You are viewing rexzilla

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Letting the cat out of the bag

It's kinda hard to run an oppressive Communist state. All the past regimes have had to establish extensive ministries for censorship, 'ideological purity' and in general, a massive secret police infrastructure. East Germany was the best example, with the Stasi having around half a million personnel, both employees and informers. The reason is simple - a system that goes against the basic desire of every human being to look out for their own self interest is bound to fail. After all you don't find the US forcing people to read Adam Smith. Hence you had 'political officers' who were installed in every organization, be it a factory, the army or even a housing society cooperative. Their job was to snoop on the daily lives of the people and report any form of dissent. There are stories of how Red Army troops in WW2 were more terrified of the NKVD commissars attached to their units than of the Germans - because they would be shot if they retreated despite lacking supplies/ammunition.It was even more insidious in East Germany, with citizens being spied on by their own family and neighbors. The award winning film The lives of others chillingly illustrates the sort of power the Stasi wielded over the common people there.

Now running such an operation costs money. Loads of it. Salaries have to be paid, spying apparatus has to be bought/stored/maintained, records have to be kept...
In short, people are being paid to snoop on telephone conversations, record them on paper, attach microphone bugs around apartments, capture and take dissidents to prisons etc. Today China does the same thing, employing a huge number of people to spam message boards with pro government propaganda, to maintain the Great Firewall, and also presumably to knock down the doors of malcontents in the dead of night and cart them off somewhere for 're-education'. None of these activities are in any way economically productive. Small wonder such a system becomes top heavy, inefficient and eventually collapses under its own weight as was seen with the Communist bloc.

Imagine instead, a system where people voluntarily disclose reams of information about themselves, their social interactions with others, their likes and preferences for different products, their political and religious views. Oh wait.
I'm sure retired KGB and Stasi personnel must be shaking their heads and wishing they had had this level of access to information back in the day. Why employ people to listen in on conversations and hide bugs in apartments if there had been something like Facebook back then? Already law enforcement and intelligence agencies are starting to use social media to find out more about people of interest to them.

Another point to note - technological progress is inexorable. Take the commonly touted idea of installing closed circuit TV cameras in public places for 'security'. Currently all CCTV systems require a human being to sit bleary eyed in front of the screen and watch for suspicious activity. It is time consuming and tedious, and it's extremely rare that crimes have been averted by CCTV. Rather, they serve for post mortem analysis, to look for suspects after the crime has occurred. At the same time however, work continues on real time image recognition and processing, and robots are learning to interpret gestures and body language. The day is not far when CCTVs will be monitored by sophisticated programs that can instantly match faces in a crowd from a database of perps in real time, or even identify suspicious behavior. Towards that day, present CCTV systems continue to archive and store thousands of hours of footage. It's a short step from using this only to hunt criminals to keeping watch on all citizens all the time. After all, the only constraint now is processing power and algorithms. Once these problems are solved and the cat is let out of the Pandora's box, to mix metaphors, there's no going back.

The best sort of cage is one that's invisible, and gives you the illusion of freedom. Welcome to the Matrix, though it's quite different from what we might have thought it would be.