Maybe authoritarianism doesn’t scale

Many of us, myself included, were fretting about role that surveillance technologies would play in creating more resilient authoritarian regimes, but we’re starting to see the cracks forming in multiple regimes all at once.

I don’t want to try to share in not-as-yet-achieved victories half way around the globe as innocent civilians are still being killed and imprisoned while bearing no personal risk myself. That said, I can’t help but observe that surveillance technology seems to offer relatively little for maintaining a regime. In fact, it may be the case that all it serves to do is accelerate government overeach and eventual public resistance.

Sureveillance doesn’t seem to actually grant any additional scale to authorities, the increasing the population a smaller group in power might control. It may, however, accelerate the rate at which the public achieves a critical mass of awareness of not just transgressions by authorities, but the true beliefs of their peers regarding those transgressions. Social media and other technologies seem to be accelerating the process through which preference falsification is being unraveled.

The simpler observation, however, is that modern information technology appears to have given some authoritarian regimes the misguided belief that simply being aware of resistance earlier, and reacting ruthlessly, would be sufficient to maintain greater control and reach. Instead, this unwarranted confidence has simply greased slide to overreach. When a bunch of stormtroopers show up to force people to work, the broader public arrives at a dark calculus all the faster: resisting is no riskier than not resisting in the short run, resisting is likely less risky in the long run.

There’s no shortage of fiction reminding us that authority is brittle. Even in a world of imagined sci-fi technology, absent a dystopian robot apocalypse, controlling humans using other humans remains an analog mechanism where the returns to scale remain gratefully constant. Sometimes a small number of people can achieve control over a larger number, but their days are always numbered. The technology that we feared might tilt the balance of this equation may have, in fact, merely sped up the timeline.

One thought on “Maybe authoritarianism doesn’t scale

  1. StickerShockTrooper November 28, 2022 / 12:59 pm

    That is a pretty…. optimistic? take on the protests happening right now.

    I fear two possibilities are more plausible than the downfall of authoritarianism:

    1) increasing state violence gets over the top of the protests (Tiananmen Square, Arab Spring, 2009 Iran elections, etc.)

    2) The authorities release enough pressure (ease up on morality police; declare “next phase” of Covid) to allay the immediate concerns of the protesting majority, while doubling down repression on the radicals who are agitating for regime change.


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