9.2 Technology and the State--Big Brother and Little Brother

It was observed in Chapter 1 that technology development is of critical importance in understanding changes in society. The same is true of the state--the governing institution of society--for it is the character and actions of the state that ultimately will write its peoples' history and affect the neighbouring states both in place and time.

Reviewing the development of the various stages of civilization, it is easy to see that the state has grown in size and complexity with the numbers of people it governs, with the technologies which it uses and administers, and with the economy it seeks to manage. When transportation and communication were primitive, the state was a localized affair. The strongest or most successful individual in a small area could rule or influence it solely for personal enrichment or benefit. Even hunter-gatherers were not so busy surviving that they could not mount excursions to other territories, waging war to control land, food, animals and slaves. There were elaborate social structures developed in some such societies, and those of one of the most successful--the Eastern North American natives' "Six Nations" --had a direct influence on the constitution of the United States itself.

Agricultural societies had developed a variety of kingdoms, empires and even democracies by the time of Christ--some of them far more successful than others. The success of each was in direct proportion to its ability to use the best available technology for transportation and communication. As the focus of these eventually shifted from land to sea and from the Eastern Mediterranean and Orient to Western Europe, and then to the American East, so did the centres of the successful states. That is, the current centre of economic activity and expansion will invariably be the centre of political influence for the immediately following time.

Throughout this long period, democracy has had only relatively short runs. The Greek version was based on the votes of free and educated citizens who met and debated the day's issues in public forum. It was limited to such city states for three closely related reasons. First, democracy assumes an informed citizenry, and therefore requires a means by which they can be kept informed. So long as they can physically meet together and debate face to face, this can be achieved. However, there are obvious physical limitations to such a system, and these ensured that it never grew to encompass more than a small city. Second, democracy assumes an informable (that is, educated) citizenry. The people who gather together to make decisions must understand the issues fully and be able to explore what are the consequences of the courses of action they may take. The third is that since the state was closely allied to the economy, decision making was generally limited to those with economic interests in the state. Such a democracy was possible, therefore, only for those who had economic interests (i.e., not for women or slaves). The greater the degree of economic participation by individuals, the more broadly based was decision making power. Early forms of democracy, and not just the Greek, always limited the franchise in some way--usually to free, adult, educated, land-owning males, on the assumptions that everyone else was not informable, and being unable to make informed decisions, should not be allowed to participate in them at all. It was also assumed that not everyone had an economic interest, and so could not be qualified to make economic decisions.

The industrial age caused some of these assumptions to be swept aside permanently, for the workers in mines and factories had to be educated to some extent in order to work the equipment and use the techniques. As the machines became more sophisticated, and work shifted to white collar occupations, they had to become much more educated and then economically independent as well in order not only to work but also to be consumers. From this starting position at the agricultural/industrial transition point, the state variously followed one of two paths. One reinforced the democracies that were simultaneously developing, and the other resulted in new kinds of tyranny.

Technology and Big Brother

As Jacques Ellul argues in The Technological Society, the development of new techniques, and the necessity for applying them on a universal scale to achieve full potential, results in an inevitable growth of the state, for it is the only agency capable of satisfying the demand for such universal applications. This is true in economic management, in education, in the provision of medical care, in transportation, in communication, in the provision of consumer utilities, in law enforcement, and in basic scientific and technological research. For one field after another, the size, costs, and risk become too great for the private sector, so the public sector first participates and eventually takes over.

