Modern technology and modern liberty

Tony Curzon Price, openDemocracy’s editor-in-chief, recently published the first part of what looks likely to be a fascinating series of articles on how technological forces are affecting our democracy and our civil liberties, both for good and for ill – part two is coming soon. He begins the series with a survey of some of the recent literature on the subject – from the optimism of the “Net-Topians” who argue for the transformative potential of the internet, to the pessimism of those who worry about the splintering of debate into self-contained blogospheres (as does Cass Sunstein) or the creation of a ‘database state’ (as do many of those involved in this Convention).

Tony organises his discussion around Benjamin Constant’s 19th century analysis of the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns. According to Constant, we moderns have gained the ability to live much of our lives without the state’s interference, but have also lost the direct engagement in public life and societal decision-making which is characteristic of the “ancient liberty” that we associate with classical Athens. Constant’s analysis is of particular relevance to those seeking a renewal of “modern liberty”.

What does this have to do with technology? For the full picture, you will have to follow Tony’s series of articles. But you can probably already think of ways in which it gives the state greater power to monitor and control its citizens – ‘identity management’ databases and the biometric tools that they rely on prominent among them. Tony points out that modern technology can also enable a new form of modern liberty which involves some of the best aspects of ancient liberty, giving citizens greater power to monitor and influence the state through websites like mysociety.org, theyworkforyou.com – and, for that matter, this one.

This is the crucial point: technology is fundamentally only an enabler. The fact that it can be used for good (or for ill) does not guarantee that it will be. This is not to deny that powerful forces in the market and in the state are driving the technological threats to privacy and liberty; it is only to say that we as a society have the ability to stop them.

The Convention on Modern Liberty will, I hope, make clear just what sort of action is needed, and galvanise interested individuals and organisations across Britain into taking it. But, as a technophile at heart, let me close by underscoring once again Tony’s point that modern technology can be a friend of modern liberty, rather than simply its foe. It offers at least the promise of a more participatory democracy, and has already helped make government more accountable. In these ways it can actually help to roll the clocks back – to a time when the state was also the ‘polis’, a relatively unified society in which policy emerged from debate between informed citizens rather than a mandarin class of the sort which has been instrumental in pushing for identity databases in the UK. Of course at the moment that is just a dream. But it is less of one in an age of blogs and the free flow of digital information than it was before these technologies hit the mainstream. (However, for reasons to be sceptical about this sort of technophile optimism, see the opening paragraph of Tony’s piece.)

Thomas Ash has been developing the modernliberty.net and opendemocracy.net websites since late 2008 – this note is posted on both sites. Thomas can be contacted at thomas.ash [at] opendemocracy.net.

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