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It could be said that technology, the making of tools, is one of the fundamental characteristics the distinguishes humans from their mammalian cousins. It is a process of development that has been going on since neolithic people first made instruments from stone. For many many centuries it was a gradual process allowing people time to adapt their lives and social institutions to the technological change. In the 18th C there was a sudden acceleration which is referred to as the industrial revolution. Many books have been written on the dramatic changes it brought to the world. Among other things it created great differences in wealth and power between the nations that were industrialized and those that were not.

As the pace of technological change accelerated, there was a series of changes that altered the nature of human activity. Travel moved from riding a horse to steam trains, to automobiles, to airplanes. Communication moved from writing letters, to the telegraph, to the telephone. These changes impacted economic, social and political relationships. At times they created significant disruption for some people, but generally the world was able to adapt to them.

I would argue that the development of the atomic bomb was the first point in human history that it became necessary to deal with the possibility that humans could lose control of technology. It quickly set off an arms race that resulted in a stockpile of bombs sufficient to essentially destroy the planet. So far political institutions have been able to avoid such a catastrophe, but as nuclear weapons proliferate, the concern is ever present. We have found no means of removing the threat.

Shortly after the mushroom cloud appeared over Hiroshima, another new technology made its appearance, the digital computer. At first they were a few giant machines using vacuum tubes that could perform only limited functions. However a series of breakthroughs have rendered computers, ever smaller, ever more powerful and ever less expensive to produce. The pace of this development has accelerated exponentially.

A little less than 20 years ago a Rubicon was crossed when the internet became an integral part of the lives of ordinary people. The development of relatively inexpensive microcomputers made it possible for a mass market to access what had been a network used by elite  government, academic and corporate participants. It has spread to most of the world and Google is now putting up giant balloons to provide a WiFi network for areas that remain unconnected. Through devices like smartphones people remain connected to the internet for most of their waking lives. We can shop, communicate, and debate politics on it. Telephone communications have converged into the same digital network and on the same devices. Smart utility networks are under development that will turn out home appliances into something like smartphones that clean and cook.

As mass use of the internet began to take off there was speculation as to how it would shape social and political institutions. One popular view was that it would create a more participatory society. People who had ideas and opinions to express would no longer be restricted by media gate keepers at publishing or broadcast firms. There would be an era of new media leading to a less hierarchical social and political structure. The results of that have been somewhat mixed. Anybody can start a blog on almost any subject and social media have made it possible for people to organize various sorts of movements. You can communicate with people all over the globe and translation programs can to some extent bridge the gap of different languages. It does raise possibilities.

Early on we saw corporate media attempt to co-opt the new media by adapting traditional news publications to a blog like format where readers could make comments. The entertainment media converted the publication of music and movies to digital formats. They then ran up against the reality that the technology that made it easy and cheap to distribute to a mass market also made it just as easy to copy and redistribute without money flowing into their coffers. That was likely the first large scale campaign to control use of the internet. Congress was easily convinced that the entire future of free enterprise was threatened by music piracy.

It has been a matter of wide discussion that some countries such as China were attempting to control their citizens use of the internet. Google's willingness to comply with such regulations has been a matter of controversy. Now we have an increasing flow of revelations about the activities of other nations use of the internet to collect information about individuals and their communications with each other. The power and pervasive reach of the internet is pretty obvious. It should come as no surprise that governments want to exercise control over its power and the uses that people make of it.

The early internet got its start with the DARPA network established by the US Dept. of Defense in the 1960s. That has given an advantage to the internet/telecommunications industries in the US and to the US government. The network is structured in such a way that most global traffic flows through servers and cables located on US soil. We are just beginning to get a glimpse of the way that vast caches of  information are collected about private individuals all over the world. We are also getting a glimpse of the participation of other nations such as the UK, France and Germany in such undertakings. The original justification was the threat of terrorism in the wake of 9/11, but it is clear that the purpose goes beyond that.

One of the issues to consider is that the very nature of the technology is that it is changing and evolving    
at a rate that is much faster than traditional human institutions can adjust. The efforts of the music industry to block copying and sharing spurred new technological innovation. Things like peer to peer transfer by bittorrents emerged as a means of bypassing centralized servers that were easier to control. Virtual private networks make it possible to disguise a users identity and point of national origin. Methods of complex encryption make it difficult to read the content of intercepted messages. This communication arms race will certainly continue. The tools being developed are only likely to be used by techie geeks and people who have high stakes for avoiding detection. But, they will continue to exist.

