Revisiting Hayek: IT and the ‘New World Order’

The digital alarmist

Roger Marshall a computer scientist, a newly minted Luddite and a cynic

By all measures, the IT revolution that has enveloped the world has been ongoing for at least the past 60 years. Yes, 60, not 25. Over the years, the companies spearheading the revolution have changed but their tactics have not. The goal has always been the same – maximizing their power in the marketplace. First it was IBM, then Microsoft, and now we have the likes of Alibaba, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. Wittingly or unwittingly, while these companies have achieved or will achieve their goals, albeit for a short period, an unintended goal is well on its way to being reached. A new world order is being put in place – one that reeks of fascism and total citizen conformity.

Friedrich A. Hayek, co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974, was the chief advocate of Libertarianism in the 20th century. In his seminal book, The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, he was extremely concerned that empowering governments with unchecked economic controls would lead to the horrors of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

He did an extensive analysis of the dangers of government control over the means of production and the relationship between individual liberty and government authority. He has often been compared with the oracular George Orwell of 1984 fame.

Hayek’s warnings are equally applicable in today’s world, but with a slight reinterpretation. If we substitute ‘government control’ with ‘corporate control’, the same message comes through. Namely, the danger of corporate control over individual liberty and means of data production.

A few examples should convince the reader, I hope. When the web became commonplace, net neutrality rules were agreed upon and instituted to ensure that the web would be a global marketplace of goods and of ideas, free of interference. These rules have been set aside by countries, large (e.g., US and China) and small (e.g. Vietnam), for a variety of reasons not including anti-competitive behaviour and censorship. The freedom to roam the web to locate different ideas or consumer goods is carefully controlled and the user is ‘guided’ to certain specific websites. Big IT companies seem to have a hand in almost every field of human activity -- real estate, hospitals, drugs, transportation, banking and finance, defence, books, education, politics, food, publishing, etc.

In The End of Truth, a particularly compelling chapter of his book, Hayek bemoans the perversion of truth by propagandists and advertisers and that “if all sources of information are effectively under one single control, it is no longer a question of merely persuading the people of this or that. The skilful propagandist then has the power to mould their minds in any direction he chooses, and even the most intelligent and independent-minded people cannot entirely escape that influence if they are long isolated from all other sources of information.” Think Google.

The same applies to physical goods, not just information. Think of Amazon. The same Amazon which first started off by selling used books and then selling just about everything to anyone, anywhere, at any time, day or night. The same Amazon which erased bootlegged copies of, irony of ironies, Orwell’s 1984 from customers’ Kindles in 2009 without their knowledge or consent. Book-burning has a rich history.

The dramatic rise of nativism and right-wing populism across the globe has been singularly aided and abetted by the web and by recent advances in information technology. As more and more robots are introduced into the workplace, resulting in vast unemployment and staggering income inequalities, the masses will surely start revolting. At which point, facial recognition systems, deep-learning algorithms and drones will come in handy to whichever political party or individual is in power. Without alienating the IT companies, of course.

In the early 1990s, then US President George Bush Sr. spoke of the dawning of a ‘new world order’. It is here.

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