- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

All things must end, including columns. This will be my last appearance in this patch of the paper. As I pack up my pencils, it dawns on me that I have been with The Washington Times for more than 25 years in one form or another. Gosh.

Over the years, I’ve tried to make a point that strikes me as important: That we do not so much harness technology as we follow its lead. That is, once a technology is invented, results seem to follow inevitably from it, whether we foresee them or want them. The technology lays the track, and we ride along it willy-nilly.

For example, having invented the automobile, we had to build roads. Roads made remote suburbs inevitable and these, in turn, along with the economics of scale, made shopping centers certain to appear. The result was a transformation in how we live, a transformation that for better or worse was not planned.

The Internet has made “globalization” certain, whether we want it or not. It had already begun with cheap air fares and satellite television, but the Net made it a done deal. The Internet, with its associated computers, separated intellectual capital (programming, design, research) from physical capital (factories). Smart people in Bombay and Luzon in the Philippines could now compete with Americans in California. Where this is taking us, nobody is quite sure, but it is certain that we have no choice.

I’ve tried to emphasize what I think is the truly alarming technological imperative of today, surveillance. Many blame the increasing authoritarianism and watchfulness on the purported totalitarian leanings of the current administration; others think it necessary to ward off terrorism. These may have something to do with the rapidity of adoption. But the coming surveillance state is, I think, unavoidable. We can’t not do it. Where this is going, I don’t know either, but I don’t think we are going to like it.

Surveillance is too easy, too convenient, and often not provably totalitarian in intent. A country certainly has the right to check passports. Scanned into the computer, along with annotations you are not allowed to see, and you are being not admitted to your country, but tracked.

The Fourth Amendment apparently does not apply to e-mail and, if it did, it could be easily ignored. E-mail can be stored indefinitely on today”s huge hard drives. Prevention of money laundering or terrorism justifies governmental access to bank records.

Link driver’s licenses, and you have a national ID. It increases steadily. None of it can be voted on by the public. The most important decisions are seldom left to the people.

Soon our lives will be utterly transparent to the government. We are closer already than I think many realize. As so often happens, our response is piecemeal, insufficiently thought out, and lackadaisical. It is another done deal, and it is a big deal.

If a reader asked me for an exit line, I would say, “Watch this one.” And watch technology in general. In Roman times, armies changed the world. Today, transistors do. They change armies. The next decades are going to be a ride. Not necessarily a pleasant one, but a ride.

As I fade into the glorious sunsets of the western coast of Mexico, where I intend to be utterly useless and contented, I want to thank my readers for putting up with me. (Hereinafter, my wife and I will be the only ones who have to put up with me.) I hope that my maunderings have been occasionally interesting.

Fred, out.

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