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Don't Count on Tech to Set You Free

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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A number of my friends, especially in Silicon Valley where I now live, might be described as techno-libertarians. Loosely speaking, this is the idea that technological progress will lead to greater individual freedom and reduced state control. Some techno-libertarians are simply optimists, hoping that inventions like the internet will put more power in the hands of ordinary folks. Others are seeking to build technologies that make regulation difficult or impossible to enforce -- for example, the way Uber makes it hard for cities to justify maintaining taxi companies’ monopoly on hired-car service. As entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan pithily tweeted: “Don't argue about regulation. Build Uber. Don't argue about monetary policy. Build Bitcoin.”

Techno-libertarians have been criticized by progressives for paying insufficient attention to human welfare and the needs of society at large. But in recent days, I’m starting to wonder whether the ideology has a bigger problem -- it’s vision of history, and of the interaction between technology and the state, might be badly flawed.

There are two ways that technology might not actually erode state power. First, new technology might provoke governments to crack down and reduce individual freedoms. Second, governments might use new inventions as a means of controlling their citizens’ lives.

As an example, consider the internet. When it was created decades ago, many predicted that the free sharing of information would weaken the grip of governments over their people. Since monopolies over information are one of authoritarian states’ traditional methods of control, that prediction made sense. And indeed, the internet has allowed popular movements to spread rapidly, from the demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2003 to the Arab Spring protests in 2011. Social media even helped Turkey’s populace turn out to stop its most recent coup attempt.

But in the past decade, the internet has not achieved results in terms of increasing aggregate liberty. According to many non-governmental organizations, freedom has been in retreat:

Strong, capable governments like those of China and Russia have created elaborate systems of control to prevent the internet from giving rise to popular discontent. Online activists are often jailed. And in weak states such as Egypt, the internet is often used more effectively by organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood than by liberal forces.

To be fair, some degree of crackdown is probably inevitable. The internet doesn’t just enhance the power of liberal activists; it also serves as the chief recruiting and coordinating tool for international terrorists. The online spread of groups like Islamic State essentially ensures that even liberal governments will be motivated to tighten controls.

But authoritarian governments aren’t just cracking down on the internet -- they’re adapting it for their own purposes. The internet, it turns out, isn't just a way for activists to link up -- it’s a way for governments to watch everything that the activists do. No longer must secret police services infiltrate dissident cells -- they only have to read their tweets.

The state is eager to use the internet as a way to spy on people. The U.S. government surveillance program is now well known, thanks to people like Edward Snowden and the efforts of organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. You can bet that less scrupulous governments have even more intrusive programs.

Many other technologies have yielded similarly disappointing results for liberty. Automatic facial recognition technology may soon place us under universal surveillance. Bitcoin hasn't eliminated the importance of monetary policy -- in fact, asset price movements are more dependent than ever on central banks. Financial technology hasn't stopped our system from being dominated by a small number of highly regulated big banks. Drones are shifting the balance of power toward deep-pocketed governments. Airbnb disrupted the hotel industry, but it’s looking more and more like the company’s growth will be severely limited by new regulation.

Does this mean that the new wave of technology -- what some call the “second machine age” -- will usher in the kind of dystopia so often depicted in science fiction novels? No. I believe that what’s happening now is fundamentally similar to the upheaval in the Industrial Revolution.

The coming of mass production and industrial warfare in the 19th and early 20th centuries changed the nature of the challenges to human liberty. Corporations gained unprecedented power over the daily lives of their workers and created pollution that wrecked the health of millions. Governments used electronic communications and gas-powered vehicles to dramatically extend the reach and destructive power of their armies and secret police forces. Greater state centralization, made possible by industrialization, gave birth to totalitarian regimes like those of Stalin, Hitler and Mao.

Eventually, humanity figured out how to meet those challenges. Unions and progressive government curbed the worst corporate abuses, at least in the West. Strong independent media acted as a check on the state. Liberal industrialized nations slowly got the upper hand over totalitarian ones.

In the same way, I expect us to meet and defeat the current challenges to human freedom. But it will take more than just building new tech. It will require new social movements, new ideas, new arguments -- new reasons for people to fight for liberty. Techno-libertarianism is too deterministic in its belief that new tools are all we need. Tools need people to use them, and freedom won’t guard itself.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net