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Two Concepts of Oppression

There may be a more dangerous, all-pervasive threat than terrorism.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “oppression” as “the state of being subject to unjust treatment or control.” However, this does not mean that those subjected to unjust treatment or control are aware of it.

This is an aspect of oppression that is largely missed in popular culture when we consider whether we or others are being oppressed. Indeed, when living day to day in concert with the constraints of a given cultural milieu, we seldom consider whether we are actually being oppressed. Instead, we tend to think that one who wants to live according to the constraints of her culture is making a free choice.

In contrast, the usual scenario we think of when we think of oppression is that of someone who is captured, confined, tortured, or otherwise unjustly treated or controlled against his or her protests and pleas for freedom. Those who organize rebellions, or who would do so if they could, are thought to be oppressed. The internal resistance against apartheid in South Africa was viewed as a mark of oppression; while those who acquiesce in their cultural restrictions and taboos, and think none the worst of it, are typically considered free agents.

In United States history, one prominent example of the latter sort of “forced” oppression is that described by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in 1848, in their influential book, The Communist Manifesto. Therein, Marx and Engels advanced their polemic against the power of capitalism to enslave the working class using the technology of mass production:

"Modern industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist. Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers … Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machines, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is."

In this image of wage slavery, the popular conception of exploitation is clearly illustrated wherein the masses of laborers are bound to an assembly line for an excessive amount of hours per day, under abominable working conditions, and given meager compensation. Indeed, Marx and Engel predicted that such egregious treatment of workers by rich capitalists would inevitably “produce its own gravediggers,” that is, explode into a bloody revolution.

Marx and Engel’s insight into the capacity of technology to oppress is one that should not be overlooked. While technology may itself be neutral, its deployment in this or that way, unconstrained by common sense and ethics, can be a means of exploitation and oppression. This should become abundantly clear in what I will say here. However, the dynamics of oppression is more complex than this popular model admits. Oppression is not necessarily obvious to those who are being oppressed; nor does it necessarily involve dissatisfaction or a tendency to rebel. This is because enculturation can be subtle, systematic, and not ordinarily called into question.

In 1861, in his seminal essay titled, “The Subjection of Women,” John Stuart Mill wrote about one such subtle form of enculturation:

"All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men ... All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favorite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds."

Here is a different concept of oppression in contrast to the Marxian one, that of “willing” rather than “forced” slavery. Indeed, a significant number of women living in the United States today (those who have what social workers call a “victim mentality”) still believe they are lucky to be under the control of men who treat them abusively or like possessions.

Willful oppression can take many and sundry subtle forms, some of which even liberal thinkers like Marx and Mill did not foresee. Marx thought that oppression largely involved the consciousness of being forced into living an undesirable life. Mill identified willful oppression but focused on gender-specific oppression, that of the subjection of women by men. But what of willful oppression of the masses, across cultural divides, spanning the “developed” or industrialized world? Is this sort of ubiquitous, willful oppression possible?

Currently, a large percentage of people living in the industrialized “free” world are also members of a global commons in cyberspace. While the servers of this global online community are located inside national borders, the virtual space that this equipment generates transcends any of these geographical boundaries. Nevertheless, the participants of this online global culture have, for the most part, accepted, and assumed, the terms of going online. These terms have been dictated largely by Internet gatekeepers such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, working in cooperation with governmental agencies, in particular, the United State’s National Security Agency (NSA) and Great Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

Most of us, by now, accept and assume that all of our personal messages, including telephone and email messages, will be filtered and stored in giant government databases. Some of us, perhaps a large majority, accept this suspension of privacy because we think it makes us safer from terrorist attacks. Others assume that whatever the government does must be right. Still others are simply unaware or in disbelief that any abridgment of privacy actually exists or poses a serious threat to civil liberties or personal freedom. Of course, there are also some who do not think privacy is even important in the first place. But all these views involve largely unexamined assumptions. This is unfortunate since, as Socrates starkly expressed, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and in our high tech milieu, this may be truer today than it was in ancient Athens.

Mill urged us to examine our assumptions about the willful oppression of one sector of our society, namely those who are female. True, we have not yet cast off these chains (there still isn't pay equity, and the number of women still is not equally represented in higher management—including the office of U.S. President—and in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) positions). However, there has been substantial progress toward liberation as a result of affirmative action and related conscious attempts to eliminate oppressive social practices. Without such conscious awareness and effort to challenge cultural assumptions, such progress would have been nil.

