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Comment on resisting techno-digital dystopia

Summary:
2020-05-21 I was asked for my opinion on the challenges raised by potentially repressive technologies. The idea is how can one protect themselves from the seemingly omnipotent state, especially in light of the technological means at its disposal. The following is my initial take on the subject. I am sharing it with the proviso that I do not consider it a comprehensive analysis and may still elaborate further in some future essay. I think we need to frame dystopia that is powered by digital technology as yet another form of tyranny. This is not to trivialise it—if “trivialising” can ever apply to tyranny—, nor to downplay its potential for destruction or otherwise equate it ideologically with other totalitarian regimes. By understanding it as a tyranny, we provide

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I was asked for my opinion on the challenges raised by potentially repressive technologies. The idea is how can one protect themselves from the seemingly omnipotent state, especially in light of the technological means at its disposal.

The following is my initial take on the subject. I am sharing it with the proviso that I do not consider it a comprehensive analysis and may still elaborate further in some future essay.


I think we need to frame dystopia that is powered by digital technology as yet another form of tyranny. This is not to trivialise it—if “trivialising” can ever apply to tyranny—, nor to downplay its potential for destruction or otherwise equate it ideologically with other totalitarian regimes. By understanding it as a tyranny, we provide ourselves with an already well-understood conceptual framework to reason about it.

Every tyranny consists in the control of the vast majority of people by a small group of individuals. It is always a minority that wields power within the confines of the given polity’s scope of sovereignty or reach.

For a minority to rule over the majority, it obviously requires access to critical resources but, more importantly, it must have a comparative advantage of coordination relative to the subjects of its will.

The minority has to act as a unit, while the majority remains divided and unorganised. The principle of “divide and conquer” is a constant in all hitherto existing statecraft. The state of technology or the prevailing conditions in general may only alter the specifics on the implementation front.

That principle captures the irreducible factor of the case, which constitutes the relative strength of the tyrants over the oppressed. Disorganised people are vulnerable, exploitable, and can more easily be forced into supporting the regime or otherwise acquiescing to its stratagems.

Couched in those terms, tyranny is both (i) an immediately recognisable architecture of supreme political authority, and (ii) a widespread mindset that is characterised by inertness, indifference, helplessness, and fatalism. To resist oppression one must not merely guard against the legal-institutional, economic, technological, or such readily discernible establishment. They must also overcome the centripetal forces generated by the people’s inability to act.

History tells us that a group which functions as a unit can exert greater power than that of its constituent elements in isolation. It acquires an emergent property, germane to the concerted action as such. Tyranny governs through the unity of its members, but also by mastering the reign of fear. Terror spreads like a virus, especially when those being terrorised remain exposed by virtue of their forced/induced turn towards short-term-focused egocentrism.

What else is contagious though is courage and the duty to express opposition to injustice. If the oppressors can gain an advantage by cooperating among themselves, then so can an opposing force that starts out as small in scale. It cuts both ways.

The resistance does not need to be carried out by a majority of people at once. Indeed it never is possible to arrive at that eventuality without going through intermediate phases. There must initially be a fairly tightly-controlled collective that is self-governed and guided by agreement of spirit and a clear sense of purpose. This agent of reform is enough to help spread courage, so that the majority may eventually agree to contribute towards enacting regime change.

The members of the resistance must stand united, in solidarity to each other. The starting point is to undermine that inter-personal comparative advantage of the oppressors by means of grassroots action. Remember that part of tyranny’s power is contingent on the inertness of the majority. This is where activism must focus its immediate attention: to show the alternatives in concrete terms, to build networks of exchange and genuine support.

While it is clear that one can contribute incrementally to global shifts by means of localised action, it also is the case that one may appreciate the universal truth by discerning an instance of it. As such, activism must promote cases of freedom-respecting and freedom-enhancing media or practices as tangible examples of modes of possible inter-subjective experience: they offer a hint as to what a freed world could look like.

At any rate, a critical mass is required. Coordination and cooperation will always be part of the solution to the problem. Everything else will follow from there. The technological means will vary, as will the figures and the ideocentric parameters or whatever other contributing factor to such a state of affairs.

To my mind, techno-digital dystopia can be reduced to “dystopia”, which in turn implies tyranny. By claiming as much, I wish to stress the importance of the human qua social animal side of things: how concerted action is essential to the cause.

It is crucial to understand that no amount of freedom-friendly technology is ever enough to render one immune to the vicissitudes of the establishment’s machinations. Nature and history tell us that there is safety in numbers. It is naive, indeed self-defeating, to believe that one can effectively fend off aggression while remaining strictly limited to their individuality.

To this end, all calls for apolitical escapism, those that present individualism as its own telos, must be interpreted as impediments to the possible creation of an antipode to the status quo. Such times call for collective efforts and an appreciation of the longer-term dimension of the pro-liberty struggle; liberty as experienced by each person (subjective) and as enabled by one’s milieu (inter-subjective).

Finally, I think we are not in a generalised dystopia right now, at least not in my part of the world. Regardless, we must always be wary of the establishment’s potential: it does have the means and the propensity to proceed down that path. To think that some constitution or court of law will single-handedly upset the repressive turn is to remain oblivious to the lessons of history, including those of the near past and, in parts of the world, of the present. No institutional arrangement can defend itself. It is always people who may safeguard the prevailing values that can otherwise be codified in statutes and other rules.

Protesilaos Stavrou
EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Front end developer. Free/libre software contributor. // Refer to my website for the specifics.

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