Subvocal lie detectors and technological determinism

People have written about futures where technological developments make totalitarian forms of government far more common. I remember reading articles over the years that speculate on how technology shapes the governance landscape today, how the internet and mass-media make dictatorship harder or how mass-surveillance and the individual targeting it allows makes repressive states like China possible.

A few examples of techs that make state oppression harder/easier:

  • We have the tech currently to strap electrodes to a persons throat and pick up subvocalised sounds (e.g: their internal monologue). The applications of this are obvious.
  • The internet makes communicating and organising much easier for anyone who dissents against the state. (Yes censorship is rampant. Still, compare your chances of publishing heretical stories on twitter vs in a major newspaper or in wechat vs the people’s daily)
  • Facial recognition, mass surveillance and various forms of biometric tracking make it far cheaper in terms of man hours to track down and silence key figures who take part in protests/dissent without large collateral damage or the need for an army of secret policemen
  • More autonomous weapons making popular support less important for regime stability or military success

A more general pattern of through I’ve always had is about technological determinism. To what extent is that shape of human society determined by our technological environment. Cannons make castle walls less important, defence becomes harder, centralisation and strong states ensue. Agriculture makes it easier to extort and control people. We go from roaming tribes to strongmen to the first states. It’s interesting to think how little control over our own future we may have as a species.

Of course there’s no good way to know how far technology determined what forms of civilisation or organisation are competitive, how far it will determine it in the future or how much space there is within the competitive limits imposed by a technological environment. We can just tell stories and argue by example, but that’s not a good way to arrive at the truth.

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