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<nettime> Clarke: IT: Weapon of authoritarianism or tool of democracy?


 Red Rock Eater Digest Most Recent Article: Fri, 27 Oct 2000
 Roger Clarke on authoritarian IT

Paper being presented at the IFIP World Congress, Hamburg, 31 August 1994

Roger Clarke
Department of Commerce
Australian National University
Canberra ACT 0200

Strong tendencies exist to apply information technology to support
centralist, authoritarian world views. It is argued that alternative
architectures can be readily created, which are more attuned to the
openness and freedoms which are supposed to be the hallmarks of democratic
government. It is questioned whether authoritarianism will be capable of
surviving the complexities, dynamism and widely distributed power which are
features of the emergent information societies.

Keyword Codes: H.1, J.1, K.4
Keywords: information systems; administrative data processing;
 computers and society


The genre of 'anti-utopian' novels described futures repugnant to humanity.
The classic image of an information-rich government dominating citizens'
thoughts and actions is associated with Zamyatin's 'We' (1922) and Orwell's
'1984' (1948), but the technological basis of the surveillance culture had
been established as early as the late nineteenth century by Jeremy
Bentham's designs for a model prison, incorporating the all-seeing and
ubiquitous 'panopticon' (1791). Foucault (1975) argued that the prison
metaphor was the leitmotiv of authoritarian society. Bradbury's
'Fahrenheit 451' (1953) and Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose' (1980)
speculated on the process and implications of denying information to the

Art anticipated reality. Information technology (IT) is now being
systematically applied to public administration in ways consistent with the
anti-utopian nightmare. This paper's purpose is to review the
authoritarian model as a basis for applying IT in government, and to
champion an alternative, democratic model of IT use.


An authoritarian society favours obedience to Authority over individual
freedoms, to the extent of demanding subservience of the individual to the
State. The notion clusters with tyranny (the cruel exercise of power),
despotism and dictatorship (the exercise of absolute power),
totalitarianism (single-party government) and fascism (a usually savage
blend of authoritarianism with nationalism).

Authoritarianism is associated with logical positivist and utilitarian
philosophies. These perspectives place very high value on rational social
engineering, law and order, and resource efficiency. The populace is
perceived as unsophisticated, uneducated, unreliable, chaotic, and/or
incorrigibly venal and immoral. For their own good, the organised State
must impose control on the unruly people.

A further assumption of the authoritarian perspective is that there exist
humans with a level of both intelligence and morality superior to the
common herd. In different ideologies, their innate superiority derives
from different sources, such as the divine right of kings, wealth, force of
arms, mystical power, what Machiavelli called virt=FA, wisdom, intellectual
merit, technical capability, political cunning, demagogery, and/or public
popularity. These superior humans are accepted as being the appropriate
ones to make judgements on behalf of their society, with a minimum of
checks and balances. They do this through social engineering; that is to
say by organising and re-organising society in what they consider the
rational way of achieving order and efficiency, and hence of delivering
material well-being, and therefore spiritual happiness, for all.


Under an authoritarian regime, the populace must be managed. Tools and
techniques that have proven effective in managing raw materials,
manufactured goods and animals, can be applied to humans too. A unique
identifier for each person, and its general use by government agencies and
other organisations which conduct transactions with people, are highly
desirable tools for efficient social administration. Public administration
systems must be designed to exercise control over people, in all of their
various roles. There may be scope for at least some semblance of choice by
individuals, but employees need to operate within a corporate culture,
consumer demand needs to be statistically predictable, and citizens'
freedom of choice needs to be constrained, lest unworkable parliaments
eventuate, with too many splinter parties, independents and conscience

It is only logical that an authoritarian society should recognise the
benefits of a unary executive branch, in which the boundaries between
agencies are porous. In this way, data can flow freely (such that
transaction data and client histories can be cross-verified, and changes of
address and status cross-notified), and systems can be tightly integrated
and efficient (and hence misdeameanours by people in one arena, such as
traffic fines, can be readily punished through another, such as denial of a
marriage licence, permission to move apartments, or approval for travel).

Authoritarian IT-based systems use a centralised architecture. Elements
may be physically dispersed, however, to achieve efficiency in data
transmission, and to provide resilience against localised threats such as
natural disasters and sabotage by dissidents. The general shape of such
systems is that provided by cyberneticians: a cascade of control loops,
culminating in a master-controller. In authoritarian regimes, information
privacy and data security play important roles. These have little to do
with the protection of people, however, but rather serve to protect the
integrity of data, and of the system, and to legitimate the repressive
system through the provision of nominal rights for data subjects.

