Freedom and Technology
How and whether people should be ruled

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

When Gutenberg re-invented printing in 1450 or so, he turned the world upside-down. By expanding the access to accumulated human knowledge, he radically transformed power relationships throughout the world and in every society that has survived since that time.

Before printing, there was no question that, in order for an elite few to tend the longer-term, broader needs and interests of society, nearly everyone else had to serve as beasts of burden. Printing turned the "eternal realities," about how life and society go on, into an issue even before the Industrial Revolution substituted steam power for muscle power and set the bases for political revolution.

Before printing, there was sometimes question as to who got to do the ruling over everybody else, but no question that they had to be ruled, and little question as to how they should be ruled.

After printing, much larger numbers of people had access to knowledge and eventually to power, and everything came into question—especially how and whether people should be ruled.

The Reformation. The Counter-Reformation. Republicanism. Mercantilism. Capitalism. Nationalism. Anarchism. Socialism. Communism. Fascism. Nazism. "Democracy." — All of those isms of the past few centuries, and nearly all the major wars, were a direct result of the invention of printing and that invention's proliferation of power through widening access to knowledge.

This knowledge expansion was compounded, of course, by free public libraries—incidentally one of America's greatest comparative advantages this whole past century—which enabled and enables many, many gifted kids to escape the limitations of their local schools. Visit the local libraries (if any) in almost any other country, and you can begin to appreciate the huge advantages enjoyed in this regard by the United States.

Are we at last past the contentions of all those isms and ideologies? Hardly, even before the Internet came along. From its early phases the great Information Revolution has been having its impact. The fall of the Soviet Union itself is attributed to the spread of information through fax machines during the time of that final attempted hardliner Communist coup. No matter what information the seized government and its controlled TV, radio and press put out, people kept each other apprised of developments over the fax, and the coup failed. After that astonishing event, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended.


A Far Greater Disturbance Than With Printing

With the Internet, we are seeing a far more profound distribution of access to information, and we are about to see a far more profound distribution of power than we ever saw with the invention of printing.

The contending isms which came to climax in the bloodiest century in human history, the twentieth, didn't even get defined in the first several centuries following the advent of printing. It seems safe to say that, with the Internet's fresh new distribution of information-access and power, we will have further isms emerging and coming to contention. It also seems safe to say that most of these have not yet even begun to be defined, but behind each when it emerges will be the armed, passionate beliefs of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of human beings.

Forewarned may or may not be forearmed. There is not much sign that my own country is learning much from even very recent history, much less older history, and I would not be too surprised to learn that similar lack exists elsewhere. Without a past, we may not have a future. "He who fails to learn from the mistakes of history..." There may, however, be another level on which we can look at certain of these matters.


Effects of Technology Upon Freedom

Elsewhere we have defined several types of meaning for the word "freedom," and a quick look at those definitions may help us understand this very important topic. When people speak of "freedom," they usually mean one or another of three very different things:

  1. Freedom from negative constraint. For a wide range of conditions and behaviors, no one is going to punish or kill you. Increasing freedom in this sense means to widen that range of conditions and behaviors where you can't be bothered, and/or to tighten limits on institutions or persons who otherwise would be inflicting such punishment.

  2. Freedom in terms of a wide number and range of desirable choices which are available — the difference between a school cafeteria and a modern shopping mall and food court, for example. Modern developed economies provide a considerable degree of economic freedom for most of their members, though not everyone has gotten to access and enjoy that freedom. Political freedom in this multiplicity-of-desirable-choices sense is more often referred to than is economic freedom, but a bit harder to find in actual practice.

  3. The Medieval sense of "freedom," which was very different indeed. By making yourself content with your lot in life, you would feel free. This sense was mostly rooted in pre-Reformation Christianity (and has its counterpart in much of Islam today), but was also expected as regards the social order.
People have often confused "freedom" not only by these three very different meanings, but with several other concepts —
  • With "Democracy," with people having some sort of meaningful say in the decisions which affect them.

  • And with two opposite, mutually exclusive types of Egalitarianism — one, that people should have equal opportunity; and two, that people should have equal results and benefits. Given variety among humans, obviously one type of Egalitarianism precludes and excludes the other.

People have also confused these with many other things as well, so that most social and political discussions are essentially meaningless. Elsewhere we have attempted a discussion or so which, with definitions made specific, we hope are more meaningful. Here, though, I wish to look at the prospects of freedom in senses #1 and #2 above, in terms of the effects of current and pending technology.

We have learned the hard way that "freedom" in sense #1 — freedom from negative constraints — is losing ground as more and more of us live closer together in more complex ways, in vulnerable centers of population and with vulnerable lines of supply. We've been through the War on Crime and the War on Drugs, but our chickens are really coming home to roost in the War on Terror.

Even before 9/11, these free United States of America had just about become a police state, with concurrent abuses. There are plenty of reasons why all those miserably morbid police dramas dominate American television. Don't think that this form of freedom is going to get any better in the foreseeable future. It is going to get worse, even if the White House were to change hands.


Redistribution of power and knowledge

Bio-terrorism is going to happen. With stakes ever higher, preventive efforts and repression will become greater. Even anarchists or Libertarians in power would be driven to more and more repressive methods, trying to protect the society and populace. This is not a very pretty picture, and I'm afraid we've only just begun to see the start of it.

One mitigation is the Internet — we have more means than the government-controlled press to keep each other apprised of what's going on. Whether we avail ourselves of that, and of the press in other countries available through the Internet, is another question, though when things get bad enough, more of us presumably will avail ourselves of these alternate channels of information.

