Liberation Technologies: decrypting personal and political jurisdiction in digital domains

“You sit at the edge of the ocean, wherever the coast will be after Miami is abandoned to the waves. You are thirsty. Random little clots of dust are full-on robotic interactive devices, since advertising companies long ago released plagues of smart dust upon the world. That means you can always speak and some machine will be listening. “I’m thirsty, I need water.”The seagull responds, “You are not rated as enough of a commercial prospect for any of our sponsors to pay for freshwater for you.” You say, “But I have a penny.” “Water costs two pennies.” “There’s an ocean three feet away. Just desalinate some water!” “Desalinization is licensed to water carriers. You need to subscribe. However, you can enjoy free access to any movie ever made, or pornography, or a simulation of a deceased family member for you to interact with as you die from dehydration. Your social networks will be automatically updated with the news of your death.” And finally, “Don’t you want to play that last penny at the casino that just repaired your heart? You might win big and be able to enjoy it.” – Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future


While swiping and pawing away at our glowing glass squares, many of us feel the most ourselves. Armed with 3D-printed guns, infinite knowledge just a few clicks away, and a transnational battalion of best friends who we’ve never met, we modern citizens both strengthen and sacrifice our  individuality to our inhuman self-extensions. We couldn’t imagine a society without technology, without the physical and intellectual assistance of our inhuman companions. Developing in symbiotic dependence, we both perpetuate and exist because of the other. Just as we adapt to the physical constraints of our modern fleshless appendages, these devices also attempt to accommodate the complexity of contemporary civilization and free will of human beings. Who is in control? We endow stationary natural materials, such as the glass of our smartphones, with human-centric functions and yet we are slaves to our equipment, destroying our bodies, crouching over bright screens for work and for pleasure and for survival all hours of the day. What do we want out of technology?  What does technology want out of us?

Inspired by popular Utopian vision about the evolution of human civilization through science and knowledge, people began inventing machines that  extended not just our physical but also mental faculties. In the 1624 Utopian story “New Atlantis,” Francis Bacon depicts an ideal society dedicated to expanding the future of human knowledge, creation, and potential of the human species. The governor of this fictional utopian state purports that the ideal civilization pivots on unlocking human potential and power through science and technology, describing  “The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”

Throughout my time at Gallatin, I have studied how authority embeds in and is deployed through technology. Technology, specifically the Internet and artificial intelligence, can facilitate  both personal and political empowerment or exploitation.  My studies are a critical branch of the the academic framework of ‘liberation technologies,’ or the discipline founded by Stanford’s Larry Diamond that studies how technologies “empower individuals, facilitate independent communication and mobilization, and strengthen an emergent civil society” (Diamond 5). My critical approach explores how these new mediums can simultaneously mobilize human rights advocacy and stimulate personal content creation, yet also  present authoritarian regimes with opaque avenues to wield political control and commercial exploits upon their citizens. While the Internet is one such liberation technology that certainly emancipates people from geopolitical restraints, a utopian depiction of the Internet’s openness and  inevitable conference of universal democracy is reductive and harmful. I also classify artificial intelligence/ human enhancement technologies as liberation technologies, and consider how these artificial extensions of the self grant individuals greater personal autonomy and reimagines power relationships between the individual, their technology, and the network.  

As the Internet gained mainstream commercial footing in 1996, a fleet of cyber-utopianists, accompanied with boundless digital fervor, colonized the World Wide Web and exalted the virtues of the newest liberation technology. American artist and early Internet idealist John Perry Barlow penned  “A Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace,” which defends the Internet as the final frontier for freedom. As Barlow declares “in China, Germany, France … and the United States, you are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of cyberspace,” he demands the emancipation of cyberspace from Earthly geopolitical divides (Barlow). Since America was not living up to its Founding Fathers’ dreams of democracy and free expression, early Internet users such as Barlow envisioned the Internet as a space where individual freedom and faith could seek refuge from offline persecution.

