Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
– C.S. Lewis
It's hard to stay away from politics talk right now.
This modest newsletter is supposed to be about cyberpunk and 80s sci-fi action movies. Well you know what?
You're living in one.
The question of freedom is front and center on everyone's mind because technology has enabled
Shenanigans on a global scale which would have been unheard of even 20 years ago
I grew up believing that I lived in a free country. That we each had the opportunity to live how we wanted, within reasonable limits to make sure others had that same chance.
The world disillusioned me on that years ago.
Teachers forcing you to conform to the the brainless rules of a bureaucratic school system. Police yelling at you like you set a man on fire for violating a trivial part of the county vehicle code. Politicians bought off by the biggest donors, spitting all over the rule of law, in plain sight, while the media plays favorites.
It's enough to make you sick. And that was before the Great Virus Fiasco of 2020.
Whatever trajectory we're on now, it's hard not to see it as anything less than a total paradigm shift transforming our whole way of life.
Even if we aren't heading toward a wall at full throttle – a proposition I cannot reject – we're living through one of those once-in-a-lifetime upsets.
Today the question of freedom is not a toothless philosophical puzzle. It's got real tangible consequences.
The major threat right now is not totalitarian governments
State actors are involved in this, but they're only a piece of a larger picture.
I don't think we even have the right concepts yet to express what's going on politically. In the US at least the language is still centered in the Left-Right divide, which is still sort of true -- though neither one of those terms means in 2021 what it would have meant in 1960.
The Boomer ranting on about communism and socialism is living 50 years out of date. He's on to something, mind you, although he doesn't have the words to express it with the necessary clarity and lucidity.
What we've got here is a situation entirely new and strange. You can read the fingerprints of Fascism and NatSoc and Stalinism in it. But the cutting edges of the 1920s political theory won't cut it here in the 2020s.
History rhymes, it doesn't repeat.
There are a few canaries chattering about the weird smell in this coal mine, but so far they are fringe voices (not to mention impenetrable writers)
To sum it up in a statement...
The threat to freedom is not from any 20th century "-ism"
If you haven't already read them, you might want to have a look back at my recent writings on self-organizing systems and cybernetics:
The threat is from technology. Technology which:
- Dehumanizes people, transforming them metaphorically and in some cases literally into robots
- Allows for emotional manipulation and narrative construction at scale
- Destroys the possibility for a single Truth by replacing it with 10 billion 'micro truths' and shattering any hope of authority or agreement
- Enables shadowy forces and sinister agents to enact their hidden agendas from the safety of the ivory tower and the anonymous public bureaucracy
The new information network technologies grant the power to shape individual minds and regulate behaviors across whole societies.
The keen-eyed will ask a great question: Grant that power to whom?
I don't believe there's an answer to that.
If you read the above and imagined to yourself anonymous men in black suits in a smoke-filled room, pulling levers on the Vast Global Network while rubbing their hands in glee, you've got the wrong idea.
Network technologies are mechanized intelligence.
The whole point is to take human decision-makers out of the loop.
The major push right now to join information & communication to new leaps in AI, in the cognitive sciences, and in the sciences of the brain all has the goal of...
Taking the pilot out of this ship
Humans are involved in the loops, of course. Humans have to show up at the office and push the buttons and follow the rule books and read all the memos.
But how many humans plugged into the machinery of bureaucracy have any free will?
How many "decision makers" at the top of the organizations can influence real choice?
Power to act is not the same thing as the freedom to act.
The more that society organizes itself like a machine...
The less freedom humans have even in positions of power
The machine trucks on no matter what the starry-eyed change-making reformer wants to happen.
We humans, we're simple creatures in some ways. We grow up living with other humans, we see faces in clouds... so we naturally want to see human fingerprints behind every event.
Even in politics, even in vast economic swings that no human could possibly understand, much less influence, we want...
Someone to blame
You can't blame the machine. How many times have you seen -- just this past year -- decisions made and actions taken where nobody was responsible?
The guy at the top isn't accountable because he didn't get out there and do it.
The guy at the bottom can't be held to account because he was just following orders and doesn't want the boss on his back.
