Top 10 technologies for tyranny

Saturday, January 16, 2010

In light of Google's spat with China and the ire it aroused we wanted to do something about tyranny and technology this week, but I'm afraid to say we fell prey to the dark side.

The original plan was to write a Top 10 about how to defeat repressive regimes using technology. You'll be getting that next week; it's going to take some interviews and research to do a proper job for the people that actually need it. Besides, as a wise woman pointed out, it's better to go from darkness into the light.

Instead we decided to do a review of the Top 10 technologies for dictators. While I suspect no readers have ambitions to take over the world nevertheless for those that do here's a list of technologies that could see you stroking a Persian cat and telling James Bond your operation.

Honourable mention: Civilization building games

Shaun Nichols: Okay, so they can't help you overthrow your local government and declare yourself king for life, but games certainly let you live out that fantasy.

For pretty much all of us, a copy of Civilization or Sim City is about as close as we will ever get to running a society. And for those that do harbour ambitions of a presidential coup, it's a fine way to hone your skills.

I know that Iain is a huge Civilization fan, but my personal favourite in the genera was Populous, a game in which players took on the role of ancient Greek and Roman gods and attempted to wipe out the opponent's followers with various acts of wrath from the heavens. Say what you will about Grand Theft Auto, but I don't recall CJ or Niko ever wiping out entire cities with tornadoes and plagues.

Iain Thomson: Shaun has it right; I've lost weekends to Civ 2, although the later versions lack the visceral power contained in the original games.

In one of Iain Banks' best works, 'Complicity', the lead character is addicted to the kind of game Civ fans dream of, where the level of control is so refined that it makes the Sims look like a wendy house. While I'm not saying that everyone who plays these kind of games is a megalomaniac they certainly touch a core need in many people.

Mankind is by its very nature a species that seeks to dominate and change its environment. Some of the greatest civilisations in history have come about because of this and also some of our worst disasters. Human beings are not software and I hope that future dictators don't learn this so they will fail to manage the complexities of human civilisation.

Honourable Mention: TV

Iain Thomson: With every revolution the means for communicating with the populace are key to success. Right after the government headquarters the television stations are key to a successful coup.

In days of yore this meant the radio stations but increasingly a top target for revolutionaries is the television system. Much of the world's population gets its information from the TV, the 'glass nipple' as Harlan Ellison famously described it.

The reasons are fairly simple. Since TV is where people get their information a populace that sees a familiar face urging them to remain calm is a very powerful force indeed. If a squad of soldiers starts telling you what to do it's a lot easier to accept if the well-known presenter on the TV tells you it's OK.

TV doesn't just work for revolutions however. In the Cold War BBC continuity announcers were drafted to record messages to be played in the event of a nuclear attack, something one of them described as 'utterly chilling.' Given the effects of EMP it would probably be the last public appearances they ever made.

Shaun Nichols: Even as popular as the internet is, people still have a great amount of trust in what is broadcast on TV.

A silly rumour may elicit little more than a sarcastic chuckle and an eye roll when viewed on a blog or message board, but that same premise gains much more credence when presented by a television personality.

Don't believe me? How about the idea that a nation would be subject to a catastrophic national disaster because of a myth that their forefathers made a deal with the devil to escape the bonds of slavery hundreds of years ago? Pretty silly when read online, yet a fair amount of people lent it legitimacy when the appropriate TV talking head floated the idea.


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