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Dostoevsky once wrote that “in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us.'” His prophecy is relevant when examining the modern Information Age — a dark, corporate-controlled society predicted by such artistic legends as Bruce Sterling, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and William Gibson–and is the focus of this article.
We want to be part of this information environment and feel more empowered with each new gadget, service, or digital connection in our lives. The concept of “information everywhere” provides instant gratification to satisfy our needs for books, music, porn, and digital interaction with others through web searches, e-commerce, wireless, instant messaging, e-mail, and streaming content over broadband. High-speed links enable organizations to operate around the world at light speed and conduct business on a twenty-four hour clock. The sun never sets in the Information Age; we are always plugged into the global matrix of the information domain. We’re addicted to it and constantly awash in a sea of electronic stimuli.
Yet as we rush to embrace the latest and greatest gadgetry or high-tech service and satisfy our techno-craving, we become further dependent on these products and their manufacturers–so dependent that when something breaks, crashes, or is attacked, our ability to function is reduced or eliminated. Given the frequent problems associated with the Information Age–loosing internet connections, breaking personal digital assistants, malicious software incidents, or suffering any number of recurring problems with software or hardware products, we should take a minute to consider whether we’re really more or less independent–or empowered–today than we think, knowing that how we act during such stressful periods is similar to a heroin junkie’s actions during withdrawal.
Technology, like gambling and heroin, is addictive. We’re driven or forced into buying new gadgets and constantly upgrading our technology for any number of reasons, both real and perceived, and feel uncomfortable without our latest “fix.” Corporations love this because once we accept and begin using their products or services, the dependency is formed and they essentially own our information–and subsequently, society and us. Their proprietary lock on our collective information means they can force us to spend money and upgrade on their schedule and not when we truly need–or can afford–to do so, regardless of whether or not we need the latest features, and regardless of the consequences that may haunt us down the road.
But unlike many other industries from the Industrial Age and the heroin dealers, high-tech corporations are in a unique position to determine–and force–us addicts to spend money while relinquishing our rights to seek recourse for damages arising from their faulty products no matter what pain we must endure during our period of indentured servitude and addiction to their problematic technologies. In some cases, particularly in mainstream operating systems, software, and internet-based services, it’s one step short of blackmail. We all certainly can’t go cold turkey very easily, although some may try and succeed.
To make things worse, government practically has outsourced the oversight and definition of technology-based expression and community interaction to for-profit corporations and secretive industry-specific cartels (e.g., the MPAA, RIAA, SIA, BSA, ICANN) who have wasted no time in rewriting the rules for how they want our information-based society to operate according to their interests, not ours. At times, you might even say we’ve voluntarily imprisoned ourselves under the control of profit-seeking wardens who have little if any real oversight or accountability for their actions. Our high-tech heroin dealers are not only promoting and profiting from their product but developing the laws and methods to govern and regulate its use while protecting themselves from any negative side-effects and ensuring their revenue stream.
Whether it is our ability to share available creative products according to existing laws, bring to market new creative works, establish an identity in cyberspace, or otherwise exchange digital information, these groups–with well-funded (read: purchased) government approval–have declared themselves the overlords of their industry-specific fiefdoms that comprise the Information Age. Each industry and vendor wants to assert their proprietary technical and legal authority over who does what, when, how, and under what conditions with their products and services, even if their profiteering desires are incompatible with our law-abiding ones. And if their efforts to maintain law and order according to their proprietary technical standards or legal trickery fail, they can always turn things over to the federal government for action as a backup plan.
Combining these perverts of profit with the fickle, often-ignorant nature of our elected lawmakers has produced an Information Age where the rights and abilities of the individual don’t matter. Neither does facilitating society’s evolution by allowing it to take maximum advantage of technology’s capabilities for its collective benefit. Or reality. Today, what matters is only how much money and freedom people are willing (or forced) to pay (or sacrifice) to their corporate masters for the privilege of living within the various information-based fiefdoms provided for them to generate revenue.
The Information Age will not be remembered by the fun, high-flying and overwhelmingly feel-good Dot Com days despite the ongoing presence of Dot Com-developed technologies. Rather, the Information Age will be remembered as a period when 12-year old girls from New York slums, senior citizens, and innovative college students are harrassed by greedy cartels seeking to scare their future customers into submission; when the profit goals of high-tech vendors determine how client businesses and people are organized and interact; when everyone is presumed a potential criminal until proven otherwise according to oppressive industry-defined criteria; when a once-awesome revolution in global communications became converted into a cesspool of unsolicited and offensive marketing messages; when knowing how to do something that’s illegal is just as illegal as actually doing something that’s illegal; when the legal protections over freedom of speech are trumped to preserve corporate secrets or marketshare while hiding vulnerabilities that endanger the public; when our lives are monitored and dissected by marketing firms looking for the best way to sell us things we don’t need or want; and when technology’s promise and alluring capabilities are used to surreptitiously entrap and willingly imprison members of the information-age society instead of truly empowering them.
Dostoevsky was way ahead of his time.
RICHARD FORNO is a security technologist and author of “Weapons of Mass Delusion: America’s Real National Emergency.” His home in cyberspace is at http://www.infowarrior.org/.