What does this all mean for the vast majority of internet users who are swapping recipes and pictures of their children and pets? Before the issues of government intrusion arose most people seemed vaguely aware that the internet was not a place of secure privacy, but not many were willing to forgo the convenience and entertainment value. The awareness that  big brother can and may be reading your emails and listening to you phone conversations is considerably more unsettling for many.

Clearly there is no way that we are going to get rid of the internet. It is going to penetrate our lives ever more deeply. The technology is impacting for more than just personal privacy. It is creating a great many other changes. It offers benefits and it carries risks. It is going to continue to be a rollercoaster ride.


Originally posted to Richard Lyon on Sun Jul 07, 2013 at 03:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  The technology is reshaping the (6+ / 0-)

    debate about what liberty means.

    In the 90s, hackers defined it in terms of liberating information, in "I've seen the worse memes of my generation destroyed" (I don't agree with every aspect of the article, but I think it starts to capture the cultural shift):

    "The problem, for Morozov, is that this new open government — the thing that Silicon Valley types would love to inject into our actually existing government — wouldn't be about accountability to its citizens and political transparency. It's would be about making government data available to companies that will mine it for profit. While there's nothing inherently wrong with making a buck, that's not the main role that government should play. Morozov adds that there are many things the government should do that will have absolutely no benefits to entrepreneurs and innovators. After all, the government should be devoted to ensuring that its citizens are protected from abuses of power, and that it is accountable to those citizens, even when those citizens don't have money or lots of followers on Twitter.

    Now, we have to decide whether  the net will be defined in terms of individuals controlling their own information, especially as the technology invades, and can become Orwellian, in every aspect of  our lives.

    The supreme irony is that the early founders of the net were trying to create  a space where people could be freer, but what has happened in the opposite. Its becoming  a trap in which we can possibly be less free.

    To the extent people start to register this reality, is the extent to which technology may change. For that to happen requires a culture change.

    That was discussed recently at i09 before even the NSA scandal broke, that the technology that started off libertarian, has become a movement to try to force every aspect of our lives to be open, and so we end up with less liberty, not more.

    •  One of the things that I am wondering (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      sceptical observer, annan

      about is whether we will ever have the opportunity to sit back and try to arrive at a working consensus on those questions. It is changing so fast that while we are discussing it, it has already become something else. However, the efforts of the government to cloak it all in secrecy certainly disrupt any possibilities of public participation.  

    •  I think it's even bigger than (0+ / 0-)

      "individuals controlling their own information."  What about big corporations overseas?  What about the secrets of other governments?  Why should they trust the US to be the center of gravity for the Internet?  Why should they trust American tech products like Windows when they know that Americans so easily accede to immoral requests that compromise the security of their customers?  

      So this is a commercial fuck up for the US.  I would not be surprised if giant corporations like Microsoft and Verizon aren't already figuring out how badly they screwed themselves by not resisting harder.

    •  by and large (0+ / 0-)

      I don't see how it is possible to argue that the internet has not made us more free.

      Though I know a couple people that would have strong words for you for asserting the internet was ever libertarian.

      In the time that I have been given,
      I am what I am

      by duhban on Sun Jul 07, 2013 at 09:27:06 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  two points (0+ / 0-)

        1. Read the history of the internet in the 90s, and much of what drove the early adoption outside of science, the government and academica- it was ideas like information tends toward free or freedom. That was little "l" libertarian or anarchists.  Not big "L" free market economic libertarian thought. Things like Google and Facebook wasn't the point of it. In fact, they are the corruption of it. The ideas of it, such as the copyleft moving (open source software), is that information should be free and without restriction for the betterment of society (the practical implicatio fo the copyleft movement to bring this back down to earth is that nonprofits aren't having to pay Microsoft, for example, for software it needs to stay open for the public). Big business tying to corporate interests aren't controlling what people can talk about- whether its radical or not- we aren't limited to the spin cycle, the big press driven process. eg Julian Assange. Wikileaks. Anarchists. hackers. Annymous.  I got to be honest- I don't understand how many people here can enter debates of which they clearly don't understand the history or context. How can you understand where things are or are going if you don't understand what came before? If you don't understand context?  But, I will let that go, and suggest check out the subject. I didn't always agrees with all their arguments, but at least I was aware of them to place them into context. They are actually the late adopters of these ideas, but I figured if I go too far back it would simply confuse you.