The guy in the middle is just the messenger, he can't do anything about it.
And the machine trucks on.
Fortunately, we're still some time off from real invasive neurotechnology wired into your skull, even though Elon is trying his hardest.
The threats right now are more subtle than cyborg implants
1. Mass media mind-control
Copywriters, marketers, and salesmen understand more than anyone how words and images can influence a person's mental state, using techniques of mass persuasion, propaganda, PR, and plain-old thought control to create compliance.
People can be made to believe almost anything if you repeat it often enough, in a way that they can't escape.
News media today have an unprecendented ability to manufacture reality. By selectively reporting on events, they control which events enter the public discussion, and what aspects of those events are most relevant.
More important yet, they curate the list of approved facts.
If you want an inconvenient truth to go away, you don't have to lie about it... you only need to ignore it.
The media controls the narrative through omission as much as by what they choose to report on.
The ruling elites use this platform to create consent for their agenda. Make no mistake, these people exist. There are always natural hierarchies whenever humans get into groups.
But these elites today are not dictators and tyrants. They don't have that kind of control, not over the whole system. No matter how much wealth and political influence they have, they're still humans with human limitations.
What they do have is disproportionate influence over the Vital Few levers that can make waves...
2. "The Nudge"
The "nudge" comes from behavioral psych and economic theory.
Instead of relying on people to make the right decisions, the do-gooders in charge of the common good make that decision for you.
And to ensure you conform, they don't ask you, or plead with you, or even threaten you.
Instead, they design the environment into a "choice architecture" that helps direct you to make the right decisions.
The decisions that are approved for you by your betters.
The nudge is a symptom of management gone out of control.
For reasons beyond the scope of this piece, a good number of the American and European ruling class have declared themselves the benevolent arbiters of what's good for you.
They know what's best for you, even better than you can know it.
And they're capable of steering society into this better future by controlling the physical world where you can make decisions.
If the mass media controls the public narrative, the "nudge" is how they influence the physical environment.
You ever wonder why everything is going digital, locked up in privately-owned platforms, running in the cloud on a monthly subscription?
The more of our world that gets locked up in an algorithm, the less freedom you have to act in the real world.
The nudge itself is just one tool in a larger project...
3. Weaponized socialization
Michel Foucault once described modern society as a Panopticon.
That's a kind of prison with the cells arranged in a circle around a central guard tower. The guard tower can see every prisoner in every cell. None of the prisoners can see the guards.
We're all locked into a virtual Panopticon.
Our lives are visible to unknown and invisible observers. This has gotten much worse since Foucault first wrote about it in the 1960s.
They didn't have the smart [sic] phone and the social network back then.
Being watched changes our behavior. Even if nobody is actually watching... the fact is that somebody could be. Knowing this creates a fundamental unease. What if someone finds out about this?
It's not only the prisoners affected. The guards know that the prisoners know they could be watched. The observing guard becomes this mythical, omnipresent eye in the minds of the imprisoned.
That changes the basic relationships of power. It's no longer about the hard power of coercion at the point of a gun.
Who needs that when you've got the soft power to create consent with the unconscious forces of persuasion and influence?
Today, everybody's a prisoner and a guard at the same time.
We're all watched and we're all watching.
The "Karen" can police social behavior better than any armed Gestapo regiment.
We police each other because we are "made into" self-interested atoms of persons chasing our own individual desires and goals, with no sense of any higher good or unitary community goods.
And for those hold-outs, that 10-20% who will resist on principle, you're putting them in the position of being subject to the weight of public opinion enforced by peer shaming. That's a position that only the toughest outliers and most prepared outcasts can resist for long.
That leaves us in a truly sinister position because it...
Transforms freedom itself into a form of unfreedom
You don't have to force anyone when you control the conditions for decision making.
We're free to live our own lives, chasing our own projects, but...
We have to live with other people in the exact same position.
And many of those people are hyper-sensitive to public opinion. They need that hit of validation when they appear to be good people.
All of us acutely aware that we're only one short video or ill-judged social media post away from having our lives ruined, livelihoods destroyed, and ostracized from polite society.
You're free... as long as you do what you're told.
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