How do you choose to explain what goes on in the world? Are events stuff happening or do the authorities carefully orchestrate our reality and circumstances? My general inclination is to stress the former overall, and in cyberspace, at least, this puts me in a minority group.
In his highly interesting book Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick made a distinction between the invisible hand and the hidden hand. The invisible hand, of Adam Smith fame, is in some ways a terrifying prospect to confront. Its existence (or lack of one) means that in our everyday comings and goings the great changes that happen in our society are not the result of conscious thought and effort but instead the inevitable force of the market.
The hidden hand has connotations that can seem far more sinister. The idea is that the state or some evil demon is controlling our day-to-day lives. This is Winston Smith territory and Big Brother is watching you. Our worst fears about anti-terror legislation, ID cards, the Masonic cult of the ruling classes and perhaps a deity that deliberately allowed suffering and evil to exist are played out in this kind of scenario. Our own underachievement, worldwide hunger and the inexorable desolation of our planet through carbon emissions are because those in power refuse to share it with anyone, because agricultural companies seek a profit over providing affordable crops and because the executives of Exxon Mobil prefer Foie Gras today to saving tomorrow.
What seems clear is that hidden hand scenarios can sometimes briefly take the ascendancy. The perfect dictatorship would lead to those in charge of the party machine controlling the actions of everything that goes on in their country. For example, the Russian people seem to have been repeatedly victims of meticulous rulers who tried to control everything that went on in that huge country. Yet even Stalin’s iron grip softened on his death and Putin’s attempts to revive Pravda and the KGB will fail eventually.
This is the insight that should be taken from the way we see the hidden hand lurking behind injustice. The actions of the few are often the cause of great pain and suffering for many. The decisions to go to war in Iraq or to fly planes in to the World Trade Centre will shape our age, yet what must be conceded is the thoughts in Rumsfeld’s or Bin Laden’s head, whatever they may have been, have taken and will take shape in ways that they could not control.
So if, as it can sometimes seem, we are gradually marching towards an environmental and perhaps nuclear apocalypse, remember it won’t have been because of the nasty figures who dominate the front pages of our newspapers with their attempts to puppeteer the rest of us. It will have been the far more alarming failure of all of us to coordinate our actions in such a way that our sophisticated race can curb our pursuit of momentary pleasure. How can we stop the general orgy of destruction before it is too late? If the invisible hand explanation of events is true it may turn out to be far more worrying than the idea of conspirators controlling our lives because it may also be the case that we cannot control what happens to us in the future. Ironically most of us view the fable of Winston Smith as the worst case scenario for human existence, yet perhaps it is the case it is Adam Smith whose way of explaining events is the most scary because if the lack of control he emphasises is true then there is seemingly little we can do to change our fate. Perhaps, however, we will continually evade our worries. If so it is far more satisfying to live in a world with no possibility of one group taking over the reins of power. Hopefully life will continue to surprise those who attempt to control us as they continue to fail in their attempts to keep the population of the world in check.