Society has taken a weird fork in the road—weird, because it's taken both of the paths. On one hand, policy in many areas of life, including money, communications privacy, and personal weaponry, has become more controlling and more intrusive as politicians seek to know who is talking to whom, what we're earning (and buying), and whether we have the means to push back against the authorities doing all that snooping. But on the other hand, technology increasingly empowers individuals to evade surveillance and restrictions, hide and transfer funds, and acquire or even manufacture forbidden goods, including firearms, without regard to laws dictated from above. Some of these technologies, such as encryption, have already had an enormous impact, while 3D printers and cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, are only starting to make waves. But this growing divergence between what we can do and what our rulers want us to do may be a portent of an accelerating technology-fueled cold civil war.
To an extent, that cold civil war has always been with us. The printing press empowered people to spread ideas far beyond the reach of the busiest censors. Firearms gave individuals a fighting chance against trained muscle in the pay of the local powers that be. But technology throughout the 20th century was more often seen as giving an advantage to the state: spy cameras, tanks, and computer databases seemed to point to a future of "a boot stamping on a human face, forever," as George Orwell so gloomily put it in 1984. But in recent years the tide has turned. The massive computers that were supposed to regiment society turned into PCs and then laptops and then mobile devices that could run encryption software, "mine" Bitcoins, and design forbidden objects for individuals.
The personal computer itself aside, the first modern breakthrough may have come with encryption. At a time when tough cryptography of any type was considered a "munition" and subject to strict export controls, Phil Zimmerman created Pretty Good Privacy and uploaded it to the Internet for anybody who cared to make their email and other messages unreadable by anyone but the intended recipient. (Zimmerman allegedly intended his invention only for U.S. distribution, but even then the online world ranged far and wde.) Furious American officials opened a criminal investigation against Zimmerman, but the cat was out of the bag long before that investigation concluded without charges, though it was undoubtedly gratifying when the courts ruled that cryptographic source code is protected by the First Amendment.
Today Zimmerman is a co-founder of Silent Circle, a commercial outfit that encrypts voice, video and mobile communications—for a price. The company bases itself in Canada to minimize its exposure to the world's snoopier regimes (including the U.S.). It also designed its network so that it can't decrypt the traffic passing through it, to minimize what it can deliver in response to court orders. And Zimmerman's commercial product isn't the only game in town. Among the more promising offerings are a free suite of products from Open WhisperSystems that do much the same as Silent Circle's software.
Why all this effort—and legal risk—to keep communications private? Because much of the world's population lives under the thumbs of nosy rulers, whether overtly malevolent or just overly officious. Even here in the United States, the federal government has induced communications companies to spy on customers by promising not to enforce privacy protections and by threatening to fine online companies that don't allow easy data access to the feds. Federal officials have dropped hints that they're already recording all the phone calls they can intercept (though good luck processing all that data, if it's true).
But biting off more than you can chew is a special skill for government officials, including those who managed to strip people's trust from the Argentine peso and the euro. Currency controls, devaluations in Argentina, and outright confiscations to fund a failing government in Cyprus have driven people to seek a safe haven for what wealth survives the predations of their political leaders. Gold has traditionally provided such a refuge, but the high-tech Bitcoin cryptocurrency recently stepped in to fill that role in a more portable way. A geek's plaything just a short time ago, Bitcoin has turned into a desperate hope for regular people. With its relative ease and anonymity, people who might once have stuffed their pockets with coins and mom's wedding ring when times turn tough instead look to a smart phone app and electronic money to put their savings beyond the reach of crashing currencies and sticky-fingered politicians.
It's not clear that Bitcoin can live up to its promise. It's the first serious crypto currency, unanchored to a government or to a physical presence, and it's just now being tested. What's obvious, though, is that people want what Bitcoin is supposed to be, and that desire will certainly be fulfilled either by it or by a successor technology that can live up to the billing.
Bitcoin has another useful feature. As governments seek to control and track money flows to such an extent that Americans living outside the United States find banks turning away their business because of the red tape involved, Bitcoin is (mostly) anonymous and (largely) untraceable. What the Washington Post sees as a negative—"Bitcoin as an underground banking system or the currency of those who seek to engage in more controversial activities"—many people see as an unadulterated positive. Bitcoin puts financial activity beyond government scrutiny, even to the point of being used on black-market websites, such as Silk Road, to purchase forbidden goods, including illegal drugs.
Whether or not you think that's a good thing depends on the side you've chosen in the cold civil war.
Speaking of civil wars: The hot ones are usually fought with firearms, which governments are often loath to see in wide circulation among their beleaguered subjects. In recent months, after the horrible crimes in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut, many control-oriented politicians saw an opportunity to blow the dust off long-moldering proposals to restrict access to firearms and limit the kinds of guns that Americans can own. Those proposals faltered at the federal level, but laws were tightened in Colorado, Connecticut, and New York.
It's pretty clear, though, that those laws mean even less than they did in the days when many people just ignored restrictive regulations. Modern technology has delivered the ability for people without specialized skills to manufacture firearms in the privacy of their homes with the push of a button. 3D printers, which build objects from plastic (or metal, in higher-end devices) based on computer designs that can be downloaded from the Internet, have been used to manufacture receivers for restricted semi-automatic rifles, and high-capacity ammunition magazines of the sort that are now banned in several states. This week, the first fully 3D-printed handgun was successfully test-fired. (By the way, don't tell the control freaks, but CNC machinery—computer-controlled machine tools—also brings gun manufacturing to the DIY builder with a lower public profile and a less-science fiction-y touch.) Crude though it is, that first pistol is a peek at a future in which virtually any object can be made at home. To the extent that it ever existed, the age of enforceable restrictions on personal weapons, or objects of any sort, is coming to an end.
3D printing is a wildly promising technology that in years to come may be used to print life-like tissue for medical purposes and chemical compounds that could potentially solve the orphan drug problem. They could also be used to manufacture any mind-altering drug under the sun, putting an end to enforceable chemical prohibitions. The RepRap project, which is developing 3D printers that can replicate themselves, promises to make even a ban on 3D printers unenforceable.
Of course, some technologies still remain state-friendly. Heavy machinery, such as tanks and aircraft, continue to enhance government control. But those spy cameras that George Orwell saw as such an important part of Big Brother's regime now serve individuals as much as they serve the state; smart phone cameras are used, both on the spur of the moment and by deliberate design, to monitor cops, TSA agents, and other functionaries.
Governments have always attempted to monitor and direct the people under their control. Now new technologies are giving individuals ever-more power to ignore and defy their rulers. If current trends continue, the future may be populated by frustrated governors and ungovernable individuals.