It is no different, in principle, with respect to our assumptions about privacy in cyberspace. Unless we actively examine the assumptions governing our freedom (or loss thereof) in cyberspace, we are likely to fall deeper and deeper into a systematic regimen of quietly creeping, ever-expanding oppression. So, as the technology becomes more and more able to oppress, will we be just as complacent with future, successive encroachments on our privacy?

According to Intel Corporation, in the next decade, the new Bluetooth connection to the internet will be through Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs), which will connect your brain via electrodes directly to the internet. In this environment, your thoughts, not merely the words you type on a keyboard or handheld device, or your voice over a wireless connection, will be online. Your deepest thoughts and most personal secrets will be open to inspection. In this brave new world, government will have the ability (and the authority) to, quite literally, read your mind.

This sort of threat, more than even terrorism, devours the very core of what it means to be human! Will you be as willing to have a cookie implanted in your brain as you are, presently, to have one implanted in your computer?

Oppression cannot only be subtle; it can also be gradual. It can develop over time, in progressive installments, not all at once. The most likely scenario is that we will not wake up one morning and discover that we no longer have any freedom of thought and expression. More likely, we will never come to realize just how oppressed we really have become.

Do you know how far the government has already gone down this slippery slope toward oppressing your freedom of thought and expression? How much research has been spent in developing more powerful forms of surveillance technologies? How little time and money government has invested in trying to protect your privacy from unjust encroachment? What evidence there is that the current surveillance system is really helping to stop terrorism? What the rate of false positives generated by this system really is? What business interests, in particular, are driving the development of surveillance technologies? How much do you actually know, based on evidence, not just government propaganda, about these and other things? How much are you just assuming?

In my latest book, Technology of Oppression: Preserving Freedom and Dignity in an Age of Mass Warrantless Surveillance, I have attempted to carefully trace the history of surveillance, beginning in the late 1960s with the emergence of satellite technologies, and the mounting changes from analog data transmission along copper lines to digital data transmission along fiber optic cables, as well as the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s (DARPA's) newly emerging, patented, BCI technologies. I have discussed the incredible progress that has been made in the power of “deep packet” analysis, from the early Narus technologies deployed during the George W. Bush administration to the profoundly greater data processing capabilities of some of the latest technologies. I have carefully examined the evidence regarding the ability of the latest technology to detect terrorist plots with respect to the government’s telephone metadata programs as well as its “upstream programs” such as PRISM, as well as some of its less known (and non-legally regulated) programs such as MUSCULAR. I have examined the algorithms used for calculating the rate of false positives generated by such technologies. I have compared the success of these programs with that of conventional investigations. I have examined the pertinent iterations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in connection with the legality of current government data collections as well as the progress of the FIS Court's success in legal oversight (or the lack thereof). Toward ameliorating problems inherent in the present system of surveillance, I have proposed ways for attaining greater transparency about government control of cyberspace, including establishing a global internet forum in which the people of the world can receive information and provide input into the policies that shape their freedom in cyberspace. Toward this end, I have done preliminary work in drafting a set of model rules for regulating network surveillance, which consists of proposed legal and technological constraints on the infrastructure currently being deployed. In brief, I have begun the process of carefully examining many commonplace assumptions about the control of cyberspace instead of just passively accepting them.

This is the second book I have written on this subject. In the aftermath of the Edward Snowden leaks, I discussed the idea of updating my first book with its publisher, Palgrave Macmillan, but, instead, my editor invited me to write a new book. I have worked with parsing technologies for many years, not just as an ethicist but also as an inventor of patented technology aimed at protecting privacy in electronic communications. Given my background, I perceived a moral duty to write this new book. For me personally, it was an opportunity to examine my own assumptions about the current system of surveillance and its potential for oppression. I have tried to do my civic duty. Indeed, all of us should carefully educate ourselves and to examine our assumptions, if we have not already done so.

Unless we change our idea about what oppression is and can be; and, unless we take a rational, cautious, evidence-driven inventory of our assumptions, collectively as a global community, and individually as citizens, we may never come to know just how oppressed we really are, and may soon be.

More from Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D.
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