The Computer is the Enemy of Freedom

Some people want things more centralized and some people want things decentralized. It would be nice if it could be one or the other, but as with all things, we have to know the “thing” being organized before we can know how centralized it ought to be. We also need to know what centralization means.

By centralization, I mean the degree of detailed decision-making authority granted to the highest levels of authority within a system. In other words, if the system is, say, a school, and the highest authority is the board, how much decision making authority does the board have over the details of daily school life.

Centralization is a matter of degrees. There is no institution that is perfectly centralized or perfectly decentralized. Indeed, the issue is not whether the institution is centralized. Every institution (from friendship to family to state to empire) needs both a central decision making authority and a mulititude of decentralized decison makers. In both cases, the primary need to ensure that the decisions are based on nothing other than wisdom. Foolish decisions are foolish no matter who makes them and where they make them.

Systems, however, can help or hinder the movement of wisdom. The unavoidable issue, therefore, is whether the system directs and supports the accumulation of the wisdom required to sustain the institution it is set up to serve. In other words, does the system ensure that the people who are making the decisions are wise enough to make them well.

It is my humble suggestion that the computer has nundercut the ability for institutions to become wise, not because there is something inherently flawed in the computer but because there is something inherently flawed in its users. For one thing, we want to eliminate variability, which is to say, we want to be able to control everything. For another, we don’t want to have to confront the consequences of our decisions. the computer makes it easy to distribute the consequences to others in a way that they only feel a little of each one, but are crushed by the weight of all of them.

This leads to the main systemic flaw in a world lit only by computers: over-centralization. The computer’s main advantage over the human mind remains, and probably always will remain, it’s astonishing ability to compute. What takes a human mind thousands of years can be processed by the computer in days and pretty soon, maybe already, in seconds.

This means that the computer will always give the advantage to those whose effectiveness rests on the act of computing. I remember when, in the 90’s, many were arguing that the computer will allow for the rise of decentralized, localized, fast-moving enterprises. And there is plenty of evidence that it has allowed more of them. For example, ISIS could not have grown so fast without the help of FaceBook and Windows.

There are more positive examples as well, but every time one comes to mind, it slips away in the details. Besides, any localized enterprise that arises through the computer can only do so through the graces of the hyper-centralized providers of the structure within which they localize.

Reality has a law rooted in the nature of things. Virtual reality is, first of all, misnamed and secondly, much too limited and totalizing. It is misnamed because it is not “virtual.” Alternate might be a better term. I can’t imagine the effects it has on the mind of us regular users to do so much of our interactions and thinking on a man-made platform that sets itself beside the reality of the natural world. My generation finds it somewhat discomiting, still. But younger people do less and less. Is that progress? Toward what?

But the main problem of virtual reality has to be that it is, being man made, so very, very limited. It is, in a sense, like a game. Somebody makes up the rules and everybody playing agrees to living within the “reality” created by those rules. That is why cheating is the ultimate evil in the sports world – it threatens the very existence of the sport.

But the alternative reality of the computing world is much more complex and self-perpetuating that the alternative rality of a game. It interacts much more directly with the reality we live in day to day, through conversation, research, medicine, etc. It is an alternate reality that allows for information about the real reality to move with astonishing speed.

Because it is man-made, it needs “men” to make it. And those who do, become, in a way formerly inconceivable, masters of the universe, or at least lackeys to the masters of the universe. Smart decisions are, theoretically, more possible. But so are dumb ones. What the infomration flow on the internet demonstrates is that people are still the ones making decisions, but their ability to think with nuance and respect is disappearing rather than deepening.

The computer has pushed us far beyond the dimensions of healthy centralization, and the internet has nearly completed the task. Centralization always leads to polarization. It simplifies the world so the spider in the middle can make decisions. But when the spider is making decisions about an alternate reality, the effects on reality can be unfathomably harmful.

It is true that the computer has allowed for decentralized activity in certain functions, like marketing, communicating, etc. But what you can’t forget is that if you are going to market, communicate with friends, share your thoughts with the world, or watch a football game, you are going to do it on a platform designed and controlled by very, very few people who have accumulated wealth beyond imagining (in some cases) and access to private information beyond safety.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were the giants of the processor generation. But on their CPU’s the world has collapsed to a thimble of providers with names like Google, Amazon, Twitter, Ali Baba, and Wal Mart (yes, them too).

If all the information in the world could be gathered to a central machine that could distribute it to where the decision makers could easily access it, and if those decision makers were wise enough to know how to use it, and if there were a way to make sure only wise and virtuous people have access to the information, and if decision making was placed beside the consequences of the decisions made, an interesting dream could at least be entertained.

But every one of those “ifs” would require putting the gathering and distribution of information into fewer people’s hands.

And that is the insurmountable problem. Decisions require wisdom, and wisdom requires the weaving together of principles, circumstances, and purposes. The circumstances are dynamic and relational and cannot be reduced to information.

It takes time to learn how to make good decisions. The fewer decisions you make, the less good you become at making them. The more centralized the decision making process, the fewer decisions the people outside the center make. The fewer decisions they make, the worse they become at making decisions.

By a perverse process, both the central authorities and the peripheral participants, make decisions based on more and more simplistic information and both of them become increasingly detached from reality. Both become more foolish.

The problem with folly is that it leads to bad decisions and bad decisions lead to pain, death, broken relationships, and weakness. There is no greater need than the need for wisdom. The kind of decision making that the computer enables and privileges is the kind of decision making that is necessarily very limited, but consumes a predominant amount of mental and computer energy. Simple principles are set aside for complex algorhythms while complex decisions are reduced to simple (compared to the reality) algorhythms.

Another factor is fear. The person making the decision needs both the information and the authority to make the decision. But in our very peculiar world, the widespread distrust we have toward each other (children to parents, parents to teachers, TV viewers to TimeWarner, gang to gang, race to race, police to people, people to state, etc. etc.) leads us to seek protection from each other.

And that quest for protection leads us to put ever more power in the hands of those we hope will protect us. For the right that seems to mean the military and for the left it seems to mean the civil government.

Which leads to an ever expanding state, gathering more information about more people, controlling and regulating more of our lives and thoughts and feelings, and using the previously unimaginable power of the computer and internet to know more than anybody should know about anybody else.

The computer is an instrument of bondage and slavery. It is an instrument, not bondage and slavery itself. May God grant me the courage to use it for freedom, communicating truth on this wholly inadequate platform.

But don’t imagine for a moment that is not a tool for centalizing decision making and taking freedom (ie self-governance) away from the people who live in its shadow and smoke its meth.

Now here’s the practical point: if you are a school leader, and given the nature of education, is your school appropriately centralized or does its leadership, one, interfere too much in things they cannot understand or two, abdicate decisions for which it is responsible. Both are harmful.

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