It was a year that began with such promise.Â Having elected an African-American democrat, America seemed to be shrugging off eight full years of its most oppressive, incompetent, and deceitful government of the modern era and was moving boldly into a new political and social revolution anchored by hope.Â There remained the promise that from this decade in which the world suffered not just one but two recessions we could nurture the saplings of radical social, technological, and environmental movements.Â Amid the ashes of failed banks, collapsed motor vehicle manufacturers, and even modern ships hijacked by marauding hordes of (no… this is not a typo) pirates many of us believed that within such destruction lay the opportunity for rebirth and remedy.Â Alas, this was not to be.
2009 will be marked as the year that those hopeful for change, those who believed in the natural order of things, learned a valuable lesson.Â It is a year in which Americans admonished but ultimately supported millionaire auto executives who flew in private jets to Washington DC to beg for public funds to bail out their enterprises;Â a year in which executives from wireless carriers whined that people were overusing their services;Â a year in which the music industry continued to sue people who loved their product so much they wanted to share it with others;Â a year in which we learned two equally unfortunate definitions for the term “teabagger“;Â a year in which banks and insurers boldly awarded executives millions of dollars in performance bonuses after taking billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts;Â a year in which a sitting US President running two foreign wars was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on the eve of announcing another surge of troops, this time into Afghanistan;Â a year in which the hax0rz of 4chan demonstrated the capacity for greater investigative depth than the declining ranks of real journalists;Â a year in which 1,200 limousines and more than 140 private planes converged on the city of Copenhagen for discussions, but no conclusions, on mitigating climate change.Â In short, in the immortal words of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, it was a year in which the bastards won.
It is difficult to look back on 2009 and remain hopeful.Â In fact, according to a recent Pew study it is difficult for many of us to look back on the first 10 years of our new millenium and find much cause for optimism at all:
Much of this negativity must surely stem from the growing realization that in modernizing societies, wealth is being redistributed from the middle class to the rich in an increasingly open manner — and as a result, the hypocrises of the rich seem less and less offensive and uncommon. In China, where the UN recently warned that the gap between rich and poor is wider now than in the pre-Maoist era, resentment is growing according to a recent study published in the China Daily.Â America and much of the rest of the West are not far behind this curve.
This level of wealth redistribution actually threatens long-term economic development, and democratists have long feared the rich as a corrupting force.Â As he observed the growing influence of what was at that time the nation’s growing industrial-military complex at the close of the US Civil War, Abe Lincoln wrote:
“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
— U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1864
(letter to Col. William F. Elkins)
‘Money power’ is a Euphemism for the rich, specifically large corporations, which began to rise at the end of the Civil War and which flowered until their total collapse in the late 1920s, leading to the Great Depression.Â Only a government willing to step in and underwrite the entire economy of the state was able to get the world economy back on its feet in the 1930s.Â In the meantime, oil barons had fully hooked the Western world on their product in the form of cheap plastics, agribusiness, and transportation –an era which has lasted more than 100 years.Â This legacy continues today, propped up by assertions like Peak Oil and maintained in constant crisis by wars and oppressive totalitarian regimes at home and abroad.
The point of which is to say that 2009 was more than just a lost opportunity for change.Â “Change Theatre” events such as Copenhagen, Nobel Week, and countless Senate hearings and Royal Commissions nurture our growing apathy toward the decline of modern society instead of angering us — a condition one can only describe as a massive outbreak of “Stockholm Syndrome“.Â In the meantime we seem to have ceded our will to power in favour of consumption.
Yet still, like the shimmying flame of a candle in a hurricane, optimism lingers.Â Much of this hope is embodied in the Internet, and its general ability to democratize speech.Â Yet this, too, was under attack in 2009.Â There are three mechanisms by which the Internet’s ability to sow disruption of the status quo are being challenged as the year turns:
- Free Speech as Defamation
In an obscure, tawdry case that none of us should have cared about, supposed model Liskula Cohen sued Google to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger, who turned out to be an acquaintance named Rosemary Port.Â Ms. Port had set up a blog via Blogger.com to post some embarassing photos of Mrs. Cohen and accused her of being a “skank“.Â Google attempted to defend the order to unmask Port, as did Port’s lawyer, however the judge ruled that the blog was worthy of a libel suit and ordered google to reveal her identity.Â Fortunately for the rest of the internet, Cohen did not proceed with a defamation suit after unmasking her accuser, however this was the first parry in a long battle and has set a dangerous precedent for those who might otherwise speak the truth when shielded by anonymity.
- Free Speech as Copyright Infringement
In April 2009, Warner Music issued a DMCA Takedown notice to notable free speech activist, former Electronic Frontier Foundation board member, and founder of the Creative Commons Lawrence Lessig after he used one of their songs in a presentation.Â This particular takedown challenges the concept of “Fair Use”, and for certain Larry will have a strong case; however not so for Britons accused of copyright infringement should that country’s “Digital Economy” bill pass into law.Â The bill proposes, among other things, that alleged infringers not even be subjected to legal process from their accusers — instead they would just be disconnected from the internet after three “strikes”.Â Similar proposals are being made by RIAA-backed lawmakers around the globe, including in France, the US, and Canada.Â Just as the DMCA has been abused by Scientologists, among others, to squelch free speech, so too will laws such as Digital Economy.
- Gaming Google
As the algorithms which drive Google’s ranking of search results are better understood, they are increasingly gamed by those with commercial interests to advance or protect.Â This makes it tougher for individuals to get attention amid a sea of MegaCorps, however this is one area where we made progress in 2009.Â First, Microsoft and others have launched serious challenges to Google’s domination of Search — as these grow this means it’s no longer possible to dominate search rankings on all engines at once.Â Second, Google this year redoubled its efforts to stay ahead of so-called SEO mavens and chose to even further favour content from blogs and from services like Twitter.
Finally, as the year drew to a close we were treated to our last piece of Security Theatre courtesy of would-be terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who, despite being on a list of more than 550,000 known or suspected terrorists, boarded a Detroit-bound plane in Amsterdam and tried to blow it up by lighting his underwear on fire.Â The real terror came from the United States TSA, whose major acheievements for 2009 seem to have been the disposal of thousands of gallons of hair care products confiscated at airport terminals and, of course, the posting of its entire operations manual online in-the-clear.Â In the wake of the underwear-bombing attempt, the TSA brought new restrictions into place which were cunningly concealed from passengers and deliberately inconsistent between flights, just to ensure that the only remaining people willing to put up with the heinous inconvenience of flying commercially will be the terrorists themselves.
Which leads us to contemplating the ultimate hypocrisy of all.Â As Benjamin Franklin once said, â€œThey who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.â€
For the coming decade, let us fight vigorously against hypocrisy and oppression.Â Let us hold accountable those who betray our wishes and their own words.Â Let us be emboldened against scoundrels, pirates, and criminals of all kinds.Â Let us balance the special interests with the will of the majority.Â Let us embrace dissent as a form of patriotism and citizenhood of the world.Â Most of all, let us reverse the damage that our perversions of democracy and ideology of all kinds have wrought on our nations by addressing critical shortfalls in education and social well-being.
Indeed it was a year in which we not only rewarded, but in fact we celebrated, hypocrisy.Â Let us ensure that we neither celebrate, nor tolerate, hypocrisy in any form in 2010 and beyond.