TEXT THE CASBAH
Digital technology can be used to repress people as well as to help free them. This simple truth is overlooked by those who breathlessly herald the power the internet to change the world.
The beauty of history is the way it confounds predictions. No-one anticipated the peaceful revolutions which swept Easter Europe in 1989, though reading the histories of the Cold War as they unfurl there now seems an inevitability about the fall of communism that was far from apparent among opinion formers at the time. This calls for some humility as we ponder the waves of unrest sweeping through the Arab world today. Who knows where it will lead, if at all? The popular protest which removed Hosni Mubarak from power has left military control over the country firmly entrenched. Elections are promised, but will they result in new forms of civil society which curtail the vice like grip the army has over the economy? Many predictions are based on the experience of 1989 but the differences are too great to be sure there will be lasting parallels.
There is a new dimension to the protests which we have not witnessed before: digital communications. The role these play in civil unrest was first recognised in the so-called 2009 ‘Twitter revolution’ in Iran following the dubious re-election of President Ahmadinejad. The ability of the population to harness nimble technology to organise protests in real time was viewed as a harbinger of democracy. In the lazy way we have of reporting instant history, Twitter and Facebook are accepted as guarantors of a new order of freedom in oppressed countries. There are two problems with this. The first, researched by Evgeny Morozov in his book ‘The Net Delusion’, suggests that Twitter was much less prevalent in the Tehran protests than breathless cyber-utopians would have us believe. The second is that a revolution failed to take root in Iran. I would be delighted to be proven wrong on this in the near future but if I am, it won’t be because Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook.
We need to take a cool look at the ethics of new technology. The idea that it must inexorably produce a harvest of righteousness misreads both history and theology. The invention of the telephone predated the most barbarous century in human history and the gains of the industrial revolution were then put to ghastly uses by cruel people. Those who claim the digital revolution will inaugurate a new world overlook the fact that technology is both designed and put to use by sinful people. The very paths that enable people to organise protests quickly and intelligently can also be accessed by secret police to give them a trail of people to arrest. This is power beyond the wildest dreams of their twentieth century predecessors. For now, Silicon Valley has pioneered most advances in digital technology and even these inventors have shown scant regard for the privacy of users. What happens when oppressive regimes get up to speed on new software? And there are many signs they are.
The digital world is developing unprecedented and awesome power to invade privacy. It is naïve to think this will always be used for good. It is equally simplistic to assume that new technology is value free and should be acclaimed uncritically. Software is designed by human beings, with all their flaws, and it shows. This calls for a more critical scrutiny of new designs and our hope should be that a Christian perspective may play a part in this.
Thirty years ago the punk band The Clash told a story in their lyrics to ‘Rock the Casbah’ of a ban on rock music by an Arab ruler trying, but failing, to restrict perilous western influences. In this spirit, cyber-utopians sometimes assume revolution is only a cascading text away. Digital technology is penetrating deeply and quickly into our way of life, but history suggests it can only help to facilitate change, at best. At worst, it may shore up reactionary governments. Seeing technology as merely part of a web of flawed human relationships is a first step to using it more wisely.
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