For discussions of the authoritarian application of technology in general,
see Ellul (1964) and Packard (1964), and of IT in particular, see Rule
(1974), Weizenbaum (1976), Kling (1978), Rule et al. (1980), Burnham
(1983), OTA (1986), Laudon (1986), Clarke (1988), Davies (1992) and
Ronfeldt (1992, pp.277-287).


The reader is by now (hopefully) annoyed by the extent to which the
foregoing description has been a caricature, hyperbole, a 'straw man'
designed to be easily criticised. However there are manifold instances of
just these features in IT-based public administration systems, both those
in operation and being conceived, in countries throughout the world. In
North America, whose use of IT has been well ahead of that in most other
countries, a 'national data center' was proposed as early as 1966.
Elements of it have emerged, such as the widespread use of the Social
Security Number (SSN) as a unique identifier, proposals for a health id
card, and the all-but uncontrolled use of computer matching and profiling.
Some protagonists in the current debates surrounding the national
information infrastructure (NII) are seeking a network consistent with
authoritarian control; for example, by insisting on use only of those
cryptographic techniques which are 'crackable' by national security

Australia has followed the North American tendency. It flirted with a
national identification scheme in the late 1980s (Greenleaf & Nolan 1986,
Clarke 1987, Graham 1990). When that was overwhelmingly rejected by the
populace, senior executives in public sector agencies 'went underground'.
They have variously gained Parliamentary support for, and smuggled through,
a series of measures whose cumulative impact is in some ways already more
emphatic than the 'Australia Card' would have been (Clarke 1992).

The cultures of many Asian nations are well-suited to authoritarian
regimes. There are elements of high-social-efficiency applications of IT
in such nations as Singapore. Busy Asian countries have shown especial
interest in vehicle monitoring systems. Thailand and the Phillipines
appear eager to act as laboratories for United States corporations
developing identification and surveillance technologies. Under China's
strongly authoritarian political system, it is unlikely that IT will be
applied in any way other than to bolster existing relationships between its
citizens and the State.

In Western Europe, Scandinavian countries lead the way with their social
welfare systems and the heavy dependence of their citizens on the State.
Denmark's citizen register is a model for authoritarian regimes everywhere,
and a looming export success. Other countries are keenly adopting
proposals to use IT to constrain the populace, by such means as
identification cards (variously for football fans, patients, and the public
in general), and the integration of data systems between government
agencies, and between countries within and beyond the European Community.

In Central and Eastern Europe, there was an expectation that democratic,
free enterprise systems would arise to replace the authoritarianism of the
collapsed communist regimes. In practice, few of those countries have ever
known freedom of choice, and genuine democracy (as distinct from variants
of authoritarianism referred to in local lexicons as 'democracy') is not on
the agenda of many of these countries. Their focus is on economic growth,
rationalist solutions to economic and social problems, and centralism. IT
is seen as a tool of authoritarianism, not of democracy; of centralised
power, not of a pluralist body politic; and of control, not of freedom.

It can come as no surprise that public administration systems are being
conceived in these ways. Applications of all kinds are developed by
well-trained and self-confident engineers, using unequivocally rationalist
techniques. System design comprises the expression of relevant parts of
the present and near-future world in a formal model which has the important
characteristic of being 'mappable' onto a machine. The application's users
and 'usees' (i.e. the people affected by it) are treated as objects to be
modelled, not as stakeholders with interests in the process and its
outcomes. Human language is treated as though it were an (imprecise)
formalism, rather than a means of interaction among people. The designers
fail to notice that their formalisms cannot reflect the complexities,
ambiguities and dynamism inherent in social systems, and the negotiation
and accommodation processes which take place among humans and social groups
(Clarke 1992b, Ciborra 1992, Agre 1994, Gronlund 1994).

Hence the problems highlighted in this paper are to a considerable degree
inherent in the techniques currently used to develop IT applications
generally. Nonetheless, their greatest impact on people's freedom is by
way of public administration systems.


The technological determinism notion has been applied to IT. In
particular, IT has been accused of being inherently de-humanising,
centralist and authoritarian (e.g. Roszak 1986). The standpoint adopted by
this author is that technology is essentially morally 'ambivalent' (i.e. it
has potential applications and potential impacts variously supportive of,
and inimical to, any particular social value - Ellul, 1990). IT may make
some paths easier than others, but the choice is made not by blind fate,
but by politicians, government executives, and, not least, IT

The alternative political philosophy to authoritarianism is democracy,
popularly expressed as 'government of the people by the people for the
people', and commonly implemented through representatives chosen regularly
and frequently by the combined and equal vote of all competent adults. The
democratic ideal derives from the assumption that no class of people has
the right to dominate other classes. It reflects the renaissance
conception of mankind, whereby each individual should have the opportunity
to access and interpret for themselves the ideas of other people and of
Gods; and, in more modern terms, should have the scope for
self-determination and self-fulfilment.