Indeed, the Internet and its buffet of social media platforms and content providers empower citizens to challenge political authority. “If you want to liberate a society, give them the Internet,” said Wael Ghonim, creator of the Facebook protest group that mobilized the initial wave of protesters in Cairo’s Tahir Square (MacKinnon xxi).  The use of social media platforms to galvanize civil resistance is popularly cited as a source for the success of the Arab Spring uprisings, in which leaders from Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya were ousted by the people. The Internet’s porous international borders  enabled the global digital commons to sympathize and support the Arab Spring revolutions. In cyberspace, transnational activists have the opportunity to adopt and amplify local sociopolitical issues.

At the same time, influential tech theorists, including Evgeny Morozov, Rebecca MacKinnon, and Jaron Lanier, criticize the dominant, hyperbolic narrative that hastily attributes the civilian’s political achievements to the concurrent  international social media activism. As the Western political media near exclusively cites social media as the source of success for the uprisings, the Internet activist echo chamber amplifies, muffling the boots-on-the-ground efforts within the Arab Spring nations and ignoring the overarching establishment of traditional power that regulates online activity.

Placing blind faith in the Internet as inherently open and democratic domain is a dangerous “techno-fundamentalist” approach that can ultimately lull us into accepting risks that we do not see or understand. Many online platforms and corporations propel visions of ultimate universal Internet transparency, but in the meantime, will continue to harvest and toy with our private data. In Who Owns the Future, Lanier explores the chasm within companies’ ideological pursuit versus actual achievement of Internet freedom:

In a future world of abundance, everyone will be motivated to be open and generous. This is what diverse cyber-enlightened business concerns and political groups all share in common, from Facebook to WikiLeaks. Eventually, they imagine, there will be no more secrets, no more barriers to access; all the world will be opened up as if the planet were transformed into a crystal ball. In the meantime, those true believers encrypt their servers even as they seek to gather the rest of the world’s information and find the best way to leverage it. It is all too easy to forget that “free” inevitably means that someone else will be deciding how you live (Lanier 30).

Many modern Internet companies, from WikiLeaks to Facebook, simultaneously broadcast an ethical narrative of open-access and democracy while relying on secrecy and private data collection to sustain themselves. As corporations espouse Internet idealism as both a shield and a weapon, they blind netizens to the truly opaque nature of their online operations and force users to surrender control of their online identities.

In fact, corporate networks often work in subtle and secret ways on behalf of democratic governments. In a process Rebecca MacKinnon deems as “networked authoritarianism,”  digital networks and governments work in cahoots to covertly infiltrate digital spaces with offline politics and ideology  (MacKinnon xxii). For instance, since 2005, Google has been hiring executives with government and diplomatic experience for positions described internally as “foreign minister” and “ambassador.” By invading unsuspecting online communities who had consider the platform free of external political influence, governments can wield hidden ideological force on users within supposedly non partisan territory.

Dictatorial governments also wear this costume of Internet freedom to disguise their authority in virtual space. Governments such as Russia and China control their cyberspace with consensual self-censorship, though they sustain such hegemonic social regulation with very different tools. While China employs over two million undercover Internet police to choke unwanted social media communication,  Russia takes a far more untraditional approach based on pleasure and positive enforcement.  By developing an online empire of apolitical media, including state-sponsored pornography, its own roster of LOLcatz memes, and other digital anaesthetic pleasures,  the Russian government has been able to sidestep formal Internet censorship ordinates and maintain a tepid political climate by relying on the timeless power of distraction and the pleasure principle (Morozov 58).  In response to Russia’s untraditional approach to controlling their netizens, Evgeny Morozov writes “The most effective system of Internet control is not the one that has the most sophisticated and draconian system of censorship, but the one that has no need for censorship whatsoever” (20).

