The Internet, Global Governance, and the Surveillance State in a Post-Snowden World (The Internet is Not Your Friend, Get Over It)

[This essay presents the issues without the spin and hyperbole common to most partisan and ideologically biased commentary. –PR]

Mike Gurstein’s “Post Script” is a good summary of the essay:

The dilemma of how to respond to the Snowden revelations–the loss of innocence with respect to the Internet, the very real threat of a totalized Surveillance (and Command and Control) Society–is a very real and immediate one.

Unfortunately none of the approaches so far being suggested seem capable of dealing with the realities which are being faced.

Challenges to these actions on the basis of existing laws (or constitutional guarantees) seem to be countered by processes of legalization and revision of constitutional interpretation (and very much depend on the existence of an enforceable rule of law which in some national jurisdictions at least seems questionable).

Arguments that current grassroots initiatives might scale sufficiently to present a form of counter-power or alternative technology/techno-social structures seem highly optimistic at best (open for example to intervention and manipulation as they might become successful and an apparent threat).

Technical solutions concerning encryption and structuring/restructuring of existing infrastructures appear dependent on the active involvement of significant technical and corporate bodies/individuals who to this point have been either complacent or even complicit in the developments noted above.

The development of broad framework agreements towards governing the Internet and the broad technical and telecommunications infrastructure are seen by many as quite unrealistic, however, they might provide the only realistic hope.  Their significance would be not so much in the capacity to enforce these agreements (the incapacity of existing of oversight and control structures in the face of political force, technology drive, personal and corporate interests and collective insecurities are not such as to lead to a great of optimism in this direction).  Rather their significance would come through the process of their formulation as nations and their citizenries globally would need to be confronted with the quite stark choice of acceptance of a Surveillance (and Command and Control) State or of a rule of law enforced through transparency and democratic oversight.  –Mike Gurstein

 

Related PRA 2.0 posts:

Gurstein's Community Informatics

Much has been made of the role that the Internet is playing in restructuring the way in which governance is executed both at the national and the global levels. The role of the Internet in supporting the rise of wide-spread autocrat-challenging movements in the Arab world, the role of the Internet in enabling middle class protests against out of touch officials and political structures in democracies, the power of the Internet to sway elections and directly influence policies are all obvious and widely commented upon.

Equally significant is the role of the Internet in creating global initiatives and global consciousness in a variety of areas–in supporting global movements in civil society; in making borders largely irrelevant in the transmission of information–importantly including images and direct communications; in allowing for the extremely low cost and largely frictionless sharing of experiences, good practices and how to’s in the whole range of areas…

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Externalizing Reality

In economic theory, an externality is any cost or benefit not accounted for in a calculation of profit or loss. Classic examples are the cost of pollution not included in the price of a manufactured product, the death of coal miners not included in the price of electricity, and the cost of mass murder or the little matter of global warming not included in the price of oil and gasoline.

Economic externalities are only a small subset of a more general category I call cognitive externalities–anything that is filtered out of our mental picture of the world around us.

We all externalize parts of reality, not because they are unknowable, but because they are unpleasant or inconvenient. That is the principal basis of all our corruption, all our dis-enlightenment. We all do it. Its in our DNA. But the costs or consequences of externalities in economic models or in any other domain of reality, are disproportionately borne by the poor and powerless. One of the worst examples of externalized reality is this: despite some remnants of local color from country to country, the new world order is a global East India Company with helicopter gunships. A Martian anthropologist studying the last five thousand years or so of human history would have to conclude that the primary industry of our species is conducting mass murder for profit and that the masses, even in the dominant cultures, have all devolved into cargo cults.

If cargo cults are mentioned in anyone’s personal library of mental narratives they probably take the form of a story about the peculiar behavior of small numbers of black natives somewhere on the coast of Africa in some prior century. Am I the only person with a story in her head about how that same behavior shows through in all of us under the euphemistic label of “consumerism”?

People live by stories. Each person’s head holds a library of short and long narratives and we pull one off the shelf that fits something about any particular situation or circumstance we meet from moment to moment. Too often these stories are on the level of children’s picture books, suggesting simple but wrong solutions to complex problems or situations. Most of us have stories about history that are wrong, stories about our families that are wrong, stories about nature that are wrong, and stories about ourselves that are wrong. And anything that doesn’t exist in the current active mental story, right or wrong, is externalized from a person’s reality in that moment.

Sometimes, reality is externalized on purpose. The principle weapon of special interests today is information asymmetry, a simple idea (better known to most of us as fraud, deception, marketing, public relations, spin, infotainment, etc.) that won a Nobel Prize for economics. This has resulted in a vast and thriving industry of disinformation and information pollution that corrupts and perverts every institution of society. But by far the most destructive lies are the ones we tell ourselves.

Our addiction to self delusion is encouraged and enabled by a liar’s code. If you don’t unmask me I won’t defrock you. Popes, presidents, senators, CEO’s, teachers, and parents set the example for one and all.

Of course there is such a thing as an ethical (justified) lie, a lesser evil than some dire alternative, but self deception dissolves sanity itself. Identity itself becomes externalized. Self awareness fails and then, as Yeats said, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” This is the truly unpardonable sin. But it won’t be avoided by force of will, strength of character, or high moral ideals. Our cognitive deformity, self-delusion, settled upon us by evolution, will be undone not by willpower, for which humanity is not noted, but mostly by wit, art and innovation–things we are good at.

The opposite of the unpardonable sin of self deception is liberation from self-imposed delusion–especially delusions about ourselves. The ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and look clearly at uncomfortable facts is the essence of authentic enlightenment. It was inscribed on the entrance of the ancient Greek Temple of the Oracle at Delphi: “Know Thyself.”

Externalizing inconvenient reality (sometimes called denial, self deception, willful ignorance, or preserving cognitive consonance) is a coping mechanism. I would never suggest that we discard a coping mechanism without replacing the truly protective parts of it with something new. In fact with many, many new things.

The Greeks knew what they didn’t know (self-knowledge) but their philosophical methods were empirically weak. Today we know how to come by that knowledge–by the scientific method. We must discover and invent new cognitive prophylactics and prosthetics not as Sir Thomas Moore invented Utopia or as Reagan-era bean counters invented “Trickle-Down Economics”, but as Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin: with all the real working parts. We need a science and technology of cognitive hygiene and end-to-end information quality control. Despite living in an “age of science,” we still mostly resort to authority and reputation to judge the quality of information. I guess there are many reasons that “fact checking” remains in the dark ages. Information Quality Management is fine for database administrators, but we human beings reserve the right to our own facts, just as we reserve the right to mate with the worst possible partner. Still, without surrendering such rights, it might be nice if the scientific/academic community devoted more effort to producing a science and technology of information quality assurance that we could consult or ignore at our own risk.

In addition to empirical knowledge, like that which we might gain from brain signals, functional MRI pictures, or implicit association tests, enlightenment grows from coaching and practice with the object of re-engineering faulty parts of the operating system of the brain. Unlike genetic engineering, it requires exercise and training much as any physical, athletic ability.

I’m not drumming up a utopia built on some cult of cognitive science. But we MUST discover alternative practical means to protect ourselves from that suffering which we seek to evade by externalizing reality. As we do, we may find that workable solutions to nearly every other problem and crisis are already on the table.

Poor Richard

“The Beginning of Wisdom 3.0”

“The Enlightenment 2.0″

“The Inner Hunchback”

“Is Spiritual the New Supernatural?”

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