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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 09-Mar-12


Friday 09-Mar-12

Freedom, abuse and control

I went to an interesting lecture at the RSA this week about freedom on the internet and how it is being increasingly and perhaps scarily controlled by governments, including oppressive regimes who are now harvesting social media information on activists and their supporters.

It set me thinking, which is what I like about these lectures. It seems that the internet struggles is just the latest chapter in a long spiral through history, where freedom is innovated and is shortly followed by establishment control (only to be followed by more freedom innovation and more control). Now and again big freedom innovations cause bigger ripples than usual, and the internet is just one of those. Other examples include the printing press, revolution, religious schism, automation and capitalism. Perhaps these could be thought of as innovation platforms, as they give the basis for further innovation.

Digging further, there is a more complex pattern than just freedom and control. First, there is the freedom innovation, such as the internet. This is followed by an initial creative and joyful period during which the open space created leads to further innovation. Because this is a new place where laws are vague, this includes lawlessness that starts with pranks and continues into illegality such as providing free access to copyrighted information. This is the beginning of a control struggle as the established system starts to fight back. Initially, they are unsuccessful as the legal system is not capable of coping (when you live in America, are using computers in France to do business in Russia, which legislation holds sway?).

Eventually, bolder and more organized criminality creeps in (think hacking, identity theft and so on). This gives the government, who has been puzzled by the problem for a while a chance to step in.

In other words, innovation of freedom leads to abuse of that freedom, which leads to control.

Innovation  ==>  Freedom  ==>  Abuse  ==>  Control

A common problem is that the control is reactive, releasing a pent-up frustration in a determination to fix all problems in one go. Reacting to the more extreme cases, governments legislate and act in extreme ways, bringing in legislation that is strong enough to let them fight back against organized crime. Worse, the laws then start to be used in inappropriate ways, for example where anti-terrorist legislation is used by town councils to spy on people dropping litter. The power in the system hence swings further into control as power corrupts, leading to abuse of power and oppression of those who seek freedom.

The tragedy is that the vast majority of ordinary people who are not criminal get caught in the middle, feeling a weight of control that they do not deserve. And so the pendulum continues to swing and oppression leads to subterfuge and innovation of other ways to be free that bypass the system of control.

Control  ==>  Power  ==>  Abuse  ==>  Innovation

Freedom and control both give people power and both lead to corruption and abuse of power. Perhaps in extreme by only a few, but the effects are felt widely. Those who innovate and those who control each believe they are right and each thinks that their latest actions will lead to sustained power and freedom or control. Both are wrong. It is a cycle. When control is lost and when abuse surfaces, people do not just lie down and take it. Beyond a certain pain point they react, fighting back with the resources at their disposal, whether these be creative, military or whatever.

And hence it spirals onwards. A question I asked at the RSA was whether we could predict how this pattern would continue, with what control and what subsequent freedom innovation. There were no clear answers. What do you think? Where will freedom and control go next?

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