The Technology of the State, and its Dissidents

Vancouver, British Columbia, June 15, 2011; and London, Ontario, March 17, 2012: Two riots in Canadian cities that shocked, enraged, and embarrassed communities. The following investigations into both instances of “civic disturbance” relied heavily on crowd-sourced digital and social media evidence to prosecute the perpetrators. Embedded in the archives of pictures, videos, and screen captures is a blatant message: consciously or not, we are indeed watching — and recording — one another. And we are increasingly happy to submit our mutual surveillance data to the state, at least as long as it used to reprimand hooligans.

The narrative that social media drove the Arab Spring builds our confidence that these digital mediums ultimately exist for some kind of ultimate, democratic good. When we see the same technology used to identify and incriminate delinquent rebel-rousers we are thrilled with its effectiveness. What we fail to see is how those last two sentences potentially stand in ironic contradiction to each other. Lurking behind these interpretations and uses of technology is a very particular social contract in mind — which, incidentally, assumes the majority will always land on the side of justice — and a subsequent moralization of technology as a tool either for/against the will of the state.

This stack of presuppositions deserves careful consideration. The greater likelihood is that information technology presents equal opportunity for some populations to rise against their governments and for some states to prosecute their citizens. There is possibly nothing inherently more liberating than quelling about the technology itself. It simply increases the potential efficiency, if not likelihood, of both activities. The morality of civic action vis-a-vis the state, and vice versa, that must remain the central focus of any debate about the impact of any technology in any society.