The Human Condition:

Computers and the Totalitarian State – March 1, 2015

Spherical webwall

“Everyone that doeth evil hateth the light,”1 meaning that they really want to keep people in the dark. In the imagination of those who lead totalitarian states, all information and all interpretations of reality must come from the state itself, either by public pronouncement or through control of the supposedly independent media. If you can’t put everyone in a physical jail cell and watch them all the time, then you must put them in a psychological cell and control access—the flow of information, as well as hopes and dreams—both into and out of their minds. That’s the only way to tamp down and put a lid on the pervasive human need to question current realities, find interpretations, create stories, and imagine a different set of circumstances.

This is why totalitarian states have such a problem with people owning computers and the means to connect them. Computers—and with this term I include tablets, smartphones, and any device that gives you sophisticated, integrated access to the world wide web—are inherently uncontrolled. A magazine or newspaper can be reviewed and censored before publication. A library can be combed through and purged of undesirable books. But the internet is a jungle full of trailing vines, creepers, underbrush, and root systems that spread in all directions in chaotic profusion.

Like a jungle, not everything on the internet is good for you, not mentally, morally, or financially. And as the jungle is permeated by strange cries and spooky shadows, the internet contains—in addition to much real information, including earnest endeavors to commemorate and communicate—layer upon layer of fantasy, fabrication, intentional falsehood, and daunting amounts of poisoned software. So the watchwords of trafficking on the internet are “Buyer beware” and “Don’t believe half of what you see or read.” … But I wouldn’t have it any other way, because the freedom to say what you think and believe and to post about the things you love is also the freedom to bamboozle, deceive, and cheat the unwary. I believe it’s up to each one of us to be mindful of surroundings, exercise good judgment, and pay attention to our own interests. It’s the only way to be safe.2

The People’s Republic of China believes it can reap the financial rewards of computer connectivity and online marketing while keeping their population inside that psychological jail cell. We’ve seen them essentially erect their own quarantined internet inside China, with word filters to block access to concepts like “democracy,” “human rights,” and “dictatorship”; secondary forms of internet search services like Google, but under government control; and outright banning of certain websites. Many other countries would like to have the heft to do this on their own, or see that international accords are put in place to accomplish the same thing for their populations.

Such censorship will work for a while—even work well in small places for a limited time—but all efforts at censorship are a leaky boat that needs constant maintenance and attention.

Probably the most extensive attempt at censorship took place in the Soviet Union in the latter part of the 20th century. The masters of that state understood only too well how they had used revolutionary propaganda and an underground press to bring down the Tsarist autocracy in 1917. So they made it illegal to own an unregistered printing press or even a mimeograph machine, let alone modern inventions like photocopiers and computers. The internet had not grown much beyond its origins as a DARPA-inspired reference resource3 before the Soviet Union collapsed. And for most of that state’s lifetime, computers were still large chunks of hardware confined to the basements of government ministries and institutes. But Soviet Russia intentionally turned its back on the microcomputer revolution that began sweeping the developed world in the 1970s and ’80s.

It could be argued that trying to squelch the connectivity of small computers helped bring down the Soviet government. Consider that during this period from the 1970s to the ’90s the rest of the developed world underwent a massive change in financial and commercial activity. At the beginning of this period, charge cards were becoming popular but most transactions were still paper based. The store clerk took your card, put it into a lever-activated rolling machine that imprinted the raised letters from the card face onto a multiple-copy receipt. The clerk then filled out the rest of the information, including all charges, by hand. You signed the receipt, and it went into a box for later manual processing, which presumably included keying into a computer at the card company. It was clumsy and clunky and not much better than writing a check—except that the purchase could be backed by credit rather than cash on hand.

As computers became more common and nodes on the network more distributed, the raised lettering on your charge card became merely decorative, and the real business was conducted with the magnetic strip on the card’s back. With one swipe it transmitted to the card company your intent to make a purchase and obtained access for the store owner to a narrow slice of your credit information: the fact that you had enough remaining credit to make the purchase. And then, as the internet grew into a commercial highway, you no longer needed the physical card, just the sixteen-digit identification number, its expiration date, and that security code printed in eyes-only characters on the back.

