Financial systems have always been fragile. Barry Eichengreen

The End of Innocence

The past two months have undone the Age of Digital Innocence. It’s now possible to speak of technology of power, and of the internet as a site of old-fashioned struggle.

When he was only 24 years old, Jean Paul Getty had already made his first million. Born to a father who owned a small petroleum company in Minnesota, Getty eagerly pushed into the thriving oil business as soon as he finished university in 1914. In 1966, the Guinness Book of World Records proclaimed him to be the world’s richest living person. Oil was the future, and oil was money. There was, as Daniel Day-Lewis proclaims with a feverish voice in the movie There Will Be Blood, “an ocean of oil under our feet” waiting to be sucked out of the ground and turned into hard cash.

But the oil rush was different from the gold rushes of the 19th century. Not only did oil bring tremendous wealth to a fortunate few, it also reshaped the economy in its entirety. Mass transportation and the production of plastics became possible on unprecedented scales. Oil fueled factories, cars, and dreams of industrial greatness. As late as the 1950s and 1960s, when the US Congress authorized the construction of a vast interstate highway system and Germany’s post-war Wirtschaftswunder brought private car ownership to the masses, oil was regarded as the harbinger of a better future.

Then came the oil crisis of the 1970s and the environmental movements of the 1980s and 1990s. The former highlighted the political power that could be wielded by those who controlled access to the precious resource, the latter shone a light on the destructive effects of exploding greenhouse gas emissions. Oil, one of the great forces behind world history for many decades, quickly lost its innocence. We are now well aware of the hidden externalities of two centuries of fossil fuel consumption, of the burden it has placed on the biosphere, and of the conflicts it spawned.

Data, the resource of the 21st century

Fast forward a few decades to the next great resource revolution. TCP/IP protocols were developed in the 1970s; the first HTTP communication occurred in 1989; the first commercial use of the internet was allowed in 1991. Data might well become the defining resource of the 21st century. Already, the physical and informational infrastructure of the internet has eclipsed the world’s big pipelines and shipping channels in importance. And there’s a striking similarity between today’s discussions about the transformative potential of the internet and the early enthusiasm for oil-driven progress. Both have tended to capitalize on newly opened doors and avenues for progress, often without pausing to think about hidden costs and unintended consequences.

Some of the early revolutionaries called themselves “digital natives” and joined the frenzy as soon as dial-up modems became affordable. The Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, Jeff Bezos busted old-fashioned bookstores. However, mass adoption was driven primarily by the seemingly innocuous nature of new technologies and gadgets: They promised the benefits of connectivity, packaged in user-friendly interfaces, without the sense of uncertainty that accompanies most periods of revolutionary upheaval. Like oil, the internet seemed to be an unequivocal force for good. As WIRED’s founding editor Kevin Kelly has argued, the benefits of digital technologies have always tended to outweigh their downsides. That’s all you need for progress, says Kelly: an incremental imbalance that tilts the scales in our favor. And so it seemed perfectly reasonable to press ahead, to communicate freely and to share widely. Critics like Evgeny Morozov were either seen as lone wolfs or, like Nicholas Carr, focused on the psychological and neurological consequences of digital culture.

Rarely did we speak of technology as power. So great was our sense of innocence that the most commonly used password in 2012 was simply password (followed by 123456), and that a security expert told me as recently as two years ago that the danger from cyber-espionage and cyber-crimes was vastly exaggerated in comparison to traditional military threats. A few months later, Stuxnet made global headlines.

It’s tempting, against this cultural background of the last two decades, to tell the story of the internet as a fall-from-grace tale: As the evolution of an open network towards a network of walled gardens, as the replacement of mutually beneficial communication by malevolent hacks, corporate interests, and government surveillance. But this misses a crucial point: A technology is influential only when it is powerful. The truly revolutionary aspect of digitalization is not that it allows us to live in a world of e-commerce and social networking but that it gave birth to a new politics of power.

Each act of sharing, each comment left online, each data package sent across the internet’s global infrastructure contributes to the digital power relations. It alters the informational landscape, renders business models viable, adds to digital data piles, and molds cultural discourses about privacy, access, and transparency. (If you are haunted by the legacy of Foucault, you might want to take a look at this article over at Verso Books.) The problem with techno-optimism is thus not that it’s empirically wrong but conceptually weak: It cannot account for the politics of power. This is a problem. As Ernest Hemingway once wrote in A Moveable Feast: “All things truly wicked start from innocence.”

Our innocence stood on weak foundations

Yet that innocence has been decidedly torn to shreds over the last two months. We now know that browsing histories, email metadata, and social media activity can be swept up by intelligence agencies without warrants; that national borders are weak deterrents when governments share information across the globe; that commitments of service providers to privacy protection are little more than lip service in light of court orders that mandate compliance with data requests; and that even encrypted information is not necessarily protected from surveillance. The armchair statement that none of this is surprising rings true not because governments are necessarily wicked but because it’s entirely unimaginable that something as revolutionary as the internet would not become entangled in struggles for power and control. Instinctively, we knew that our innocence stood on weak foundations.

It took decades of expanding fossil fuel emissions before the mass use of oil and gas was problematized – before public opinion started to see fossil fuels not as a harbinger of progress but a precursor of climate change –, and it took years of digitalization before privacy debates finally reached the mainstream. By then, the costs of innocence had already begun to accumulate: We had become reliant on the resources of oil and data, dependent on the infrastructures they spawned, and entangled with the economies they fueled.

The single biggest impact of the files leaked by Edward Snowden lies in the dismantling of the Age of Digital Innocence. It’s about time to bring the rhetoric of struggle and the theory of power into the digital realm, and to talk about technology as a site of contestation. Because the misbelief that a revolutionary technology will necessarily usher in an age of progress only serves those who exert the greatest control. The future they envision will most certainly be transformative but not necessarily desirable.

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