[Essay] Machine Politics by Fred Turner | Harper’s Magazine
The rise of the internet and a new age of authoritarianism
par Fred Turner
“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”
At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”
One of the deepest ironies of our current situation is that the modes of communication that enable today’s authoritarians were first dreamed up to defeat them. The same technologies that were meant to level the political playing field have brought troll farms and Russian bots to corrupt our elections. The same platforms of self-expression that we thought would let us empathize with one another and build a more harmonious society have been co-opted by figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos and, for that matter, Donald Trump, to turn white supremacy into a topic of dinner-table conversation. And the same networked methods of organizing that so many thought would bring down malevolent states have not only failed to do so—think of the Arab Spring—but have instead empowered autocrats to more closely monitor protest and dissent.
If we’re going to resist the rise of despotism, we need to understand how this happened and why we didn’t see it coming. We especially need to grapple with the fact that today’s right wing has taken advantage of a decades-long liberal effort to decentralize our media. That effort began at the start of the Second World War, came down to us through the counterculture of the 1960s, and flourishes today in the high-tech hothouse of Silicon Valley. It is animated by a deep faith that when engineering replaces politics, the alienation of mass society and the threat of totalitarianism will melt away. As Trump fumes on Twitter, and Facebook posts are linked to genocide in Myanmar, we are beginning to see just how misplaced that faith has been. Even as they grant us the power to communicate with others around the globe, our social-media networks have spawned a new form of authoritarianism.