Another offsetting factor:  freedom in the sense of number and range of desirable choices is growing and will continue to grow. The Internet alone has greatly expanded everyone's economic options, and shows some sign also of expanding people's political options.

There is some hope, unrealized as yet, that the Internet can and will, as suggested above, also help limit some of the abuses which accompany the repressions of a police state. So we might see some salvaging of Freedom in the negative-constraints sense, though not enough to turn things around, while we see the positive available-options kind of freedom continue to expand.

Some very good news:  a huge improvement in both types of freedom, in fact, is about to break upon us — technology relating to education is opening new options, and the old repressive institution is crumbling and at some point soon will abruptly and startlingly collapse. A lot of work still has to be done to make sure that this development moves in the most positive directions; there is a lot of crisis and difficulty ahead.

A lot of resources, including human resources, could be wasted if we don't handle this new crisis with some attention. Many human lives could be wrecked if we play this one poorly. If we play this one well, a huge new era of very positive economic and human progress ensues. We have discussed this remarkable pending development in some detail in The Future of Education.

So in our immediate future, freedom from negative constraint is in a mixed picture, with some gains and some losses. It does appear unavoidable that some major losses are pending — and that ways of governing and defending order are in prospect which we definitely have not thought could be part of the traditional American scene.

Freedom of desirable options does appear likely to expand and even to accelerate. We do have significant problems ahead of us, only a few of which we yet suspect or recognize. It is in part for this reason that we at Project Renaissance have sought to develop so many various ingenious, creative, effective problem-solving techniques, in hopes that their use may spread and enable people at all levels to better cope with what's ahead of us.


Freedom in the Deeper Future

First of all, if there is to be any freedom for human beings, in either of the two senses, humanity has to very soon start moving off Earth and developing the solar system, for resources and as a habitat, on a major scale.

One society's ideal way of life is hell for most other cultures, and vice-versa. We are already feeling the effects of this — most cultures aren't ecstatic over the spread of the wonderful Western and American way of life. We've discussed this in greater detail in the Winsights article, "One Destiny, or Many?"

The only way out for freedom from repressive constraint is into space in a major way. Out there, there is room. We don't have to constrain each other into one way of living and behaving. Down here we do, and will much more and much, much more as time goes by.

The only way for freedom in the second sense — wide range of desirable options — also is via our moving into space in a major way. Out there are essentially infinite energy and material resources. Here on Earth, we are beginning to pinch down in little ways, and soon on a much greater scale.

The only way human freedom in either sense is going to survive for the long haul is if we develop space, and begin doing so while we have material resources with which to do it.


Houston, We Have a Problem

Several generations deep into meaningful space development, we'll have a wonderful variety of people living in a wonderful variety of ways in a wonderful range, number and variety of habitats. That is when we will see an unparalleled flowering of human freedoms. But in the first generation or so of that development, we're looking at a problem —

We are now descending into a police state in part because our cities are vulnerable and our long, complex supply lines are vulnerable, and we are now having to go to greater and greater extremes trying to protect them. That problem is also going to plague us through the first generation of development into space. The first generation or so of habitats in hard vacuum and space radiation will be far more vulnerable than are our present cities and supply lines.

As simply as that, we are going to see an even tighter policing there than we are about to see in our present cities and supply lines. The science and technology of these habitats will have to widen considerably the margins of survival before such policing and repression can ease. Unless we can bring on space development a lot faster and more safely than I think we will, we are in for several generations of repression and loss of freedom from constraint.

Transitioning from the darkest depths of that repression into the full flowering of human freedoms in later generations of space development will no doubt be dramatic and pose some interesting problems along the way.

Much of the flowering of our culture, and of our material wealth, has occurred because of the initiatives taken by individuals who one way or another enjoyed greater freedom from negative constraints than had been common before or common to those around them. The current and pending major losses of this kind of freedom are a very serious issue for most of the other things which people value and seek and work for.

I don't think anything is inevitable. I also acknowledge that most messages, to be much heard, have to be entertaining, and I don't think this present message is very entertaining. What can one individual, what can the Reader, possibly DO about such seeming imponderables? Simply this:  get skilled, and more skilled, and practiced, in more than one type of effective problem-solving method.

Whether you ever get a chance to act directly on the larger issues, you can at least act on your own issues and cope better with whatever is coming along, and maybe encourage another person or so likewise to add to his abilities, for the fun of doing so as well as in case that problems come along.

Whatever the shape of our next few years, whatever the shape of our next few generations, and whether problem-solving skills become widespread or not, there is one thing we must make sure of — that the idea and ideal of human freedom not be allowed to fall away into the dark. The germ must remain viable, toward that time, however many generations from now, when conditions will permit it once again to flower — conditions which may let it re-emerge and flourish far more brilliantly than it ever has before.

There are things we may have to go through in these next few years and decades, but through it all we can at least keep alive the thought of human freedom, toward the time when it can truly flower. But to do so does require attention and effort, on your part and mine.


What Readers Say — selected comments
Kate Jones

Join the debate! Email your own responses to
Win Wenger or the webmaster.

This brief may be freely copied—in whole, but not in part, including its
copyright notice—for use with people whom you care about.
Home | SocioTectonics index | Freedom and Technology |
Contact:   Project Renaissance
PO Box 332, Gaithersburg, MD 20884-0332
301-948-1122 phone

©2007-2011 Project Renaissance