We Know: Authoritarianism and the Empire of Information.

23 Mar
Courtesy Henriette Hansen

Courtesy Henriette Hansen

Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of a book I’ll release in the coming year. Hope you enjoy!

Chapter 1: The Have and the Have Nots: Information Asymetry

Knowledge is power. A trite aphorism. But like all aphorisms, it endures because there is a grain of truth in it. Those who know have a certain advantage over those who do not know. More importantly, those who know things about those who don’t know, hold all the cards. The clash over who will have information has always been a clash over power. Who will know? Who won’t? Who will be enlightened? Who will languish in superstition and barbarism? The powerful have always manipulated information, and access to information, in order to fulfill their own aims. Throughout history the powerful have used information to make, and re-make the world in their own image; in short, the powerful have always wanted to play God. This should come as no surprise, when we delve in to the true meaning of power. It has its roots in Latin, with the word potere, meaning “possible,” or “able to.” Knowledge is power, and power is the ability to… what, exactly? Indeed, it just ability, any ability is enough. Power is pure potentiality. It is all that could be or that might be. Supreme power means supreme ability. Unfortunately, it also follows that an absence of power means an absence of ability. To the powerless, there are few options. There may be some potentiality in them, but they are never able  to do anything with it. There has been stratification of power and knowledge for thousands of years in human societies.

However, we stand on the precipice of an unprecedented differential in who knows, and who doesn’t know. Ignorance, and credulity are just as potent weapons of oppression as teargas and machine guns. However much we may seek to reassure ourselves with the comforting notion that there is “more information out there now than ever, thanks to the internet,” we often fail to grasp the difference between knowledge and information, between truth, and noise. What’s worse; increasingly massive portions of our own, private lives, are being gathered as information by powerful entities, both governmental, and private. The average citizen is fighting a losing battle over who controls knowledge. At the same time that we are bombarded with more and more pseudo-news, in the form of celebrity gossip, and political bickering, our civil liberties are eroded, and we come under closer and closer scrutiny from institutions claiming to help us. From Google collecting our browsing information in order to “help,” us consume more relevant unneeded products, to the United States government flying drones over the country for our “security,” the powerful uniformly couch their information gathering in the soft, fuzzy language of security, safety, and helpfulness to the people. This is not a new phenomenon. Even a cursory glance at recent history reveals the same story played out in authoritarian societies, again and again. Hitler’s fearsome SS was the SchutzstaffelSchutz meaning protection. The Soviet KGB stood for the Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti, or the Committee for state security. The list goes on and on, in every authoritarian regime. Safety, protection, security. These commodities are dear, especially in a dangerous and unpredictable world. But always, and without exception, anyone who offers these wonderful blessings, demands a price, in information, in power, and all too often, in blood.

The most cunning commanders throughout history have always recognized the paramount importance of knowledge. Sun Tzu famously wrote that: It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” Knowledge is paramount here, not only of one’s enemy, but of oneself. Sun Tzu was aware that most battles were won or lost, long before the fighting ever began. Rather, they were fought over who had better intelligence, and who knew the terrain more closely. One of history’s towering figures, a powerful man in any regard, Hannibal of Carthage, provides a trenchant example. Although he was fighting in Italy at the time, and as such, could have been at a disadvantage in knowledge of the terrain, Hannibal, Livy tells us: “rode round on his horse, minutely examining the terrain,” just before the Battle of Trebia In doing so, Hannibal finds a spot to conceal his cavalry, which he knew to be superior to the Romans’. Hannibal had also made sure to understand the character and tendencies of his opposing generals, by engaging in small skirmishes. He knew Sempronius, the Roman consul, to be a rash man, and Hannibal, fond of light cavalry, used his Numidian Horse to draw Sempronius and the poorly prepared Roman army across the Trebia at dawn. The result was one of three crushing defeats that almost brought Rome to her knees in the second Punic War. And it was all a result of Hannibal’s near perfect information. He knew the terrain, his opponent, and the strength and weaknesses of his own forces. I can think of few other examples in which knowledge translates so directly to power.

Of course Hannibal’s opponents could have quite easily acquired similar knowledge, had they thought more about their own weaknesses, and reconnoitered the land. We do not live in such a time. And thus we come to the asymmetry of knowledge in the modern world. Large organizations are infinitely more capable of gathering, storing and analyzing information, than an individual. Further, when these organizations paint themselves in the gloss of “protection,” or “helpfulness,” they acquire a certain unearned morality, a mandate to exist. They have more information, and we are willing to give them even more information, for our own good of course.

