While in Berlin for the LinuxTag 2010 conference a couple of months ago, I took the opportunity for a 8-mile long meandering walk across the city, from Warschauer Strasse and the East Side Gallery to Wittenbergplatz andKaDeWe, taking in the various historical sites along the way. It was a great refresher course in 20th century European history. I especially enjoyed the free outdoor exhibit in Alexanderplatz, which dealt with the Revolutions of 1989 with a focus on the various dissident movements and publications in the DDR. Most were self-published, stealthily distributed samizdat newletters, copied laboriously using typewriters and carbon paper, primitive printing presses, or toward the end, some personal computers smuggled in from the West. They had on display an Amiga 500 and an NEC Pinwriter P6 used in 1989. Through “advanced” technology like this, document production could be raised from a few hundred to tens of thousands of copies.
As I looked at this display of samizdat publications, each a sign of struggle, technical and political, I was smug. Surely, all of this is irrelevant today? The march of technology has now put within each of our hands tools that are orders of magnitude more efficient and effective than any underground publication of 1989. With the Web, and WordPress and Twitter and YouTube and other services, we can instantly get a message out to millions of people. We are far more advanced now.
Or so I thought for a few brief minutes, until the horrible truth struck me as I considered the question more deeply. No, technology has not made dissent safer. We are merely fortunate that the political climes of 2010 permit more dissent. But if challenged, the powers that be have far greater tools to control information than they did in 1989. I am not certain the tools available to the individual come close to being able to withstand them.
I strongly believe that the capability for citizens to dissent is an essential complement to fallible leadership. And all leadership is fallible. Without such capabilities, transitions of power may be less frequent, but they also may be far bloodier.
Note that I say “capability” for dissent. I don’t mean that dissent should be legal. Certainly this is a good thing as well, and is enshrined in the constitutions of many democracies today. But I mean something more fundamental, the capability of individuals and groups to organize and express dissent, even when this goes against the law. It is almost axiomatic that a regime slouching toward oppression will, at an early stage, declare dissent illegal. History has shown this to us repeatedly. So the capability to express illegal dissent is in some sense even more important than the ability to express dissent legally.
Through the 20th century there were many attempts to reduce capabilities to express dissent, from outlawing of opposition political parties, to shuttering independent newspapers, to mandatory registration of typewriters. These all made dissent more difficult and riskier, but they did not remove the capability. It was still possible, for one person, or a group of people, to organize in secret and get their message out. They did it illegally, and at their own peril. But that was enough to start the wheels turning. If 10 people protest, they are called insane and carted away to the hospital. If 1,000 people protest, tear gas is used and people are sent to prison, But if 100,000 protest, then governments fall. In a sense the gamut from civil war to an open democratic election, including a nationwide protest someplace in the middle, are all proxies for the use of force. There are bloody and bloodless ways of determining the majority opinion, and prudence suggests not eliminating the opportunity to use bloodless methods.
My sad observation is that we are quickly reaching the point, perhaps for the first time in history, where governments will have the means to eliminate even the capability for illegal dissent. I believe this is a destabilizing threshold to cross.