TREND WATCH: What’s Happening? Companies and governments worldwide have been rolling out advanced, AI-driven programs that use your personal data for everything from consumer services to law enforcement. Together, these efforts are part of the burgeoning field of totalitarian technology (or “total tech”)—which enables large centralized entities to track and influence the behavior of individuals. The rapid rise of total tech is widely explained by pointing to new technological capabilities (sensors, big data, AI) rather than to any new demand for such intrusion by consumers and citizens.
Our Take: This viewpoint is off the mark. Total tech isn’t being thrust on societies unwillingly. Rather, we have for years been welcoming total tech into every part of our lives. This is particularly true of Millennials, who view total tech systems as promoting safety, efficiency, and comforting paternalism. We’re embracing total tech because today’s generational lineup wants it. If there a limit to how far western societies are willing to go, that fault line is increasingly defined by the implementation of total tech in nonwestern societies like China, whose Orwellian enthusiasm is beginning to startle and worry western observers.
Ever felt like tossing that overstuffed wallet in the trash? You’re in luck: Scientists have invented an embeddable microchip that can replace the entire contents of your wallet—driver’s license, credit cards, loyalty cards, and everything else. The microchip also unlocks everything from your car to your front door. You’ve probably already bought one for your pet. Why not yourself? This isn’t some niche, far-flung idea—but rather a real device that more than 3,000 Swedish citizens have surgically implanted into their skin.
This microchip is just the latest example of what we call “totalitarian technology” (or “total tech”), a term that describes devices and algorithms by which individuals forfeit their privacy and autonomy for the benefit of either themselves or some third party. Total tech can come in the form of a brand-new invention—or merely a reimagining of existing technology. What do individuals get back from total tech? A system that works to make life safer, simpler, more efficient, and more convenient.
Total tech in its many forms is quickly becoming an integral part of daily life in affluent societies around the world. And most of us wouldn’t have it any other way.
THE THREE SPHERES OF TOTAL TECH
In the United States, total tech can be sorted into three different categories, or “spheres” of life: consumer services, the workplace, and government and politics.
Consumer services. Total tech has major upside in the world of retail, where consumer data is a precious commodity that can bolster the bottom line.
- Hyper-targeted advertising, everywhere. By now, most consumers are aware that their cookies and Web-browsing history can be used by advertisers to cook up targeted online ads. But this practice is no longer limited to e-commerce. Many shopping apps tap into your phone’s GPS to access your location. With this information, an advertiser may offer you a discount on Urban Outfitters gear at precisely the moment you’re walking by the store. Many brick-and-mortar retailers use Internet-connected “beacons” to access a shopper’s smartphone and serve them ads based on their shopping history and even their precise location in the store. (See: “Location, Location, Location.”)
- Personalized pricing. Armed with more consumer data than ever, retailers now know the maximum amount you, personally, are willing to pay for a given product. Retailers adjust the price you see based on everything from the time of day to your ISP to your computer operating system. Amazon updates its prices for each customer as many as 2.5 million times per day. Even brick-and-mortar vendors can use electronic shelf labels to instantly change their prices based on who’s looking. (See: “A Special Price Just for You.”)
- Voice recognition. We’ve come a long way from mere speech-recognition systems that can only detect speech patterns. Digital assistants like Amazon Alexa can now distinguish you from other members of your household. Because these systems store your query history, they now know everything from your unique shopping history (“Alexa, buy batteries”) to your travel patterns (“Alexa, what’s the traffic like downtown?”) to your music preferences (“Alexa, play songs by Bruno Mars”). In case you thought this data was safe with Amazon, take note: Amazon now may be sharing your voice transcripts with third-party app developers.
- “Quantified self” tracking. The amount of biometric data that is being captured and tracked by our devices is staggering. Some beds not only know what time you go to sleep and wake up, but also track your heart and breathing rates. Same goes for wearable devices like Fitbit and Jawbone. All these data points are invaluable to researchers, who can use your biomarkers to predict everything from your future diseases to your personality.
