The Age of Techno-Omniscience

  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.
  • As part of my unsuccessful application to join the Index on Censorship Youth Advisory Board, I had to write a short (250-word) blog post on a free speech issue. This is that.

There has never been a more pressing need to defend free speech, legally and technologically, than there is now. We know the harms of prohibiting free expression—without the space to experiment, challenging both norms and laws, society stagnates—but there are always those who attempt to do so, whether through McCarthyist blacklists or Nazi book-burnings. These repressive aims have always been implemented with the imperfect, leaky technology of their days. Despite the attendant risks, samizdat flourished in the Eastern Bloc as blurry documents were surreptitiously passed between confidants away from the gaze of the not-so-omniscient state.

This inability to perfectly enforce laws has long served as the ultimate safeguard against tyranny, but we cannot rely on it any longer—omniscience is finally feasible, and if we do not ensure that our belief in protecting freedom of expression is codified into our laws and built into our technologies now, we are gifting the Soviets and Nazis of tomorrow the powers they’ve always lacked. Under constant, automated surveillance, with our actions and movements analysed by algorithms immeasurably more powerful than any team of human agents could hope to be, the samizdat of the future becomes impossible. Detection becomes certain. Free speech is not simply chilled, but frozen.

Over half of the world is now online. We’ve grown complacent with our current, benign governments, allowing them to restrict speech we consider hateful or terroristic, but these laws outlive governments and the monsters are only ever one election or coup away from power.