As Russia develops a cult of entertainment  to quash online rebellion, propelled by sex, scandal, and childish impulses,  Kremlin’s authoritative style more closely reflects that in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than George Orwell’s 1984. While the world in 1984 revolves around a totalitarian state ruled by surveillance, fear, and suppression of human instinct (for instance, the protagonist Winston Smith is even warned that neurologists are working on extinguishing the orgasm), the central authority in Brave New World is not that which we fear, but that which we love. Hedonism controls Huxley’s dystopia, where technology is employed to maximize pleasure and accelerate consumption and render human’s critical capacity obsolete.

While companies and governments exercise a variety of tactics to corral mobility and behavior in cyberspace, an uncontrolled, anarchist cyberspace is not without faults as well. Social platforms must weigh the value of absolute protection of speech at the risk of the community’s welfare.  Penetrating the globe with over 1.4 billion monthly active users of all races, religions, and nationalities, Facebook is an example of a company that must grapple with just how much freedom of expression users should be granted. In 2010, Elliot Schrage the Vice President of Public Policy at Facebook said, “We believe we are innovators in helping people manage their identities and reputations online, in contrast to the lack of control that exists on the Internet as a whole.” By positioning as a counterpoint to the chaos found in Internet in general, Facebook shelters users from humankind’s aggressive nature, offering an organized and sanitized social space. The platforms features  predetermined About Me input fields and enforces community standards that prohibit  content such as cyberbullying and nudity. Perhaps content moderation is not a euphemistic form of censorship, but a tool to relieve the community from persecution by aggressive individuals and  prevent fear and discomfort in the community. Facebook’s content and community standards reflect  the ideology in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan,  which articulates that in pursuit of  self interested protection, individuals will seek to replace the hostile and threatening human “primitive state of nature,”  birthed from complete societal freedom, with some kind of sovereign authority. Thus a “social contract” is formed, in which individuals voluntarily relinquish personal freedom to the Commonwealth, or the Facebook policy team, which in turn sets and enforces rules meant to serve the interests of all members of society.

Much regulation on platforms such as Facebook are not mandated by “social contracts” but instead code. As Lawrence Lessig describes in his seminal book on Internet policy Code 2.0, the Internet is ruled by the principle of lex informatica, or “code is law” (Lessig 3).  Code sets a predetermined experience for the user and limits potential interactions with the technology. Those with the ability to write code are able to both exert control over users and emancipate them beyond technological borders. Software developers have intervened upon government and corporate restrictions in cyberspace, overcoming systematic oppression with censorship circumvention tools like Tor and the revolutionary financial technology Bitcoin.

Technology can also help liberate us from the confines of the material human body,  and grant us greater agency over our physical and cognitive condition and even evolution. Technology can equip us with filters through which one can explore the boundaries of self and develop our identities. Nietzsche describes this mediated self exploration, as Thus Spoke Zarathustra suggests, “Instruments and toys are sense and spirit: behind them there is still the self. The self also seeks with the eyes of the senses, it also listens with the ears of the spirit. Always the self listens and seeks; it compares, overpowers, conquers, and destroys. It rules, and is also the ruler of the “I””  (Nietzche 62). Nietzsche describes how identity is negotiated between self expression using props/technology and the sensory self that observes from the background. The self emerges through a  conversation between our external self presentation, internal essence, and personal equipment.

Now knee-deep in the digital age, our cyborg existences already seems inextricable from our humanity. As we entrust Siri to remember our parent’s anniversary, take an afternoon walk around Timbuktu on Google Street View, or choose a filter on our Instagram photo, we relinquish our identity, memories, experience to machines, and in this process “enhance” our humanity. As human enhancement technologies offer the possibility of unbounded personal choice,  a person risks commodifying their own body and violating an essential, perhaps unexplainable, human spirit.  The technoself renders us too distant to develop an ideal human identity and too close to technology to really inspect our desire for it.  Instead, we are vulnerable to what technology wants out of us. In The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil forecasts a future where humans will be totally exempt from future technological innovation, and machines themselves will have the intellectual ability to decide what is best for the future of humans.

