Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Power and control: we will beg to close our eyes before the end

In any discussion about humans and technology it pays to ask about power. Where is it and who holds the keys to the gates?

Power is never static and always feels just beyond our grasp. In an unexpected way the internet changed who holds true power, but this time it may not move on again. Once those in control of the system figure out how to leverage the cyber world, there may be no more power transitions.

Controlling the flow of information is the fundamental definition of what power really is and the internet destroyed those controls. It removed power from the hands of the traditional elite, pushing it down to the lowest rungs of society and out to the sides.

The government is catching the worst of this adjustment. In the internet age, political transparency is considered the pinnacle of civil righteousness for some reason. It seems to have slipped people’s minds that political transparency is both dangerous and impossible.

A more appropriate goal would be to demand a measure of translucency so the public can observe the framework of government without exposing the details. And yet even putting it in those terms reveals how much power the government has already lost and will never get back.

So if the government doesn’t possess it anymore, who holds true power in this new internet age? The answer is quite difficult to pin down and suggests a disturbing emerging future.

In simplified terms, a good way to spot power is to look for its tracks, because when it moves it leaves culture wars in its wake. For instance, if you ever notice a heightened volume of clamouring for equality in a social sector that was homogenously white, Western and male – then that’s where true power once was. Those are the tracks. You won’t find power there anymore.

This is because diversity is not something the system wants. Regardless of how progressive a society might appear on the outside, the unfortunate reality is that once females and non-white males are allowed to influence a sector, the system puts up a “fight” but has already organised a new bastion of power somewhere else away from the clamour. History shows this to be true.

Looking for the power

Consider the sectors of religion and academia. Both were treated as integral cogs of the system. But after the leadership was forced to diversify and include non-white males or females, the campaigners eventually found that being an academic or member of the clergy no longer carried the influence they were expecting. The fight was righteous but it was too late. True power had moved on to other sectors.

The government also had power until it too came under similar pressure to diversify. The fight was similarly virtuous, long and difficult. And as the latter half of the 20th century rolled in and the equality campaign bore fruit, the political system was gradually both less white and less male.


Or was it?

Remember that the most common complaint about politics today is that it has never been more indecisive, incoherent or unempowered. You've probably even made that complaint yourself. That’s not really the fault of the equality campaigners. They broke into a system that power had already vacated. They gained all the trappings of power, but not real power. Hence today’s political impotence and incoherence.

Then there’s the previously untouchable Western financial sector. After a big hit to this structure in the past decade, true power is now slowly and quietly abandoning it for greener pastures. The sector still has enough influence to pull important strings, but it is much weaker and its members know it.

In other words, you should still avoid angering Goldman Sachs, but insulting a politician, clergyman or academic carries no risk. But don’t bother sending your daughters off to business school if you want them to be powerful. By the time they reach the top levels of the financial markets they’ll be just as impotent as their political sisters. Power is moving once again, but where to? Take a wild guess.

As far as homogeneity of the system and sheer power potential goes, software engineering, robotics and data storage are the three most important new sectors creating what will probably be the final resting ground of true power.

Think about it in this way: what power will we fight over when computers and robots can outperform us in every job category? Think about how much power the people who build those tools will have. Think about how much power they already have. The internet is hurtling us towards this reality.

In almost every sector it is making real flesh and blood humans too expensive to employ. If the 2008 crisis taught us anything, it was that the only reason people could earn $50,000-$200,000 was strictly down to the existence of credit propping up an inefficient global system. How else was it possible to buy iPhones, televisions and $9 coffee if enormous systemic leveraging wasn’t allowing it? No one is worth that sort of money, I don’t care what your profession is.

Those “good old days” aren’t coming back, if they ever existed. And yet millions of people are inexorably being added to the world’s middle-class each year with the expectation of earning a magical $50,000-$200,000. Where exactly will that new money come from if it isn’t piled onto the great credit card of the nation state?

There will be no way to afford this because eight billion humans will be too expensive for the system to cope with. But no worries: the power system is extremely happy that the future is digital and robotic. As Bill Joy eloquently said, the future doesn’t need us. So if we’re searching for the true power – look at your iPhone. Too late, you’ve probably missed it again.

The last bastion of power

Everyone thought the NSA and GCSB hoovering up our digital footprints was horrible, but that was a red herring. Information control and disparity is going to get worse and we will only have ourselves to blame. In the panicked furore over mass-spying we never noticed the real story happening right before our eyes and entirely at our request: Google.

Imagine a technology’s power if it could track, store and access every person’s movements and thoughts, forever. This isn’t science fiction, we’re seeing the embryonic stage of this capability now. It is being created – with the implicit help of each of us – by Facebook and Google et al. It boggles the mind that none of Google’s information trawling and storage activities is remotely well regulated or widely controversial.

The internet is creating a world in which only a handful of humans will leverage our personal information for whatever reason they see fit, at any time. That is changing the very concept of power. What do you think Google really does with all this information? Help you search for the best priced shoes?

A new elite is emerging around a group of enormous private organisations that I call “truly global companies”. We have not seen their kind for centuries and they will be more overwhelmingly powerful than the East India Company ever dreamed of being.

There will come a point in the not-too-distant future where the true power of the internet’s information revolution is fully understood. But it might be too late. Hobbes’ social contract no longer requires a state to enforce it. The internet is emerging as the new Leviathan , one controlled by feudal private empires.

The internet holds all our information and is being treated like a new economy. Bitcoin was developed as a tremendously popular parallel alternative to fiat currency. Why? Because the government is no longer seen by the people as the true bastion of power and strength – the internet is.

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