POLITIK i RELIGION & PHILOSOPHIE
Forschungs- und Biidungsges.m.b.H (NFB)
Die Wirklichkeit der Utopien
| RELIGION & PHILOSOPHIE
zum 4. Symposion
den Inhalt verantwortlich: Ursula Baatz und Gudrun
Die in der Publikation
Ansichten liegen in der Verantwortung der
nicht notwendigerweise die Meinung der
Biidungsges.m.b.H. (NFB) oder der
Koordination: Daniela Stampfl-Walch
Lektorat: Friedrich Altenburg
Editing: Renate Porstendorfer
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Milton published one of the most persuasive defences of free speech, culminating
sentence: "Give me the liberty
conscience, above all liberties." Most remarkable about Milton's speech were time and
1644 to the English Parliament. Milton's speech was heard only
people but the "internet"
the time ensured
printing press. In the 21st century people increasingly started searching for information
while their ancestors in the 17th century did this
reading printed material. The
the movable printing press by Johannes Gutenberg catalysed the spread
literacy across Europe. During Milton's time, half of the population in England had at least
rudimentary ability to read and write, similar to other, often Protestant parts
Clark 2009; Ferguson 2011). The printing press represented
time, comparable to the internet today and the similarities between these two media
extend beyond new ways
spreading information. Once printing began,
people started to,
fact, the growing
postal services allowed the exchange
ideas across borders, comparable
only to the revolutionary effect
e-mail three centuries later. In this context, Ferguson
notes "that the trajectories for the production and
between 1977 and 2004 are remarkably similar to the trajectories for the produc-
of printed books in England from 1490 to 1630".
between the printing press and internet are even more astounding
look at the crisis medieval universities
due to the appearance of printed books. The
an easily available book format jeopardised the entire
As Arthur Herman points out, "why bother going
what the best minds had written,
when your children
discover that for
on the shelves
your own library?" (Herman 2010, Kindle Location 5862).
historical episode reflects contemporary concerns about higher education. The availability
make traditional universities with their lecture halls and
powerful reminder that technological progress can lend
to euphoria that may differ from actual outcomes. As observed
the advent of the book reinforced the university as an institution.
in the dissemination
information, however, are never free of tensions and
political conflict. Many political systems nowadays consider the internet as
power, just as the printing press
longer allowed knowledge and
information to be controlled by the few. Like today, different political systems reacted
this new challenge. The Ottoman Empire, for example, outright resisted
using the printing press, claiming "scholar's ink is holier than martyr's blood" (Deen 2011,
prohibition was reinforced
the Islamic preference for calligraphy
their religious beliefs, which had an uneasy relationship with the figurative depiction
sacred texts (Lewis and Churchill 2008, 48-50). Not surprisingly,
instituted the death sentence for any person found
that was more
less continued until
late eighteenth century
differences between England and the Ottoman Empire reflect
key problem related
information technology. Technology itself can
regarded as neutral, but
different parties struggle for the power
early days, the
printing press proved to be a force for scientific advancement as well as for religious
fanatics. The most printed book in the sixteenth and seventeenth century was the
with its twenty-nine editions, a
that contributed substantially
of witch-hunting, leading to 12,000 to 48,000 people being killed,
most of them women (Ferguson 2011, 62).
thereafter, spreading information in Western societies became the most impor-
tant element driving the scientific revolution and supplanting of religious beliefs by
The Protestant insistence on giving people the ability to read the scriptures
a driving force for literacy. Despite contemporary misinterpretations of the Reforma-
as an "opening of the European mind", it was driven by religious passion rather than
religious moderation. Martin Luther criticised the church for neglecting their flock's
religious education. Although Luther encouraged the translation of the Koran and other
to prove their fallibility, the Reformation opened up society as an unintended
consequence. Printed books changed society beyond just facilitating the spread of
as Latin lost its status as lingua franca across Europe, more and more books
printed in languages that ordinary people
understand. Although the printing
press was invented in China over 300 years before Gutenberg built his version, there was
ideological force behind it, driving the dissemination of printed material. The theolo-
tenets of the Reformation were a perfect complement for this technological
through in printing. The new religious doctrine forced even enemies of the press to
engage in an intellectual struggle that until then was neither necessary nor possible
such as increasing literacy rates, a
of books and intellectual
curiosity for non-religious texts were unpredictable. Ancient texts by Plato and Aristotle
rediscovered, as well as the works of the Humanists.
