The Bear’s Lair: Information wants to enslave us

When James Thomson wrote “Britons never, never, never will be slaves”, the concluding chorus line of “Rule Britannia” in 1740 he did not envisage the Information Age. Today the accumulation of Big Data on every transaction, even every word uttered electronically, gives governments, notably that of Britain’s Theresa May, powers of enslavement they are likely to misuse. We should not blame governments; the fault is in information itself, and the solution relies on a world where modern information transmission and storage is no longer possible.

Thomson (1700-48) wrote in a period that is increasingly looking like a halcyon age of individual freedom. Earlier, individuals were subject to enslavement by local warlords, and personal security was poor. The British homicide rate, 23 per 100,000 in 1300 (already one third the level in more cultured but less civilized Italy) had fallen to 2 per 100,000 in 1725, not much above today’s level and well below today’s U.S. level. Basic civil liberties had been guaranteed by the 1689 Bill of Rights, and mediaeval and Tudor restrictions on occupations and wage rates had been swept away or were rarely enforced. Living standards were abominably low compared to today, but actual starvation was rare and working class wages were higher than anywhere else except the American colonies.

Thomson himself was one of Nature’s sunny optimists: “Peace is the happy natural state of man,” forsooth! Nevertheless, he would have been shaken to learn that the freedoms he enjoyed would be sharply eroded over the next three centuries:

• The government had no way of knowing what money he earned, so there was no basis for an Income Tax and government spending was compelled by lack of taxing power to remain below 10% of the national output.
• Since the Licensing Act of 1662 expired in 1695 the press had been free, and government had no means of knowing what Thomson said or wrote unless it was brought to government’s attention by formal publication.
• Thomson could enjoy the period’s superb art, music and literature, without the government knowing anything about it
• If government wanted to investigate Thomson, it could use paid informers, but the only personal data to which it would have access would be his baptismal registration at Edman, Roxburghshire.
• Thomson could invest his money as he liked, placing it in whatever bank or investment as he wanted, and government would have no means of knowing about it unless he bought land or government bonds (which he could hold in a nominee account with his bankers).
• Thomson could spend his money as he pleased, buying whatever products he wanted, on whatever credit arrangements he could negotiate, and government would have no means of knowing about it.
• Thomson could travel wherever he pleased, and government would normally not know about it. He could even cross an international border, since he would need no passport (though he might be harassed in foreign countries such as France, whose civil liberties were less well developed than Britain’s.)
• Thomson could get whatever medical treatment he pleased, and government would not know about his illnesses, nor about the treatment he received for them (the doctors who attended him might well kill him, 18th Century medicine being what it was, and the government would not care about that, either.)

If you had shown Thomson, or any intelligent eighteenth century rationalist, our world of the 21st Century, they would be amazed by its technological progress and the wonders that progress had produced, but appalled at the erosions of liberty that had taken place. Government is gigantic, and has the power to know all our financial transactions, so there is truly no place to hide, no matter how excessive its exactions. (Early in the history of this column, I wrote on the benefits for civil liberties of Swiss bank accounts, and how they protected us against over-greedy governments; since the 2010 Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act that protection is no longer available.)

All our production and consumption of information is available to government whenever it wants to see it (unless we scribble something on paper.) Gigantic amounts of personal data are available to government at all levels. Government can have complete knowledge of where we invest our money, and exerts considerable control on that process. It also potentially has knowledge of all our spending, unless we use cash, the availability of which is steadily being restricted. Government can also have knowledge of our exact whereabouts at any time (unless we don’t carry a cellphone or GPS.) Finally, government potentially has complete access to our medical records. In short, from the freedom enjoyed by Thomson, we have descended into a position of conditional slavery, from which only government’s forbearance, that most slender of reeds, protects us.

It’s no good blaming government for this unhappy state of affairs. Fish swim, birds fly and governments oppress; it’s in their nature. Governments will always take all the power and resources available to them, and are full of rationales for why they need additional abilities to control their citizens. I wrote a few weeks ago that we must design careful controls for the age of universal information, but given the fallibility of political processes that will very likely prove to be impossible. The blame for our new near-total slavery will however lie not in governments, but in information itself.

Information does NOT want to be free; that was a sappy wishful-thinking myth propagated by the early Internet pioneers. Knowledge is power, and as more information is created, the more enslaved we become. George Orwell believed the Ministry of Love was the most sinister branch of 1984’s totalitarian government. He was wrong, because he was writing before the full flowering of modern communications; in a 21st Century state the most truly evil and powerful body is the Ministry of Truth.

In welcoming the Information Age, we have welcomed the destroyer of our privacy, the extinguisher of our freedoms. We cannot undo this; the Internet and all its ramifications cannot be un-invented. Once Eve had eaten the Forbidden Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, Mankind was cast out from the Garden of Eden. Similarly, by creating the possibility of universal knowledge, we have cast Mankind out from the imperfect but free Eden enjoyed briefly by James Thomson and the luckier of his contemporaries.

The Silicon Valley dream of establishing a “sea-steading” colony in the Pacific, free from government controls, won’t work. Information is global, and the “global superstructure to advance humanity” advocated by the ineffably foolish Mark Zuckerberg will soon ensure that there is nowhere to hide. Even planetary colonization, advocated by Elon Musk and the more outward-oriented of the Silicon Valley titans won’t work; the signal delay from anywhere colonizable in this solar system is a mere matter of minutes. Interstellar colonization may potentially get us far enough away to escape Earth control, but the Hellish technology will still exist; we will very soon be subject to control by the rulers of our new planet.

There is only one solution, as I see it. We must undertake interstellar colonization, but to a solar system with an electromagnetic pulse field so strong that electricity-based communication systems will not function. All our 20th Century electronic technologies, from wireless to computers, will have to be discarded. There will be no radio, no television, no Internet, no computers, none of the 20th and 21st Century electronic technologies that we have become used to. Probably even telegraphs won’t work; the Carrington Event solar storm of 1859 knocked out the North American telegraph system. While non-electronic modern technologies such as antibiotics will still exist, computerized gene sequencing for example will be impossible, so new genetic medical techniques will not be available. On the other hand, surgical and other advances that use mechanical methods will mostly still be available, with steam, gas or nuclear power sources.

We will at first have difficulty adjusting to such a world, but need not abandon our technological discoveries altogether. Nuclear power will work fine, probably producing steam rather than electricity, but will have to be controlled by mechanical means. I envisage the spaceship taking us to our new home (which will have to continue operating once it reaches the EMP-endowed solar system) being nuclear powered, but with a control room that contains a vast array of brass handles, each of which will be connected to a wire, not carrying electrical current, but exerting mechanical force. The control rods of the nuclear reactor will be operated by that magnificent 19th Century invention, the steam pump.

With its nuclear reactor, possibly even a fusion reactor, our spaceship will thus be faster and more powerful than anything available with current technology. It will need to be powerful; there will be no electronic information available at our destination, so we will have to access information the old-fashioned way, with a library – and the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica alone, full of useful 19th Century technological insights, weighs over 500 pounds. Once we arrive, we will construct a world of infinite potential, with atomic-generated steam power, railways, hydraulic message carriers and gas lighting.

Meanwhile, back on this planet, Zuckerberg’s “global superstructure” will oversee a slave world, in which only the conformist and unimaginative will flourish.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)