Technology and Social Change: The Freedom Paradox

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Over the course of the last 20 years or so technology has had a huge impact on our lives. The widespread adoption of mobile phones and the massive growth of the internet have helped to transform many aspects of our daily lives, whilst providing a helping hand to several revolutions along the way. The development of new technologies has arguably been the main driving factor behind social change during that period. And the next 20 years look set to be just as dramatic – if not more so.

These implications of these changes, and the way that we choose to respond to them, is still uncertain. But one thing is certain – the power of the individual, and the relationship between the individual and the state, are evolving. Will technology free us or imprison us? That is the subject of this article.

A Global Devolution of Power – The Birth of the Prosumer

Advances in communications technology have empowered people, helping them to stand up to government – as the Arab Spring revolutions amply demonstrated. Government control of information, for censorship and propaganda purposes, is becoming increasingly difficult. This is serving to free people from their intellectual shackles, giving them greater freedom to control their own fate. People with every possible kind of belief, preference, desire, personality (etc, etc) are finding the freedom to express themselves without judgement in online communities of like-minded people. Viral campaigns are allowing groups of people to quickly join together to take on big business, governments, and to effect change in all sorts of other ways.

This global devolution of power could accelete massively over the next 20 years if the pundits are right, all driven by the adoption of another new technology – 3D printing. The ability to print out almost any three-dimensional object in your own home, from a digital file you have downloaded over the internet, could have truly profound consequences.

Just look at the way that file sharing has impacted the media industry, or the way that the opening up of publishing to the masses has hit traditional publishers such as the daily newspapers. Now imagine that you’re not downloaded a song or a movie – but the latest iPhone. Or perhaps people won’t need the latest Apple iPhone, as collectives of online inventors and designers will create their own, improved version for people to download. There may still be a long way to go before 3D printing reaches this level, but it is already approaching the level where many experts are saying its ready for mass adoption, and 20 years is a very long time in technology.

Some have dubbed this the ‘prosumer revolution’, in which we each become both consumers and producers. The people, who are already increasingly taking control of information and media, will soon also take control of the physical means of production. The overtones of socialist revolution are already apparent in that phrase. A wide range of major business could then suffer the same fate that has already befallen the record companies and others, who have been hit hard by both legal and illegal file sharing. Meanwhile consumers will have increased access to a wide range of products, potentially including pirated copies.

The Other Side of the Coin

The dangers of 3D printing to big business are plain to see. But they are not the only ones who could be threatened by this technology. A firm in America has already succeeded in creating a 3D printed gun, for example, which could make the current debate over gun control in the US pretty pointless if it became widely available. The sad fact is that if technology empowers us all, then it is also empowering those with a sinister agenda. Want to print your own armed drone? I’m pretty sure that its already technically possible.

In addition to empowering activists and pro-democracy revolutionaries, modern technology is also empowering terrorists, who have found a fertile recruiting ground on the internet, and organised crime, which has found many new and lucrative opportunities. The technologies of the next twenty years could bring mass casualty terrorist attacks within easy reach of any nutjob with a printer.

How real those threats are may not even be important. The other side of advancing technological developments is their adoption by governments around the world. New threats provide a good excuse for governments to take action – especially if they are being pressured by big businesses who have been hit by widespread pirating, and are seeing their tax receipts hit just as hard by a growing underground economy. But ultimately they have proven that they do not really need these excuses. We are already being spied on more than ever, by about a zillionfold, and a range of new government technologies from pre-crime software to predator drones is impacting the lives of people around the world.

Most of the job of government involves influencing or controlling people’s behaviour. Laws and regulations (which have proliferated in number across most developed countries) are an obvious example, but everything from tackling obesity to improving education result boil down to governments trying to determine people’s behaviour. Technology is vastly increasing the number of ways that governments can monitor and control the behaviour of the population.

Anarchy or Autocracy: Is The Middle Ground Disappearing?

New technologies are setting the stage for an arms race between the people and those in power. I know that is a dramatic statement, but it is exactly what I see for the future.

The increasing empowerment of ordinary people will be met with increasingly intrusive measures by government and big business to stop people from doing things that they are not supposed to do. On the one hand you have an anarchic-socialist world where the people have the power, the control of information, and the means of production in their own homes – but crime and terrorism are rife and the conventional economy is crumbling. On the other hand you have an authoritarian state where every citizen is monitored and analysed, behaviours which most see as acceptable are criminalized (ie file sharing), and government shifts from its ivory towers to become a pervading presence in our everyday lives.

The choice between these two competing visions of the future is one that we cannot put off making for much longer, because the middle ground between the two is rapidly disappearing. The arms race has already begun. Which vision will triumph? I have no idea, but I would love to read your comments!

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- Science and Technology Editor

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