The Illusion of Control

There was a time when powerful leaders in particular cultures could control large swaths of their respective societies with utter impunity, and when the people being controlled had no choice in the matter. That time has passed.

Wikileaks.org is a site recently begun with the intent to be “an uncensorable version of Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis.” According to its authors, “It combines the protection and anonymity of cutting-edge cryptographic technologies with the transparency and simplicity of a wiki interface.”

The God Journey, as many of our readers know, is self-described as “an ever expanding conversation of those living outside the box of organized religion.”

The American Broadcasting Company is one of the “big three” U.S. television networks.

Myspace is a worldwide, incredibly popular social networking website.

Amazon is a global, online bookstore.

And yet, each of these organizations, with each of their very different missions, and very different (though sometimes overlapping) audiences, shares a very important position in modern western culture.

Together, and with millions of other individuals and organizations, they are demonstrating to the world, one example at a time, that modern western culture’s time has passed.

Humanity has seen many eras and cultures rise and fall, but a trend-line is visible when they are set against one another. The earliest civilizations had rulers with the absolute and completely arbitrary power of life and death over their people, and the people had no alternatives. Then, ancient civilizations like Babylon began to craft law codes to make the controls exercised by the rulers, and the actions taken by the people, less arbitrary and subjective.

Then Greco-Roman culture added the concept of a popular voice in the decision-making process. Though imperfect, and at times merely notional, this was a sea change in terms of control.

With the birth and ministry of Christ came the idea that one’s soul was his or her own to control – and to dedicate in service to God or to reject Him, rather than to be tossed around by the whims of the mad and capricious deities followed by the cultures in which Christianity was born.

The Reformation furthered that belief by positing that the Roman Catholic Church did not have the sole right to mediate the relationship between God and His creation.

The birth of the United States came with the notion of government by the consent of those governed.

The women’s suffrage and antislavery movements expanded that notion to previously subjugated segments of society.

The civil rights movement asserted that mere freedom from enslavement was not enough – that all should be equal in the eyes of the law.

So it is that we find ourselves today on the cusp on another movement. Like those before it, this movement is about control.

Wikileaks – the website I mentioned earlier, was originated to ensure the ability of individuals worldwide to pass information back and forth free of censorship from their respective governments.

The God Journey is an adventure in relationship with Christ free of those who wish to control that relationship from within the walls of some traditional churches.

ABC News last week posted yet another “classified” program discovered through a leak from anonymous sources within the U.S. intelligence community – this time about a “finding” by President Bush authorizing covert action against Iran.

Myspace is one of thirteen sites recently blocked from being accessed on .mil domains – those owned and operated by the U.S. military. While the reason given for the ban was a potential for future bandwidth concerns, there is widespread suspicion that it is also connected to operational security – the ability of the military to control information from its members who used the thirteen websites.

Amazon began as an online bookseller, but has become much more. First the company began to allow users to sell their own used books through its website. Then it began to sell other products in addition to books, and to allow others to do likewise. Now, among other ventures, the site offers on-demand publishing, characterized as “inventory free fulfillment” which allows users to self-publish, and immediately begin marketing and selling their own work. Our friend Kate Bowen did so, and her book In Bonn is now available on Amazon.

These are just a few examples, but it is definitely a growing trend. Modernity was the day of the middleman; of the specialization of labor. It was the time of the “expert.”

That time is passing.

What do we call this new period into which we are entering? Some call it “postmodernism,” but that seems, to me, to be merely another way of saying “we don’t know what to call all this.”

I think it needs a new name, separate from the baggage that the word “postmodern” has accrued. Time alone will tell what that name might be.

Terminology aside, however, the simple fact is that you and I are getting harder and harder to control – that in fact, such control is merely an illusion, right up to the point at which we assent to it.

. . . which is the problem, isn’t it? All too often we don’t even realize we have assented. How many times in your life have you uttered the words “I don’t have a choice”? I know I have, far more than I now care to think about.

But the truth is, in nearly all cases, we do. I might think I don’t have a choice but to go to work in the morning . . . but I do. Each day I choose to go to work and earn a living that helps to support myself and my wife. I could just as easily choose to find a different job, or choose to find some way of employing myself, or choose to make less and live in a smaller house . . . or choose to walk away from it all, for that matter.

It’s an empowering realization, because once I begin examining my life through the lense of my own choices, I realize that this is, indeed, the life that I have chosen . . . and that I rather like it. Even in the worst of times, it is better than many alternatives. It has made me realize that I do not have to allow so-called “experts” to tell me, among other things, what to think about world events, how best to care for my body, or how to connect to God.

The simple fact is that experts might (arguably) be right a majority of the time, but they will be wrong sometimes. When they are, there is undoubtedly somebody out there with the right answer, and all I usually have to do to find it is run a reasonably thorough search through Google and compare all the different viewpoints I get.

I am done looking at the world through other people’s filters. My own are hazy enough without introducing the additional, inevitable subjectivity that comes whenever somebody else attempts to force us to see something “their way.”

All of this brings us back to the websites mentioned at the start of this post. Each, in its own way, is working to increase the number of viewpoints available to us. Each is part of the reason we live in an era of choices like none that has ever existed before. Some, like ABC News, have tried to play the role of middleman, working with other news organizations to tell us what to think . . . but their day is coming to an end as well – just look at the explosion of news-related blogs, some of them even producing their own original reporting from places like Iraq. There is even a news service that exists to provide content for bloggers, just like the Associated Press and other wire services do for “mainstream media.”

In other cases, there are outside forces who attempt to wrest control from some of us. I cannot access MySpace (or YouTube, etc.) from my office because I work on a military installation. The military has also attempted, recently, to clamp down on soldiers blogging on day to day life during deployment.

Such efforts will probably be successful, for a time – but the ABC story is proof that even the force of federal law against release of classified information is not enough to protect a story from getting out. If that’s the case, how can the military expect to control bloggers in its ranks?

This whole situation presents a host of opportunities, but it also comes with its own set of challenges. The simple fact is that when it comes to the information era, it is easier to operate as a small, agile entity than a large, clumsy one. For this reason, the U.S. government is losing the War on Terror (if I may use a term that has fallen out of favor), and it is losing that war on the Internet.

It is a new, multidimensional threat. How does a government as ungainly as the U.S. address such a threat? I don’t know, but it is certainly not by attacking any country in which terrorists are plotting against U.S. assets, or by attempting to root out and arrest terrorists wherever they might be hiding. Those methods might (arguably) have worked once. They do not work any longer.

Perhaps there is no response. Perhaps this is another chink in the armor of a nation-state system that seems to be failing. perhaps the answer is to plod along as best we can as nations until something better, more agile comes along.

That, it seems, is our choice. The future is up to us.

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