Friday, January 27, 2012

The Politics of Internet Censorship: A Technological Critique

First of all, I just want to point out that the recent protests and other actions in relation to the issue of SOPA/PIPA (bolstered by varying degrees of blackouts on websites like Reddit, Wikipedia, and Google) quite likely amounted to the most politically active day in the history of the world -- in terms of people discussing legislation, issues of free speech, and governmental corruption. Furthermore, we are quite likely to see evermore people championing the cause of free speech (and challenging legal restrictions upon it through loopholes like copyright and trademark). These are very hopeful developments.

However, what I find particularly noteworthy is the kind of information that the government is looking to restrict... namely, access to art. On it's face, there are specious arguments about protecting artists and the profits of the movie and recording industry. These arguments have already been thoroughly dismantled by others -- in terms of artists thriving because of their works being spread and because artists created and thrived before any copyright laws existed. But the underlying issue isn't really about protecting artists -- or even corporatized industries profiting off of them. Rather, I feel, the issue is about the plain censorship of political dissent.
Art, and particularly pop art, has often been used (perhaps counter-intuitively) to draw attention to various political movements and ideas. One might very well argue that putting an artistic work in such political context changes it into a different and unique form which should be protected regardless of what the original purpose might have been for the creation of any particular piece. Even more fundamental is the question of why observing any particular piece of art should be restricted to those who can only pay for access to it. Along these lines, powerfully inspirational and uplifting works of art become restricted in a historically unique manner according to class.

What is even more noteworthy, in my opinion, is why the government is not attempting to restrict the information which could truly be dangerous to humanity. It might be argued that any effort put into restricting access to a Justin Bieber song is effort not being used to prevent the spread of dangerous technologies. I wouldn't trust the government with the responsibility to control either, but the fact that it is so aggressively working to stop the spread of art and not, instead, using those same resources to stop the spread of weapons technology... is revealing. A lot of resources are being used to prevent poor people from downloading a song or film which may be very relevant to their lives, but those resources can not then be used to prevent the spread of information about how to make genetically engineered plagues or other dangerous weapons that are becoming more efficiently manufactured all the time.

Now, I realize it's a slippery slope in terms of censorship, but if a dangerous weaponized technology could be simply manufactured by using an innovative new method... I'd be opposed to that method being broadly distributed (and quite likely opposed to it being distributed at all). Along these lines, I'd go so far as to say that some ideas, some technological techniques, are potentially not safe in anyone's hands -- much less if it's readily available through some worldwide information network. So... when I hear people use the hacker's credo that "information wants to be free," and/or by default that it "should" be free, I feel that they are not considering the truly dangerous potential of certain technological information. Rather, it seems, they are thinking only in terms of art or seemingly helpful technological innovation. This could potentially be a dangerously naive oversight.

This is where the philosophical rub begins... and I hope you will hear me out even if you disagree with me -- because these ideas are evermore rare, and are arguably censored by default due to the nature of the critique they present. This critique is one which is often dismissed out of hand without any further consideration. This critique is, bluntly, a broader critique of technology and the technocracy we live in. You can possibly imagine how such ideas are evermore rare as society becomes more evermore technologically centered and the means of communication are evermore more centered around advanced technological systems. The bias against the critique is inherent in the fact that it is examining our regular personal experience regarding interaction with technology. Psychologically, it presents a situation in which we don't want to acknowledge our own oversights and complicity with a flawed or dangerous idea. So do, please, try to bear with me.

Privately, which is to say off-line, I predicted SOPA would fail and not pass. This is largely because I am familiar with the ideas of Jacques Ellul & Herbert Marcuse. One reason why works of art distributed by computer technology cannot be easily censored in this modern age is because the nature of technology is such that... if art were censored on the internet then that would lessen people's attraction to the Internet overall and thus lead to less progress being made on Internet communications -- and that, in turn, would hinder the development of other technological endeavors. It is the underlying and implicit logic of the technological system which works to prevent the so-called cutting edge from being blunted in any real way.

The nature of the technological system is to snowball in terms of constantly building upon itself and even merging previously unrelated fields. Simultaneously, the mass of humanity becomes evermore reliant on the technological systems being maintained. For example, genetic engineering and chemistry now play a huge role in agriculture which previously might have been unimagined and, at the same time, the masses become evermore dependent upon agriculture. The issue however, the real problem with this perpetuation, is that technology has started to become perpetuated and advanced for it's own sake -- rather than for the sake of humanity. It might even be argued that the reason the human population has become so large is for the purpose of advancing technology. And, thereby, the system we have created has trapped us and is now in control. The bigger problem, ironically, is that increasing numbers of technological creations potentially threaten human existence.

