Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Internet control

Here's a story about the difficulties of controlling information in the internet age. A judge has order an ISP to shut down access to a site devoted to posting leaked documents by anyone who cares to leak a document. The ISP has complied, but the site is still operating on other servers in other countries.

We're still getting used to how fast - and thoroughly - information can escape nowadays, but it's interesting to contrast that with George Orwell's vision of 1984, where information technology was a key mechanism of control. The ability to spy on people is just as great as he imagined, but the government monopoly? Uh-uh. It turns out you can't run a bureaucracy - even a Ministry of Truth - without extensive means of communication and it's not so easy to maintain control of those if your workers wish to use them for other purposes.

I first realized this in 1991, when the Russian military attempted a coup d'etat against Mikhail Gorbachev. They imprisoned Gorbachev easily enough, but were finally defeated by a popular uprising against the plotters. Even the USSR couldn't operate without telephones, copy machines, and fax machines, all of which were used to keep the world informed of what was going on and make sure we saw those photos of Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank.


James Hanley said...

The reality of modern communications really does make Orwell seem antiquated. I've tried to think about whether the means of communication/propaganda in his day make his conception more logical, but I really don't think so. Even in WWII, French and Dutch resisters ran clandestine radio stations.

And if you think about the reality of having enough watchers to ensure that all the Winston Smiths of the world were facing the video screens when they were supposed to, it all seems a bit unlikely.

Scott Hanley said...

That was always my reservation about 1984. How many people did it take to keep such a close eye on everyone else? How many people were employed in rewriting the past? It makes the USSR look like a model of efficiency.