Technology, Power and Social Control
We live in perilous times. We live in an era where new systems of power and control have evolved unnoticed by the majority, yet utlized by the elites to construct a global system of power projection which may ultimately lead to global systemic collapse. Far from growing weaker, the Empire is evolving into a more powerful, malignant form. Contrary to common misconceptions, this is a consequence of high speed computers, global telecommunications and the internet. The common view is that these tools are a liberating force for good. In the service of power, however, these tools have been used to create a massive dependency upon the use of these tools, hence, upon the powerful few who control access to the system.
The first significant change in power relationships occurred when high speed computers and global telecommunications permitted the construction of a real time global financial system dominated by Wall Street and the West. The system greatly facilitated global business transactions, particularly financial transactions, while simultaneously creating a de facto dependency upon this imperial dominated system for survival in a globalized world. Third World countries, particularly smaller ones, found themselves helpless to defend themselves against predatory capital flows, both into the country creating financial bubbles, and the abrupt withdrawl of funds resulting in manufactured insolvency. Add to this American sanctions and the freezing of assets, and the capacity of empire for financial coersion increased enormously. Entangled in webs of debt and locked into an imperial financial system, many otherwise "independent" countries (Greece, etc) have lost local control of their economies which are being directed by the IMF and central banks, their governments relegated to maintaining order while implementing the imperial agenda.
The extent to which foreign countries are dependent upon the US based financial system is incredible. Currently, global inter-bank transfers denominated in dollars are processed through the US based SWIFT system making Russia and China significantly dependent upon the US for their banking needs. Additionally, credit card transactions are processed centrally in Western facilities. When Russia attempted to get VISA to process Russian transactions in Russia, VISA refused and Russia backed down. The internet is a US created and controlled system upon which global business has become heavily dependent. As much as 98% of South American internet traffic is processed in the US enabling the US to easily monitor private communications and to potentially deny service to apply economic pressure. The extent to which foreign countries and businesses are dependent upon US based communications and financial systems makes these systems as potent as oil in securing US hegemony. To be truly independent, countries need to break free from these centralized US based systems. Russia and China are attempting to do just that, however, it remains to be seen whether or not they have waited too long to break free.
Most folks tend to view the internet as a liberating technology which provides a much needed alternative to the corporate media. There is some truth to that, particularly initially when the internet was first becoming popular. Always remember that the internet was developed by the US government to facilitate communications between various government funded researchers, the later commercialization of the web a gift to big business. So too, it should be pointed out that in our political economy big business has a synergistic relationship to government, both in the development and implementation of policy. At this point, the US developed and controlled internet became a nascent yet rapidly growing and powerful tool in service of a maturing US centered corporate/financial empire. As the global economy adapts to the usefulness and power of the world wide web, so too a dependency develops whereby access to the internet and other forms of corporate controlled telecommunications becomes as critical to the functioning of various non-US economies as access to oil and other enery supplies.
Those who misperceive the internet as a free and unlimited source of alternative information sources fail to account for several factors. Significantly, unlimited quantities of information are overwhelming and practically useless. Dealing with a large quantity of information requires a filtering process to identify a manageable quantity of appropriate information. So, unless an internet user happens to know the URL of a particular website, the initial process involves a search engine to identify possible alternatives. It should be fairly obvious, therefore, that the search engine biases our access to the various alternatives, the first fifty or so listings provided by the search engine receiving the bulk of traffic. Likewise, these biased results are likely to be replicated fairly consistently for similar searches by multiple individuals utilizing the same search engine.
The nature of these search engines is such that a few have come to dominate the business for economic reasons, Google the largest, which means that global internet users inevitably are influenced by the search engine bias of a handful of Western corporations, mostly US. In other words, the wide diversity of people who use Google are accessing a miniscule portion of the internet as presented according to Google's US oriented search bias, whether intentional or not. This is much more significant than it might first appear. At the least, global internet usage is strongly influenced by Western corporate bias, in Google's case a bias in favor of imperial advantages for US business favoring support for US foreign policy objectives. This represents a form of de facto control of the information highway which is invisible to the average internet user. This highly centralized and consistent channeling of search inquiries results in a uniform skewing of information choices on a global, Western oriented basis. Furthermore, the economics of the internet make Third World alternatives to the current system difficult and uneconomic to implement in a globalized world. It should also be emphasized that Google's business model involves data mining for sale. It may well be that Google and the US government know more about the average Chinese internet user than China does.
