Technology-especially infomation and communications technology-has been the most liberating force in history. It is the Frankenstein monster, but it kills tyrants; it is ultimately benevolent to the populace because it gives access to knowledge. The Big Lie fails when truth is also heard. Short-wave radios provide news, and the news rings true. It proved to be much more expensive and difficult for the communists to jam radio broadcasts than for the Radio Free Europe to set up new ones at difference frequencies. Meanwhile, short-wave radios shrank in size and cost. Information leaked, and then poured, across the walls built by totalitarianism. People learned that their “worker’s paradise” was far inferior to the capitalist world outside, and that the gap was growing.The technology of liberation in China was initially the fax machine, used to send foreign newspaper reports; the government just barely, and perhaps only temporarily, won the battle. It cannot resist forever. In fact, realizing that the Internet is necessary just to compete in the world markets, the government has begun to spend large amounts of money on getting the country wired. Cheap cell phones, too, are invading the developing world.
Orwell’s error was remarkably simple: he assumed that only the state would be able to afford high-tech-an assumption shared by virtually every prophet, science-fiction writer, and futurist. But it has proven to be wrong. As late as the 1970s, the driving force for electronic technology in the U.S. was the military; now the Department of Defense has difficulty getting industry to respond to its needs, since they are dwarfed by the consumer market. The military, whenever possible, now orders commercial off-the-shelf technology rather than “mil spec.” Many of the GPS receivers used in Desert Storm were bought at Radio Shack. Radios have become so inexpensive that Intel is now planning to engrave a miniature one on the corner of every silicon microchip, at no extra cost (see “Radio Ready Chips,” TR July/August 2002). Most of us cannot even count the number of computers we own, because we don’t know how many are hidden in our microwave ovens and automobiles.
To be sure, technology has introduced problems. Like anything out of control, it does not always lead us where we want to go. It is particularly difficult to predict its long-term effect on the environment. But in a time when technology is frequently under attack, it is worthwhile to notice its role in spreading truth. It was not Stalinism, but the flow of information that proved to be unstoppable.