- Covert data-mining. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is the most notorious example of personal data being lifted by third parties without consent. But what most people don’t realize is that this is happening every day. Your downloaded apps can (and do) access everything from your smartphone’s microphone to your social media accounts. And once app developers have all this data, there’s no way to retrieve it.
As consumers, we’ve gotten so used to our every move being tracked by third parties that it’s easy to forget things weren’t always this way. Prior to the mobile IT revolution, consumers were able to navigate through their daily lives unmonitored. But the rise of total tech has created an interlocking, omnipresent surveillance system that tracks us wherever we go, online or offline.
That said, consumers are largely opting by choice into these total tech programs. Millennials in particular have no problem parting with their personal data if some external benefit is involved. A 2013 survey found that 56% of 18- to 34-year-olds were willing to share their location in order to receive coupons from nearby businesses, compared to just 42% of older consumers. Furthermore, 25% of Millennials said they would give away personal information in exchange for targeted advertising, compared to just 19% of older consumers.
Aside from monetary benefits, consumers also see the performance benefits of total tech. Take the quantified-self movement: Practitioners are comfortable putting their biometric data out there as they track, analyze, and push themselves toward peak performance. The capabilities of the technology are just too tempting to pass up. (See: “The ‘Next Big Thing’ Will Be Something You Wear.”)
The workplace. Employees long ago learned to check their privacy at the door when arriving at work—but even so, the extent to which managers now use total tech to monitor their underlings is breathtaking.
- High-tech time cards. A growing number of companies use biometric time cards that work by scanning an employee’s fingerprint, hand shape, retina, or iris. Consultancy SwipeClock Workforce Management estimates that these systems can save employers as much as 8% in annual payroll expenses by eliminating wage theft. No more fudging your self-reported hours.
- Sophisticated performance tracking. UPS outfits its trucks with sensors that track the opening and closing of doors, the engine of the vehicle, and the clicking of seat belts. A recent patent by Amazon describes an electronic wristband that would be used to track hand movements—making sure, for instance, that a warehouse worker stays busy moving boxes. The stated goal of these devices is to ensure safety; UPS wants its drivers to buckle up, and Amazon could use its wristbands to detect and ban maneuvers likely to cause injury.
- Keystroke logging. Global freelancing platform Upwork runs a digital “Work Diary” program that counts keystrokes and takes screenshots of workers’ monitors. This system—and others like it—uses keystrokes and screengrabs as a proxy for productivity. Proponents say that keystroke logging helps ensure the accuracy of billed hours. Critics say that, above being creepy, keystroke logging can demoralize employees by making them feel untrusted. In Germany last year, a worker was fired after his employer used keystroke logging as evidence that he was working on outside projects during work hours. (The employee maintains that he only did so during breaks.)
- Office optimization. Total tech enables employers to monitor much more than just the work you do. Boston tech startup Humanyze supplies companies with multipurpose biometric ID badges that can track employee movements, monitor the length of conversations, and even identify individuals based on the tone of their voice. Walmart recently patented an audio surveillance technology that will enable the company to listen in on workers’ conversations.
This is a natural outgrowth of social engineering in the workplace, by which firms use design principles to encourage certain behaviors at work. Buildings like Apple’s new headquarters, for instance, are intentionally difficult to navigate (a bit like a casino) in an attempt to encourage “random,” inspiration-inducing interactions.
These systems may seem like an invasion of privacy. But there’s a reason most workers opt to be monitored and “nudged” rather than to protest: Workplace total tech carries benefits for them as well. Health and safety are obvious pluses. As for productivity and skill improvement, these help the employee (via advancement within the firm or elsewhere) as well as the employer.
