Life in the 20th century was increasingly defined in terms of the Information Age predicated on technology that most came to visualise in the form of the World-Wide Web, but which was physically based on the development of software and hardware required by the Cold War. The evolution of this technology, enhanced by AI, will increasingly come to define life in the 21st century, at least, for those who have access.
However, there is also the worry that this technology might be used to control and manipulate information, such that most individuals may not be able to tell what information is real or fake. Even today, AI is increasingly capable of manipulating original digital information, be it text, images or sound, to convey a very different message. There is also increasing awareness that personal information now exists on the Internet, such that the history of our personal likes and dislikes along with our location can be collated indirectly from meta-data and directly from the increasing number of surveillance cameras enhanced by automated AI image recognition.
Why might this lead to further problems?
In the context of the previous discussion of some of the potential causes leading to Fortress World, we might recognise that governments are already attempting to take control of the flow of information, both in terms of traditional media, e.g. TV and newspapers, but more importantly across the expanding scope of the Internet.
Note: In 2016, Egypt jailed 25 journalists, China imprisoned 38, and Turkey incarcerated 81 and, globally, it is estimated that 259 journalists were imprisoned. Essentially, these journalists were all prosecuted because they were reporting on a government’s ability to manage the economic, technological and/or cultural impact on various sections of society. Whether this was always fair or reasonable criticism might be debated, although the desire of governments to increasingly control information is possibly not in doubt.
Although governments are employing increasingly sophisticated techniques to control information being communicated over the Internet, some may also resort to the crude, but effective method of simply shutting down public access to the Internet. This tactic is not just one used by authoritarian governments, but also by the world’s largest democracy, India, when it became the focus of widespread protest. Of course, today, both developed and developing states are facing real threats from terrorists and cyber-criminals, such that there is often a legitimate justification for imposing some form of state control over Internet use, which might initially take the form of further regulatory safe-guards for both people and businesses. However, it is clear that such safe-guards can quickly be extended to impose censorship in order to protect an incumbent political system and those that support or benefit from it.
Note: In 2016, the government of President Erdogan of Turkey started to implement a wide range of restrictions on Internet access by blocking Facebook, Twitter, and other social media tools that might criticise his ‘style’ of governance. However, this form of censorship is often referred to as a ‘walled garden’ model as now adopted by China.
Iran is another government that has adopted the ‘wall garden’ approach to Internet information, which also goes by the name of the ‘Halal Internet’. However, irrespective of the semantics used, the scope of the world-wide ‘Inter-net’ can be reduced to an ‘Intra-net’ , in the sense that it becomes a private network controlled by the state, where all users can be identified and their usage monitored. Unsurprisingly, other somewhat authoritarian governments, e.g. Russia, are developing more sophisticated strategies to control access to the Internet and the type of information that can be accessed. In Russia, its strategy includes content controls, registration requirements plus control over the physical infrastructure, such that certain websites can be banned, media companies have to register with authorities and all data collected has to be stored within Russia’s borders. In addition, Russia has developed its own ‘walled garden’ intranet that can replace the Internet should the government ever feel threaten by the flow of information across the wider Internet.
What consequences follow from this level of political control?
While there is an escalating battle for technical superiority being fought out over the Internet, which does not always favour government’s, the level of state funding usually allows governments to gain the upper-hand. As a consequence, many populations may remain essentially unaware of what their governments are doing, while any dissenters can be quickly identified and imprisoned, if necessary. In this context, China has become one of the most ‘innovative’ by putting the access to information under government control. Of course, there is an aspect that China is only doing the same as all other developed economies, i.e. protecting its economic and political interests, although it does so with little in the way of public oversight.
Note: In China’s view, it is the patriotic responsibility of the media to promote positive propaganda and that it must ‘supervise’ public opinion. In 2017, this approach took the form of an official directive to ‘strike hard’ against what the government defined as online rumours, harmful information, fake news, news extortion, fake media and fake reporters.
However, China is taking the idea of a ‘walled garden’ to another level in the development of a system called the ‘Great Firewall‘ that blocks access to tens of thousands of websites the Chinese government does not approve. Another system called the ‘Golden Shield’ is being developed as an online surveillance system that uses keywords and other tools to shut down attempts to access content that the state considers politically sensitive. Within this system, there is an ever-expanding list of words and phrases that trigger denial of service messages. More recently, China has also introduced a system called the ‘Great Cannon’ that can launch denial of service attacks on external websites that the state considers dangerous to China’s security. Again, we might perceive the danger of all these initiatives in terms of incremental progress towards the idea of fortress world.
Is information control just a necessary defence against external threats?
Unfortunately, we might realise that many of the systems being developed to allow governments to protect the information essential to their economy in the 21st century from external threats can also be turned inwards to identify any dissent, irrespective of free speech legitimacy. In addition, it seems clear that some governments would also like to control the movement of people, even within its own borders.
Note: While the hukou system predates the sort of developments being inferred we might realise how future technology could increase the ability of a government to impose an internal passport system that would allow movement to be controlled. It is also worth noting that the ‘hukou system’ also allowed the state to control the social provisions that a person might receive based on where they lived.
In 2009, the Indian government started the process of creating a biometric identification system called Aadhaar, which by 2010 began recording iris scans and fingerprints with the intent of establishing a unique identity for every citizen. The stated goal of the Aadhaar system is that it will allow the government to collect taxes, issue benefits and minimise fraud with less cost as payments will directly flow in and out of people’s bank accounts, even in the most isolated rural areas. However, some politicians already have greater ambition for this system to monitor its population in terms of children school attendance, worker job attendance and ensure that everybody pays their taxes. Of course, we might easily see how this system might continue to be developed as a huge database of Indian society, which could control the financial accounts of anybody appearing to disagree or undermine the government’s political or economic policies. As might be expected, China already has its own plans to develop a ‘social credit system’ , which would verify the ‘reputation’ of citizens as regard to their social status and the economic status of any business. Of course, in another context, many might simply describe this system as mass surveillance that can use big data analysis technology to monitor and control its population in the self-interest of the government, i.e. its continued unchallenged right to govern.
Note: While the use of the social credit system by the Chinese government is somewhat speculative, its potential goals may include information on any committed felony, any arrests or even ‘misdemeanours’ like traffic violations, paying fines and being drunk in public. There is also a suggestion that the system might record whether somebody visits their elderly parents or whether they have been fired from a job and why. The ultimate goal of this system has apparently been expressed as allowing the “trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.” Of course, the definition of ‘trustworthy’ would be defined by the government, such that many authoritarian governments around the world might be attracted to this ‘ambition’, although it is unclear that the population at large would necessarily agree to the level of intrusion and control this system seems to imply.
Of course, there are arguments that such systems can be used for good and only a small minority who want to disrupt society for their own self-interest, rather than the majority, might actually fall foul of this level of monitoring. However, such systems augmented by increasing levels of AI automation have the potential to not only intrude into the lives of billions of people around the world, but effectively control what many believe to be basic human freedoms. In this context, the brave new world may be closer to Orwell’s authoritarian vision than Huxley’s soma-induced utopia.