The New Political Asymmetry: Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide

We’ve recently entered another new year of full-on global cyber warfare between the world’s failing nation-states on one side and a growing population of networked resistance movements of all varieties and ideologies on the other. In the past week alone, and in the United States alone, two major hacks — of the Federal Reserve and of the Bush family email archive — have clearly demonstrated the asymmetric advantage those movements enjoy.

While headline writers prefer nice, neat organizational attributions (Wikileaks, Anonymous, what have you) with discrete motivations and simple guiding principles to explain the situation, there’s more going on here than meets the mainstream media’s jaundiced eye. They’re missing the forest for the trees. This conflict ultimately resolves down to two belligerent parties: The state on one side, everyone else on the other. And the state is losing.

To be honest, it looked dicey there for awhile: In the final decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, governments worldwide developed surveillance capabilities far beyond anything Orwell imagined in 1984.

All Winston Smith had to worry about were telescreens on the walls, bugs in the bushes and the usual human informers. In the real world, state surveillance has developed along less visible, but more pernicious, lines: Satellite photography. Traffic cameras. Financial transaction monitoring. RFID tracking. Sifting of information gathered from huge databases. Heck, even your cell phone can betray your location and movements not just when you’re using it, but so long as it has battery power.

But what Orwell didn’t anticipate, another author did. The global political class, like it or not (and they don’t, not one bit), is faced with the inverse transparency David Brin predicted in 1998’s The Transparent Society. There are key asymmetries at work which yield huge advantages to the state’s opponents.

Yes, states possess powerful surveillance capabilities, but those capabilities are centrally and hierarchically directed, and accessible only through relatively small and somewhat identifiable forces of operators. And they attempt to seek out and surveill what amount to straw-colored needles in a haystack of seven billion humans.

The world’s networked resistance movements are those needles. It’s much easier for the needle to see and identify the guy with the pitchfork than it is for the guy with the pitchfork to see and identify the needle. There are a lot more needles than there are guys with pitchforks. And the needles have access to their own set of tools — tools which are cheap, easy to use, and available to nearly anyone (including those aforementioned operators!) who might decide, at any time and for any reason, to become a needle.

Two conditions must obtain for the state to maintain its supremacy over the populace.

One is that the political class must know what the populace is up to.

The other is that the populace must NOT know what the political class is up to.

While the state has enjoyed considerable success in its attempts to maintain the first condition, maintaining the second has become for all practical purposes impossible, short of completely crashing civilization as we know it.

Some politicians have suggested ramping up to such last-ditch measures (e.g. former US Senator Joe Lieberman’s “Internet Kill Switch” proposal), but there’s a nasty catch. The two sets of tools involved rely on the same underlying web (pun intended) of technology. To kill one is to kill, or at least substantially cripple, the other. Not immediately, perhaps, but over any significant timeframe.

Any temporary reprieve such measures might produce would ultimately result in the opposite of the desired response. You can’t get between LulzSec and its targets without also getting between the masses and their porn, their funny pictures of cats, their Facebook friends, their stock portfolios. And you don’t do that. Not if you want to live for more than another week or so, anyway.

Here is the new reality: The activities of the political class are now, and from here on out shall remain, under a public magnifying glass. The nation-state as we know it cannot long survive such close and constant examination. We are about to move on to something else.

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The Anatomy of Escape
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