Inside a nondescript office building in Berlin were files taking up 125 miles of shelf space. These files contained information, gathered by agents, and informers, on nearly everyone in the former GDR or East Germany. This office building was the headquarters of Erich Mielke’s Stasi and is still open as a museum today, with the files available, should a former citizen be interested in what the government knew about him. Stasi is a contraction for the Ministerium fur Staatsicherheit, which means, unsurprisingly, the Ministry for State Security. The Stasi was an extremely effective secret police force for East Germany, and its agents and informers had infiltrated nearly every aspect of the people’s lives. Victor Sebestyen writes chillingly that: “At the height of the Third Reich, it is estimated that there was a Gestapo agent for every 2,000 citizens. In the mid-1980s there was a Stasi officer or regular informer for every sixty-three” (Sebestyen, Revolution 1989) One of the Stasi’s crucial weapons was the omnipresence of informers. Ordinary provided information to the state security apparatus by denouncing the friends, neighbors, and colleagues. They did so for many reasons, but the overwhelming climate of fear made sure that even if you weren’t being watched, you felt as if you were. The secret police attained an almost mythic status due to their ability to know, helped along, in no small part, by the people’s willingness to tell them things, in short, to inform upon one another. Of course, not everyone engaged in such cowardly behavior. As in all instances of fear and evil, some brave few help those they can, and provide no support to the controllers. But the overwhelming sense of being watched, that you do not know, what they know, is enough to break any man. Operating without information is like fumbling around in the dark, and setting oneself against an opponent who does have information, or at least appears to, is an extremely dangerous gambit.

The Communist bloc fell more than twenty years ago now, and with it the secret police forces that held millions under their bootheels. It is easy to think that we live at the end of history as Francis Fukuyama a bit prematurely stated, and that the days of oppression are firmly behind us. Oh, that it were true. We delude ourselves with the notion that open knowledge, the internet, and Wikileaks, will set us free. Childishly, almost religiously, we put have faith that technology will somehow level the playing field. While open knowledge is a good, and noble undertaking, technology has a disturbing dark side with respect to information gathering. As I opened the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, a supposedly enlightened and progressive publication, I was greeted by a full page advertisement for Boeing. A large drone stared it me with its massive camera-eye, quizzical, cold, calculating, with the words “Enduring Awareness,” emblazoned chillingly across it. The drone offers “Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance.” All of these features could indeed, be good things. I am aware that a less pessimistic reading of the advertisement would see all the good a drone could do in a combat zone, how many brave soldiers lives it could save. The drones could indeed protect us. However, when we look at the track records of state protection agencies, security ministries, and other organizations established for the “good of the people,” they are littered with illegal surveillance, abuse of power, torture, fear, and violence.

I wish we were merely in the province of the tinfoil hat-wearing, internet conspiracy crowd, when we discuss military drones overflying the United States of America. But again, in the guise of “intelligence gathering,” and the “prevention of domestic terror,” these silent stalkers have been pulled out of Orwellian fantasy. Eric Holder did not rule out the possibility of an armed drone strike on American citizens, on American soil. Of course, he including the usual language of the powerful when the populace has not yet-acclimatized itself to whatever new form of power projection has been thrust upon them. They will only be used in “extenuating circumstances,” or “National emergency.” Of course, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history knows how easily emergencies can be declared, and, how all too often, these “emergency measures,” are among the darkest parts in a nation’s history. From the Alien and Sedition Acts, to the internment of Japanese Americans, to the Reichstag fire that ushered in the worst of Nazi Germany, emergencies can be manufactured, and universally mean loss of freedom.

Drones attacking American citizens with guns, should be the least of our worries. We should fear their cameras much more. While the government could certainly manufacture an emergency, it is almost impossible to keep a population cowed with violence alone, although many have tried. Far more effective, as we have seen, is controlling information, and that means knowing everything, and everyone. Apologists for abuse of power, and violation of civil liberties, typically the abusers and violators themselves, often cite the fact that the innocent need have no fear of surveillance. But guilt or innocence have no place in this argument. The whole notion of probable cause is completely done away with in this line of reasoning. Citizens do not have the right to break the law. They do have the right to private lives, free of fear. As we saw with the Stasi, just the threat of surveillance, the possibility that they might know something, creates a climate of betrayal. Constant information gathering directly contradicts the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It replaces them with subservience, violence, and fear.