Total tech also promotes a meritocracy where the hardest workers rise through the ranks and the laggards settle to the wayside. This trait appeals particularly to high-achieving Millennials who value fairness and equal treatment. Plus, many Millennials undoubtedly think, “I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I care about being monitored?”
Bottom line: Employers and employees alike can be sold on the benefits of workplace total tech.
Government and politics. Uptake of total tech has been particularly striking in the high-stakes arena of government and politics, where nothing is off limits in the drive to reduce crime and heighten national security.
- Predictive policing. Law enforcement departments nationwide use Big Data to “pre-identify” individuals likely to commit a crime. With the help of U.S. software startup Palantir, the New Orleans Police Department runs a predictive policing program that uses Big Data to compile a heat list of potential criminal offenders. LAPD works in conjunction with Palantir on Operation Laser, a program that uses algorithms to detect patterns in police report data, which are then used to inform future police tactics (e.g., closer monitoring in a certain neighborhood). Police in Florida and Washington even use Amazon facial recognition technology to identify potential suspects captured on public cameras.
- National security. The TSA runs a total tech program called Quiet Skies, which monitors and flags travelers based on “suspicious” behavior patterns. Travelers can land themselves on the Quiet Skies list by changing their clothes in the restroom, being the last person to board their flight, or even inspecting their reflection in a terminal window. U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently deployed a pilot program that scans and identifies individuals as they drive across the border. Total tech can help on the offensive side as well: The U.S. Department of Defense has worked with Google on Project Maven, a program that equips U.S. weapon systems with advanced AI that identifies objects on the ground better than humans can.
- Mass population surveillance. Government-operated total tech even reaches Americans in their own homes. The U.S. Department of Defense runs (warrantless) surveillance on individuals it deems “homegrown violent extremists.” The National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program may no longer be under wraps, but it is still going strong. The agency collected more than 534 million U.S. phone records last year—a threefold increase from the year before.
- Political tampering. Total tech has also been used by foreign powers to undermine U.S. democracy, the most obvious example being Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections. While fake news in itself is not all that technologically advanced, the speed and scale with which it can spread thanks to social media is unprecedented. And it may soon be getting a tech facelift: Software developed at Stanford University enables anyone to manipulate video footage in real time. Now, anyone with a grudge could alter the facial expressions of a prominent politician making a speech, and then dub in new audio that completely changes the speech’s contents.
What does the public think about government-wielded total tech? If Silicon’ Valley’s recent actions to distance themselves from such programs are any indication, the public must be outraged. But most citizens recognize that these programs have a massive upside: helping make the world a safer place by thwarting crime and terrorism.
HOW WE GOT HERE
At this point, you may be wondering why total tech picked this moment in history to explode onto the scene.
Conventional wisdom holds that it mostly has to do with the technological advances now coming online—e.g., in sensors, bandwidth, Big Data storage, machine learning, and AI. As the tech got ever-more sophisticated, it was bound to be harnessed and put to its maximum totalitarian potential. In other words, technology is in the driver’s seat and the public is just along for the ride. But this narrative is backward. The application of technology is shaped by our wants and needs as a society.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, as the world moved broadly toward individualism, free-agency, smaller government, and globalism (free trade and “tearing down” walls), the tech breakthroughs of that era were mainly deemed supportive of such libertarian trends. This was all part of the “end of history” narrative. The Internet would, most expected, strengthen consumer autonomy, foster greater trust in news, break down barriers between nation-states, and topple authoritarian leaders around the world.
In recent years, the world has been moving in a very different direction—toward community, populism, centralized control, and nationalism (trade wars and “building up” walls). Some have called this the “rediscovery of history.” According to Ian Bremmer, the emerging theme of our era is the “strongman”; according to Amy Chua, it is “tribalism."
Not coincidentally, today’s tech breakthroughs are again moving in tandem—toward empowering the group, not the individual. Strongmen everywhere, from Burma and the Philippines to Turkey and Hungary, look upon social media as their friend.