development was not
considered valuable by leaders of the Reformation, including Martin Luther, who despised
(Ferguson 2011, 61; Herman 2010).
historical occurrences remain relevant today. They demonstrate the unpredictable
consequences of technology, even for those who promote
Technology is not only
liberating, it can also be a tool of suppression. As the ability to collect information increa-
so too does the potential for states to collect and store data about citizens and their
activities. There is no doubt that the spread of literacy and people's increased ability to
communicate have had an important effect on innovation and political and economic
development, but its effects have not only been liberating. On the one hand, knowledge
emancipates individuals, but on the other hand it also empowers the state. It is no
coincidence that the birth of the modern nation state and of modern identities fall into
16th and 17th century. Charles Taylor points out that modern identity politics started
at the time of the Reformation with rapidly increasing literacy and social mobility (for an
overview of Taylor and social mobility, see
a consequence of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, national identity became a driving
force behind the development of states, during a period which historically marks the birth
the nation state. For elite groups, national identity was already important in the 17th
at the early stages of developing national identities, David Canna-
dine cites Frederick
from 1241: "Germany was fervent in arms, France was the mother
and nurse of chivalry, Spain was warlike and bold, and England was fertile and protected
by its fleet" (Cannadine 2011, minute 21). The increased spread of information opened up
discourse about national identity to the majority of the population.
already mentioned, the liberating and suppressive effects of information technology
go hand in hand. While new ideas and their dissemination were crucial ingredients
the overthrow of the Ancien Regime, similar tools were used shortly afterward by
Robespierre to ensure his "Reign of Terror". The French Revolution can be used as a
powerful reminder how forces that push for an imagined
dystopia. Revolutionaries organise themselves around idealistic ideas that are spread
through available-technologies. In 1796, Destutt de Tracy coined the term "ideology" -
study of "ideas and sensations, of their generation, combination and consequences"
2013, 29). Many of these new ideas broke radically with previous concepts of
society and envisioned the ability to create a perfect society based on the power of ideas.
Liberation from dogmas seemed to be so pervasive that many revolutionaries were con-
vinced of the possibility to rebuild human relationships on a scientific basis and be able to
end the lethargy of monarchy and religion.
Utopian ideal turned into the bloody
reality of the Jacobin regime and culminated in the dictatorship of Napoleon.
French Revolution gave rise to numerous new ideas. Nationalism was a prominent
idea, fuelling political activity in the 19th century. Identity based on national
on European intellectual and social
French Revolution and explains why the French Revolution was not only admired but
feared for its new principles. The Divine Right of Kings came under a level of scrutiny
never experienced before. The masses demanded recognition of full social power by their
In exchange, people were willing to make sacrifices in the name of the nation.
1792 the revolutionary armies of France defeated the forces of
and Austria, saving the French Revolution.
marked a new epoch in history.
of nationalism and citizenship were victorious over the principles of monarchy
and aristocracy. Politics was no longer the vocation of chosen, but turned into a mass
movement propagated through all available media: newspapers, pamphlets, music and
The historian G. P. Gooch wrote: "While patriotism is as old as human association
[...] nationalism as an operative principle and an articulate creed only made its appear-
ance among the more complicated intellectual process of the modern world [...] In the
of time the doctrine of nationalism issued from the volcanic fires of the French
carrying its virile message of emancipation and defiance to the uttermost
parts of the
Contrary to the modern notion of nationalism as an
anachronistic and illiberal ideology, in its early days it was a movement that pushed for
inclusion of people in the political process (Anderson 2006; C. Clark 2009).
development was not welcomed by the 18th and 19th century state. There were
undertakings to undo political consequences of the French Revolution. The
after the defeat of Napoleon was an attempt to return to 1789 and reestab-
the union between
and states under the exclusion of nationalist
The Metternich bureaucracy was a synonym for collecting and using information
detect and suppress ideas that
threaten the state. Improving education turned
out to be a threat for political systems, which were increasingly running out of
violent answers to popular demands.