As Kurzweil predicts humanity’s ultimate eternal servitude to the will of technology,  we must question the present direction of power that flows between humanity and A.I.. Currently,  major advancements in artificial intelligence pivot on machines being able to do things that humans do much better. Humans are willingly offering up the unique characteristic of our species in a self-sacrificial pursuit to develop technology that not only provides little benefit to us now but will eventually dominate us entirely. While we pursue a cyborg existence to enhance our intellectual and physical attributes, we must not passively observe and submit to the accelerating future of technology, but instead challenge the tide, and parse what will actually benefit and/or sustain the quality of human life.

So far, I have questioned the liberating potential of artificial intelligence and the Internet, exploring the axises of control that embed in these systems. Both artificial intelligence and the Internet require users to forfeit control to technology in order to liberate their ideal version of self or society. While the Internet transcends geographic borders, political and corporate power colonize this virtual territory, veiled by prevailing cyber-utopian illusions of transparency and equality. The Internet, consumed and created by all, has become humankind’s second home, and we are all immigrants, carrying our individual subjectivities and lived experience with us to all digital dens. To truly find freedom online, we must understand cyberspace as an extension of reality, subject to the same sociopolitical regimes and superimposition of self-interests. Only by confronting the manifestations of traditional power may netizens begin to uproot them.


Works Cited

Barlow, John. “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. 9 Feb. 1996. Web. 7 Nov. 2013. <>.

Bacon, Francis. New Atlantis. Oxford: Clarendon, 1924. Print.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan ; Or, The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civill. London: Printed for Andrew Crooke, 1651. Print.

Diamond, Larry Jay., and Marc F. Plattner. Liberation Technology: Social Media and the Struggle for Democracy. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012. Print.

Lanier, Jaron. Who Owns the Future? London: Allen Lane, 2013. Print.

MacKinnon, Rebecca. Consent of the Networked: The World-wide Struggle for Internet Freedom. New York: Basic, 2012. Print.

Morozov, Evgeny. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2011. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Thomas Common. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Place of Publication Not Identified: Dodo. Print.

Jiang, Ying. Cyber-nationalism in China: Challenging Western Media Portrayals of Internet Censorship in China. Print.



    1. Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Classics (At least seven works produced before the mid-1600s.)
      1. Francis Bacon – New Atlantis (1623)
      2. Francis Bacon – Novum Organum (1620)
      3. Plato – Laws Book X
      4. Aristotle – Physics II.3
      5. Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan
      6. Leonardo Da Vinci – The Mechanics of Man
      7. Al-Jazari’s Book of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, Donald Hill’s translation
    2. Modernity—The Humanities
      (At least four works, produced after the mid-1600s, in Humanities disciplines such as Literature, Philosophy, History, the Arts, Critical Theory and Religion)

      1. Friedrich Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra
      2. Henry David Thoreau – The Reform Papers
      3. David Edgerton – The Shock of the Old
      4. Alex Cummings — Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century


  • V. Vale and/or the Riot Grrrl Anthology – Zines Vol. 1


  1. Modernity—The Social and Natural Sciences At least four nonfiction works, produced after the mid-1600s, in the Natural Sciences and Social Science disciplines such as Political Science, Economics, Psychology, Anthropology, and Sociology.
    1. Jaron Lanier – Who Owns the Future
    2. Ying Jiang – Cybernationalism in China
    3. Allen Buchanan – Better Than Human: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Ourselves
    4. James Hughes – Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future
  2. Area of Concentration At least five additional works representing the student’s area or areas of concentration; students whose area of concentration already appears among the above categories may simply choose five additional works from these categories.
    1. Lawrence Lessig – Code 2.0
    2. Rebecca MacKinnon – Consent of the Networked
    3. Andy Greenberg – This Machine Kills Secrets
    4. Eugene Morozov – The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom
    5. Ray Kurzweil – The Age of Spiritual Machines


    1. Nathaniel Popper – Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money
    2. Steve Methley –  Essentials of Wireless Mesh Networking