It has probably been a hundred years since a bank held any kind of real, spendable money—gold, bills, or certificates—to represent some fraction of the deposits that customers kept with them. For a long time, the dollars in your account have simply been entries in a ledger, first on paper, then in the memory banks and disk drives of a mainframe computer. But the microprocessor revolution and the connectedness of small computers opened the field of finance immensely. Rather than creating a paper billing slip that the store had to send physically to the credit card company for processing, the transaction became immediate and interactive. The bits and bytes representing money in your account could flow in and out practically in real time. Business transactions became faster by an order of magnitude, greased by the medium of instantly available credit. Commercial activity in the developed Western world boomed.

But the Soviet Union, for fear of its citizens passing treasonous remarks and sedition in the form of private publications called “samizdat,” refused to allow or enable any of this commercial activity. All transactions and their accounting remained paper bound and manually processed. And the irony is that a centrally controlled economy could almost have become practical if the flows of currency and the logistics of providing services, transferring goods, maintaining inventories, and ordering supplies were tracked and adjusted immediately in real time.4

But the genie is out of the bottle and loose in the system now. Countries like China that want to keep their populations in psychological prison cells will find that the effort of maintaining control gets more difficult and time consuming as the amount of connectivity—devices, nodes, and players—increases as technology advances. A large amount of internet traffic is already carried internationally by satellite, although the signals are still received by a central earthside downlink and distributed through fiber optic or wire. But what happens when direct satellite transmission from a sender in one country to a receiver in another becomes practical? Then the repressive government will have to outlaw satellite-based smartphones the way the Soviets banned mimeograph machines.

Maintaining the information barriers against treason and sedition not only becomes more trouble than they’re worth, but the measures required also hamper and slow the transfer of useful information and business transactions. At a certain point, the system slows down and stops, mired beyond its capability to cope.

The internet, the web, and the flow of information are with us now and growing exponentially. To undo the connectivity that we enjoy today would take an act of immense destruction—a meteor strike or similar global catastrophe—that would put us back at the technological level of the steam engine and the telegraph wire. A simple recession or even a financial collapse in one trading sphere or another wouldn’t do the job. To lose our present state of connectivity, we would have to travel so far back in technological time that small computers and personal handsets which double as voice and messaging services, cameras and videos, music boxes and tiny theaters became mere legends of a bygone age. That’s beyond the apocalypse.

People want to be free to question, explore, explain, imagine, and dream. It’s as much a part of human nature to resist the psychological jail cell as it is to resist a physical cell and the servitude and external control which it implies. People just won’t be put in a box. That is our defining feature.

1. That’s in the Bible, John 3:20. As I’ve noted many times elsewhere, I’m not religious. But a text that has lasted a long time and satisfied many people’s psychological wants and needs must contain elements of truth.

2. Life is not safe, not on this planet or any other. And if you look for others to provide you with safety and security—after, that is, you have left the protective nest of family—then you are putting yourself at their mercy. You can hedge your bets by contracting for security services, engaging their personal loyalty, and paying them adequately, but then you have to read the contract, treat people fairly, and still expect to get burned occasionally. For the rest, you look to your own defenses. To quote from Duke Leto Atreides in Dune: “Let us not rail about justice as long as we have arms and the freedom to use them.”

3. The original internet was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and a number of university campuses to speed up the publication and dissemination of research papers. It worked well. As an early computer user, I can remember that contact with “the web” was mostly in text format and limited to serious, scientific discussions. Commercial activities, like advertising goods and services for sale, were frowned upon by purists and routinely “flamed” by other, infuriated users. But just look at the web now! To use another Dune quote: “Business makes progress. Fortune passes everywhere!”

4. Almost, but never quite. The most efficient way to manage a marketplace is still by individual choice and action. Let buyer and seller meet directly or online to establish a mutually agreeable price and make the exchange of goods for value on their own terms. Putting a third party like the government in putative control of all such transactions only gums up the works.