tension escalated in a wave of revolutions
across Europe in 1848. Although these uprisings were often brutally quashed, states
ultimately realised that a government, either without or against its people, was unfeas-
ible in an age of literacy and widespread mass communication
summarises European history in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries as
characterised by a succession of
waves of innovation, including the
Enlightenment. Sharing novel ideas about liberty, quality and fraternity ushered in an era
political revolutions where Kings were toppled, aristocracies abolished and churches
dissolved. In his opinion, this happened without the support of a state (Ferguson 2014).
Instead of resisting new technologies that enabled mass communication, states started to
adapt them for their own use. From military conscription to compulsory schooling, crea-
ting national anthems and patriotic myths, all communication channels were used to
distribute national sentiments to the population
Technological progress continued in the 19th century, and increased the production and
the state increased its ability to use information
for its own interests.
development culminated in the emergence of totalitarian states
the 20th century. New technologies such as newsprint, radio, cinema and television
ideally suited to the creation of propaganda-based totalitarian states with an almost
unlimited control of major information flows (Ferguson 2014).
to exert power via a massive police state, as well as through a softer form of
power: constant indoctrination of the population. Once seen as tools of liberation, new
technologies turned into a method of suppression by making the state the sole supplier of
uniform set of ideas, making it possible to track down anybody who deviates. Historians
call the emergence of the totalitarian state a consequence of the "dark side of modernity"
groups always try to use technology to address their need to spread their ideas
or destroy ideas which contradict their ideology. It seems like history repeating when we
read about or see images of beheadings as a demonstration of power. Everybody recog-
pictures or videos of beheadings; the current videos of
are spreading like the
pictures of the guillotine did at the time of the French Revolution. The destruction of
cultural assets such as religious pictures was employed during the Protestant Reforma-
In the 16th century, Protestants destroyed Catholic art in churches and
Centuries later, we see the same destructive power of ideology,
only spread through different media. Recently,
militants posted videos showing them
destroying ancient artefacts.
Technology itself is a central, but not the defining element in pursuing a certain policy.
Fascist and communist states used technology for mass coercion and indoctrination.
Under different conditions and circumstances, technology also plays an important role in
liberating people. The American Civil Rights Movement would have been inconceivable
without powerful pictures of anti-black violence which were transmitted to every house-
hold in the United States (Lee 2002). In this respect, the second half of the 20th century
a continuous challenge to state authorities, something that was embodied in the
of authoritarian regimes and a growing number of democracies (Huntington
Technological change increased the production and sales of mobile devices. The charac-
teristics of the internet - its ability to create spontaneous networks and empower indivi-
duals - have supplanted the monopoly of the state in the dissemination of information to
citizens. The events of the Arab Spring created a global trend towards
parts of the world with the strongest resistance to democratic government.
Arab Spring demonstrated that social network technologies can be an existential
threat to the hierarchical approach of traditional autocracies.
also revealed the techno-
logical limits and the ability of autocratic systems to quickly adapt to new technology.
political system supported by technology has become a central element for modern
autocratic regimes like China and Singapore. The parallels between the Great
built to protect China from its enemies, and China's Great
undesirable content, are obvious. China even provides unique and state-authorised
versions of social platforms.
admits that surveillance takes
position by arguing that elements which pose a threat to the political system of the
require monitoring to ensure political stability. The extraordinary precision of online
surveillance allows governments in Beijing or Singapore to distinguish between danger-
systemic criticism and criticism of specific policies. China, for example, only interferes
it assumes that people are organising themselves, while Singapore allows almost any
kind of criticism as long as it does not instigate tensions between religious and ethnic
factions (King, Pan, and Roberts 2013). Such systems test the limits of liberty, while re-
maining the final arbiter on what content is available. Today liberty is more widespread in
than it was a few decades ago. Liberty, where it exists, is granted by the state and is
not a natural right of individuals.
is the central difference compared to liberal demo-
cracies, which are political systems based on the freedom of citizens, while autocracies
allow or ban liberty as they deem appropriate. At this point, technology - in this case
social media - has once again become a tool of state control instead of individual free-
The Great Firewall can be seen as a defence against ideologies deemed undesirable
by the Communist Party of China: censoring content by blocking and filtering it can be
considered a digital barricade against ideas such as freedom of speech and human rights,
or even as a means of protecting the economy.
