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Conquering the Beast Within and Without: Maintaining a Sibling Rivalry with Big Brother

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Long ago, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) argued that, in the absence of strict civilizing influences, humans tended to lead lives that were "nasty, brutish, and short." For Hobbes, human nature was brutal largely because nature is brutal. The law of the jungle is harrowing and, in a state of nature, social niceties generally take a back seat to the grim realities of no-holds-barred struggles for survival.

That humans could flourish in natural environments that were predicated on lethal competition is a complement to the unique array of evolutionary adaptations that comprise modern Homo sapiens. Lacking formidable claws, teeth and body mass, humans have overcome their physiological shortcomings by evolving a matchless intellect. Humans have succeeded in exerting unparalleled dominance over the earth by repeatedly making the point that brawn can always be subjugated by intellect.

For his part, Hobbes was convinced that social control was the key to human progress. No matter how refined any individual may appear, Hobbes was convinced that a primitive beast lurked within. Intellects that have been honed in the pitiless crucible of survival competitions remain indelibly a product of those struggles. Yet, though Hobbes believed that a savage resided within every human heart, he also believed that it was possible to tame those internal beasts. This could be accomplished via the application of social control. In a well-regulated environment where ne'er-do-wells are disciplined swiftly and certainly, Hobbes asserted that individuals can be effectively dissuaded from pursuing purely self-interested, and thus, anti-social activities. The key to civilizing the human animal is to ensure that individuals remain more fearful of disobeying the instruments of centralized authority (i.e., Big Brother) than they are tantalized by the potential benefits of pursuing brazen self-interest. Under such circumstances, "civilized behavior" results from a straightforward cost-benefit calculation: if defying authority bears greater costs than the perceived benefits of seeking self gain, then individuals will elect to pursue loftier, more socially-productive goals.

Though it's an unflattering view of human nature, nevertheless, Hobbes' principles still remain the foundational insights upon which many modern criminal justice systems operate. Humans can accomplish great things, but only if we imprison our baser human natures--whether we reside in penitentiaries or not--in rigidly enforced systems of social correction.

Indeed, this was also Michel Foucault's key insight in Discipline and Punish (1975). Foucault argued that, as societies have become increasingly complex, forms of social control have also evolved to new levels of sophistication. For example, as fast as information technologies evolve, surveillance technologies that are designed to monitor the thoughts and movements of global netizens proliferate. Though IT users understandably chafe under the often onerous intrusiveness of evolving surveillance technologies--and the policies that authorize their use (e.g., USA Patriot Act)--failure to maintain aggressive data-monitoring initiatives invites 9/11-style abuses. Thus, humans being what they are, the more that IT enhances our intellectual capabilities, the more necessary it will be to impose increasingly draconian forms of electronic surveillance.

But that's not a very pleasant thought, is it? Who the heck wants to believe that Big Brother will (or, worse yet, ought to ) inevitably win in the end? Not me. No way.

Still, for every new use that we discover for information technologies, it seems as if digital scallywags invent at least one, if not a thousand, more abuses. Which of the visionary inventors of the Internet imagined that cyberspace would open up boundless opportunities to hawk pornography, sidestep gambling restrictions, pilfer electronic identities, manage shadow banking systems, or coordinate global terror networks?

Self-regulation has a tendency to be ineffectual simply because, as Hobbes argued, it is folly to rely upon the better angels of human nature. Left to itself, human nature tends to be dominated more by demons than angels. For example, Alan Greenspan, the former Chair of the Federal Reserve, subscribed to the fanciful conviction that deregulation would inspire a market-based solution to financial fraud. Instead, as one might expect, Greenspan's philosophy of unchecked deregulation only amplified the scope of financial abuse (a la Bernie Madoff and OTC derivatives) during his term as Fed Chair. The 2008 financial meltdown was largely a consequence of Greenspan's pollyannaish faith in the magic of deregulation.

Civility is a product of social control, whereas crooks flourish in an environment of deregulation. Further, it is naive to insist otherwise--unless we're intent upon aiding and abetting crooks. That said, creativity is inspired by unfettered individual inquiry. From Galileo to Julian Assange, the best ideas often transgress the most sacred social boundaries. This is a point that I have made repeatedly in other discussions.* Truth is an outcome of conflict and dissent rather than consensus.

Can we have it both ways? In other words, can information technology be both an instrument of repression as well as a vehicle with which to creatively contravene established rules and regulations? Like it or not, it is both already and must remain so. If we are going to outmaneuver mischief in the rapidly evolving landscape of the information society, then we will need to employ a big, strong, technically-savvy Big Brother to put the kibosh on fast-adapting cyber-deviants. However, the more adept that Big Brother becomes, the greater the chances that he'll become an overzealous bully.

Family relationships are never ideal. We may need a Big Brother, but we don't have to like him. In fact, if we are going to derive any real benefits from this sibling relationship, then it will have to remain a rivalry. We can empower Big Brother to be a protector, but only if, simultaneously, we apply ourselves unremittingly to dissuading Big Brother from being a bully. In practice, this means trying to put one over on Big Brother every chance we get. Big Brother may not agree, but hackers and crackers are his best friends. It might sound counterintuitive, but there is no better way to keep Big Brother alert and in line--and also to inspire the individual intellectual bravado that will ensure an enlightened and progressive civilization--than an incessant and ferocious sibling rivalry.


*See Utopia on Wheels (1999) and Good Science (2011).

 

http://goodscience.sociology.org/

Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at CSUPueblo. Tim's primary research interests are in the areas of science, technology, society (STS) and the future and Tim blogs about those topics at the following sites: The Socjournal, (more...)
 

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Civility is a product of social control, whereas c... by Timothy McGettigan on Friday, Jun 10, 2011 at 9:05:10 PM
Here's someone worse than Madoff. Read the informa... by Scott Johnson on Saturday, Jun 11, 2011 at 12:02:49 AM
I have been fighting against Hobbesian assumptions... by John Bardi on Sunday, Jun 12, 2011 at 8:34:25 AM