Both communism and fascism came out of this milieu as attempts to achieve total management of the citizenry through systematic application of appropriate technologies. Both are industrial-age philosophies that require a citizenry sufficiently educated to use technology, but sufficiently uninformed so as not to question the state's decision-making powers. Fascism failed in Europe because of necessity it had other items on its agenda--after all, an educated, but uninformed citizenry must have its attention focused away from the business of the state lest it become informed. Putting that attention onto the destruction of "enemies" is an effective temporary measure, but either victory or defeat renders this technique moot, and all states relying on it must therefore eventually fail. Thus Fascist states are either defeated by external forces, or they suffer a revolution from within. Neither of these necessarily relieve the tyranny, for it may only replace one set of masters by another, and these may be far harsher. The fascist states that did survive World War II, or were founded later, remained far from the world's economic mainstream and away from public attention. In the 1970s and 1980s, many of these went through peaceful revolutions and saw the establishment of more democratic regimes, and by the 1990s there were relatively few fascist states or military dictatorships remaining.

Radical egalitarianism, or communism, on the other hand, was, for a time, more successful for two reasons. First, in theory, its declared enemies were poverty and injustice, so it had genuine incentives to offer an oppressed people in persuading them to exchange one form of tyranny for another. Second, it delivered on its promises, at least to some extent, in part by acting socialistically according to its stated philosophy, but also in part by pragmatically borrowing capital from the rest of the industrial world and acting as a state capitalist. However inefficient this may have been by Western standards, Russian statism did offer its peasants more than did the old Czarist agrarian system. However, the very arena of its success illustrates why the Russian system was never successfully exported to a country where the industrial revolution had already taken place, even though Marx intended his ideas for industrialized societies. Simply put, industrial societies require educated consumers, and an educated citizenry cannot forever be kept uninformed by the state. Moreover, consumers have an economic role by definition--their economic voice is eventually heard regardless of any attempt to suppress it. Neither is everyone the same--people differ in intelligence, the willingness to learn or work, and their aptitude for the ingredients of economic success. The state that demands equal outcomes regardless of inputs can therefore achieve its goals only by increasing its application of force to the citizenry until it results in either bankruptcy or rebellion. Doctrinaire socialism will therefore always fail.

Ellul and others are therefore correct when they observe that the actual application of Communism is essentially the same as Fascism--the two have somewhat different philosophical roots, but their manifestations as states are not particularly distinguishable by the average citizen. Losing one's life, property, or freedom to enrich an elite, maintain an army, and support an all-encompassing state does not appear to be different just because of the label attached by politicians or academics to the philosophy behind the tyranny. It can be anticipated therefore that the old Russian style statism is applicable only to relatively primitive agrarian societies, or to those in shock trauma after a war, and not elsewhere. This is due to the information revolution for two reasons: first, because the equally poor of such a nation can see that their system does not work--those of other countries have visibly more, and they want to be equal to them, not each other, and second, because informed citizens do not long tolerate any tyranny. Since even the people of third world nations have greater access to information than ever before, establishing state capitalist tyranny is becoming more difficult all the time.

When people were already under the unjust and repressive despotism of a king, general, or dictator, they were loathe to believe that their lot could become any worse, and sometimes welcomed Marxism. Despite its consistent failures, its credentials as a supposed liberator were not always examined closely, for potential subjects often lacked both information access and democratic experience to realize its true nature. Because of the prerequisite level of education and information access present in an already industrialized nation, it is becoming less likely with the passage of years that any nation will embrace communism overtly. It could get much the same thing, however, if its people are not vigilant and they allow the state to acquire similar power gradually and by default, or if the state appears to lose its moral legitimacy and they demand a dictatorship to restore confidence.

Even the authoritarian state based on a genuine "big brother"--the god-like larger-than-life glorious leader whose image is constantly held before the people--cannot continue indefinitely in the information age. Even if the despot can prevent other information sources from reaching her people, she must eventually die, or perhaps a wide-ranging natural disaster such as a famine strikes. In either event, the feet of the icon are eventually revealed to be of clay, and the illusion fails. At this point the state either crumbles into anarchy, is taken over from the outside, or the successors of the autocrat preside over a metamorphosis of the government into some new form.

