Could our future be that of… slaves?

Universal surveillance? Smart dust, constantly collecting information on us & reporting back or even selling it to the highest or nearest bidder? Bentham’s nightmare Panopticon made an unstoppable social reality by technology?

…Sounds far fetched to some, but as we envisage what the future could be like we inevitably look at current trends and extrapolate. This has some inherent weaknesses as a means of prediction but is a crucial technique in mapping possibility. Mapping possibility in turn is essential in deciding what needs to be done now in order to shape the future toward desirable outcomes.

One of the most dangerous extrapolations one hears is that of many in the modern West who believe that things generally get better over time, for most if not all (extrapolating perhaps the last few decades for a privileged few). I am sometimes astounded by the number of people I meet who more or less assume that the future will inevitably be better than the past or present. Any study of history shows that we cannot expect this. Many a crushing oppression follows in the wake of a relatively benign period. Often with clear points at which it seems with hindsight that the oppression could have been avoided. Some changes over time are positive & some not so but only a few – like the accumulation of scientific and historical *knowledge*, especially since the renaissance – give us reason to hope for steady improvement of any kind. Our advances in political systems, law, economics or even relative liberty and affluence only show improvement in some places and times. Any advances we make we may have to struggle to keep. As a result the perspective of modern Westerners of believing in & even expecting steady improvement must be taken with a large pinch of salt. Because of this I think we must do without our rose tinted glasses when we look at what could be and encourage choices in our civilization that will tend to prevent the worst or encourage better outcomes (optimal strategy indicated by much game theory).

With this in mind, what are we to make of near term projections like smart dust, or indeed the many other recent and expected advances in sensors and networks? Clearly using swarms of expendable micro-sensors to study Earth and other planets, map currents or find disaster victims would have us cheering but is that all they would be used for? If such devices were produced as John Barker and others (e.g. David Brin – see below) expect then we must also expect them to be used in our own neighborhoods sooner or later. Their very cheapness and conceal-ability makes it inevitable. Not that I believe we can choose not to produce or deploy them. We cannot. As David Brin points out in The Transparent Society and more playfully in his fictional Earth, the djin cannot be kept in the bottle any more than nuclear weapons could. We can however choose how they should be used. His question is in the subtitle of The Transparent Society is ‘Will Technology Force us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?’

Brin comes to the rather depressing conclusion that the only possible option which will not have us made forever the pawns of what ever technocratic elite controls the surveillance is to make the devices legal and ubiquitous. This will of course mean the end of privacy. He makes a good case. I encourage you all to read it. A far older book that makes a good case for openness, transparency and accountability (especially when there is a putative threat to our *freedom*) is The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl R. Popper.

Brin’s argument is essentially that cheap, widespread surveillance cannot be prevented and nor can it be kept out of the hands of the powerful (rich, government, criminals etc). Basically our privacy is inevitably forfeit so we might as well get used to that. We can buy a mere illusion of privacy but passing anti surveillance laws but would be a hollow comfort. Therefore we must embrace complete transparency and get used to the death of privacy.

I am repelled by either alternative of course but while his argument is strong it may not be unassailable. Superficially the argument resembles that of the American gun lobby who think that guns are inevitable (in spite of evidence to the contrary in the rest of the world) & even desirable. Therefore if all are armed, none can be oppressed by the armed few. Their mythology of *freedom* & *protection* can be rebuffed by even a quick look at the rest of the world where many are at least as free or more so – especially since George W Bush has been in the chair – and statistically far better “protected”. The NRA ignores the fact that due to the 2nd amendment US citizens need more protection. The numbers show it is not there.

But can a similar argument around information/surveillance be so easily dismissed? Perhaps not. Guns are neither as cheap nor as concealable as the surveillance and information devices we will face in the future so the laters claim to inevitability is far stronger. Invasion of privacy is far harder to detect or find a culprit so it is far harder to fight with law as we do weapons and physical violence. Law may not avail us with information & surveilance the way it has with weapons and violence.

