Matt Lewis

Steve Jobs, the NSA, and a nation of naive techno-utopians

I blame Steve Jobs.

Before he came along, computers were seen by many as a tool for geeks, nerds, and the military. In essence, for “the man.” But Jobs made it cool — revolutionary, even — to be into computers.

His famous ‘1984’ TV commercial made it look like we were fighting authoritarianism, not handing them the keys to our lives. It was as if he had taken the “This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker off Woody Guthrie’s guitar, and slapped it on a Mac.

We were duped. “Jobbed” by Jobs.

I’m being facetious, of course. I don’t really blame Jobs for the sins of others, though it is fair to say his creation — coupling elegant design style with technological proficiency — made it easy for us to believe technology would be a force for good.

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In recent years, the one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that the internet would make things better. Sure, there were some luddites out there who worried about the rise of new media stamping out newspapers. But they were dinosaurs  and this was creative destruction. Most people thought the internet would do everything from lowering barriers to entry to exposing human rights violations.

Many conservatives — who like to think they are immune to such utopian dreams — got caught up in the zeitgeist. After all, we reasoned, how could someone who manages his stock portfolio on a smart phone trust the government to manage his healthcare? By empowering individuals to take more control over their world, we would be raising a generation of little Ronald Reagans, right?

It turns out, technology is a double-edged sword. And as information regarding the NSA’s PRISM program leaks out, we are beginning to see the potential downside of technology. It’s not surprising that we didn’t see this coming. It turns out, we were lulled into a false sense of security. We were almost guaranteed to see the benefits before the costs.

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As security technologist and author Bruce Schneier said on a recent episode of EconTalk, “When we first got the internet it was very quickly clear that the powerless, the unorganized, the disenfranchised were able to use it to organize, to gain power,”

“We saw President Obama use the internet in an unprecedented way,” he said. “We saw the Arab Spring, where in countries like Egypt and Libya, dissidents used the internet to organize and to push for political change.”

But then, he added this:

“It was a utopian dream, and we kind of all believed it. What we didn’t realize is that more broadly, the internet technology magnifies power. And if you have power already, it will also magnify your power. But it happens slower. Right? Governments are institutions; they don’t move as fast. They have bureaucracies; they have ways of doing things. And it really took them 10-15 years to figure out the Internet. But now we are living in a world where the power full use the Internet to increase their power. So, the National Security Agency (NSA) use their power to spy on people. The Chinese government use the Internet to spy on people.”

Fighting technology would have been a fool’s errand, of course. Even supposing it was a good idea to stifle innovation (it wouldn’t have been), we would have been like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke.

But we could have been a little less quixotic about the notion that this would be a glorious thing — that everyone would embrace the “don’t be evil” philosophy. We should have realized that with great power comes great responsibility. We should have been keener to realize the potential for government to use and abuse this.