        2. Being able to access the internet is not the same as greater freedom if the NSA is watching everything you do, the information is so buried as far as radical ideas that its impossible to find (a needle in  a hay stack for the individual rather than for the big corp interests which is blocking out the little guy) and a myriad of others ways in a complex ecosystem that if one has enough power one can drown out alternatives and use the system itself to control what people do as well as know what they are doing off line

        This isn't conpsiracy theory by the way- its a natural product of the capability of where the technology currently is. The point of this diary is that perhaps a technology solution will work its way around that. My rebuttal was that will only happen if the public understands why the technical solutions are necessary. From your response, I can sense you fit perfectly into the public that I say doesn't understand the capability of what the system is becoming.

        This is too complicated to explain other than to point o ut that a wide range of officials from Bloomberg to Judge Posner (law and economics) to  Zuckerberg are aguign we need to get over privacy and the ability to prevent big brother from being aware of what we are doing.

        •  I don't need to read it (0+ / 0-)

          I lived most of it to varying extents. I've been here since usenet days.

          But even a little 'l' libertarian approach is still in my view unsupportable and frankly leave Assange out of this. The man's an egotistical coward at the end of the day. Yes a lot of people got on the internet for freedom but as I said that's first not really libertarian as there's more to libertarian then that. Anarchism I'll give you but even then that has always been just a small part of the internet.

          Hackatvism is also a fairly new idea with Anom being for the longest time more a random collection of people then a guided entity.

          But though it all the internet has pushed things more towards more free access though systems like linux and though making it easier to share ideas.

          Sure there has been push back but well look at how poorly that went for the music industry.

          2. You can't seriously believe the NSA is real time accessing everything can you?

          And besides that's not the point, any nation has the same access to metadata that the NSA is using.

          In the time that I have been given,
          I am what I am

          by duhban on Sun Jul 07, 2013 at 10:11:09 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  There is something that many people don't get. (6+ / 0-)

    The Internet developed in the US.  Most people understand that.  Access to the Internet has become global.  There is a tendency to think that because of this it's "equal" everywhere.

    The Internet, though, relies on what's called the "backbone," a very heavy bandwidth connection that carries large amounts of data around the world.  Most of the backbone for the world is located in the US for historical reasons, much of it carried by large telecom corporations like Verizon.

    I point this out because people seem to think that China or some other country (I heard France mentioned) could do the same thing as our NSA.  Probably not the way things are right now.  Our NSA has access to the equivalents of fire hydrants atop the city water main.

    This has another huge implication it's easy to overlook:  The Internet may be America's single biggest tech export.  We're poisoning that biggest export.  And for what?

    Imagine if McDonald's got a request from the NSA to secretly put radioactive GPS locators in every Big Mac so they could track the locations of everybody who eats at their restaurants.  They tell McDonald's it's the patriotic thing to do because one of their customers MIGHT be a terrorist somedays (you never know!), and, besides, nobody will ever find out about this.  So they go along with it.

    Glenn Greenwald comes along and writes a story about it.  Now everybody knows.  Many feel sick.  "So what?  What are they going to do for burgers?  Ha ha!"  

    Well, some people and some countries might just say, fuck this, we'll flip our own burgers.  McDonalds has thereby fucked themselves with the assistance of the NSA.

    That's where this is headed eventually.  If you were a country that didn't feel totally secure about your international relations with the US, you might be ready to separate your existence from dependent on the US based Internet and other US tech countries where the security of their products is brought into question.  You may think you know everything that the NSA is doing today, but how about tomorrow?  They're busy little beavers.  If you're that other government,  there are private matters you are bound to not want getting out, so it will be a concern.  

    Likewise for private corporations overseas who have to worry now about just who is going to get access to their corporate secrets.  Many people here might trust Obama and the NSA, but if your livelihood could be destroyed if a competitor found out what you were planning, you might want to look elsewhere.

