Accelerating Dangers & Opportunities from Transparency

The future comes rushing upon us so quickly, already I worry that the world portrayed in my freshly minted novel will be old hat long before the time it is set, 30 years from now. (Meaning that we need futuristic and open-minded thought experiments now, more than ever.)

Try these items on for size…

With new laser technology, hidden government scanners will instantly know everything about you from 150 feet (or 50 meters) away, detecting traces of drugs, explosives, bioweapons or gunpowder on your clothes or luggage — even recording your adrenaline levels. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will install these scanners (a million times more sensitive than current systems) at airports and border crossings across the country — as early as 2013. The Russians are developing a comparable system.

Now… if this reduces our exposure to x-rays and allows the TSA to tamp down the aggravation at airports, you can expect the new systems to have their upside. On the other hand, this sort of thing could be Big Brother’s most delicious dream.  (More on that aspect.)

…then there’s this. Cell phone providers received 1.3 million cell phone snooping requests last year from law enforcement agencies seeking information on locational data and calling records. There is little oversight over who can make such requests, or what is done with the information.

Way back in ’97, in The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose between Privacy and Freedom, I made it clear that we’ll not stop any of this with whining, moaning or by trying to ban these technologies.  Our only chance? If government – and other mighty elites – are absolutely fated to know everything about us anyway, our sole option is to know everything about them.

This is the important distinction between surveillance and sousveillance — looking down vs. looking back.

And though I’ve covered it at-length from many directions, I expect to be doing so repeatedly, for the rest of my life.

Is it even remotely possible for sousveillance to work?  For citizens to shine enough light upward to remind our civil servants that they are servants?  To keep a choke-chain on our guard dogs, so they never see themselves as wolves?  To remind corporations that they are constructs, and oligarchs that they are not feudal lords, with droit du seigneur?  As it happens, there are dozens of techniques that might help… providing we nurture the calm, rational… but militant… determination to make this practically happen

Let’s start simple. See just one practical approach that – with a very simple slip of legislation that could be written on one piece of paper – and maybe cost 20 million dollars – we might suddenly and smoothly add a layer of safety and accountability to help let us sleep at night. It’s no panacea!  But by simply changing how government inspectors general function, we might follow the sage advice of Sun Yat Sen and stymie the bad in government, while aiding the good.

Let’s hope that this election cycle someone actually listens.

And another Transparency related item.  This one not only forecast in The Transparent Society  but also in EARTH

…the tendency of humans to filter out news or opinions or views or even sensory input that we don’t like or agree with.  (Yes, one side of the political “spectrum” is currently doing it to psychotic degrees… but the other end does it too!)  We’ve been finding out that our brains naturally pass disagreeable info and opinions and input through emotional centers rather than those devoted to reason.  But as predicted, electronic “filters” are making things even worse for some, even while opening up vast universes of wonder and possibilities for others.  See “Are we stuck in a filter bubble…hearing only what we want to hear?” Then see how this very issue was dealt with, in Earth (1989).

Indeed. And then comes the new world of “augmented reality.”

Patricia F. Anderson wrote: Graffiti goes virtual with an augmented reality app for your cell phone, called LZRTAG  Shades of @DavidBrin1 ‘s early scenes in Existence.”  Indeed, the layering of virtual surfaces over our world has already begun. Still images, animations and video can be tagged to real world surfaces, so your smartphone can interact with media, billboards, lampposts or landmarks. Vernor Vinge and I do – however – show where it must eventually lead. That is, where it must lead if we are lucky and do smart things!

To see where it will lead if we drop courage and brains?  Try Nineteen Eighty-Four.

=== Fascinating cases of watching the watchers at work ===

Think I am naive? Teams at Harvard and the University of Hong Kong have been using new software that allows them to watch the censoring of posts on Chinese social-media sites more closely than before. Monitoring the Monitors summarizes their report in The Economist:

The team found that, overall, 13% of all social media posts in China were censored. Yet their most surprising result is that posts critical of the government are not consistently censored. On the other hand, posts urging people to assemble in protest, are generally removed from the internet within hours. Harvard professor Gary King writes, “Clearly the goal is actually to repress people gathering.”

Rebecca MacKinnon, author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, comments. “The goal has never been total control. The goal is to keep the Chinese Communist Party in power.”

The researchers analyzed the posts that had been censored to determine exactly what had made them objectionable to the government. What they found was a constantly changing list of keywords and sensitive topics, resulting in “a cat-and-mouse contest between people and censors.”

=== Keep the dream alive ===

On the recent American Independence Day… with a marathon of the eponymous film playing in the background … I was reminded of the ways that our revolution has affected the world.  Sometimes for ill – though less than any other great “pax” power across time. And sometimes for profound good.  That may be viewed as biased (though in fact, I am more of a Californian than a yankee).  So I suggest steeping in points of view that might be considered neutral and yet poetically insightful.  Such as this account, by the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, of how a remote Circassian mountain tribe once sat at his feet, demanding stories about … Abraham Lincoln.

Are we made of lesser stuff than our parents, or the heroes of the first phase of the American Civil War?  We are in phase three now. Wake up and end it.  By winning it.

=== Science Miscellany ===

We need to discuss what to do about nuclear waste.  It never made the slightest sense for us to abandon the Yucca Mountain site on account of some supposed small chance that the depository might leak a little in 10,000 years.  Say what? So these people are now willing to talk about sci fi levels of time, when they won’t even discuss a decade from now, on any other issue?  Dig it. In 10,000 years, the stored radionuclides are far more likely to be more valuable as stored “gold”, than they are to leak into a desert aquifer.  Read up.

Dinosaur sex! Scientific!  With feathers, yet.  And facial expressions.

1 Comment

Filed under science, technology, transparency

One response to “Accelerating Dangers & Opportunities from Transparency

  1. What about the false positives of the proposed airport scanner? I go to the shooting range periodically, so I’m sure that I have traces of GSR on me from time to time, but that doesn’t mean that I’m a threat. I also get irritable when my privacy is invaded. Will the scanner see that and call me dangerous? You asked what happened to our revolutionary spirit. If we tolerate this level of intrusion and control, that’s proof that we’ve lost our way.

    The key point about privacy is that in an advanced society, we all need the ability to shut the world out and be entirely ourselves. Otherwise, we end up being just another member of the choir.

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