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 Schutzstaffel, Schutz 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.”