Technology = Freedom?

Forbes ASAP , August 27, 1995

Is information technology inherently liberating? Is it true, as George Gilder proclaimed in this magazine in February, that Moore's Law "means that all of the monopolies and hierarchies and pyramids and power grids of industrial society are going to dissolve"? Or, as Tom Peters said in the same issue, that "governments are becoming irrelevant"?

Like Gilder and Peters, I'm a techno-optimist. Technology, especially technology that carries ideas, has been a powerful liberating force. But it is foolish to think that technology alone can end oppression.

In an 1853 speech, Frederick Douglass declared: "Slavery has no means within itself of perpetuation or permanence....It has an enemy in every bar of railroad iron, in every electric wire, in every improvement in navigation...."

Douglass was wrong about slavery's inevitable demise. Recent scholarship, notably by Nobel laureate economist Robert Fogel and economic historian Stanley Engerman, demonstrates that slavery was economically efficient for slaveowners; contrary to Douglass, it could perpetuate itself. Slavery died not because of technical progress but because of a great and bloody war, driven in part by moral conviction. The technologies Douglass celebrated made it easier to fight that war and spread that conviction, but they did not doom slavery.

Institutions get changed not by machines but by human action. Long-distance phone competition, and the enormous fiber-optic networks it engendered, was not inevitable; bullheaded Bill McGowan of MCI, and a lot of lawyers and favorable court rulings, made it possible. George Gilder can educate his children at home not because of computing power but because home schooling radicals fought and, in one celebrated case, died to win that right. Technology doesn't exist in a legal vacuum.

Two current policy proposals challenge techno-optimist determinism. The first would censor sexual material on the Internet. The other would establish a national worker registry.

The censorship plan is just the sort of law the vastness of the Net supposedly makes irrelevant. By an 84-to-16 vote, the Senate recently passed an amendment that would impose prison terms and large fines on anyone who sens "any obscene communication in any form" over an electronic network. The bill has implications beyond sex talk; erotica may well be the Net's "killer app," the mass-appeal use that explodes the market--as heretical religous pamphlets were for the printing press and porn movies were for the VCR.

It is difficult to imagine how such a law could be comprehensively enforced. But arbitrary and selective enforcement will make government anything but "irrelevant" to the people who get caught.

When the 16th-century French government tried to stamp out Protestant books, it failed miserably. "What did it matter, under these circumstances, that a printer here or there was arrested, or even burnt?" write historians Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin. Printing made government "irrelevant"--unless you were the unfortunate printers burned at the stake.

The worker registry poses an even more fundamental challenge to techno-optimism. It uses decentralized technology to centralize control. To curb illegal immigrants, one proposal would require every American who wants to work will have to be registered in a federal database and obtain an identification card. Every employer will have to tie into federal computers to verify that the card is legitimate and the worker is legal. The entire scheme is plausible only because computers and phone-based networks are cheap and ubiquitous.

"Whether the card carries a magnetic strip on which the bearer's unique voice, retina pattern, or fingerprint is digitally encoded," writes Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) in Roll Call, "or whether it incorporates a digitized photo and signature integrated into the plastic card itself, it is clear to me that state-of-the-art work and benefits eligibility IDs can and must replace the Dinosaur Age documents being used."

The government--and the accuracy of its computer records--will control everyone's livelihood. So much for dissolving those "monopolies and hierarchies and pyramids and power grids."

The techno-optimist answer to Feinstein's plan is that such systems can be hacked. Cards and databases can be faked. Or people can work off the books and hide their assets using encryption and international data transfers. In other words, laws can be broken.

When techno-optimists declare governments "irrelevant," they're implicitly announcing their willingness to become criminals. Most of us prefer other options. And that means relying on more than technical progress to protect our freedom.