It is important to emphasize that the idea that it is possible to keep an educated citizenry uninformed is self-contradictory and, in the medium to long run, self-destructive. Even in a purely technological age, such a state of affairs is inherently unstable, and requires ever more frequent exertion of tight state control over intellectuals to maintain--an activity that cannot be continued indefinitely without robbing the state of its own future. The most damaging development to such philosophies is the information revolution, for its advent has destroyed forever the second of the two assumptions on which tyranny is based--for in an information age the citizenry cannot be kept uninformed. The growing base of information about the more affluent West was one of the major contributing factors in the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites in the early 1990s, and it will eventually prove the downfall of all remaining dictatorships.

The case of the two Germanys is instructive in this respect. Ultimately it proved impossible to keep half a nation under totalitarian dictatorship while the other half was free. The Berlin wall showed the failure of the Soviet doctrine. Once it was erected, it was only a matter of time before the eastern regime toppled, and a costly re-unification begun. The two Koreas make a similar point. One is affluent, thriving, a substantial player in the world economy. The oppressed North is impoverished to the point of being destitute. In this case, the economic gulf has become so wide, however, that even were the North to become free, the South may wish nothing to do with unification.

Little Brother

While all states have of necessity grown with the techniques they are called upon to manage, democracy has also been able to adapt as it has grown. It is important to realize that democracy depends utterly upon the informed electorate--and modern means of communication are what have kept it informed. When information transfer was slow, the franchise was limited and representative democracy was both appropriate and reasonably efficient. The people's elected representatives would meet and debate the issues and then report back to their segment of the electorate who would then decide whether to keep them in office or send someone else the next time. In such a system, representatives were elected in order to become fully informed decision makers because the electorate could not. They then had to explain the decisions they had made to the less well-informed population at large. The electorate was essentially delegating the process of assessing information, but only to an extent--they expected to be advised and consulted by their representatives. The slowness of information transfer meant that office holders had to be given terms of two to six years in order to ensure mature deliberation and to allow them to be judged on more than a single issue. Meanwhile, as education and economic interests became universal, the once limited franchise did as well, and the base of democracy broadened, first to former slaves, then to women, and finally to some of the economically dependent through the lowering the voting age.

As the next era dawns, the electorate is better educated than ever, and much more capable of fully informing themselves, rather than finding it necessary to delegate this responsibility to representatives. Consequently, people now expect more direct participation in the decision-making process. The information lag time in political matters as in all others has virtually ceased to exist. An obscure Middle East newspaper can publish a paragraph on an arms for hostages deal buried on an inside page one day, and a thousand North American newspapers can pillory the U.S. president over the contents the next day. The bedroom antics and drug habits of each office seeker or holder constitute information available to every household, and disaffected clerks, bodyguards, and secretaries can achieve media fame and fortune by blowing the whistle on their political masters. In the new era, therefore, nothing can be assumed to be a political or personal secret; citizens are fully informable. Among other things, politicians can no longer assume that they have any private life whatever, nor that their ethical standards can be substantially different from those who elect them--without at least the latter's knowledge and implicit consent. This does not force politicians to adopt an absolute code of morality, but it does require them not to deviate much from popular standards.

Another consequence of this information availability is a growing desire to participate directly in decision making rather than simply send representatives to do it. Thus far, as Naisbitt details in Megatrends, this has resulted in greater interest in state or provincial, local, and community affairs, for this is where citizens have direct access to public forums and referenda and thus an immediate influence. There has been a corresponding decrease in interest and voter turnout where national politics are concerned, for these so far present fewer opportunities for such direct participation, and lacking this, people are becoming increasingly alienated from the central government--a dangerous state of affairs in geographically large nations such as Canada and the United States.

In the medium-to-long term, the nature of Western democracies seems likely to change in order to take this informed electorate directly into the decision-making process. At least some national decisions may be made by direct debate and vote of all interested citizens. Many others now handled at the national level might be delegated to state and local governments, reflecting the new realities by reducing central powers.

