To turn the internet into a truly effective weapon takes skill, money and power. It's time we all woke up, before the clock strikes 13.
You and the atomic bomb
As sales of George Orwell’s 1984 skyrocket, I too find myself reaching for his wise words, but instead opt for one of his much over-looked essays “You and the Atomic Bomb”. If you’ve not read it, you must.
Published in October 1945, Orwell reflects on the might of these weapons of mass destruction and warns that an era in which the dominant weapon is expensive inherently lends itself to despotism. One line struck me as particularly relevant considering the mass technological change we have seen in the past 8 years “ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple the common people have a chance.”.
I wonder what Orwell would have made of today’s society and in particular the dominant weapon of the time, the internet. The late noughties saw a wave of optimism in the internet and its emancipatory power. Stories of bedroom start-ups making millions, small niche businesses expanding their reach to a global audience and free flowing information that enabled all, no matter how remote, to see the truth.
If the past 12 months have taught us anything, it is that far from being the weapon of the common people, a means by which the weak can hold the powerful to account, the internet has become a nexus of control and political influence that would impress the most effective of propaganda machines.
At face value, by Orwell's standards, should we not be pleased? For the price of a Sky broadband tariff, and inexplicably a landline charge, we too have access to the weapon that the Kremlin has, that GCHQ has and, yes, ok I’ll say it, Donald Trump has. But do we really? We are all becoming increasingly aware of Russian involvement in swaying the US presidential election. What too is coming to light, and in my opinion is far more terrifying is the impact Cambridge Analytica had on the EU referendum. A company owned by friend of Nigel Farage, Robert Mercer, used hugely advanced and expensive data analytics tools to construct psychometric profiles of British voters in an effort to influence their votes through Facebook advertisements. Far from this being a hysterical fear by one paranoid millennial, this weapon used by the Vote Leave campaign, is seen as so powerful that it has warranted an investigation by UK privacy watch dog the ICO. Fears over the exploitation over personal data and the weaponization of the internet are growing.
This is where my point lies, the internet gives us all the power to expose injustices in 140 characters or less. But don't be fooled, the internet is not a cheap weapon that puts us “the common people” on a level playing field with the elite, the internet is a weapon that is expensive and extremely difficult to make. It has handed the real power to those with millions, if not billions of pounds to develop software and programmes that makes us lowly proles nothing more than pawns, and the worst part is, we don’t even know it. To turn the internet into a truly effective weapon takes skill, money and power. It's time we all woke up, before the clock strikes 13.
Jasper Thompson is a Young Fabians member. Follow him on Twitter at @jasperthompsn