Early computer technology may indeed have encouraged centralisation, but
since the marketplace debut of integrated circuitry and the mini-computer
about 1970, modern IT has been readily applied in the service of democracy.
Open IT-based systems involve nodes which are 'peers', with equal
authority in respect of particular functions. For example, in a national
health network, each node might take responsibility for all processing and
storage relating to a particular aspect of the system's functionality (e.g.
support of a particular regional clinic, or epidemiological research into a
particular class of diseases), and have special rights recognised by all
other nodes in that regard (e.g. the right of access, respectively, to
identified data relating to specific patients, and to identifiable data
relating to particular diseases and procedures). Similarly, particular
kinds of data held at each node (e.g. data identifying a patient) might be
recognised as being controlled by that node and require special authority
before it could be released to any other node.

One form of democratic topology is the unconstrained network, with maximum
inter-connectivity, and dominion by each node over the services it
provides. Another model is a variant on simple-minded cybernetics: a
cascade of controllers which folds around, such that the ultimately
controlled (the populace) are also the ultimate controllers (the voters).
Before modern communications became available, the only practicable
democratic mechanism for geographically large countries was periodic
(typically, 3- or 4-yearly) election of representatives. In information
societies of the very near future, however, major policy decisions can be
instigated, formulated, and decided by direct democracy. Voters may choose
to delegate the articulation of broad policies to their elected
representatives, but even this can be subject to the over-riding of
unpopular decisions, and the removal of representatives the electorate
considers are not performing their functions.

Hierarchical topologies serve authoritarianism, whereas non-hierarchical
ones are consistent with a free society. Access to data under the control
of each node must be restricted, until and unless, via due process,
disclosure is justified in fulfilment of some higher interest. Such
topologies provide not only robustness and adaptability, but also
integrity, because clients can trust them, and there is a lower risk of
loss of quality (through suspicion and uncooperativeness), and of sabotage
(through active attempts to mislead, and direct, destructive action).


Is this image of democratic computing just a caricature too? Possibly, but
examples exist. Local Area Network architectures are inverting the old
notion of centralist processors accessed by terminals. The
now-conventional names reflect the fact that 'client' workstations demand
data and processing from 'servers': the user's device is in control, and
the central facility performs at its bidding. In wide-area networking
also, peer-to-peer protocols are rivalling and may be progressively
replacing the older, hierarchical or 'star' configurations. At the level
of inter-networking, the topology of the world-wide TCP/IP-based Internet
is essentially flat, the systems software is highly distributed, the
redundancy is very high, and its robustness, its resilience and its
capacity to resist authoritarian governments are therefore all of a high

The Internet's technical features have resulted in a culture very different
from that on hierarchical nets. It provides a space in which imaginations
have substantial freedoms. Some people use those freedoms to create new
services and products; others to experiment with self-expression and
group-experiences; some as a 'cybernetic' analogue to psychotropic drugs;
and some just to distribute pornography or racist materials. Nor are the
boundaries between these activities always clear-cut.

It seems ironical that the Internet was sponsored by the United States
military complex, but the irony is more apparent than real. Systems which
support military operations cannot risk the fragility of centralisation,
but rather demand robustness and resilience, and therefore redundancy.
Moreover, aero-space-defense R. & D. is dispersed across vast numbers of
universities and private sector research laboratories. It then seeks to
complement competition by collaborative interaction among individual
researchers and among potential research partners. To retain its
technological and intellectual leadership, it was essential that the U.S.A.
avoid the temptation to sustain centralised, authoritarian topologies; and
to its credit it knowingly spawned a dynamic, world-wide, democratic
network laboratory.


This paper has considered the extremes of authoritarianism and democracy.
Clearly, any society will demand not only freedoms, but also protections
against those who use those freedoms to harm others. Naive authoritarian
models are doomed to fail, because they deny freedoms; and naive
democratic models are doomed to fail too, because they deny protections.
Ronfeldt concluded that IT-based public administration (which he calls
'cyberocracy') "far from favoring democacy or totalitarianism ... may
facilitate more advanced forms of both" (1990, p.283). How should new
'cyberocracies' be designed, and how should existing public administration
systems be adapted to exploit the new opportunities, while balancing the
needs for control and freedom?

