“As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth’s final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.”
— Commissioner Pravin Lal, “U.N. Declaration of Rights”
Upon constructing the Planetary Datalinks, the player is treated to a reprise of Brother Lal’s introductory quote. It is coupled with a series of thoroughly familiar images that are intended to inspire people of a modern liberal leaning. Young people bringing down the Berlin Wall, wearing tongue piercings, marching in demonstrations carrying signs, moving digital information on then-current optical media, and, all in all, agitating against tyranny through the sacred means of the free flow of information.
This is all set against the initially faceless, impeccably dressed guy with a briefcase who stands in as the enemy. The man who wants all your information – the numbers that flash across his face – because he seeks control. To Lal, he is the Platonic ideal of the tyrant, and the only real defense against him is that the youth band together and refuse to allow him to control their communications.
To this end, his faction built the Planetary Datalinks in the implied canon. This is essentially a cool word for what we’d call the Internet, with the libertarian social effects that people expected the Internet to have back in the ’90s. At the very least, it has the same in-game effect that the Internet had in Civilization II: the faction that builds it automatically gets any technology that is discovered by three other factions.
But it comes much earlier in the game, as it only requires the fourth-tier Cyberethics technology. If the player is using manual research, this fact can open up the potential to beeline deep into the tree toward critical technologies and count on the other factions to fill in the lower-tier techs that were skipped. Since the tech tree is pretty tightly intertwined, this can be a big benefit.
To Reynolds’s credit, this quote has become something of a real-life Internet meme. Whenever nerds are talking politics, or whenever they’re declaring their real-life political affiliation, you’ll find somebody riffing on this quote. The quote and the video really speak to people who wholeheartedly agree with Lal.
But it is quite interesting to note that there’s no evidence that Lal is actually right in the game mechanics. After all, a faction can build the project and get all the tech benefits in a Police State. And the Planetary Datalinks don’t somehow work better if the possessing faction is a Democracy.
This is actually pretty compelling counter-evidence, as there are a couple of projects in SMAC whose effects synergize with or depend on social engineering choices. So it is quite interesting that this one does not. I consider this decision to be yet another demonstration of Reynolds’s remarkable philosophical evenhandedness. It would have been very easy to load the dice here after Brother Lal’s rousing speech and put something in the game that would make Democracy or Knowledge the one right choice. That he refrained speaks very highly of him and of the SMAC project as a whole.