I do not mean to suggest that the government is inherently evil, or that it seeks to create a state in the mold of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. But institutions seek to perpetuate themselves, just as power seeks to refine itself. We are faced with a never before-seen amount of information in the hands of the government and large corporations. With that information comes tremendous amounts of power, over everyone, and indeed everything. Even more disturbing, at the same time that we give, willingly or not, more and more of our information over to these entities, we are systematically denied access to information about them. In the U.S. governments, and other powerful organizations, like the Fed, operate under a thick screen of opacity, impenetrable by the average citizen. This mis-match, is informational asymetry. Worse, we the people are increasingly unable to filter and use the information we do get, due to the across the board failings of our education system, and the descent of many  mainstream media outlets into hackneyed,  reTweeting, servants to “politically correct” public opinion and corporate sponsorship.

Is there a way out? Where do we go from here? I tentatively hope there is. The citizenry needs to become serious about information gathering itself, and more than information, it needs to concern itself with knowing the truth. Unfortunately, this is quite difficult, as so cluttered with white noise. Which is why we move next to how to distinguish between the two, in the next chapter “Pseudo-Everything: The Semi-Real and How It’s Destroying Our Minds and Bodies.”

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5 Responses to “We Know: Authoritarianism and the Empire of Information.”

  1. ajmitzel June 4, 2013 at 12:00 am #

    Interesting post. What I find most fascinating, and most damning, is the general failure to understand the difference between information and knowledge. The internet provides most of us with a set of facts devoid of meaning; a desentized, trivialized fantasy world. Orwell’s “1984″ is an interesting account of our time, but I think “Brave New World” is a much more powerful metaphor. The very best weapons of tyranny are not guns or coercive power, but subjugation through happy ignorance and entertainment.

  2. Rufus August 9, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

    Interesting article. Lucky for us though, our government is set up the way it is precisely to prevent any centralization of power. There have been shady operations in the past undoubtably, but the examples listed above, as you know, mainly concerned a population segment considered to be “other” by the general American public. We have a government composed of citizens who when putting laws into practice are forced to consider the possible detriments enforced on themselves and their very large families. I know you’re thinkIng “should the people ever feel the need to rebel, they would be essentially defenseless, the government has access to all the information”. But don’t run to town ringing bells yelling danger, for one thing your having the ability to write this very thoughtful post should stress the essential differences between the present situation and east Germany. The government is composed of citizens, believe it or not. Power and authority are not centralized in this nation, and any conspiratorial ins on your part are speculative and irrational, backed by incongruent historical cases. I certainly hope our spy machine is successful in preventing assaults to our government and by extension you and me. You and I can have this debate on a public forum. Big brother isn’t here to stop us. He’s not here to lock us up either.

    • jamesroom964x August 9, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

      Interesting rebuttal, but I think we differ on how much faith we put into the system. You seem to stress that government is composed of citizens, and while ostensibly true, there’s more to this point than meets the eye. In every case I listed, the police and informants were also “citizens.” They were not groups of “outside” bogeymen brought in to oppress the poor citizenry. That’s what makes a surveillance state so disturbing and inescapable. The East German Stasi heavily relied on civilian informants to gather information. My point is that anyone can become the bad-guy, given the right culture.

      And to say that “We have a government composed of citizens who when putting laws into practice are forced to consider the possible detriments enforced on themselves and their very large families,” misses the point. This is in theory how the system should work, but you’re very deluded if you think the average lawmaker has the same priorities, fears, and responsibilities as the average citizen.

      I don’t mean to imply some sinister cabal of lawmakers thinking up ways to spy on and imprison citizens. The truth is much closer to Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil. Human beings respond to incentives. Lawmakers have incentives to gain re-election. This requires money, and popular support. So why wouldn’t a lawmaker from state with a big aerospace presence, support domestic drone use? It gives business to the corporations, and jobs to the people, in the short term, everyone is happy. But the long term consequences of just having those tools present are unclear, and I don’t see how they could be good. I’m sure in a perfect world lawmakers would consider those long term effects on their large families. But human beings are notoriously poor at comparing long term and short term benefits.

      Finally, I question these “assaults” that the government is so fond of telling us they’ve stopped. First, only the government can possibly report these shadowy unsuccessful plots, so we have no way of cross-referencing them, and any attempt to find out that information slams into the wall of “national security.” And I have every reason to be skeptical, because the entire national security apparatus has every reason to misrepresent how much they are actually protecting the hapless citizenry. It keeps their paychecks coming and the pension funds growing if we believe they’re saving us from imminent destruction every minute of every day. Conversely, what incentive do they have to be truthful? It’s likely no one would find out, and if they do, it’s easy to label them a traitor, or a leaker, or a danger to national security.

