Friday, February 19, 2016

Encryption, Apple, Tim Cook, the American Revolution, George Orwell, and a Smarter Planet

The whole idea of individual liberty that took hold in the American colonies in the late 1700's was the result not of advancements in philosophy, but was rather due to a radical change in the physical balance of power between kings and their subjects -- a change that was driven by a new technology. 

Over the previous century, manufacturing and design innovations had reduced the cost and improved the performance of firearms. Everyone became able to own one, thus providing the citizenry with more power than the king. That radical and persistent change in the balance of power doomed the ruler-ruled paradigm -- which had been the hallmark of civilization since the development of agriculture. The old aristocracy of blood and divine right didn't see it coming until it was too late.

In the last century, government-controlled military technology such as tanks, aircraft, and missiles have shifted the balance of power back to governments. We should not be surprised that the ruler-ruled paradigm was reasserted, and governments have once again become large and intrusive -- perhaps more so than at any other time in history. (Even Rome only had a 10% tax, and they never told their citizens what they could and couldn't eat.)

But in the last 20 years new technologies have arisen that could change the balance of power back to individuals -- in a manner very similar to what happened in the 1700's.

Strong encryption and decentralized crypto-currencies, combined with powerful handheld devices -- and the Internet itself -- are giving people the ability to communicate, transact business, access a library of all human knowledge (even "prohibited" knowledge), and basically do anything they want, all without government visibility.

But this time the aristocracy is fully aware of the danger and is fighting back to keep their power.

Like the British in 1775, who sent an elite SWAT team to confiscate military assault weapons from the colonists at Lexington and Concord, governments are fighting on multiple fronts to keep the new privacy technologies weak, while continually working to increase their authority to see everything we do.

But I hope and believe that, like guns in the 1700's, the proliferation of such pervasive and inexpensive technologies will not be able to be stopped over the long-term. 

So imagine a world where the government has no insight at all into your personal business. Things we accept now, like income tax and search warrants, would not be able to exist.  Laws against such things as money laundering and the vague crime of "conspiracy" could no longer be enforced.  What is now called the "black market" would become simply the entire market.

Government would become tiny. Perhaps a more organic and decentralized voluntary organization would evolve.  Today's vast governmental powers would be seen as  belonging to an archaic dark age.

Of course people worry about what would happen without a government. After the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson wrote quite a few letters to friends in England and Europe trying to convince them that the US had not become a lawless hell. They viewed the revolution against the king as children killing their father, and that without the king's noble and godlike direction, there would be no order or safety in the country.

But we did just fine without the king.  The aristocracy had outlived its usefulness. Perhaps vast invasive centralized government has too.

I worry however that there is no Second Amendment-like clause protecting the right to have and use these new technologies.  If the governments wins, this powerful tech will be twisted to serve only the purpose of their new aristocracy.

Such comprehensive surveillance in the name of safety would cause the death of individual liberty.  A 1984-like dystopia would ensue:

Every step, every facial expression, every word you say, and everything you read or view is recorded and analyzed by autonomous systems for any trace of "trouble". Access to your home, your car, mass transportation, your money, and your phone is controlled in real time. Your freedom to travel is limited to certain areas at certain times. What you are allowed to purchase is tailored to what the system says you need. Your use of energy and other resources is monitored and actively controlled. Interactions with other people are monitored or blocked at will -- even for face to face meetings since your location is tracked and actively controlled. And you are never out of the reach of autonomous non-lethal weapon systems which can be deployed against you at any time and any place. All of this is for the safety and sustainability of our new society of limits. 

Note that this level of surveillance and control is what is meant when they talk about "building a smarter planet".

As George Orwell himself said, "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever."

The technology already exists that will enable either the Orwellian future or the Liberty future. Which future we get will be determined by whether or not we allow the government to dig its hooks in. 

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