Authoritarian aspects of schemes could be justifiable in some societies as
interim measures. Lenin and then Stalin judged that the country's large
peasant population, and its institutions, were insufficiently mature for
immediate implementation of the full Communist platform. Unfortunately the
repression inherent in their interim arrangements became ingrained, and was
only relieved by counter-revolution. Authoritarian elements in public
administration should therefore be not only justified, but also
demonstrably interim, i.e. the means must be shown whereby they will be
replaced, by evolutionary processes, with alternative mechanisms consistent
with democratic principles.

In any case, the feasibility of grafting democratic features onto an
essentially hierarchical model must be regarded as very slim. All power
vests in the centre, and any softening of the system's features is by gift
of the powerful. Moreover, the system can be manipulated by the powerful
(for example, by monitoring nominally confidential communications), and
privileges can be withdrawn by the powerful. No freedom-loving populace
could regard such a system as credible, and would therefore only submit to
it as a result of coercion.

Is the alternative feasible: to graft control mechanisms onto an
essentially open model? Communication channels can still be tapped and
storage devices searched (under warrant). Evidence arising from such
interceptions and searches can still be presented in a court of law.
Certain actions and uses of IT can be expressly made illegal. The ex post
facto controls can therefore still function within open, democratically
conceived public administration. Toffler distinguished this form of IT
application by coining the term 'practopia' (1980, p.368).

What is not so simple to contrive within open systems is effective
real-time monitoring and control: Foucault's 'prison' is readily
implemented using hierarchical topologies, but if the nodes and arcs of
networks are not all under the control of Authority, then preventive
controls become much harder to bring to fruition. That, then, is the
essential battleground between authoritarian and democratic models of IT:
should someone or some class of people, and in particular politicians and
senior public sector executives, be permitted to have the power to prevent
transgressions? Because it is that kind of control over the public which
is at the very heart of the anti-utopian nightmare.


Power does not need to be explicitly and consciously granted to public
administrators by the voting public, or by their elected representatives.
It can accrue, slowly and gently, through developments in IT, through new
applications of established techniques, through the gradual 'creep' of
existing schemes into new functions, and through seemingly harmless
refinements to statutes. As frogs are reputed to do, a society might
resist being put into boiling water, yet be lulled to sleep in warm water
slowly brought to the boil.

This paper commenced by referring to early literary premonitions of
authoritarian applications of IT. The fictional literature has undergone a
transition. The turning-point was John Brunner's 'The Shockwave Rider'
(1975), which explicitly owed a debt to Alvin Toffler's 'Future Shock'
(1971). For much of the novel, the hero appears to be putting up a brave
fight against inevitable defeat by the State. By turning the power of the
net against its sponsors, the hero discovers pockets of surviving
resistance, and galvanises the latent opposition to the State. Unlike
anti-utopian novels, the book ends on an ambiguous, but (from the
humanistic perspective) an optimistic note.

Subsequent novels have adopted a quite different pattern. In such works as
William Gibson's 'Neuromancer' (1984), and the 'cyberpunk' genre it spawned
(see Sterling 1986), people are prosthetic-enhanced cyborgs, plug directly
into the net, and induce their 'highs' through a mix of drugs and
cyberspace. More importantly for the argument being pursued here, national
and regional governments exercise very little power. The hypercorps
(successors to the transnational corporations) are responsible for
organised economic activity, the majority of the net, and a great deal of
the information. Outside this limited, polite society skulk large numbers
of people, in communities in which formal law and order have broken down
and tribal patterns have re-emerged. Officialdom has not been able to
sustain the myth that it was in control; society has become ungovernable.

Little echoes of these patterns are evident in contemporary societies. The
use of the Internet for anti-social purposes is proving much harder to
control than similar behaviour using the telephone network. IT contributed
significantly to the breakdown of the Soviet Union because, in addition to
improving production effectiveness and efficiency, PCs delivered 'samizdat'
- the means for cheap reproduction of dissident newsletters. Lies that had
been lived for seven decades could not withstand the heat generated by
eager users of a potentially democratising technology. And that was before
inter-networking and computer-mediated communications had achieved any
degree of sophistication.

IT may be applied to public administration in ways consistent with
authoritarianism or with democracy. Proponents of hierarchical structures
and social engineering, chief amongst them senior public sector executives,
must at the very least appreciate the limits of tolerance of authoritarian
measures within their society. Preferably, governments should ensure that
social administration schemes are not emphatically centralised and
incapable of adaptation towards more liberal patterns. And most desirably,
public servants, governments and voters themselves, should be exploiting
the opportunities for more effective democracy which are being created by
information technology.


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