      I’m not saying we’re living in a police state, but all the pieces are there, both physical and psychological.

      • Rufus August 9, 2013 at 6:48 pm #

        Would you consider a potential ‘bad guy’ to be one who authorizes surveillance on American citizens in an effort to prevent catastrophe? Or one who takes it a step further and encourages not only spying on but also detaining potential threats to political authority out of paranoia? In the case of The Stasi wasn’t this ultimately the rational aim of their efforts? Whatever the incentives may have been for individual citizens there was a paranoid centralized authority catalyzing that sort of oppression. I agree the biggest danger may actually be willful ignorance on the part of our lawmakers, which is a great point, but were facing a very clear extra national threat. An American citizen would have to be deliberately tied up in these affairs to be seriously considered a suspect by any agency. It’s important to debate issues like this, and I think the very fact that were capable of having this debate is the reason why surveillance programs are unlikely to spiral out of control as they have in other circumstances. And again, you’re speculating when you question the imminence of terroristic attack and the motivations underlying the implementation of these programs. We have tangible evidence of not only plans of attack but threats preemptively thwarted by our security forces. I know you aren’t denying these dangers exist. I’m not supporting these progrms by any means, I Just think that implying that the united states potentially is on a trajectory towards becoming a police state is overstating the issue. You can certainly conjure up possible incentives for security agencies to be lying to us but that will have to remain in the realm of speculation. Do you really believe an exaggeration of national security threats can be reduced to a few departments attempting to keep the paychecks coming in? I think a possible reason might be a deliberate objective to prevent a future catastrophe on the scale of 9/11. And I think it’s well worth it to be paranoid in that case. It just doesn’t seem to stand to reason that the security forces would manipulate information to justify their own existence. It’s got to be more complicated than that. In bureaucracies there are systems of quality control to place prevent that sort of corruption. And even if that was not the case it’s quite the leap to suggest these agencies would have any incentive to use it against its own citizens. Show me where the legitimate domestic threat is.

  3. jamesroom964x August 9, 2013 at 8:52 pm #

    See, I have a problem with invoking this murky “potential catastrophe” every time we want to legitimize what the government does. I won’t deny that our nation faces threats. That much is clear. But who doesn’t? It’s a dangerous world. Where do you draw the line between safety and oppression? All those questions are important to debate, and I think we’re disagreeing on where that line is. I don’t think I’m speculating anything when I question the validity of some very one sided reports on threat assessment. It would be speculation to take them at face value when a national security agency tells you how much IT is doing to protect you. I don’t think I’m speculating when I reason that an agency has MORE reason to exaggerate threats than to understate them. They have every incentive to exaggerate, because it’s their job. If they understate something, and a catastrophe does happen, how do they look? Secondly, why wouldn’t they manipulate information to justify their own existence? Does it seem reasonable for a large bureaucratic organization to call for it’s own shrinkage or loss of power? Have you ever seen someone ask for a budget cut? I’m sorry, but I just don’t have such a positive view of humanity. In any job I’ve worked in, everyone would do quite a lot to justify his or her job. I don’t blame them, it’s just rational self- interest. And when you have a whole group of people with that mindset, even though they don’t set out with evil intentions, the organization will grow, until someone trims it. I understand that those bureaucracies have fail-safes in place, but who enforces them? The bureau itself?

    Like I said, I don’t attribute evil intent to individuals (for the most part). Even the organization as a whole, has noble goals. But organizations will always seek to protect their own existence, and when that comes ahead of protecting the people, we have a problem. Why does the U.S. have such a high incarceration rate? Could it have something to do with many powerful and lucrative organizations having an interest in seeing the prisons full? How much work does a prisoner create for law enforcement officers, lawyers, prison guards, judges, food-service companies? You might say that we have too many arrests for non-violent drug offenses and I agree. But why do we bother arresting these people, why not throw out their court cases? If someone weren’t benefiting, it wouldn’t happen, and many, many people benefit from a strong national security system, not always the citizens.

    My problem with invoking the big scary “catastrophe” is that it invokes fear. You cannot deny that when you tell people there is an enormous danger out there, waiting to get them the minute the national security apparatus weakens, you scare them. People do not make their best, most rational decisions when they are afraid for their lives. I think it’s wrong for the government to slant the entire conversation in favor of more security. You bring up the “paranoid central authority” of a totalitarian regime. We certainly have a central authority thanks to the Department of Homeland Security. And it’s the national security team’s job to be paranoid. It’s their job to identify threats. So I understand why they are the way they are, I just don’t think it wise to give them too much free reign.

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