It would be a mistake to assume that the temptation to use technology to control citizens
limited to autocracies; similarities can be observed in democratic systems as
corporations like Amazon, Google and Facebook were the first to store large
of data for commercial purposes in the 21st century.
occurs under open and
liberal conditions - no one is forced to use their services and become part of their data-
base. It turned out to be only a matter of time before the state became aware of the
potential to tap that data for information about its citizens.
of the most revealing information to emerge from the revelations concerning the
was the readiness of internet giants like Facebook to
respond to information requests by government agencies (Ferguson 2014).
of advances in communications technology as evidenced since the Middle
Ages. Technology can reinforce the power of citizens as well as the power of the state.
media such as Facebook play a central role in organising protests in a global
Yet at the same time, every single person who participated in, commented on
or just "liked" an organised protest can be tracked.
Privacy becomes an issue when sharing private information conflicts with the desire of
state to collect this information. After 9/11 and the resulting desire for enhanced
security, walls between private and
crumbled. Herbert Fiedler points out the
following issues: is the internet a lawless realm or should it be under stronger govern-
it possible to compensate for the internet's potential anarchy by
of ethics for its use and its surveillance? It is not technology that
defines the social impact of the internet, but how the political players use it (Fiedler
Political development as a search for order has always been founded on a relation-
ship between citizens and the state. Both
on each other in order to escape a
Hobbesian world of brutal anarchy. The state has to provide order to cater to the desire
liberty. The main question is when does liberty turn into anarchy, and providing order
problem has been exacerbated in the last four centuries by growing
literacy, social mobility and individuals' desire for self-determination. Contemporary
debates about sexual, religious, cultural, political and social identities
advanced nations are consequences of this development.
On the other hand, Ferguson reminds us
ask ourselves whether new networks have
really emancipated us from state hierarchies. As these hierarchies took over the com-
century ago (1914), there should be strategies by which citizens
can prevent states from subordinating networks
liberal Utopia, modern technologies have created
setup for the ongoing
fragmentation of society. Different identity groups
up their networks with own news
sources and media channels. The ability for groups like Islamic State
recruit volunteers amongst second and third generation Muslims
Europe demonstrates the uncompromising qualities of
free internet and liberty. As with
any other technology,
is the political will and the ideological convictions that will
whether the internet spreads liberty or tyranny.
an FTC conference on the Internet of Things, Vinton Cerf
provoked the audience with statements like 'privacy may be an anomaly' and
will be increasingly difficult for us to achieve privacy'.
his point of view, the industrial
privacy. Might this era
over? (Edwards 2013).
Cerf's statements can be viewed within the context of the hype about smart devices and
the trend towards tracking, collecting and optimising private data concerning the users'
work, sport, health etc. and their willingness
private data without
thought. Apps that track movement and use sensors to measure data are part of every-
day activities. People are willing
their private data and are even
social networks (Kelly 2015). Like
village, where news and
rumours are distributed quickly, we may have arrived in the 'global
with almost no
more privacy as
result of new technology.
A contradictory phenomenon
the 'global village'
steady decline in communication via websites like Facebook, which offer limited privacy.
the monitoring and surveillance aspects
technology, people are beginning
shift their private communication
non-public services like WhatsApp. These services
offer closed group and end
end encrypted communication. We call this phenomenon
the Digital Biedermeier.
Utopian vision of the internet considers
freedom of press and
speech. The benefits mentioned before are under serious threat. Will the associated
disadvantages of the internet
such as surveillance, loss of privacy or security
dystopia? Will the internet become
battlefield for ideological confrontation between
democracies and autocratic states or extremist groups?
leads us right
John Milton and his speech
1644: whatever the possible
means of tyranny are, engaged citizens and civil society have to stand up for basic rights
keep alive the Utopian vision
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