In 1984, Apple forged a new brand symbolizing the overthrow of “1984” dictators. Just after the Tiananmen Square massacre, Ronald Reagan declared that “the Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” A few years later, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were saying much the same about how the Internet would inevitably transform China into an “open society”—which was why it was so important for America to try to hasten its economic development.
Yes, times have changed. But the big change is not so much in the direction of technology (we’re still using microchips and the Internet) as in the direction of the social mood directing its use.
And there’s more. Whichever era we live in—one that is pushing more toward the individual or toward the group—the logic of that motion tends to be self-reinforcing. That is, each move tends to justify and reinforce further moves in the same direction.
Consider: We have defined total tech as the tendency of consumers, workers, and citizens to cede their privacy and personal autonomy to large institutions. Yet notice that the ceding of privacy leads naturally to the ceding of autonomy and vice versa. Once a third party is observing and compiling data on everything you do, it makes sense to let that entity go one step further and suggest the best course of action. And the more data the entity has, the more trustworthy its recommendations. It’s why consumers trust Netflix to recommend their next show, Amazon to recommend their next purchase, and Facebook to recommend their next friend.
What are individuals getting in return? Safety, order, efficiency, paternalism, and convenience. Smart home devices can order household products before you even knew you needed them. In India, citizens can use their own biometrics for everything from unlocking their door to paying for groceries to applying for pension benefits. Law enforcement officers can stop crime before it happens. Doctors can comb through your Web search records to detect early warning signs of cancer. Along the way, we begin to sense that the large entities in control of this total tech—and even the technology itself—actually care for us.
Generational aging plays a major role in our society’s openness to total tech. In particular, the Millennial worldview resonates with many of the central themes of total tech systems.
- Risk aversion. Millennials’ fear of risk has been well-documented. While older generations feel that sacrificing their privacy is inherently risky, Millennials naturally see the safety-enhancing implications of total tech. On a population level, total tech systems snuff out crime and foil terrorist plots. On an individual level, these systems keep Millennials’ data within the safe confines of a large institution’s servers and out of the hands of criminals.
- Techno-optimism. According to a 2015 survey, 25% of 18- to 24-year-olds believe technology has a “mostly positive” impact on their privacy, the highest share of any age group. (The figure is just 12% for 60- to 64-year-olds.) This generation takes Silicon Valley’s lofty ideals and mission statements at face value and tends to believe that these trusted firms will not “be evil” (to quote from Google’s old motto) with all the data they’ve collected.
- Trust in public institutions. Compared to older generations, Millennials don’t mind their data being in the hands of some large entity. For instance, according to Gallup, more than one-quarter of Millennials (27%) have “a lot of trust” in their credit card company to safeguard their personal data, compared to 22% of older generations. The same goes for health insurance companies (34% vs. 23%), e-mail providers (23% vs. 17%), and brick-and-mortar retailers (23% vs. 14%). Of course, one of Millennials’ favorite institutions is the federal government. While trust in government by Americans of all ages has fallen in recent decades, it has fallen most for older Americans. Today, Millennials are the most likely to trust government to do what is right—and they are the only generation that would (by a thin majority) welcome a bigger government.
- Choice aversion. Some Millennials even view personal autonomy as a burden to be offloaded rather than a benefit to be protected. This generation often feels overwhelmed when facing an array of options—and relieved when the choice is made for them. (See: “When Less is More.”) This stands in stark contrast with Xers and Boomers, who love a wide range of options and delight in making non-prescribed choices that fit their own unique needs.
This generation’s openness to total tech squares with its openness to non-democratic forms of government. (See: “Are Millennials Giving Up on Democracy?”) Research by political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa indicates that only around 30% of Americans born in the 1980s believe it’s “essential” to live in a democracy, far below the share of older Americans who say the same. At the same time, Millennials are warming to authoritarian forms of government—like “socialism” (see: “Democratic Party Gets a Millennial Facelift”)—that put a lower priority on privacy, individual liberty, and personal expression.
