New World Maybe – Brave Certainly Not

In a matter of days, we’ll know who the next President of the United States will be in an election that may be decided, once again, by the same electoral technology that awarded the post to the present incumbent.

Like me, I’m sure you can remember what you were doing when the two aircraft slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. In the relatively short period of time between then and now, we’ve seen the world change and not for the better. At the forefront we have witnessed the introductions of technologies of control, permissions-based architectures which have supposed to have made our lives more secure and which in fact have bought us closer, inch by inch to the kind of world that George Orwell imagined in his book 1984.

Biometrics, digital rights management, spyware, speed cameras and even concrete barriers, are all contributing to a world where our activities are increasingly restricted or monitored, in an attempt to protect the state from purple powder, terrorism or liability or our employers from the equal risk of liability and litigation.

With so much expensive technology at our disposal, you might think that we could protect ourselves, have trains that ran on time and an education and health service that worked but we can’t. We spend more money, build bigger fences and watch helplessly as overall workforce productivity continues to decline.

Technology was also supposed to make us richer, more innovative and ultimately liberate us from the shackles of bureaucracy and inefficiency. In many ways it has but not without cost. The freedoms that computing and the Internet promised over the last twenty years now appear to be turning more rapidly towards the evolution of architecture of control, justified by paranoia and the threat of expensive litigation. A world dominated not by visionaries and reformists but the frequently narrow imaginations of politicians and lawyers attempting to maintain their authority and the status quo of dominant market positions and interests in the face of the threat of digital anarchy.

To illustrate this uncertain relationship with the Internet, take two quotes from leading UK companies, household brands, from a piece of yet unpublished research:

‘Most of my content sits behind a strong permissions based system. Control of content is everything.’

‘The Internet has changed the rules and few people understand this. There is little awareness at a political level of the gates of hell opening up.’

I’m a technologist, whose interests and projects overlap with civil society, crime and the public sector. My own big picture view of what is happening here, in Europe and elsewhere is that of bureaucracy, business and the state, attempting to re-establish control of a world that slipped from their grasp in 2000, in a technology arms race that will ultimately lock all of us down behind a creeping and insidious barrier of digital permissions in the interests of security and economic well-being.

What we can be sure of is that the results of elections on both sides of the Atlantic will determine whether I’m a paranoid liberal or whether I’ll soon be living a pay per view existence in a world where the trains might run on time.


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