't think we can answer them all yet. We're still wrestling with the questions. It's all happening so fast.