Guest editorial: Next war more about systems of control, not ideology

For all of its warts, it was believed that social media and technology would be the fuel that continued to light the way for future democracies the world over. Authoritarians would not be able to control the spread of ideas, or opposition. This sense of freedom, and power of information, is what brought down the Soviet Union, and what prompted Tiananmen Square and what ignited the Arab Spring. And it would continue.
That was then.
Today the outlook is less sanguine. Authoritarian regimes are using surveillance technology to essentially control those they rule. And it’s working.
Political scientist Ian Bremmer points to several key examples as red flags. When Syria’s civil war erupted the conflict was expected to be long but it was also thought that the odds against President Bashar Assad were considerable. Today, he’s all but won. What happened?
According to Bremmer it was the Russian government that stepped in and “provided a few hundred programmers to work with the (Syrian) military, with the intention of surveilling citizen communications through text monitoring and social media and identifying exactly who was a threat to the regime.”
The behavior changed when Syrians understood that their every move was being monitored, it changed when unsuspecting people were caught and killed.
This behavior modification is happening in China as well. Protests have dropped in number and not because the level of contentment has risen, but because the Chinese government has invested enormous resources into artificial intelligence and universal facial surveillance. The government’s database is so large, and the system running it is so good, that the average Chinese person wakes up each day knowing he or she is being watched.
People who know they are being watched behave differently than those who are not watched. It’s a self-censoring process.
The Chinese government defends the process in two ways; first is the ability to fight crime more effectively (and the nation has been successful in this regard), second is the overall commitment to technology and its rewards.
But what it is, is a system of control. For Xi Jinping, who this year declared himself president for life, it’s the system of control that perpetuates his country’s march forward. It’s what buys him the time and the opportunity to solidify his nation’s direction. That direction will be guided in no small part by artificial intelligence (AI) and his nation’s determination to be at the top of the AI heap.
That’s a page out of a science fiction novel for most of us. That doesn’t make it less accurate. There is a profound worry in many of our nation’s capitals that the self-perpetuating superiority that comes with AI will be a threat to democracy as we know it.
In China’s case that doesn’t take much of an imagination. Xi Jinping is 65 years old and could easily command China’s direction for another 15-plus years. As Mr. Bremmer writes, China’s investments in other neighboring and growing economies could easily draw these nations into the Chinese orbit, economically, politically and militarily.
Twin that potential with the same efforts underway in Russia with its sophisticated technology and its commitment to undermine democracies and to stifle dissent.
Are we winning or are we losing?
We have always accepted technology as the path forward, it’s our definition of progress on almost every front, even when it’s not. It’s seen as inevitable, a force that is useless to oppose.
But there is a profound difference between technology that allows us to heat our homes more efficiently and technology that despots can use to control our behavior, which is the antithesis of freedom.
The battle of the last century was one between communism, racism and democracy, which are ideologies.
The battle of this century is far less about ideology, and much more about systems of control. It’s being termed the of “digital authoritarianism.”
This prospect makes you look at your cell phone differently, right?
Emerson Lynn
St. Albans Messenger

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