    So I expect at some point there will be alternatives to the Internet as it exists now, probably still interfaced transparently, but not based so heavily on the US backbone nor on the products of US tech companies.  We in the US would CERTAINLY do the same thing if the backbone and Windows and Google and Verizon were all based in China.  In fact, our own NSA would probably be frantic to do just that.

    So, we're just like McDonald's despoiling its own biggest product.  It's going to hurt us down the line as much of the tech center of gravity migrates offshore to compensate.

    Was it worth it?  No.

    •  Already the case in China (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Richard Lyon, FG, Dumbo, J M F

      Baidu, QQ, Sina Weibo, etc., dominate the market because (a) they are Chinese language for Chinese users (b) approved by our government with their taps and valves.

      But this is going to hurt the US IT sector in much of the rest of the world, particularly Europe, which has stronger privacy laws.

      There is also an element of retribution at work; after so many years of pedantic lectures on cyber security and cyber rights by American leaders and media, people (not just their governments) have reason to turn their heads and laugh, and make other choices.

      This is great news for Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent and Huawei.

      400ppm : what about my daughter's future?

      by koNko on Sun Jul 07, 2013 at 06:31:10 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  actually the french did (0+ / 0-)

      where the backbone is ultimately doesn't matter much it just makes it a little easier.

      After all how do you think China censors it's internet access? (free hint metadata)

      In the time that I have been given,
      I am what I am

      by duhban on Sun Jul 07, 2013 at 09:28:56 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  The French can't do what we do. (0+ / 0-)

        I know, I read the same article.  But they don't have the infrastructure to suck up the whole Internet.  Even if they did have the storage and bandwidth, there is also software required to sort and arrange the information into a usable form and encrypted messages (the really interesting stuff) to be decrypted, which takes some firepower and smart people to stay afloat of the encryption arms race.

        Censoring data in China is also a very different thing.  That doesn't require access to the world's Internet traffic.  That requires monitoring the nation's internal traffic, and I'm sure even with that they aren't very successful.

        •  it's not about sucking up the whole internet (0+ / 0-)

          which even if theoretically possible I remain skeptical of us having the ability to do day in and day out.

          The real abuse is supposed to be reading metadata except probably every nation in the world can do that.

          In the time that I have been given,
          I am what I am

          by duhban on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 09:41:22 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Great comment but I'll be happy (0+ / 0-)

      to see the backside of Microsoft. China can have them. Google not so much.

      Bill gates didn't get rich by producing good software. He got rich through a combination of savvy, disruptive technology, and unethical business practices. If he had his way, the internet would be accessible only via Internet Explorer running on Windows and maybe Mac (to prove he was a monopolist.)

      "Send your resume in .doc format." Bull shit. That's like saying "Show up for the interview in a Ford product or don't show up at all."

      Reaganomics noun pl: belief that government is bad, that it can increase revenue by decreasing revenue, and unregulated capitalism can provide unlimited goods for unlimited people on a planet with finite resources.

      by FrY10cK on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 10:49:20 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  " prove he was not a monopolist ..." (0+ / 0-)

        You know what I meant.

        Reaganomics noun pl: belief that government is bad, that it can increase revenue by decreasing revenue, and unregulated capitalism can provide unlimited goods for unlimited people on a planet with finite resources.

        by FrY10cK on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 10:51:33 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I recommend two books (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Richard Lyon, don mikulecky, J M F, annan

    "1984" (of course) and "Brave New World".

    Borderline prophetic, but simply because the authors understand nations, states and technology.

    The "Brave New World" side of it manifest in such things as social media converge with the perpetual war and thought control of "1984" as a pair of evil twins, if we let them be.

    Interesting Trivia: If an American send an email containing encrypted content, NSA software will filter it out for decrypting as allowed by the secret policy and persons sending it may find themselves on a watch list.

    Not all shadowy corners are safe from Big Brother.

    400ppm : what about my daughter's future?

    by koNko on Sun Jul 07, 2013 at 06:23:56 PM PDT

  •  Much earlier than the A bomb (0+ / 0-)
    I would argue that the development of the atomic bomb was the first point in human history that it became necessary to deal with the possibility that humans could lose control of technology.
    The use of fossil fuels should have been the clue....when coupled with population explosion.  All that energy was far more than the bomb's effect.