In reality, most of the objections against total tech are voiced by older consumers, who are more fearful of parting with their data and losing their personal autonomy. A 2017 report by Pew Research Center finds that 60% of 50- to 64-year-olds and 56% of the 65+ say their data are less secure today than five years ago—compared to just 41% of the under-50 crowd. Older Americans are also far more likely to report varying their passwords across sites and keeping them secret from friends and family to avoid compromising their data. It’s no surprise, then, that less than one-quarter of smart home technology adopters are 55 years old or older; nearly half are between the ages of 18 and 34.
The spread of total tech undoubtedly challenges America’s longstanding libertarian ethos. After all, the central premise of classic liberalism is that most citizens view their privacy and autonomy as inalienable rights worth fighting for. But clearly, this premise isn’t an absolute—and it’s becoming ever-less operative in daily life.
As a society, our feelings about total tech have moved from a fearful, Mad Max-style dystopic vision to a “privacy is theft” mindset closer to The Circle. In a world where older generations worry about VIKI, the all-knowing supercomputer in I, Robot, Millennials fear that Xers like Will Smith may be anarchists who need to be stopped.
THE THREE GUIDING PRINCIPLES OF TOTAL TECH
To be sure, as we continue to embrace total tech, we also begin to wonder where to draw the line. Few Americans, even Millennials, see themselves as overtly anti-democratic—meaning there is such a thing as going too far. But what exactly constitutes “too far”?
To answer this question, we will lay out a few guiding principles that will help total tech remain palatable for most consumers. To avoid crossing the line, total tech systems must:
- Provide opt-outs. As long as people feel that they are not locked in, total tech providers are in the clear. But failing to include an opt-out clause violates our sense of freedom and fair play. Just look at Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which forces companies to seek opt-in approval from consumers before collecting their personal data. It was on the basis of GDPR that Google and Facebook got hit with $8.8 billion’ worth of lawsuits in May. By overwhelming majorities, Americans would like to see similar opt-out laws enacted in the United States.
- Preserve pluralism. The presence of multiple players is key in the total tech space. Where no competition exists, consumers and citizens feel trapped. Lack of competition is one reason why Google Search data collection is such a hot-button issue: If people want to use a well-visited search engine, they have virtually no alternative to Google. Where “opt out” refers to our right to refuse a dominant player, “pluralism” refers to the presence of practical alternatives. Pluralism is more than just a social construct. It is the defining principle of antitrust law, which calls on government to either regulate or break up uncompetitive markets.
- Be transparent. It’s one thing when consumers know they’re being watched. It’s another thing when they find out they’ve been watched without their knowledge. This explains why most Americans disapprove of the NSA’s surveillance program—and why so many U.S. citizens, especially Millennials, view Edward Snowden as a hero for blowing the lid off of the program. Alternatively, if government chooses to regulate rather than break up a monopoly, transparency dictates that the public be informed of how that regulation works.
Practitioners of total tech, beware: Violating even one of these principles will land you in the danger zone.
THE ORWELLIAN SCENARIO: CHINA
Why do the above principles matter? Because when they are violated, it moves us into the kind of overtly non-democratic world that Americans fear. It moves us closer to China, whose government-industrial complex is building total tech that flagrantly violates all three principles.
- Social credit. Much has been written about China’s so-called “social credit system.” Once fully implemented, this system will monitor the behavior (online and offline) of each and every citizen by keeping tabs on everything from speeding tickets to social media posts critical of the state. All these factors will then be used to generate a “sincerity score” unique to each individual. In the final 2020 version of this system, a high score will be a requirement for anyone hoping to get the best housing, install the fastest Internet speeds, put their kids into the most prestigious schools, and land the most lucrative jobs.
