I’ve been holding my breath since the Guardian broke its first Snowden story on June 5, 2013 revealing the NSA’s bulk collection of phone data. There is a tragic deja vu for me. In 1988, when Google founder Larry Page was fifteen years old and the word “internet” was at least ten years away from public recognition, I published In the Age of the Smart Machine. The book was based on a decade of fieldwork inside a range of newly computerizing workplaces. During those years I watched each group succumb to the same pattern. Computer systems that offered rich new learning opportunities at all levels of the firm were hijacked by a narrow economic model and a managerial ideology of unilateral control.
Few managers could resist adapting the new systems to a surveillance agenda, as they sought detailed knowledge of workers’ behavior and performance. “The promise of automation,” I wrote seemed to exert a magnetic force, a seduction that promised to fulfill a dream of perfect control and heal egos wounded by their needs for certainty. The dream contains the image of ‘people serving a smart machine,’ but in the shadow of the dream human beings have lost the experience of critical judgment...to know better than, to question, to say no.” I learned then that only new business models, purposeful leadership, clear strategies, and institutionalized values and practices could alter this course. Now whole societies are being drawn into the same tragedy. Technology’s promise of empowerment is under threat from those who seek to dominate through perfect information, as they grind their way to profit and control.
Reading President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz’s message to the German public in his recent FAZ essay, “Warum wir jetzt kämpfen müssen”. I find myself exhaling –– at least a little. Schulz writes that the challenge for social democracy in the next century will be to “civilize and humanize” the new technology revolution, while standing fast for the “inviolability of human dignity” in a new world. The challenge I see is that, thanks to Edward Snowden, we know that the technology revolution has once again been hijacked by the dream of perfect control. It’s being used as a Trojan horse for a still poorly understood convergence of public and private institutions that wield unprecedented power over information. This new power bloc operates outside our control as citizens and consumers. I’m calling it the military-informational complex, because its power derives from the production and deployment of what I call new weapons of mass detection composed of information and the technical apparatus required for its access, analysis, and storage.
We can civilize technology only if we confront this new behemoth. It is this new concentration of power over information, not technology itself, that drives the “compulsion to control” and the “anti-liberal, anti-social and anti-democratic” dynamisms of which Mr. Schulz writes. As we have all come to understand, these effects are not limited to any one society. The poison travels fast and infects the prospects of many societies and the wider civilizational context they share.