Still another variation is possible: require potential voters on given issues to qualify by demonstrating both an interest in and a knowledge of the subject--perhaps by reading and participating in the debate preceding the vote. There are now few technical obstacles to such direct decision making, only political and traditional ones. The full facilities of the Metalibrary are not required, only those of a much smaller and more easily implemented political data system. The chief danger of participatory democracy, as opposed to representative democracy, is the one inherent in all situations involving zero-time information flow. They tend to result in instant and therefore ill-considered decisions. The qualifying of an electorate for an issue might cause a sufficient delay to prevent this. Perhaps some classes of decisions will need a constitutionally guaranteed debating period in order to ensure that a resolution will come out of mature deliberation.

At the same time, the internationalization of trade and commerce has had a tendency to create super-states that transcend present national borders. This is already taking place with the European Community, and may one day do so in Southeast Asia. The free trade treaty between Canada and the United States (with later additions of Mexico, Chile, and others to come) could eventually result in the largest international economy in the world, and the Europeans are responding to such initiatives with a greater unity of their own, to prevent becoming subject to North American and Japanese trade domination for years to come. There will no doubt be other such trade zones established, because the benefits of international trade and the harm done by protectionism are manifest. For instance, Asian countries whose economies were badly damaged in the late 1990s might hope to recover by establishing stronger trade organizations of their own.

Despite the necessary internationalization of trade, legislators in some countries may enter into protectionism anyway, for they may be unable to see beyond certain narrow local issues, and they may be prepared to destroy the international economy for years to gain a few years' jobs for one city. It was exactly such behaviour that was one of the chief causes of the great depression of the 1930s. Neither can nationalism be discounted as a factor, and this element may ultimately prevent the traditionally fractious Europeans from achieving unity. As the attacks on the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in the late 1990s illustrate, nationalism is still a potent enough force to doom a treaty deemed to surrender too much sovereignty to a vague and ill-defined internationalism. This suggests that even though such an internationalization might well be in most people's best economic interests, efficiency of technique is not sufficient in itself to guarantee the outcome, and it may not happen for a generation or two, if ever. However, in the long run, it is probably in the best economic interests of all nations to give up some sovereignty and allow fuller and freer international trade to operate. Whether such trade alliances will eventually also result in formal political unity (whether regional or global) may not matter, for the trade alliance itself may become the de facto senior government for most practical purposes.

What do these twin flows of power from the national level to the local one (on the one hand) and to the international one (on the other) mean for the future of the national state? Its office holders could lose personal power and prestige, and nationalism could diminish as a world force. If so, war could also lessen in importance. However, the regional governments that are today's nations would not necessarily vanish, but could serve as local checks and balances on the world economic and political system. The individual voter may have an extended reach of power, for the Metalibrary is capable of promoting the billions of little brothers of the world into the drivers' seat of participatory democracy on a global basis. At the same time, it seems that interest in the governance of the local community will continue to increase, and this could eventually result in the substantial transfer of decision making and taxation powers to this level. If these economic trends were the only factors, the net result could be a gradual diminishing of nationalism in favour of global and local interests. Nationalism as it is known today is largely a creation of the departed agricultural and industrial ages, and it might not be expected that it would necessarily survive far into the next era. On the other hand, the break-up of the former Soviet Union has revealed a great deal of traditional nationalism that had been suppressed through much of this century. Without the Russian threat hanging over their heads, the old/new nations of eastern Europe readily returned to their traditional violent nationalism, ignoring the unifying trends of the information revolution until they could either settle some old scores, or give birth to new citizens whom they could teach to have new priorities.

Note however, that this last comment assumes they might want to teach new priorities or perspectives. It is doubtful ethnic members in the former Yugoslavia do desire this. Those in the Middle East and on the Indian subcontinent who teach hatred to their children in their schools are unlikely to stop doing so any time soon.