Pilot programs of this system are already operational in neighborhoods like Yangjing, where local authorities track and monitor the behavior of all residents using public surveillance tools. They then use the information to compile and publish a monthly “red list” of well-behaved residents along with a “gray list” of poorly behaved residents.
The concept of social credit tied to real-world perks is already becoming a fixture of Chinese consumer life. Sesame Credit, created by Ant Financial Services (an affiliate of Alibaba), is an outgrowth of what we think of as the FICO score system that uses a shopper’s buying history and personal contacts to generate a “score” for that shopper. Scores can be negatively affected by purchases of video games (a supposed sign of idleness), and can be positively affected by purchases of diapers (a sign of reliability). Those with good scores enjoy special perks—such as discounts on e-commerce sites and express security screenings at Beijing Capital Airport.
- AI policing. Last summer, the Chinese city of Xiangyang put up cameras linked to facial recognition technology, along with a large digital display used to shame lawbreakers. (See: “Chinese City Uses AI to Catch Jaywalkers.”) Law enforcement officers in some cities wear AI-powered facial recognition glasses that compare faces in a crowd against digital databases of known criminals in real time. These databases are growing more expansive by the day: Chinese tech startup Eyecool compiles and feeds 2 million facial images each day into a state-sponsored Big Data police system, appropriately named “Skynet.”
- Big Teacher is watching. Total tech is even making inroads in Chinese schools. In March, one high school installed a facial-recognition system that scans each student’s face every 30 seconds. The system can detect emotion, for instance determining whether students are happy or bored. It can also detect six different types of student behavior: reading, writing, hand-raising, standing up, listening, and leaning on the desk. The system even sends a real-time alert to the teacher if a particular student’s attention level falls below a certain point.
Getting flagged by these total tech systems as a troublemaker has dire consequences. China’s Supreme People’s Court maintains a blacklist containing the names of 7.49 million consumers. (Beware: Even stealing a few packs of cigarettes can land you on the list.) Blacklisted individuals report being barred from riding planes and high-speed trains, buying property, and taking out loans. And that’s saying nothing of the extreme social costs of malfeasance: Some Chinese cities have changed the ringback tone of blacklisted individuals so that callers know that the call recipient is an enemy of the state.
In the United States and throughout the west, there’s no clear consensus on total tech. But if there’s one thing that most citizens can agree upon, it’s that we don’t want a system that looks like this.
Any society built on tribalism and group identity needs an “other” against which it can define itself. And increasingly, China is becoming that measuring stick for liberal democratic societies. This is happening in more than just total tech. In science, the ethics of gene editing have been hotly debated for years—but China is racing ahead with human tests to everyone’s dismay. In politics, China’s top-heaviness and extreme concentration of power is drawing scorn from liberal democracies worldwide. China’s growing “otherness,” in fact, is the main reason why Americans in general are supportive of free trade—except when it comes to China, against whom they feel that tariffs are warranted. (See: “America Threatens a Trade War with China.”)
WHERE WE’RE HEADED
The future of total tech in America and elsewhere in the west will be a balancing act between the drive for efficiency and the preservation of privacy and autonomy. How will total tech influence each sphere of life?
- Consumer services. In consumer life, total tech will continue to proliferate. Before long, the IoT will give way to “ambient intelligence,” in which all your home’s Internet-connected devices will be in constant communication with each other without your knowledge or consent. Every purchase you make, Web search you type, and show you watch will be entered into a vast database that your smart assistant will use to predict your behavior—and even offer you advice. Your very footsteps, eye movements, and tone of voice will be grist for machine learning. Trudging too hard up the stairs? Alexa may suggest a new diet or a trip to the doctor. Sounding stressed talking to your family? Alexa will offer to book your next vacation. And her soothing, humanlike manner will persuade you that she really cares.
While this future may seem like a dystopian nightmare for Boomers and Xers, it will likely be a natural evolution of IT for Millennials, who won’t mind giving up their personal data to Amazon or another trusted Silicon Valley company for the sake of convenience. Total tech fits perfectly into the Millennial worldview of risk aversion, efficiency, and optimization.