Another significant characteristic of the internet is the extent to which it responds to economic power. It is analogous to the mass media in this regard in that although we as individuals may enjoy free speech, an individual standing on a soapbox is largely irrelevant, whereas, the mass media is able to reach a large audience. Likewise, an individual can start a free blogspot with minimal impact, whereas, a professionally constructed and run website will attract a larger audience but costs a significant amount of money to run. For example, the popular CounterPunch alternative website needs to raise $100,000 during an annual fundraiser to maintain operations. Commercial websites can cost much more. With this in mind, it should be fairly obvious that those with big bucks to spend have a significant, perhaps overwhelming influence on web content. In this regard, the internet can be a much more effective tool of propaganda than the mass media insofar as the message can be tailored to the preconceptions and biases of specific targeted groups. In other words, rather than one crude message for the masses, it is possible to present multiple versions of same message tailored to appeal to the targeted audiences utilizing multiple websites appealing to these various groups. Also, just as years ago some folks thought that "news" must be factual if it appeared in a newspaper, now many place undo credence upon information found on the web. It is well to remember that not everything on Wikipedia is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
One aspect of the inernet and social media which has been inadequately discussed is the use of this technology to identify and organize what can best be described as a youthful comprador class which perceives their personal success best served by globalized, neoliberal capitalism. This network of young 'shakers and movers' is inherently destabilizing in those countries resisting neoliberal globalization and empire. It must be remembered that all empires rely upon local compradors and satraps to maintain local control. The Obama administration came to power significantly aided by young people recruited and organized around the internet and social media. These highly successful techniques have been further refined and are now part of American foreign policy tools applied on a global basis. In this regard, it should be noted that the internet does not stop at national borders nor pass through check points.
It should be further noted that much Third World internet access is via smart phones, the vast majority of which utilize Google's Android operating system. Local Third World information sources have been effectively superceded by an American centered, corporate dominated global information network attuned to corporate priorities. Uncle Sam now has direct access to vast numbers of favorably disposed foreign nationals who receive significant amounts of US technical and financial assistance as they bring pressure to bear to implement the neoliberal agenda and thwart local and national solutions. In essence, the US is the hub of a global network of upwardly mobile elite who identify with and work to implement the transnational corporate agenda as defined by the US.
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems likely that much of the euphoria over the liberating potential of the internet and other communication advances was a direct consequence of corporate marketing activities hyping the wonders of the technology. The personal potential highlighted, the structural reality invisible. All of this taking place in a capitalist culture seeking magical technical fixes for problems created by technology and inherent in our political economy. We are a money driven and money controlled society. The notion that expensive communications infrastructure would be designed to permit the 99% to liberate themselves from the control of the 1% is a naive fantasy. The decline of the mass media is an illusion, a consequence of misperceiving the metamorphisis of the corporate controlled communications media. The rise and fall of specific corporations or technology hardly a revolutionary phenomenon. Also, the extent to which the entire global political economy has been transformed and become dependent upon these technologocal advances, hence, dependent upon those who control these systems. Technology, in and of itself, can never be inherently liberating, only potentially liberating. Almost always, technological advances will be made to serve the interests of those who control the political economy. As a consequence, the internet, along with other communications advances, has increased the level of global corporate control including the unprecedented development of a system of global mass surveillance. Unfortunately, few seem aware of this reality, fewer still have considered how to respond.
Finally, I have decided not to open the Pandoras's box of discussing the social consequences of internet enabled social networks and virtual reality. This is something which I don't fully comprehend which, nonetheless, fills me with dread.