On the Other Hand...

by Jim Davies

Toads and Technology


Some years ago I stood on the Pont du Gard, in Southern France, and a few prior to that I stook in the Colliseum in Rome and walked about the ruins of its Forum area. In all these places I observed first hand the astonishing feats of engineering that had been done two thousand years ago, and began to reflect on what arrested Western technology for over a thousand years.

Once the Roman Empire had fallen, all that genius seemed to be lost, during the whole Middle Ages, through to the Renaissance of the 1500s. What happened? - and why should it matter now, 400 years later?

What happened was that one organization - the Roman Church - got control of all scholarship, and cooped it up in monasteries. Independent thought was not allowed, not until that power was broken by the great heroes of heterodoxy like Hus and Luther and Calvin and Kepler and Copernicus and Galileo. Then, science and engineering got back into gear and have accelerated ever since. It's perhaps the greatest adventure story in all of history.

Which came first: the breaking of the monopoly, or the great discoveries of science, like the fact that the Earth is not the center of the Universe? - it's an open question, but I think the latter. I doubt that Luther would have left the priesthood if he'd had good answers to the 95 questions he nailed up on the church door. And I doubt that Galileo would have challenged the Pope if he could see a valid way to explain the observations of planets moving around the sun, yet leaving Earth at the center. These heroes were reluctant, driven by the dictates of intellect.

If I'm right, then we may have found a general principle: monopolies are most readily broken when technology overtakes them.

The US Post Office

You know the scene, well enough: a letter is returned undeliverable after four months, or a postcard comes back to your return address twice running instead of going its proper way, and you take it to the window clerk, and she finds a way to blame you, instead of the people you paid to deliver your mail. Just as if she'd said in so many words, Yes, I know our service is sometimes terrible, but where else do you think you're going to go; like the Government Schools, we have no competition, so tough luck.

And you complain to their Office of Consumer Complaints or whatever, even though you're a discriminating customer and not a consuming piglet, and you get the same treatment exactly except that it's Oh, so smooth and silky. They know and you know that you have no alternative. Monopolies are like that.

Occasionally a few politicians will make noises about privatizing the Post Office, but then they get a nice letter from the Postal Workers' Union about how many of their members would like to vote for them, and suddenly their attention is diverted. So the monopoly continues, often polite and helpful, sometimes grotesquely incompetant, but always expensive and unresponsive, secure from all serious challenge. Just like the medieval Church.

Faxes and Networks

This monolith is going to go, depend on it. It won't give up its power gladly, indeed it may remain on the scene for centuries to come and even improve some, again like the Roman Church; but it will lose its power because technology will displace it. The monopoly will be broken; it is being lost even as you read these words, bit by bit. Without a single Act of Congress, First Class Mail now has a powerful competitor. We can send a letter to its destination in a few seconds instead of 24 hours minimum; with strong evidence of receipt instead of a black hole and a blank face; and for 10 to 20 cents instead of 29 cents. It's called Fax, and we don't even have to walk as far as the mailbox to use it.

Technology has also developed - again, without any help from the Pols - the exploding phenomenon of PC networking. As a recent edition of Time noted, there are now tens of millions of people all over the world, "chatting" with each other across electronic communication systems, conveying news even when their governments suppress it, expressing words even when their governments would censor them, yet actively critiquing unwelcome communications rather like CBers do. Self-censorship, glorious anarchy, Free Speech. A marvellous alternative to the USPS (which networkers routinely call "Snail Mail") and an elegant expression of the First Amendment.

Like narrow-minded, moronic parents, all this has left government people churlish and sulky and saying "find out what the kids are doing, and stop them." They actually want to censor what is being said on the Internet!

Fortunately, a network is not a Thing with one Head, a Center that Pols can raid and destroy; it is, as the name implies, a web. If one part should be hit by lightning (or by Federal Agents) it merely finds a different path for all the conversations. The genie is out of the bottle; without massive work, the government can huff and puff all it wants, but cannot close it down.

Unfortunately that will not stop them trying, for as we've noted before in this column, government power exists for its own sake; it's an organism that willingly tolerates no rival. For years to come, we'll see the battle rage.

Their next major weapon is the "Clipper Chip"; an encryption device that they want to force all PC manufacturers to fit on all PCs so that Federal Snoops can "listen in" on any "conversation" they want. The network, in response, has developed a counter-weapon called "Pretty Good Privacy", which is a software encryption system more secure than the codes used until now by the CIA and with mind-blowing possibilities. Buy PGP, while you still can!

Folks, the fight between power and technology has never been more vigorous. What a time to be alive! What vast progress can be made, if freedom wins!

Back to Subject Index