There are therefore collectivist and individualist trends in the affairs of state as well as in the operation of the economy. Individuals may become more protective of, more interested in, and more desirous of control over what they regard as their local turf, and if they can achieve this even while participating occasionally in global decisions, they may be as content and as democratic as the citizens of any of today's nations, even though their relationship to the state will have changed dramatically.

In the last two civilizations, the government bureaucracy made most decisions of state, and it can certainly be expected that the civil service will be as much a feature of the next era as of the last. It may, along with other service groups, become more of a professional and managerial cadre. If so, the role of elected political leaders and heads of state might become even more ceremonial in nature than it is now. Whether this subsumption of the political and economic life in a technical one is entirely a good thing or not remains to be seen; but it seems reasonable to suppose that one day it could become no more appropriate to elect the state's managers than to elect its doctors or electricians. One does not need to suppose that such a situation will imply a loss of liberty for individual citizens, nor that it would result in an amorphous technical dictatorship. On the contrary, individual citizens could have more power in local matters as well as input into global policy making.

It should be kept in mind, however, that even though technology both enables such changes and may drive society toward them, they may actually come about only slowly, or not at all. Institutions have a momentum and life of their own, and have a way of surviving in roughly their traditional way--even if in form alone--long after they have outlived their usefulness, or better replacements are available. Such change as does come to Western style democracy may be slow--perhaps almost unnoticeably so, and thus lag far behind the level of enabling technique--there are always many with a vested interest in the status quo.

What is more, change is a fragile thing. The availability of new techniques for better democracy does not mean that these techniques will never be subverted to destroy democracy, for tyranny is always a possibility. Indeed, although information technology appears to reduce the risk of traditional despotism based on fear and ignorance, it also allows for rapid spread of bad ideas along with the good, and so increases the risk of a self-inflicted tyranny based on demagoguery or on oppression of minorities by the majority, or both. Which path (greater freedom or less) will actually be followed depends more on the attitudes and motivations of the peoples of the present democracies than it does on the enabling techniques. It also depends on there still being an ethical consensus-- the social glue that is the basis for the rule of law. If the present infatuation with relativism continues to erode this base, it is difficult to see what basis there would eventually be for government at all.

The Global Struggle

However, it should also be clear that universal availability of information is ultimately the mortal enemy of tyranny. The computer, radio and television, copying machines, and the free press all strike at the heart of regimes like the old Russian statist empire, and it could not long endure in its previous form in the face of such technology. The Chernobyl incident well illustrates this, for it was Western media coverage of satellite photographs that forced the Russian leader to go on television and explain the nuclear accident to his people--an act without precedent in that nation. Even China, with its centuries-old reverence for authority has already transitioned itself from Maoism to a mixed system in which communism is disappearing. Undoubtedly, this process will continue.

The underfed, poorly clothed, and poorly housed billions of the third world can now also see in living colour how the peoples of the industrialized world live. They are ready to accept either democracy or a new tyranny if it means they will get a share of the same material pie. It is entirely possible that as the information age and the participatory democracy it brings, come to Russia and China, their tyranny and state capitalism will be temporarily adopted elsewhere in pre-industrial countries. All this makes for very precarious times, for it is still possible for tyranny to use existing technology to overwhelm democracy, and attempt to abort the information age. Indeed, some degree of international cooperation is needed to continue; several-well placed nuclear explosions in medium orbit would effectively destroy most electronic equipment in the world, and there are a number of nations with such a capability.

Television also makes it possible for a morally conservative third world to pass harsh judgement upon the West for its self-portrayal in this medium (That is, the religious leaders of countries like Iran refer to the United States as "the great Satan" for moral reasons as well as political ones). As such countries grow in power, it is possible to imagine these judgements eventually resulting in new "holy wars" with the goal of bringing the West in line morally. Such conflicts would also serve to maintain tyrannies that promote them in the same way as in the past, for of the support of totalitarianism by the making of war with technology there seems to be no end.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises