‘The Technology of Political Control’ (1977)

The most effective books are able to transcend time; by applying a relatively broad, well-observed analysis of the roots of complex issues in the past, that continue to have relevance today. This is such a book.

The most effective books are able to transcend time; by applying a relatively broad, well-observed analysis of the roots of complex issues in the past, that continue to have relevance today. This is such a book.

A vision of ‘Big Brother’ from the film version of Orwell's ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.
Big Brother’s ‘telescreen’ was not a unique idea born from Orwell’s, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’

Big Brother’s ‘telescreen’ was not a unique idea born from Orwell’s, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’; written in 1948. The premise of a person being unaware if they are being watched, and so behaving in a way that presumes they might be, had its roots in the Jeremy Bentham’s ‘panopticon’ of the 1780s. And just as in Bentham’s vision, Orwell used the idea of passive surveillance as a means for ‘The Party’ to enforce public compliance.

In the same way, I can leaf through the many recent books on mass state surveillance, algorithmic culture, or controlling the public through perception management, and I see a far older book. One that foresaw these developments as part of a framework of control, not from a study of today’s technological capabilities, but from the controlling mind of the people who create them: The military; states; and corporations.

‘The Technology of Political Control’ series:

‘The Technology of Political Control’ – First Edition, 31st March 1977. ISBN 9780140219432.

‘The Technology of Political Control’ – Second Revised Edition, 1st January 1987. ISBN 9780861043071.

‘The Technology of Political Control’ – by Carol Ackroyd, Karen Margolis, Jonathan Rosenhead, and Tim Shallice – was first published in March 1977. The version I first read was the 1987 Pluto Press revised second edition. Many years later, rummaging around in a bookshop on one of my travels, I came across a copy of the Pelican first edition.

The cover of the first edition of ‘The Technology of Political Control’.
The worn cover of
my first edition.

Near the start of the first chapter, on page 20 of the first edition, the entire premise of the book is summed up – and the reason why, forty-five years later, it has proven to be so prescient:

“This book is about technologies developed to wage a campaign which is neither conventional war nor policing operation… Equally important, we aim to show that the development of this more novel technology – the technology of political control – is the result of powerful social and political processes, and is itself part of these processes. To understand the weapons, we must look at the way in which the apparatus of the state, especially the army and the police, is transforming itself.”

Be it drones, mobile phones, or the police monitoring of public protest with specialist teams, that statement goes to the heart of how ‘the security state’ wields technology today. Yes, the technology might have changed; but the purpose or justification for that use has not.

In 2018, I was asked to make a presentation to an international conference in Oxford on one of my research areas – the use of data by intelligence agencies.

The cover slide from my presentation, ‘The Global Military Infrastructure and You’.
The cover slide from my presentation,
‘The Global Military Infrastructure and You’.

I used ‘The Technology of Political Control’ in that presentation as an exemplar of why, though data collection and manipulation might be enabled by technology, the purpose for that collection is rooted in political and economic power, and the social politics which flows from it.

Studying the technology alone will not tell you the full details; which is where a lot of modern books fall down. Today technology is presumed to be self serving – “they do it because they can” – rather than fulfilling a much older social or political need for control by those who wield it.

Knowing how – as outlined in the book – the state seeks to control and dominate public discourse, tells you far more about both the potential use and abuse of contemporary technological developments. Despite the change in technological sophistication, some parts of the book even repeat the same official justifications used today.

For example, on page 129:

“The Special Branch has never denied that it uses infiltrators to obtain information on political groups. To Lord Widgery, in his appeal court judgement… ‘We think it right in these days of terrorism that the police should be entitled to use the effective weapon of infiltration. It must be accepted today that it is a perfectly lawful police weapon in proper circumstances.’ He did not elaborate on what those ‘proper circumstances’ might be. But he was in no doubt that the Special Branch had acted correctly in this case.”

Peaceful protesters face down violent police suppression in Bristol, 2020.
Peaceful protesters face down
violent police suppression in Bristol, March 2021

What this means practically is that, because the technology has gotten more sophisticated, but the excuses stay the same, greater power is now exerted over the public without any change in the justification for that more intrusive activity.

For all the new technology we have today, though, sometimes the book snaps you depressingly back to the ancient realities of how power is exerted. In the section, ‘How and Why Torture Works’, on page 234, it outlines how torture has always been a traditional part of the state’s control apparatus. Though technology may have refined or sanitized that process, what the book describes is still in use today: From Abu Ghraib, to the streets of London. Technology has merely created more nuanced ways of creating these same acts of suffering or humiliation, not to exact information for judicial proceedings, but purely to intimidate and control.

At no point in the book do its authors hide their politics; which though appearing dated in our contemporary world, still haven’t lost their innate basis of truth. For example, in the conclusion on page 290:

The cover of the second revised edition of ‘The Technology of Political Control’.
The battered cover of
my second edition.

“It is impossible for the state to abolish the technology of political control while it still needs to use it. And capitalist states will always require their armies, their prisons and the rest of their repressive apparatus, to protect the privileged by keeping the majority down. The abolition of the capitalist state itself is the precondition for the abolition of the technology of political control.”

In the final analysis then, it’s not just that tech. giants are creating greater economic inequality in myriad ways. Technology is also a critical tool to preserve those disparities. That situation is not created solely by the technology; but it does perpetuate it.

Almost forty-five years since its publication, ‘The Technology of Political Control’ remains a truly remarkable book. And one that, especially for those involved in social movements today, can still provide an enlightening view of how technology constrains our lives. For that reason it’s worth a read because of the insights it can give us all.