CXO

Peter Cochrane's Blog: How technology is putting us out of control

When it's individuals versus governments, it's IT that helps us win our freedom

Written in my garden on the first warm and sunny day of the new year, and dispatched to silicon.com via my extended reach wi-fi network.

For some reason governments and religions everywhere are inclined to try and control everything.

It's a tendency that goes back to early man and the birth of civilisation, and seems to become ever more invasive year on year. All the while, systems of government and administration are now so complex that I think we can safely say that no one has an overall picture or understands them fully.

Each year hundreds of new laws, thousands of new regulations, and of course tens of new taxes are enacted. Nothing is ever withdrawn or removed, and the connection between 'artefacts of government' and real life becomes ever more tenuous.

It seems the only thing that is saving civilisation right now is the fact that governments everywhere are way behind when it comes to technology - and long may it be so!

Broadly speaking, business and commerce are either way ahead in ICT, or they are dead. Automating everything from accounting through to quality control and safety is now a must for any operation to prosper and survive.

In the 'real world' of physical things, governments can control, track and monitor everything. And in no small measure this has had some positive effect in terms of the quality of goods, their safety, and equitable manufacture and sourcing.

Imagine then how frustrated governments must be by the world of bits! For governments everywhere, controlling this world has been like trying to nail a jelly to a tree! Every time they try to invoke controls, the beast changes shape and slips through their fingers. They have had to watch the rise of pornography; free and uncontrolled news reporting; critical and open discussion of all topics; the destruction of DRM (digital rights management); and much more.

IT networks now rule and sidestep attempts at control, leaving people free to act as they see fit. But there is a price to pay for such freedom: we have to accept that there will be aspects that we as individuals will not like or find acceptable. In the extreme we have to stand back, or better still help the forces of good attenuate such influences, but for lesser violations we just have to become more tolerant.

The good news is that the vast majority of humanity is good and will mostly do the right thing. The bad news is just a few evil individuals can cause significant disruption for the whole.

This has always been the case with all technologies, however: take Gutenberg and Caxton, for example. Armed with just crude printing presses, they caused a huge amount of disruption. Getting the Bible translated from Latin into English and into the hands of the population was a mortal sin at the time and people were burned at the stake for less. I suppose the modern equivalent would be to be 'cut off' by your ISP!

To my mind there is only one question to ask: has a technology bettered mankind and the planet? Without doubt, all technology has - or at least has had the potential to.

Technology is always inert, neither good nor bad - it is what we choose to do with it that matters.

And looking back over history, it might just be that individuals in society acting alone actually make far better decisions than governments.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox