Sunday, June 9, 2013


The internet began with two computers in California in
1969. ARPAnet, one of the most consequential human
creations of all time (to date), had been conceived as a
communications resource in the Cold War. Soon, more
computers were added to the small “system.” This
“packet-switched” system was not able to be coordinated
into a worldwide system until 1979. But it was not until
1991 that a Swiss computer scientist was able to create
the “worldwide web” that is used today. A year later, a
user-friendly method was invented to enable easy search
of the web. From there, the internet took off, connecting
literally billions of persons all over the planet, creating
vast industries, “instant” billionaires (many of them under
30 years old), and unalterably changing the contemporary
human experience.

Needless to say, an invention of this magnitude has, shall
we say, certain profound consequences.

The current “scandal” about U.S. government monitoring
of e-mail and phone calls has some observers recalling to
mind George Orwell’s famed novel “1984” (written in 1948)
about government control of a nation’s population. Orwell
was not writing about government misuse of the internet
(which was not even then conceptualized), he was writing
about Soviet totalitarianism, then creeping insidiously
across war-ravaged Europe.  A former communist himself,
Orwell had seen the murderous totalitarian nature of the Far
Left while participating in the Spanish Civil War  (1937-39),
and became a passionate critic of its political system.

In reality, the internet and its systems can be an excellent
antidote to totalitarianism, informing and empowering
any person about events in the world. Realizing this,
totalitarian regimes everywhere are currently attempting
to limit and control citizen use of the internet, much as the
Nazis and Soviets attempted to control the use of the
transformative communication invention of the 20th century,
radio, during and after World War II to prevent their subjects
from knowing what was going on in the free world. Just as
the Nazis developed techniques to locate secret radio
transmitters in its occupied territories, today’s totalitarian
regimes have developed techniques to track down "secret"
internet users.

In our “free” societies of the West and democratic East,
techniques are available to monitor internet use for
“national security” purposes. After 9/11, there seems little
doubt that this is a legitimate purpose. It is believed and
asserted that numerous terrorist threats in the U.S. and
Europe have been averted as a result.

The basic truth, as we begin the 21st century, is that there
are no written or spoken secrets any more. It is one of the
consequences of the devices we have created to serve us.
The computer also enables us to “map” the human genome,
to decipher the very nature of the human body, and to
develop ways to save and prolong human life.

Simply put, this genie is out of the lamp, and there is
no way to go back to an earlier existence without the
computer. Democratic societies do not, by their nature,
suppress, although any technological device, as already
noted, can be misused or perverted for undemocratic ends.

On the other hand, democratic bureaucracies are quite
capable of overreaching. If there has been such misuse by
the present administration, it should be uncovered, punished
and revoked. Bureaucracies in democratic societies have
grown exponentially, and have become less and less
accountable. The solution;, interestingly enough, might well
be through computer technology and its capability to make
the bureaucracy “transparent” and truly accountable.

The computer has, in only two decades, changed modern
civilization (although perhaps half the world’s population
still live in undeveloped societies, tribalism and poverty,
and seem untouched by technology) so rapidly that its
consequences have been overrun by the velocity of time.

The current tempest over government “scandals” can serve
a very healthy and useful purpose. This tempest can serve
to foster much-needed conversation about “consequences”
that probably has been neglected in our breathless excitement
about each new internet software program and capability.

Rather than suppress or end this conversation, let’s use this
opportunity to understand just what it is we have created.

Copyright (c) by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

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