    An idea is not responsible for who happens to be carrying it at the moment. It stands or falls on its own merits.

    by don mikulecky on Sun Jul 07, 2013 at 07:12:31 PM PDT

  •  a couple factual inaccuracies (0+ / 0-)

    1. We are not the only tool makers in the animal kingdom. In point of fact tool use isn't limited even to apes.

    2. The digital computer dates to Turning and 1936 well before the atomic bombing in 1945.

    In the time that I have been given,
    I am what I am

    by duhban on Sun Jul 07, 2013 at 09:25:08 PM PDT

  •  Great diary!! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Richard Lyon, midwesterner

    Fact is, we have NOT been prepped socially or ethically as to the use of this powerful and ever evolving technology. from the iPod to the iPhone and thereinafter...

    Not to say that these inventions shouldn't be developed, but the mechanism to improve the HUMAN capacity to understand them and their potential for good or ill has been stunted.

    The technology itself has been the guide, when perhaps our sense of individuality and privacy is what we need to emphasize in taking the lead. That is not up to the inventors. A course on the ethical use of technology may seem esoteric now, but it has become a necessity.

    Critical thinking needs to be re-introduced into our educational system. The use of cell phone videos to record a gang rape, or to expose--like Oscar Grant or the Occupy Movement--police brutality at its worst?  Our educational system, being what it is, has been a diploma mill and a test-passing racket. Not fertile ground for critical, creative thought.

    There needs to be redefinition of laws pertaining to the the rights of individuals and what constitutes illegal harassment and invasion of privacy against individuals. Right now, that is de facto under control and interpretation of the police and the Security Complex.

    We are up against a jungle of considerations that many of us cannot begin to fathom. The government and their masters are not prepared to address it, or sees the potential for their self-benefit by NOT addressing it.

    What can we do to shake this loose? Should we all get off the grid?

    Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not. -- Dr. Seuss

    by Fe Bongolan on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 01:27:14 PM PDT

  •  Sharp, Bright line needs to be drawn (0+ / 0-)

    between The Government of the United States of America and the Corporate Charters enabled by that Government, the people.

    The people, and their government, have ceded the control of nearly everything to the Corporate Charter. First Amendment, Second Amendment, Fourth Amendment, and several others. They, the market and media manipulators for profit, now own the government, instead of the reverse, the original intent.

    Until we re-establish the Constitutional Union, and legally bring under control the Corporate behemoth, we are going to lose. The longer we wait, the more we will lose, and the less chance of winning.

    Figures don't lie, but liars do figure-Mark Twain

    by OregonOak on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 02:10:50 PM PDT

  •  Four Observations (0+ / 0-)

    Interesting diary, but in my opinion -

    1.  Too much emphasis on governments; the vast percentage of the technology is owned and operated by the private sector which have their own motivations; this is alluded to but should be placed atop the hierarchy

    2.  Too much emphasis on the actions of the United States; many, many other players are involved, including some very significant regional and national players like the EU and the People's Republic of China.  Needless to say, these other players are not bound by the US Constitution and many (e.g. again the PRC) have much more restrictive visions of the uses of this technology than we do

    3.  Too simple a dichotomy between "the people" who want to use the technology to prosper, flourish and share and who need privacy against evil government and corporations.  "The people" also include a whole range of bad actors, such as pedophile rings, identity thieves, extortionists, etc.  There is a dark side to the technology which doesn't spring from officialdom or corporate suites, but is something which also affects people directly

    4.  On file sharing and intellectual property rights, yes, the music industry is the usual poster child for those horrible forces that want to keep you from listening to the music you want.  But to give a fuller and more accurate view of the problems of intellectual property (IP)protection in the digital age, problems such as these need to be highlighted:

    - IP crime isn't always the little guy versus the bad corporation.  West African traditional producers of original Kente cloth patterns have been devastated by copies made abroad.  Domestic industries for music and software in developing countries can't get off the ground because their products get illegally copied and distributed, thus harming their economies.  Counterfeit pharmaceuticals, particular of HIV drugs in Sub-Saharan Africa, are direct threats to human health and safety. People author technical manuals and then watch them copied, translated and published in Cantonese the next week - under the name of someone else and without authorization.

    "Hidden in the idea of radical openness is an allegiance to machines instead of people." - Jaron Lanier

    by FDRDemocrat on Mon Jul 08, 2013 at 04:08:05 PM PDT

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