As this future becomes reality, the general stigma associated with total tech—and the companies that supply it—will fade. The noteworthy exception will by any company seen as “crossing the line” into total tech that breaches one of the three principles. Even the mere association with entities that practice “bad” total tech (like China) would be damaging. Viewed through this lens, Google’s recent decision to build a censored search app for China looks like a catastrophic branding mistake. Likewise, Facebook’s recent decision to crack down on fake news by assigning each user a “reputation score” also reeks of Chinese total tech.
- The workplace. Before long, companies of all types will be monitoring, tracking, and nudging their employees into optimal behavior on a large scale. B2B service providers like Humanyze that track and detect patterns in corporate communication will become valuable acquisition targets. In sum, workers will learn to check their expectations of privacy at the door. Millennials will gravitate toward employers that create family-like workplaces. This is the natural progression of a business world that is growing more numbers-based and bottom line-focused, according to Humanyze boss Ben Waber: “Every aspect of business is becoming more data-driven. There’s no reason the people side of business shouldn’t be the same.”
- Government and politics. The launching of any major new total tech initiative at the U.S. federal level is, at the moment, unthinkable due to political gridlock in Congress and the polarization of the nation’s two political parties. But with elections looming, that will eventually change. And when it does, here are two big projects likely to be put on the agenda:
- A national identity card. This is an obvious application of total tech with plenty of appeal for everyone. A biometrics-enhanced national ID card would enable government to crack down on immigration control and voter fraud, a huge draw for the political right. It could also be linked to everything from gun-sales databases to social safety net programs, a win for the political left.
- A national cryptocurrency. We’ve long been bearish on Bitcoin as a viable cash replacement. (See: “Bitcoin: Don’t Look Down!”) But its underlying blockchain technology could be a godsend for central bankers, who would love a “cashless” system in which every transaction appears instantly on a public ledger. Financial industry writer J.P. Koning observed as far back as 2014 that the U.S. Federal Reserve could easily release its own cryptocurrency, a sort of “Fedcoin,” that would run parallel to (or even supplant) cash.
The timing of such grand national projects would clearly be speeded up in the presence of an emergency or crisis. For the sake of national security or public safety, Americans are as likely as any other people to forfeit privacy and cede vast new powers to government virtually overnight.
Even without a crisis, the growing dominance of monopolies in American life will inevitably compel government to play a much stronger regulatory role over technology. For example, as Internet companies like Facebook and Google continue to take over the public square, calls for government to supervise their regulation of “news” or take it over outright will grow louder. Rather than resisting, the FAANGs may in fact beg for regulators to step in and absolve them of responsibilities they never wanted in the first place—especially if the alternative is incurring public wrath, triggering vast fines, or being broken up like the Bell System of the 1980s. (See: “Is the Public Square Disintegrating?”)
But then again, maybe there will be a crisis. The last time we saw a mood shift toward national community assisted by promethean new technologies was the 1930s, when in the midst of the Great Depression, beleaguered citizens empowered FDR and his New Deal Democrats to make sweeping changes to society. The battle lines were drawn, and the public trusted its government to overcome national obstacles and vanquish national enemies. It was an era in which the community trumped the individual. It was also an era in which the “other” came to be defined by global fascism, whose growing popularity by the late 1930s ultimately emboldened its leaders to launch wars of aggression.
Back then, government harnessed huge technological breakthroughs to arm the nation and vanquish the “other”—from mass radio broadcasts to mass assembly lines, from radar and code-breaking computers to proximity fuses and atomic fission. New technology can hardly be called the author of this mobilization. Rather, national leaders backed by a resolute public used new technology to achieve a peaceful and democratic world in which dangerous regimes could be kept in check. Today, the players may be different—but the story could wind up the same.