Robert Važan

The immortal tech-savvy authoritarian state

Democratic revolutions might well be a history by now. Technology lets authoritarian states detect and suppress dissent before it gains any traction. Automated secret service monitors every word and every real-world action of every citizen. Prototype devices detect lies during interrogation and even monitor thoughts.

I was a little boy in '89 when democratic revolutions swept through Eastern Europe. At the time, I didn't realize how lucky I was. Sure, elections resulted in one bad government after another, but quality of life nevertheless improved, because people started to use freedom to fix problems. They switched jobs, schools, and homes, all of which were previously assigned. They bought what they needed, because imports were allowed, businesses could innovate, and centralized spending was scaled down. Freedom, not elections, was responsible for all progress. Elections, constitution, and media were there merely to prevent government from suppressing freedom again.

Things didn't go so well elsewhere. In China, the infamous Tiananmen square massacre suppressed Chinese equivalent of Eastern Europe's '89 revolutions. In Russia, the revolution succeeded only for Russia to slide back into dictatorship a few years later under Putin. Both states now export their authoritarianism around the world, actively undermining democracies, including those in Eastern Europe.

Both Russia and China nevertheless relaxed government control over society. The new freedoms, limited as they were, brought progress in quality of life. But there is only so much you can do with limited freedom. Eventually you run into problems you cannot fix, because you don't have enough freedom to do so. Authoritarian states in general don't fix problems. They hide them behind censorship and paint them over with propaganda. Obviously, no problem ever gets fixed by pretending it does not exist.

Granting limited freedom to citizens nevertheless bought both Russia and China time. While the West was busy transforming Eastern Europe and both Russian and Chinese citizens were busy utilizing their new limited freedoms, Russian and Chinese governments were quietly developing a new kind of technology-augmented authoritarian state.

Before '89, every Eastern European country had its own equivalent of Russian KGB secret service. Secret service recruited informants in every workplace and every larger building. Its job was to detect and disrupt every attempt at dissent. It was scary. You never knew who can be trusted. The new authoritarian states no longer need such large network of informants. They have data centers full of computers that sift through everyday communication of citizens collected from websites, apps, phone calls, street cameras, and bugged electronics. This is like having a virtual secret service agent assigned to every citizen, present at all times and listening to everything, perfectly loyal to the government while feeling nothing for the citizens.

Armed with newly found power, China and Russia are suppressing the limited freedoms citizens gained since '89. Great Firewall of China monitors and censors ordinary everyday communication of citizens. It blocks websites you would never think have any sort of political significance. Officially promoted as a way to fight petty crime, the Chinese Social Credit System aims to regulate family relations and practicing of religion among other things. Penalties involve further restrictions on the already limited freedoms, including restrictions on travel, education, and employment. Along with public humiliation and targeting of vulnerable relatives, these were major forms of punishment for political dissent in Eastern Europe before '89. Except now in China, with the help of automation, spying and persecution is no longer limited to politically active citizens nor to significant actions of political dissent.

China, and soon Russia, can afford it, because technology lets them track and attack political dissent with extreme precision. They can map out networks of people, identify leaders, gather detailed profile on every member and their family, and trace all published information. Subsequent targeted raid, imprisonment of leaders, wiping of all published information, and threats to supporters will reliably kill any grassroots movement. This would be a wild dream for anyone in pre-89 Eastern European secret services with their paper records and patchy network of unreliable informants.

Sure there are still cracks in the system, but they are much smaller than they were before '89. More importantly, the current flaws in the system are temporary. The technological dictatorships of the future are still under construction. Once built, they are inescapable. You cannot conceivably fight a system that knows your every move and that can stop you at moment's notice. Popular unrest is still possible, but it would be deprived of leadership and thus weaker and easier to control, divide, and redirect. If anything can be done, it should be done now while the new technology-augmented authoritarian states are still immature. Later it will be either acceptance of this new, dystopian reality or a very costly war.