Guns, Government & the Fallacy of Cyber-Utopianism

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TLDR version: The idea that technology by itself can change the world is a delusion. For technology to have an impact in the world, humans must wield it, sometimes in conjunction with lethal force (or the threat thereof).*

Ten days ago, as we were checking out office space on Market Street, I met a woman at a coffee shop. Her office was in the building next door to the space we were checking out. She was educated, blonde and pretty. I asked about the neighborhood. We bantered.

To my co-founders’ annoyance, I stayed, picking her brain for a little. Turns out, the woman works for a mayoral candidate. Here’s what I learned from her:

-Arnold Schwarzenegger is no longer the governor of California
-Jerry Brown is the governor
-Gavin Newsom is no longer the mayor of San Francisco
-Gavin Newson is now California’s Lieutenant Governor
-Someone else is the mayor of SF

Maybe it sounds crazy, but this was all news to me. I literally had no idea. The more we talked, the more I looked like an idiot. Blondie was not impressed, “Are you serious? You don’t even know who the governor is?” Crash and burn.

This anecdote, however, illustrates a larger point: I live in a bubble.

Two years ago, I was a fresh grad out of the Columbia political science department, one of if not the top poli sci programs in the world. Although my focus was on international security, I was a political junkie. I knew who the important governors were. I knew who the up and coming congressmen were. I knew about instability in Central Asia and Russia’s imperial ambitions in the Caucasus.

Two years and a startup later, I don’t even know who’s the governor of my own state. Where I used to visit NYTimes.com thrice a day, I now visit once every 10.

Two weeks ago, Chris Dixon wrote a blog post entitled, “Predicting the Future of the Internet.”

Predicting the future of the Internet is easy: anything it hasn’t yet dramatically transformed, it will. People, companies, investors and even countries can’t stop this transformation.

I left a warning in the comments: “Government CAN stop the internet and the information revolution… Progress and rapid technological innovation is not an inevitability––it’s pre-conditioned on a certain set of political circumstances that are frail and fleeting at best.”

I don’t think many people in the tech world ever seriously considered this idea until this past week, when Egypt turned off the internet.

And really, it’s not an argument that you hear too often. Everywhere, you hear the techno-optimists and cyber-utopians discussing how technology changes everything, how Twitter & FB can cause revolutions. And you see it too: Corporate empires get crushed, new ones arise in their place; protests happen on the street, governments fall after the masses are mobilized on Facebook.

Who in this world of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and their hangers-on is going to argue that what we do is not the most important thing on earth, that we are not in fact the center of the universe? I mean, if I’m at all a representative sample, it’s not like we’re even talking to the politicos or, for that matter, anyone outside our own insular little world who might have a different view.

Our great creation, the internet––this vast network and everything built on top of it––was supposed to free our minds, to expose us to vast and new ways of thinking. But the reality, at least for me, has been different.

The internet hasn’t really expanded my field of vision, it’s deepened it.

In 2008, I was wannabe journalist with a dream about technology and a chip on my shoulder. I didn’t know anything about entrepreneurship or startups or venture capital.

Two years later, I’m the CEO of a funded company in Silicon Valley. How? I taught myself on the internet. I’ve read blogs voraciously. I’ve turned FB messages into meetings, Tweets into investments. I am deep, deep into this world of startups. The amount of information I can consume is enormous. So enormous, in fact, that I can now consume a diet composed almost entirely of niche-specific information and still be missing out on something important in the industry.

In the short term, this is great: I now know a ton about what’s going on in my part of the world. Perhaps more so than anyone ever could before.

The long term is where the echo chamber bites you in the ass: Inevitably, something important happens outside of your niche that has the power to change it completely. Maybe it’s an energy crisis that drives up the cost of shipping and thus clobbers eCommerce. Maybe it’s the government shutting off the internet.

My point here is that while it’s easy––and in fact natural––for us in the tech world to overlook it: Politics really fucking matters. If it so chooses, the state can kill “the cloud” with the flick of a switch. Congress can tax eCommerce into oblivion. The FCC can kill YouTube. The FTC can regulate Facebook.

