Apple’s dramatic 1984 Super Bowl ad notwithstanding, in reality the interests and loyalties of corporations are divided. On the one hand are the customers and users – also citizens of polities – whose trust is required for long-term business success, and who themselves hold a range of often-conflicting beliefs and values. On the other hand are governments, whose approval and regulatory support is critical if the corporations are to run profitable businesses or gain access to lucrative markets, and who are often important customers themselves. In an ideal world, the government would serve citizens’ interests and ensure that their rights are protected. In the real world, we are not so naive as to assume this is the case, certainly not in authoritarian dictatorships and, depending on one’s political viewpoint, not always in democracies either.
The problem is that our ability to organize and speak out is shaped – often quite subtly – by the Internet service providers, email services, mobile devices, and social networking services. If our communications and access to information are manipulated in ways we are not aware of, and if these companies’ relationships with government are opaque, our ability to understand how power is being exercised over us, and our ability to hold that power to account, will be eroded in a more subtle and insidious manner than Orwell ever imagined.
In the Internet age, the greatest long-term threat to a genuinely citizen-centric society – a world in which technology and government serve citizens instead of the other way around – looks less like Orwell’s 1984, and more like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: a world in which our desire for security, entertainment, and material comfort is manipulated to the point that we all voluntarily and eagerly submit to subjugation. If we are to avoid this dystopian fate, political innovation will have to catch up with technological innovation.