Dostoevsky once wrote that "in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, 'make us your slaves, but feed us.'" His prophecy is relevant when examining the modern information age -- a dark, corporate-controlled society predicted by such artistic legends as Bruce Sterling, George Lucas, Ridley Scott and William Gibson.
We want to be part of this information environment and feel more empowered with each new gadget, service or digital connection in our lives. From packets to pagers, wireless to wired, the sun never sets in the information age; we are always plugged into the global matrix of the information domain. We're addicted to it and constantly awash in a sea of electronic stimuli.
Yet as we rush to embrace the latest and greatest gadgetry or high-tech service and satisfy our techno-craving, we become further dependent on these products and their manufacturers -- so dependent that when something breaks, crashes, or is attacked, our ability to function is reduced or eliminated. Given these frequent technical and legal problems, I'm wondering if we're as free and empowered as we've been led to believe.
Technology, like gambling and heroin, is addictive. We're pushed or forced into buying new gadgets and constantly upgrading our technology for any number of reasons, both real and perceived, and feel uncomfortable without our latest high-tech "fix." Corporations love this because once we accept and begin using their products or services, the dependency is formed. In the end, they essentially own our information -- and subsequently, society and us. And our "price" keeps going up.
But unlike many other companies from the industrial age, high-tech corporations are in a unique position. They are able to get us to spend money -- and to relinquish our rights for seeking recourse for damages arising from their faulty products, no matter what pain we must endure during our period of indentured servitude and addiction to their problematic technologies.
In some cases, particularly in mainstream operating systems, software, and Internet-based services, it's one step short of blackmail. We all certainly can't go cold turkey very easily, although some modern Luddites may succeed.
To make things worse, government practically has outsourced the oversight and definition of technology-based expression and community interaction to for-profit corporations and secretive industry-specific cartels such as the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America and the Business Software Alliance. Such groups have wasted no time in rewriting the rules for how they want our information-based society to operate according to their interests, not ours.
Members of these high-tech heroin cartels are not only promoting and profiting from their products. They're also developing the laws and methods to govern and regulate the use of products, all the while protecting themselves from any negative side-effects and ensuring their established revenue streams.
Each industry and vendor wants to assert its proprietary technical and legal authority over who does what, when, how, and under what conditions with their products and services, even if their profiteering desires are incompatible with our law-abiding ones. And if their technical or legal efforts to maintain law and order in their respective fiefdoms fail, they can always turn things over to the federal government for action as a convenient backup.
Combining these perverts of profit with the fickle, often-ignorant nature of our elected lawmakers has produced an information age in which the rights and abilities of the individual don't matter. Neither does facilitating society's evolution by allowing it to take maximum advantage of technology's capabilities for its collective benefit. Today, what matters is only how much money and freedom people are willing (or forced) to pay (or sacrifice) to their corporate masters for the privilege of living within the various information-based fiefdoms provided for them to generate revenue.
The information age will not be remembered for the fun, high-flying and overwhelmingly feel-good dot-com days. (That memory exists despite the ongoing exploitation of technologies developed by the dot-coms.)
Rather, the information age will be remembered as a period when:
- 12-year-old girls from New York slums, senior citizens and innovative college students are harassed by greedy cartels seeking to scare their future customers into submission.
- The profit goals of high-tech vendors determine how client businesses and people are organised and interact.
- Everyone is presumed a potential criminal until proven otherwise, according to oppressive industry-defined criteria.
- A once-awesome revolution in global communications became converted into a cesspool of unsolicited and offensive marketing messages.
- Knowing how to do something that's illegal is just as illegal as actually doing something that's illegal.
- The legal protections over freedom of speech are trumped to preserve corporate secrets or market share while hiding vulnerabilities that endanger the public.
- Our lives are monitored and dissected by marketing firms looking for the best way to sell us things we don't need or want.
- Technology's promise and alluring capabilities are used to surreptitiously entrap and willingly imprison members of the information-age society instead of truly empowering them.
Dostoevsky was way ahead of his time.