Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Effects of Computers

Decades ago, one of my friends had a grand plan to fundamentally change the nature of the financial industry. He felt that by using computers we could wipe out the old ways, and replace them with something entirely different. My position was that computers don’t make huge changes, instead they just shift what is already there around. After all, they’re just a new way to capture data, process it and then interact with us. They only do what we tell them. They’re only as smart as we make them.

Still, despite my friend’s overzealous goals, computers did have a big effect on the financial markets. They shifted the ability to trade financial instruments like stocks, away from a small powerful group, over to the masses. They liberated our access to the markets. Over time we’ve seen this effect again and again. Typesetters disappeared as more people could control the layout of their works. Marketing materials first became more accessible, followed by more directed campaigns. Access to music was liberated from the record companies. Photography became easier for the amateurs. Writing became more accessible in blogs, affecting books, magazines and eventually daily newspapers. Computers even allowed anyone to easily create their own videos and distribute them to the world.

Clearly the trend has been for very specific things that were controlled by a small group of people to become accessible to the masses. What was once impenetrable and highly controlled has shifted into becoming both easier and more accessible. As we put more of our knowledge into the tools, we made it possible for more people to utilize them. As we’ve made more information available, more people can use it at varying levels. We’ve allowed our specialties to be distributed over a wider audience.

Industry after industry has had to undergone this painful shift, and usually they’ve gone down fighting hard. But once set in motion it seems as if it is only a matter of time before the gates come crashing down and the amateurs are allowed access to what was once a private and secluded domain. This has been the dominate affect of computers over the last three decades.

The old adage “information is power” has been the mainstay of our history for centuries. The “rich and powerful” are rich and powerful precisely because they have access to information that the rest of us don’t have. Welding that information allows them to stay in their elite positions. Spinning that information, into something simpler and more appealing, allows them to control the rest of us. Information -- its collection, control and distribution -- is their primary source of power.

Nowhere is this more significant than in the halls of government. Running countries is less about management and more about information acquiring and control than any other domain. They are built entirely around this.

But like all of the other domains, the computer has come to their doorstep, first in just the general openness of the World Wide Web, but now in the form of WikiLeaks and lots of other means of exposing their power sources. Like all of the others before them, governments are beginning to understand the real nature of the changes. Their exclusive source of power -- the facts and opinions that underlie our political interactions -- are now slipping out of their control. Like the movie studios and record companies, they too will fight to preserve their domain, but once that door has been opened there is little they can do to stop the slide.

We could argue eternally about what and how many secrets a government actually needs to function properly. Some say a lot, but many are coming to realization that “necessary secrets” is an entirely different issue from “information control”; that the history of humanity has been continually rewritten by those with the power to do so, and that often this has lead to our deepest collective miseries. The other adage “history is written by the winners” has frequently lead to our increasingly delusional beliefs about our own superiority. But the rich and powerful only rework history to suit themselves or to pacify their followers. The dirty little truths are hidden to protect them from recriminations, not for noble reasons.

At first the web revealed this about some of the more backward nations on our planet, but now it has caught up with all of them.

Like it or not, this is our new reality. Power brokers are now no different from stock or music brokers. Our machines have liberated us from one and all. There is nothing the governments can do to put the genie back into the bottle, they just have to learn to live with the consequences.

Myself, I think it is a good thing. We’re lied to on a daily basis, often out of the misguided belief that it is best for us. “The people don’t need or want the truth” seems to be the position of the elite, but I think they actually covet and distort information mostly for their own selfish gains. Control freaks want, or need to control the things around them not out of concern for others, but because they need to. Not knowing the full history, or having some major event painted in black & white terms instead of the real murky grayish colors of reality, doesn’t make our lives better or more meaningful and for most of us it insults our intelligence. At the same time it allows those in power to help their friends and families. The more information they control, the more they can remake the world to their advantage.

I think as a species we’ve reached the point where we can start to undo this legacy. That statements like “government of the people, for the people, by the people” could actually become true one day, and we could stop being deluded hypocrites. Most people will accept a convenient lie because most often it is the easiest thing to do, but I honestly believe that they would both appreciate and benefit from the truth. Being sheep lead by wolves, both imprisons and demeans us.

As for computers, I really think this is only the start of what they can do for our species. Clearly we’re still learning how to use them, and when we can finally tap their tremendous power, we will be able to fix all sorts of historic short-comings. In that sense, the revolution has only just begun, its best to hold on tight, relax and enjoy the show.