The probing is over: battle has been joined. The prize - the vital ground being contested - is your mind. The tool: controlling the narrative. That's why this week's campaign about the need for press freedom is so vital. Without news, the truth withers. Without truth, communities shrivel and die.
The decisions that will shape your future are being made today. There are three possible futures.
The first is being drawn by China, using information as its tool. It's compiling an all-encompassing, incredibly detailed knowledge of each of the country's citizens and using this to ensure obedience.
Beijing believes, correctly, possessing information will enable the Politburo to see inside peoples' mind. Subversion can be identified and "corrected". The Party claims to be working for the people, after all. Once this is accepted as fundamental truth (along with its concomitant: that the CCP possesses the best leadership to advance the human condition) then the requirement for mass surveillance becomes obvious and evident.
After all, don't you want street cameras to reveal the identity of thieves and malefactors? And aren't the protesters wilfully damaging public property in Hong Kong little better than common criminals? Isn't it desirable to identify bad actors? Shouldn't those organising the demonstrations be incarcerated because they're causing the chaos? And if they say they're inspired by ideas like "democracy", doesn't that just prove such actors are puppets of foreign governments, propagating subversion?
If you begin with the "truth" that the Party expresses, as best it can, the will of the people, everything else follows. The need for complete surveillance becomes both obvious and paramount. For us in the West, of course, that's anathema.
Except it's not.
Take Australia. Canberra is currently busy creating its own photographic database of every Australian with a driver's licence, and Home Affairs is following this effort closely. The Senate has heard that, between July and August, there was an average of 80 applications for asylum - per day. As Labor has pointed out, plane people requesting protection visas have become the new boat people. Keeping tabs on all those who arrive here has an obvious appeal for the security agencies, but who and what's protecting the rest of society? And how do we know we can trust the organisation to make the right decisions, particularly when journalists can be arrested and incarcerated for revealing slip-ups and mistakes?
- Liberals warn of ACT government's culture of secrecy
- It's time to fight for your right to know
- More than half of FOI decisions overturned on review
- MPs support free press, but no commitment to change
- OPINION: Does the ACT government really respect your right to know?
- New pro-disclosure FOI laws result in concerning rate of censorship
In Secret: the making of Australia's Security State,journalist Brian Toohey points out how this demand for information has been growing without any corresponding transparency on the government's behalf. There are now 82 counter-terrorism laws, including ones that criminalise journalism explaining what's occurring even if the actions of government are badly wrong, like spying on East Timor for commercial advantage, or the poisoning of service personnel (think Agent Orange; F-111 fuel tanks; or asbestos in the Navy).
Then there's business.
Facebook and Google are engaged in exactly the same pursuit as China: manufacturing a comprehensive database about every individual on the planet. Or at least those who have money to spend.
What if, for example, you're driving in the evening and the map provider slightly alters the route to take you past a particular fast-food joint, suggesting you might like to grab a burger. Is that convenience or sinister manipulation? What if you've been searching for holidays and particular hotels and airlines pay to push adds in front of you? That might be helpful, but the problem occurs over time, as companies build up an incredibly detailed picture of your interests and buying patterns that can be used to manipulate your spending.
It's almost as frightening as China's ambition of giving everybody a social credit rating determining where they fit in society, what they can buy and where they can fly. The only difference is it's unelected managers of huge US corporations who will determine what you see, rather than the unelected bureaucracy of a totalitarian government.
Already, in the US, manufacturer Standard Innovations has been sued for keeping track of how long customers used its product: Bluetooth-enabled vibrators. Gaming programs are similarly keeping detailed data-points of players' movements - even when they're not playing the game. Apple has shared - or is sharing - users' browsing data with Chinese conglomerate Tencent. You are the product.
In some countries it's the nation-state itself, in others it's business, but both are striving to shape your beliefs and mould your perception of reality. Configure the beliefs of the population and conflict evaporates. Instead of citizens, countries are inhabited by consumers. It's the complete shortcut to dominance.
We rightly fear the future conjured up by George Orwell in 1984. This portrays what happens under the monolith of totalitarian control. But it's simplistic to simply assert "there goes China" without recognising Australia risks lumbering into a similar somnolence. Aldous Huxley in Brave New World described a future where everyone welcomes being told what to do and nobody has a free or original thought. Life is so much easier when there's no need to think.
The capacity to gather information about individuals has never been more complete, This is dangerous because it permits organisations to control citizens or consumers, however you choose to see yourself. The only safeguard against such creeping totalitarianism is a free press, capable of reporting what's going on in the world around us. This is now under threat.
We should be alarmed, angry, and frightened about what's occurring around us.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.