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Opinion: The rising cost of globalization - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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In the Hollywood movie Enemy of the State, Will Smith plays a simple citizen who has to confront the technological capabilities of the state.

Satellites can locate your position at all times while your mobile phone’s signal can also be picked up at all times and used to locate you. Your credit cards not only shed light on where you live but also provide information regarding how much you spend and on what, whether we are talking about huge financial deals or simply buying some underwear. When this movie was first released, it was not yet known that the state could possess information on your DNA and iris. Using fingerprints to identify people has become old-fashioned. What’s completely new is tracking human bodies by detecting their thermal energy.

Biometric identification technology can tell us a lot about a person’s emotional state. For example, sweating or pupil dilation can be measured to reveal nervousness or fear.

In a book published in 1651, Thomas Hobbes described those governments with absolute power as the eponymous Leviathan. Hobbes affirmed that absolute power must be capable of managing relations among humans who are evil. During his era, the government’s only tools of power were arms, predominately the sword. This is not to mention spies, as well as various tools such as murder, torture and intimidation—more than enough to keep people in line. However Hobbes did not know what lay in store, thanks to science and knowledge, not just for the state, but the entire world.

Technology may have developed more over the past two decades than it did throughout history. Technology is something that affects the entire world, not just governments. Years ago, we learnt that the US was working to build the largest network of satellites the world has ever known. A network is completely different to relying on a single satellite. This network is different due to how technologically advanced and progressive it is, in addition to how many countries and people it covers. The International Space Station in orbit around the earth is an additional tool, while 16 countries are participating in this as partners. But the point is not to be a participant. The point is: What’s your share of the partnership? The US, of course, has the greatest share.

Those who believe that the US is just a country that exists in North America do not know much about changes in the world of geography as the US has extended its reach to outer space. America’s scope of operation and vision has expanded and extended to include the entire known universe. Where there is vision and capability, there’s also influence and power.

What we’ve recently heard and read about the US surveillance scandal—spying on its allies—does not reflect the real truth, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The problem is that it’s not possible to estimate just how huge this iceberg really is because the tools needed to carry out these calculations are only possessed by the US and Russia.

Hobbes’ theory regarding the social contract, sealed between the individual who presents his loyalty and obedience, and the authority which provides protection, has completely changed. This is because the individual is now on one side while the authority is operating on the global level. This authority knows no limits and its capabilities cannot be estimated.

Political ideology as a whole is now confronting the biggest problem in history. What Rousseau, Locke, and Montesquieu, and indeed all liberal and democratic thinkers, contemplated was how one can limit the authority’s capability of tyranny. Elections, devolution of power, legislative councils, public and private freedoms, and major and minor institutions. All of the above aimed to grant the individual the largest extent of responsible freedom in exchange for authority. Even if this authority does monopolize the use of force, it does not monopolize truth, fortune, or even decision-making.

All of this must have a context. The context in this case is the state which has limits, regulations, laws and checks and balances. So, what about when the authority lies in Washington but the bounds of its authority goes beyond its own borders and citizens? The individual is no longer submissive to the authority of the country he lives in, but he’s become submissive to another distant authority that is spying on him and monitoring his activity—an authority that can know his health condition, and, who knows, his psychological and sexual conditions as well.

Notice people’s movement at airports. Notice the amount of information accumulated about the person the minute he arrives in an airport. Notice how this information is stored and how viewing it is a click of a button away. This is an equally moral, political, and economic dilemma. No one knows how the US will exploit the technological capabilities it possesses.

Washington did not see a problem in spying on its allies. For those who don’t know, relations among allies also include the use of power. The more powerful party is the one who benefits the most from this relationship. But the era of globalization is not only linked to diplomatic relations. Spying can also be carried out against companies. Secrets of giant multinational companies are often no less important than countries’ military secrets. We are living in a time when countries are technologically competing against one another. Another dangerous precedent is for spying to reveal economic decisions. The decision to sell or buy a stock could lead to the transfer of huge fortunes.

Therefore, the cost of globalization is higher than we think. Spying on leaders of countries is only a small fact. There are bigger facts which humanity must address. We managed to avoid George Orwell’s dystopian society and government, as depicted in his books 1984 and Animal Farm, through democracy and liberal philosophy. But how can individuals and societies which did not participate in electing an American government and which do not have stocks in Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, or Twitter find themselves subject to such procedures? I think this is the dilemma of the 21st century.

Abdel Monem Said

Abdel Monem Said

Abdel Monem Said is the director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

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