Not only is humanity threatened by technological advancement in very direct ways (both overtly by means of modern weaponry and more subtly by the accompanying environmental degradation), but our psychological bias, and our philosophical conditioning, readily prevents us from truly acknowledging these threats and working to stem their advancement. Furthermore, we fail to see the dangers presented by cross-disciplines working together in previously unimagined ways. In this manner even seemingly innocuous research can often end up working for overtly dangerous technological advancement. Albert Einstein himself is a good example in this regard because his seemingly benign research could never have originally been predicted to lead us into the dangers of the nuclear age. And yet... that's precisely what use his research was put to. I often find it telling that the most intelligent people in our modern technological society are often considered to be the rocket scientists, or nuclear physicists, or genetic engineers. And yet... these are the very people who arguably put us in the most danger as a species and actually threaten our continued existence.

Bringing things back to the government's attempts at censoring Internet communications, these attempts are not necessarily sincere -- although that may seem counter-intuitive. As politicians in the United States are effectively technocrats (insomuch as they generally sponsor and promote technological advancements) this supposed threat to the Internet is actually just another way for them to be rewarded by the system which they otherwise incessantly promote. The threat garners them more incentives from lobbyists to change their supposed positions. Or, in terms of the technological system reifying itself, it might be seen that these attempts at hindering Internet technologies actually produce more staunch proponents of it within the broader masses. In either of these potential scenarios the technological system actually ends up stronger -- by either rewarding its true proponents, creating a broader base of proponents, or both.

Also possibly counter-intuitive is the fact that the virtual protest, with various sites shutting down or blacking out in some manner, should inspire this critique of the very system which the proponents of the protest strongly support. Maybe that's just ironic, but I feel those sites being down naturally inspires some of us to generally to think more deeply about what those sites are for and to what ends they exist.

It should be noted that while the online protest against censorship was about freedom of speech, but the threats posed by technology, including computer technologies, threaten a more fundamental freedom -- the freedom to exist. That may sound like hyperbole to those in denial, but much in the process of creating the Internet is environmentally destructive. The Internet also serves to largely perpetuate broader consumerism and it makes convenient the development of other technologies without discretion -- regardless of the dangers they may present. A lot of the supposed good enabled by the Internet might be trumped if it facilitates enough consumeristic destruction or if it enables destructive individuals to create highly destructive weapons. (To those who still may not acknowledge the environmental devastation brought about by consumerism, I feel obliged to point out that many of the materials we use in the modern world are manufactured with toxic methods, perhaps after some strip-mining, and often end up in the landfills or the pacific garbage gyre. And, indeed, the power needed to manufacture and operate many of our devices relies overwhelmingly on fossil fuels or the production of nuclear waste. But even so-called "sustainable" energy sources merely maintain the other destructive aspects of the consumeristic process.)

Another possibility to consider is that concepts of human freedom have become so seemingly intertwined with the freedom of technology that a threat to the latter is a threat to both (at least to some degree in some instances). This might be considered a more tech-positive position, on the face of it, but it might behoove us to look at the further implications of this angle. That is to say... just because we are dependent upon technology does not mean that it is developing into areas that truly meet our needs. Some level of technology is undoubtedly needed to maintain the current human population, but to the extent that it subtly and effectively works to increase our population to unsustainable levels, or to the extent that it presents evermore existential threats, when do we consider stemming any aspects of technological progress (so-called)? And, if Pandora's box must be closed at all, must it not realistically be closed completely lest the underlying potential of disaster remain?

When it comes down to it, we may find that the net effect of our technological system, generally and overall, is to our detriment. And, while that presents a daunting problem, the bigger risk may not be in the consequences of stemming technological progress (even by what might be deemed censorship in some cases), but, rather, what the final consequences will be if our technological society is allowed to continue in even seemingly benign ways. As it is, however, our society continues to stand behind general technological advancement with little real consideration of the repercussions. And while we defend our human rights to spread information freely, we are inclined to ignore any negative repercussions of that process.

I know these ideas will prove distasteful and controversial to some. But I am merely raising the issues and presenting a potential paradox. I am not sure what can effectively be done in regard to these issues. Any sort of Luddism these days is largely relegated to science fiction or fringe actions which often only deal with one technological aspect. The roots of any problems humanity may have in connection with a technological mindset will undoubtedly prove to run deep. In all likelihood, I expect that the technological system will simply eat itself and some large portion of humanity will go along with it. And I am not inclined to believe that any of us will necessarily survive like the characters in some post-apocalyptic film which the movie industry wants to limit access to.

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