Internet of the Enlightenment
Much hand-wringing is dedicated to the unintended consequences of the “Internet Age.” The evaporation of privacy, drones, the Big Brother/Little Brother arms race, NSA, Stuxnet, banks and card companies getting hacked, Network-Centric Warfare, the list goes on and on. Essentially, it’s “Computers-are-Going-to-Take-Over” 2.0 – yet another new, surprising technology has been sprung upon us. In policy circles these developments bring about what is called “disruptive change” – a paradigm-shifting new capability.
What seems to make the internet so scary to many is the utter ubiquitousness of the thing. It’s metastasized into everything – you can buy a refrigerator that will order replacement items from your online store; you can turn your house lights on and off from your smart phone (from anywhere in the world); you can monitor the inside of your home from work, there are kitchen appliances that are networkable; your purchases are itemized and archived by the corporate offices of your grocer (sporting goods store, department store, drug store, pet supply store, auto parts store, on and on). It’s famously called “information.” Actually, it’s knowledge.
This is an age of a vast democratization of knowledge. I marvel every morning that I can read an almost unlimited number of the world’s newspapers. I get the day’s first news from the morning papers in Melbourne, Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul. The downside, of course, is that al Qaeda can also make its Inspire magazine, a veritable terrorist’s cook book, available to all.
But we’ve been here before.
Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing press in 1450 that utilized moveable type, meaning that its owner could mass produce any written material desired. This brought books out of the salons of the wealthy (and the Church), and enabled ever-wider circles of ordinary people to own and read them. The printing press did no less than allow the Enlightenment – the philosophical principle upon which America built its experiment. A disruptive technology indeed.
Not only did the Gutenberg press disseminate the classics to a hugely larger audience, it also vastly widened the talent-pool of writers that could now get their thoughts into print. The availability of the Bible gave resonance to the liberals of the day’s claim that the time was past for a priestly monopoly on the holy tract. “Let he of no lesser mind than the priest decide for himself what God is telling him. God’s messages to his prophets always had to do with something the people should do (or stop doing), and Jesus spoke directly to the people. Their messages weren’t for the priesthood – they’ve always been for the people.” Thus went the reasoning, and writ large, it brought the writings of the Egyptian, Greek and Roman Empires to a wider public as well. It was from this democratizing of knowledge that we “remembered” the Platonic Doctrine – that the ability to reason (to choose among options) intimated free-will, which itself postulated some form of self-rule as the highest form of governance – written in the 4th Century-BC, and largely hidden by a Church that frowned upon popular sovereignty (self-rule).
Very quickly on the heels of the printing press came the working press – newsletters began circulating, and the popular ones evolved into newspapers. Pamphlets were the common form of political discourse – Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was one such publication. An unnoticed Brit teaching secondary school in Scotland was able to publish his thoughts, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, sparking the Industrial Revolution and setting the intellectual tone for market republicanism – the American experiment. The divine right of kings was pierced by the Magna Charta in 1215 and the Vatican’s heavy-handed role in the monarchies of Europe was ended by the Westphalia Treaties of 1648, but self-rule was made possible only by the dissemination of general knowledge – the widespread availability of uncensored information. In other words, the widespread dissemination of printing presses.
The profound impact of the availability of knowledge is almost impossible to overstate. It ushered in modernity. It raised possibilities and dangers previously unconsidered. It catapulted mankind into a new paradigm – literacy exploded, science exploded, literature and political discourse exploded, universities flourished, and most importantly, people began questioning the legitimacy of aristocratic rule.
Overall, I would have to say that we have done well in the glow of the exponential effects of allowing the unfettered spread of knowledge. The Industrial Revolution and free trade have done more in reducing world poverty than all of previous human effort. While there were no examples of popular rule before the printing press, Western Civilization is now based upon it. I am equally optimistic about the afterglow of the internet.
The NSA disclosures illuminate the dangers involved, but the remedy is the same as that ushered in by Gutenberg – an informed populace. NSA isn’t the problem, elected officials that permit NSA to expand its authority is the problem, and in a republican form of government, the final arbiter of government performance is the electorate. These people work for us not the other way around. The only reason these arrogant, self-serving politicians are allowed to recidivate is we keep asking them to. The problem is in Washington, the remedy, as it always is, is us.