As freeing as innovative technologies can be, they can be as freeing as they are restraining.
Technology as synonymous with progress has a problem; as Noah Smith wrote for Bloomberg, “its vision of history, and of the interaction between technology and the state, might be badly flawed.”
Uber makes ride-hailing cheaper and easier. Skype connects friends separated by distance and makes telecommuting a possibility. But smartphones also help governments track the movement of citizens. Software assists government in censoring and controlling information and access in countries that lack a commitment to individual rights.
“The internet doesn’t just enhance the power of liberal activists; it also serves as the chief recruiting and coordinating tool for international terrorists,” Smith noted. “The online spread of groups like Islamic State essentially ensures that even liberal governments will be motivated to tighten controls. But authoritarian governments aren’t just cracking down on the internet — they’re adapting it for their own purposes.”
If the American government is willing to use secret tracking devices, warrantless wiretapping, and other monitoring technology to watch citizens, the abuses by less scrupulous governments are terrifying to consider. Yet many Americans aren’t worried about such practices, even if they violate civil liberties.
Legal arguments have failed to keep pace with what technological advancement has made possible. “Technological innovation has outpaced our privacy protections. As a result, our digital footprint can be tracked by the government and corporations in ways that were once unthinkable,” the ACLU noted.
With unexpected threats, the American people were caught flat-footed in preserving liberty. The government has expanded its power and reach without a broad pushback.
Smith isn’t wallowing in pessimism and fatalism over the use of tech to limit liberty, though.
“I expect us to meet and defeat the current challenges to human freedom. But it will take more than just building new tech. It will require new social movements, new ideas, new arguments — new reasons for people to fight for liberty,” he wrote.
It’s a sobering assessment with hope in the future. The history of progress has been anything but inevitable. As it’s been seen in the rise of Donald Trump, protections for free trade, religious liberty, and freedom of the press have been threatened. In the political climate before Trump, demands to deport 12 million unauthorized immigrants, a loyalty test for American Muslims, and nationalist fearmongering were outside the realm of the political acceptability.
With a new style of politician comes new possibilities. With new technology, new possibilities for controlling citizens arise as well. When both unite without effective opposition, the promise of progress fizzles.