We’ve been deluded into thinking that all this innovation is inevitable and unstoppable. It ain’t.

And beyond that, information sharing is not an end in itself. Governments don’t fall because you tweet @ them. They fall when people with guns organize themselves on Facebook.

The internet is only a trigger.

The internet was invented because military generals wanted a resilient command and control system for our nuclear forces. The internet itself is not a weapon; it is not a force upon itself. No, the internet is only an enabler, a lever that, if used properly, can connect and inspire people––real human beings made of flesh and blood––into action.

Fred Wilson wrote a post this morning entitled, A Frightening Week.

I suppose I am a “cyberutopian” at heart as Evgeny Morozov calls us. I believe in the power of technology, particularly communications technology powered by the internet, to make the world better, safer, and more open and free.

This past week has shown that the cyberutopian view is naive and that those who are not interested in a better, safer, more open and free world will use technology to further their interests too.

So this has been a frightening week and one that shows that the fight for human rights all over the world will not be delivered a decisive win via the internet.

Fred, I agree. Securing that freedom requires people with guns and training in the art of violence. And that’s a combo you can’t get on the internet. It’s not allowed.

*What makes the state unique is that it has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force & violence. Even when force is withheld, the threat of it gets people act. Kinda like when a cop tells you to step out of the car.

  • Gurest

    Silly blonde girl wasting on BS political nonsense….keep on hacking man!! Politics is all BS…free people don’t need it…Ron Paul 2012!!

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  • http://www.theborski.com Michael Borohovski

    So, then, what is your suggestion? Clearly we can’t all know everything; there just isn’t enough time in a day.

    Also, as a counterargument: the Internet _can_ start wars and revolution. Stuxnet is a great example of something that easily could have incited nations to war, and potentially still can. It’s arguable that rather than being an enabler, The Internet was in fact a weapon…and it was delivered via technology, not people.

    • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

      For starters, I agree that as weapon systems increasingly leverage IT, hackers a la Stuxnet will be able to trigger them and actually do some damage. That said, it takes a high degree of technical sophistication and money to develop weapons that heavily connected. These weapons (i’m thinking about long range missile systems) tend to be useful for intra-state wars, not civil wars and Twitter revolutions.

      In terms of solving the knowledge problem, i don’t have a good answer…yet. For now, just be cognizant of the issue.

      • http://www.theborski.com Michael Borohovski

        The issue is definitely there; this was as true for me at school as it is now. I kind of grew to accept it, though perhaps I should spend more time thinking about it.

        And there are definitely methods for civil wars and Twitter revolutions to happen over the net; think about traffic systems, power grids, etc. All the stuff you see in movies is, obviously, greatly exaggerated in terms of how “sexy” the technical work appears, but the problems are real. Yes, it takes a terrorist (or a revolutionary) who is adept with technology, but it’s ultimately not rocket science either (trust me).

        • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

          Sure. But a technology alone is not going to topple a govt. It can cause problem, sure. But someone with guns needs to physically occupy the territory and claim control. That part cannot be virtualized, which is what I was trying to get at.

          • http://www.theborski.com Michael Borohovski

            Ah, true. That’s a good point. It can certainly start civil unrest, but someone needs to finish it. Agreed.

        • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

          My other point is that the weak states that are susceptible to civil unrest tend also to be the most offline and backwards with regards to IT.

  • http://twitter.com/dmlandry D. Matthew Landry

    Thanks for bringing this up, Matt. When running a startup, I, too, noticed how easy it was to ignore the talking-head news media and other “general” news outlets and focus almost exclusively on what I thought was industry-specific (and therefore, far more important) happenings.

    The thing is, even if you don’t appreciate the pandering antics of any given news outlet, there’s important shit going on everywhere. And even the unimportant gives context to everything else — and context matters most.

    I’ve tried to alleviate my own echo-chamber susceptibility by intentionally seeking out experience in new areas. Now, I can contribute in a unique way because of my own non-industry-specific context. It’s fun to learn new things, and it’s exciting to forestall some of the same mistakes that have been solved in other contexts.

    • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

      Amen on context.

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