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“Freedom” and “Technology” are not the same word (two shared letters does not a synonym make)

The increasing availability of ever-more-impressive technology proves an opportunity for many people, from a vast range of ideological perspectives, to contemplate what these new machines will mean for society. Thusly the term “freedom” becomes bandied about with increasing frequency in technological contexts, even as the many groups making use of this f-word obfuscate instead of presenting what they truly mean by the term.

At risk of being crude, the labor historian who views factory machines and the libertarian praising 3D-printers may both couch their views in a discussion of “freedom” but they do not mean the same thing when they use the term.

Such is in clear evidence in J.D. Tuccille’s recent posting at reason.com (“free minds and free markets”) titled “In the Fight for Freedom, Technology Gives Individuals an Edge Over Governments” with the slightly chilling subtitle “A cold civil war brews between empowered individuals and controlling officials.” The title of the piece alone gives one pause, and invoking “a cold civil war” is a masterstroke of hyperbolic attention getting (my original plan had been to write a response to a recent Reason piece titled “Were the Luddites Right” [an article that—as is no surprise—uses the Luddites as technophobic bogeymen]). Indeed our personal definitions of “freedom” make it hard to resist articles trumpeting the “fight for freedom,” even as we remind ourselves that we may have a very different definition of the term than the authors of a given article (as may you and I [oh, dear reader] may have very different definitions of the term as well).

The argument that Tuccille presents is what one would logically expect to find from a mainstream Libertarian publication (which Reason magazine is [though it has some clearly conservative overtones]). In Tuccille’s view the US government (and certain other world governments) are out to control and they are doing more and more to regiment the economic and social lives of the citizenry, thus technology provides a way for “empowered individuals” to (you guessed it) “fight for freedom.” Digital encryption, Bitcoins, and 3D-printers are all the tools that will allow the combatants in the new “cold civil war” to fight back against government overreach. After praising these new technologies Tuccille concludes with gusto:

“Governments have always attempted to monitor and direct the people under their control. Now new technologies are giving individuals ever-more power to ignore and defy their rulers. If current trends continue, the future may be populated by frustrated governors and ungovernable individuals.”

Tuccille makes many a good point. You need not agree with all of his premises to recognize that encryption can help protect against governmental snooping, you need not be obsessed with currency fluctuations to find Bitcoins interesting, and you need not want your very own 3D printed gun (more on that here) to recognize that 3D-printers are a fascinating development. In the article Tuccille casts the situation as one in which a person’s attitude towards such devices determines:

“the side you’ve chosen in the cold civil war.”

And thus, Tuccille falls victim to binary “1s and 0s” thinking, which undercuts his argument by failing to properly allow for nuance when his argument desperately needs some After all, finding 3D printed weaponry concerning does not mean that one supports governmental tyranny, it means that one finds 3D printed weaponry concerning.

Yet the main weakness that harms Tuccille’s discussion of technology and freedom is one that is common across many political ideologies when discussing technology, though in Tuccille’s piece it is given a (expectedly) Libertarian spin. The government, Tuccille warns, is out to repress its citizens ever more and he calls upon the specter of Orwell’s Big Brother to bolster his view. In this way Tuccille is a compatriot of Google’s Eric Schmidt whose recent writings about technology and authoritarianism (more on that here [even more on that here]) cast a world in which the government will use technology as a repressive force even as citizens will use the technology to resist.

It’s not a completely incorrect argument, technology does provide citizens new ways to resist, but to see only the opportunities for resistance is a dangerous oversimplification. It may be tempting to look to the recent order by the US Department of Defense Trade Controls which forced Defense Distributed to take down the files for their 3D guns (read about this here) as evidence of the government gone Orwellian; and it might therefore be tempting to take solace in knowing that it matters little as the files have already been downloaded thousands of times. But it is deceptive to view this as technology having given citizens an edge, when it just means they’ve been downloaded a computer file that is now harder to get.

I cannot be sure if the staff at Reason are big fans of the author of Eclipse of Reason, but Max Horkheimer provides a useful rejoinder to Tuccille’s arguments. As Horkheimer once said:

“Anyone who does not wish to talk about capitalism, however, should also keep quiet on the subject of fascism.”

For many a Libertarian (and some other political persuasion) the government seems to be moving daily closer to some form of fascism/Stalinism/totalitarianism/authoritarianism and yet the solution presented by Reason is…capitalism. Granted, this is to be expected from a publication with the tag line “Free Minds and Free Markets.” The “freedom” granting technologies that Tuccille so praises are portrayed as the market based solutions to governmental overreach. In such a view the horrid repressive “freedom” crushing bureaucracy of the government must be countered by the enlightened benevolent “freedom” inspiring openness of the market. After all, the government is elected (that is a topic for another time) by the misguided masses whilst the market is driven by the Randian “empowered individuals.”

Don’t laugh. Really.

If a Libertarian reading of technology views the government as a repressive bureaucracy it must be willing to ask: are the bureaucracies that create technology necessarily superior? Might they not be equally repressive? Those who fear governmental snooping may (with good reason) feel anxious about the ways that the government may watch its citizenry, but who knows more about the American people at the moment: the government or Google? Who has assembled a bigger dossier mapping out our inter-human connections: the government or Facebook/Twitter? Or to return to the Horkheimer quote, if you are going to express concern about the repressiveness of government you should keep in mind the social and economic system that the government helps maintain.

To this point the counter could be offered that Bitcoin, Defense Distributed (they of the blueprints for 3D guns) and similar services, and their digital kin are small groups, not behemoths like the major telecoms. It’s a fair counter, and yet the problem when contemplating “freedom” and the Internet, must start at a further remove. How does one get to a website to download blueprints from Defense Distributed? How does one purchase Bitcoins? Through a device that was manufactured by a major corporation (most likely). If you are accessing your “freedom” granting sources through a PC, then your “freedom” is only the “freedom” allowed by Microsoft or Apple or another company (Linux is obviously different [but still, who manufactured the computer?]).

“Freedom” granted by technology is impure; it is mediated freedom. “Freedom” brought to you by Apple, “freedom” brought to you by Microsoft, etc…If you’re relying on a huge corporation to give you access to Freedom, it might just be “freedom.”  It’s really just consumerism with the word “freedom” painted on it, and at any moment the supplying corporation may make use of turpentine to wash the word away.

There are numerous problems with government (to put it mildly), though I recognize that Tuccille and I might have very different ideas as to what those problems are. Yet the US government, for all of its faults, is at least moderately more responsive and responsible to the public than major corporate forces. They are generally, woefully, insufficient but citizens have more avenues for recourse against the government than they do against violations by corporations. When the government illegally spies on you there are things that can be done, when Google spies on you…well…it’s just being Google. While Google may be responsible to its shareholders this is the responsibility of “making money” and there is money to be made in violating the privacy of the citizenry. It isn’t about Defense Distributed, it’s about the companies that make and sell 3D printers.

Encryption, Bitcoins, 3D gun schematics, all can potentially provide individuals with tools to resist, but they also ensure that accessing these sites leaves behind a data trail, one that the government may dream of tracking, but one that numerous telecoms already are actively tracking. The “cold civil war” that Tuccille envisions is not one between the government and a brave misunderstood band of empowered entrepreneurs; it isn’t even between the government and the large information devouring companies; rather it is between the rival information companies who are fighting to gather the most information and best monetize it.

The “freedom” that emerges in such a situation is the “freedom” of all to be violated and exploited, and “all” includes the “empowered individuals” who think that Encryption, Bitcoins, and 3D guns will save them. Such blind faith in technology as a savior is woefully misguided and places a disproportionate level of confidence in a caste of technological ubermenschen whose commitment is to their own fortunes not “freedom.”

Discussing the topic of “freedom” with Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer remarked:

“Freedom is not the freedom to accumulate, but the fact that I have no need to accumulate.”

It is a shame to conflate tawdry technophilic tropes like amassing digital money and plastic print out guns with a concept as vital as freedom. I doubt that Tuccille and I would define “freedom” in the same way, which is fine, but a form of freedom that sees in the government a bogeyman and in unbridled technological capitalism a savior is the idea of “freedom” clung to by a prisoner who would hear the rattling of their chains if only they could pry themselves away from the computer screen where they busily sit buying Bitcoins and downloading schematics for 3D printable weapons.

Books Quoted:

The Max Horkheimer quote (the one about freedom) can be found on page 23 of:
Towards a New Manifesto – Adorno and Horkheimer – Verso 2011

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

3 comments on ““Freedom” and “Technology” are not the same word (two shared letters does not a synonym make)

  1. T E Stazyk
    May 12, 2013

    Wonderfully thought-provoking. Thanks!

    But I think you are too kind to Tuccille. One, capital flows to where it will theoretically be used most efficiently, and being technologically empowered via a Twitter account is not going attract a lot of capital flows. Two. Don’t governments set and own encryption keys and standards. And also regulate telecommunications, etc. I think it would be easier to run an underground printing press than a blog, etc. that the government really didn’t like.

  2. Pingback: Hit Print and Pull the Trigger | LibrarianShipwreck

  3. Pingback: The Technologenie! You Can’t Wish away 3D-printers | LibrarianShipwreck

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