In the end it would appear that the debate on what we should do with our spy electronics needs a far broader conversation. David Brin’s solution may seem radical to many but we cannot dismiss it out of hand.


~ by clauswitz on April 24, 2007.

4 Responses to “Could our future be that of… slaves?”

  1. I’m with you as a realist, in a strictly depressing kind of way. I’m ahead of you in a non-human orientated way. Dude, have you thought about not being so concerned about people, and concerned about sentience? The seriously-depressed argument you espouse precludes the ability of beings (even if they be ‘stupid’ humans) to make effective decisions about ‘stuff’.

    The entire argment is anthropocentric. Notions of ‘fitness’, ‘rightness’, ‘expansion’, blah blah, are entirely misplaced. What are you talking about? Humans, that’s what, and humanity should not be the object under scrutiny.

    Man, talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  2. Um, thanks Kuipercliff. I’m not sure I am quite following all of your comment yet.
    Firstly I was not so much mounting a finished argument as starting an examination of David Brin’s position. Have you checked either book? I would welcome your thoughts on it if you have.
    On anthropocentricity, can you lay out how you think speaking of generic beings rather than humans helps in this context? Also who the non-human beings you have in mind are & how we know how they might think/behave? I would love to include other sophonts in my thinking (I love the idea of non-human sentience) but only if it would help. Also where do you find reference to ‘fitness’, ‘rightness’, and ‘expansion ’in what I wrote? I am a little at a loss on that but would happily answer it if you would clarify.

    As to whether the – admittedly depressing – prediction of Brin’s that any human elite – or *beings* if you prefer – are likely to use ubiquitous surveillance selfishly if they have exclusive use… I am not yet completely convinced either way. I agree with you that there is some reason to think we beings MAY be able to handle the problem but historically and psychologically there is a lot of evidence that we may not as well. I think we need more than you have said so far to really refute him. Being depressing does not equal being wrong?
    His assertion that we cannot afford to simply have faith in human (sentient) ‘nature’ may possibly be invalid but I don’t think we can say it is *obviously* so. If we cannot dismiss his warning, should we not then at least consider the wisdom of his prescription?

  3. You’re absolutely right – I must have been having a bad day, as my comments weren’t directed at you at all. Apologies. There’s been quite a lot of discussion recently about future scenarios (the “entire argument”), using the terms I cited. Your post steers well clear of such things, and reflects the need for debate about the possiblities of technology. You also don’t fall into the trap of saying that the future will necessarily be ‘worse’ than the present!

    I actually agree with you on pretty much everything you wrote, both in your post, and in your reply to my rambling outburst. I’ve been frustrated recently with a slew of articles and opinion about the inevitability of, for example, a technological singularity, beyond which the future is pretty bleak for humans. Equally frustrating is the implicit assumption that post-human intelligence is somehow innately ‘evil’ and will inevitably seek the denigration of humanity. I agree, as do you, that these possibilities exist, but to use this fear to frame debate and possibly even policy (at some point) seems to be completely inappropriate and almost approaches a position of untenable ideology.

    Setting things straight (!): it would be farcical to reject notions of ubiquitous surveillance, or not to entertain all possibilities, however ‘depressing’ they may be. It would be irresponsible to follow either of these paths, and you do not do so. I haven’t read David Brin, although I’m aware of his ideas, but I will be checking him out once I get back to a country with bookshops!

    As for non-human sentience, I was conflating discussions about SETI (where was my brain when I commented above? jeez) which seem to proscribe all sorts of activities and decision-making by putative other ‘beings’ in terms of human psychology. This flawed logic limits discussions of possibility. This is a subject for another time. I see your Marscape header, and my mind wanders…

    Can we start again!?


  4. Yes of course.

    Actually I was going to post soon on this ‘singularity’. I find it equally silly that so many are claiming things will be inevitably better! People often seem to take such a passive view & forget that it is we who shape what the future will be like by the choices we make in advance.

    Post again when you have checked out Brin’s argument.

    As regards AI, aliens etc. That’s for another day ; )

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