Is Modern Communications Technology a Friend or Foe to Liberty?

by Robert Maynard

Robert Higgs of the Independent Institute brought up a subject that I have foind my self on both sided of over the years.  Is modern communications technology a friend or foe to liberty?  Or, as he put it: “Modern Communications Technology—Savior or Soma?”  Below are a few excerpts from his piece:

In recent years, I have noticed that many—seemingly a great majority—of my libertarian friends express an optimistic outlook that sooner or later freedom will triumph against tyranny, even in the United States of America, because of technological developments, especially the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web, along with all the hardware and software that facilitate these means of communication and expand their reach. The idea seems to be, at bottom, that technology in general and these technologies in particular are intrinsically anti-state and pro-freedom. Some people regard them as decisive factors in the struggle for liberty. I have never been persuaded.

The Internet and the Web are obviously employed to some extent for anti-state and pro-freedom purposes. Probably their most important effect is to loosen the state’s hold on information about its leaders, their motives, and their actions, and thereby to speed the spread of truth to greater numbers of people who might otherwise have been taken in by the rulers’ habitual resort to distortions, evasions, cover-ups, and outright lies. Such fabrications have always proved most useful to the U.S. state in its foreign relations and imperial actions, where the matters at issue are out of sight of the great mass of Americans. Because the new technologies of communication are not only powerful—allowing the instant transmission of photos, audio recordings, and video recordings, as well as written texts—but also available worldwide, they have the power to prick the state’s balloons of misrepresentation about events abroad in short order.

Despite these anti-state effects, one must recognize that the state itself has hardly remained mired in ancient technologies while the public embraced the new ones. Drive from Dulles International Airport to Washington, D.C., and peer out at the huge office buildings inhabited in many cases by information technology companies that have put themselves—for a handsome reward, of course—at the disposal of the U.S. government. The rulers have in the past decade added to their longstanding military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC) a comparably vast security-industrial-congressional complex (SICC). Perhaps the individual and small-scale tech wizards working their magic in the non-state backwoods will always remain a step or two ahead of the CSCs, Microsofts, and Oracles; I don’t know enough about technology to speculate on this “IT arms race” in an informed way. I do know, however, that the state is not standing helplessly in place while the pro-freedom people innovate so as to render it toothless.

Higgs then discusses the use of the Internet to spread the ideas of liberty, but sees it as also provinding a form of intellectual/spiritual narcotic he refers to as Soma in reference to Alex Huxley’s “Brave New World:”

Indeed, by providing unlimited means of diverting the public with funny videos, full-length movies, photos of cute cats or of rabbits nursing piglets, porn galore, and all the rest of the “information” transmitted in overwhelming volume by the Internet and the Web, people need never take any interest whatsoever in politics and the state’s shenanigans. What’s it to them? As the saying goes, If they’ve done nothing wrong, they have nothing to worry about. Thus, although the new technologies have the capacity to awaken people—to be more precise, certain sorts of people in certain sorts of circumstances—they also have the capacity to lull billions of people worldwide into a virtual coma of apathy in regard to the state. In the dystopia of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, people were lulled into contentment by popping a soma. Today’s amazing communications technologies, notwithstanding their potential power to aid resistance to the state, may have an even more powerful capacity to serve as the modern state’s soma.

So which is it, friend or foe?  After having been on both sides of this argument over the years, I have come to the conclusion that it is neither.  Modern communication technology is a tool, nothing more, nothing less.  Whether it is a friend or foe to liberty is entirely up to the people.  Liberty requires an educated, vigilant and virtuous citizenry.  In the hands of a virtuous citizenry, communications technology can greatly increase the reach of liberty.  On the other hand, if the citizenry does not possess these qualities, communication technology could serve to hasten to reign of tyranny.