Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, May 22, 2005

EIII. Neither/Nor

As The Transparent Society is drawing to its close, David Brin retells the ancient Greek story of a “farmer, Akademos, who did a favor for the sun god.” Given the theme for which the tale will be meant to be illustrative here, it is interesting to note, as Brin does not, that the “favor” in question was the revelation to the divine twins Castor and Pollux of the secret location where their sister Helen had been hidden by Theseus. Akademos was something of a whistle-blower. In any case, in return for this favor, “the mortal was granted a garden wherein he could say anything he wished, even [engage in] criticism of the mighty Olympians, without retribution.” Brin goes on to muse, “I have often… wonder[ed] how Akademos could ever really trust Apollo’s promise. After all, the storied Greek deities were notoriously mercurial, petty, and vengeful…”

It isn’t exactly surprising to discover that Brin proposes as the resolution of his perplexity here that “there were only two ways Akademos could truly be protected,” and that these two exclusive possibilities will restage yet again the either/or that has structured the whole of his book.

“First,” he writes, “Apollo might set up impregnable walls around the glade…” Here, Apollo functions as the concentration of “centralized” authority, a divine Big Brother, Brin’s authoritarian “either,” as it were. But in this variation, this particular figuration of the one horn of the Brinian dilemma manages to evoke as well the Cypherpunk strategy of “strong privacy” against which he has also taken pains to distinguish himself over the course of the hundreds of pages that separate these concluding moves from his opening ones. And so, when he announces that “[a]las, the garden wouldn’t be very pleasant after that, and Akademos would have few visitors to talk to,” it is clear he means to denigrate the rather antisocial vision of the Cypherpunks and their fellow travelers quite as much as he would warn about the dangers of ubiquitous surveillance under authoritarian control (a concern he would share with market libertarians like the Cypherpunks and with most civil libertarians alike).

As for the Brinian “or” that yearns to nudge us over to an embrace of transparency, he writes: “The alternative was to empower Akademos, somehow to enforce the god’s promise. For this some equalizing factor was needed to make them keep their word…”

“That equalizing factor,” writes Brin, “could only be knowledge.”

But it is always right to ask after any blandly general claim to “knowledge,” not only knowledge of what? but knowledge for whom? knowledge to what purpose? And just so, it is difficult likewise not to wonder why knowledge of all things would be expected by anybody to be always an equalizer in fact, rather than, at least sometimes, an expression of and even the exacerbation of inequalities and the different desires they inspire. It is a truism to identify knowledge with power, and Foucault for one goes so far as to simply collapse the terms into the unlovely power/knowledge to drive the point home to those who would conveniently disremember it or disavow its entailments. Among these, wherever power is unequal it is hard to imagine what passes for knowledge will not likewise be, or the differential impact of its deployments by the powerful either.

Recall that Brin proposes in formulations early on in his book that those who shrink from the scrutiny of the powerful are engaged in more than a project rendered hopelessly quixotic by developmental urgencies he takes to be “inevitable” ones, but in a rather nefarious sort of project as well. Those who would curtail the scrutiny of the powerful in particular seem for Brin to hanker after the veiling or blunting or even blinding of some more generalized and congenial “seeing” to which we all might uniformly avail ourselves, at any rate in some ideal sense.

So too these later claims about a neutral and uniformly available “knowing” or “knowledge” of a world of natural fact underwrite as much as anything else Brin’s otherwise altogether counterintuitive confidence in a version of ubiquitous surveillance that would be immune to the worst political abuses and likely instead to be socially beneficial to all so long as it universally accessible. It is only because the facts of the world are apparently so stable or even manifest for Brin, so long as they are not distorted by the malice, errors, desires, or delusions of this or that misguided few, that he can imagine that a more collective recourse to the evidence gathered and distributed by ubiquitous surveillance could thereby police itself, would manage to stabilize without undue interference into an account that at once bespeaks righteousness and solicits consensus, would effloresce into yet another manifestation of the libertopian dream of spontaneous order.

“[M]ost honorable people,” after all, Brin assures us, “have little to fear if others know a great deal about them, so long as it goes both ways.” It is difficult to find such complacent reassurances anything but chilling to the bone. When has “honor” of all things ever secured for anybody a comfortable immunity from the depredations of the unscrupulous or the powerful? And who determines what will constitute an “honorable person” in the first place? Who determines just which conducts best bespeak the relative presence or absence of this exculpatory “honorableness” in some people more than others? Why would anybody expect the disbursal of even a knowledge that flows “both ways” between the relatively more and relatively less powerful to suffuse evenly and neutrally among the knowledgeable, and not to be prejudicially articulated by the self-interested ruses and strategies of the powerful themselves like everything else is?

The very metaphor of “transparency” itself for Brin amounts to the conjuration of a curiously clear-eyed, collective apprehension of the world implemented through ubiquitous surveillance technologies. Indeed, it is fair to wonder whether Brin’s evocation of “transparency” even counts finally as a formulation of surveillance at all. Surveillance is, after all, in Brin’s own terms, an “overlooking from above.” And it is unclear how a uniformly suffusing transparency could admit to the distributional unevenness of an up or a down and still remain, strictly speaking, a transparency.

In “Three Cheers for the Surveillance Society,” Brin mentions the work of Steve Mann (perhaps not exactly approvingly, calling him “radical and polemical”), a media performance artist and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto. When Brin goes on to offer up Mann’s work as an example of “reciprocal transparency” it is not clear to me whether or not he quite grasps the differences between his own vision of “transparency,” and Mann’s invocation of a "panopdecon" in which we speak truth to powers while at once testifying to our immersion and negotiations within them. In Brin’s cheerful interpretation, Steve Mann “prov[es] that we are sovereign and alert citizens down here, not helpless sheep. Mann contends that private individuals will be empowered… by new senses, dramatically augmented by wearable electronic devices.”

In fact, Mann counterposes to “surveillance” a host of interventions he describes instead as “sousveillance,” or scrutiny from below, conceived very much as matters of talking back to, offering critiques of, and coping with the complexities of emerging surveillance techniques. Sometimes satirical, sometimes defensive, sometimes documentary, sometimes amounting to direct political action, almost all of these sousveillant inverventions make use of ingenious original or reappropriated prosthetics, wearable computers, monitors, cameras, interfaces, displays. Like the activists of Project WITNESS and others who are struggling in this moment to provide cameras and other documentary technologies to especially vulnerable people, Mann’s sousveillance can scarcely be assimilated to a broader narrative in which “cameras” diffusely and indifferently accumulate to testify to manifest and hence, somehow, self-regulatory truths. Sousveillance, like surveillance, is neither the expression of a uniform and monolithically overbearing power nor an avenue toward the emancipatory circumvention of such a power, but a tactic of power in its particularity, deployed by variously constituted powers, immersed in the ongoing play of power.

For Brin, enhanced observation paired (via the very same surveillance and media tools) with universal accountability would body forth the facts themselves in a luminosity that burns away the public realm as any kind of space of ineradicable or interminable contestation quite as much as it would obliterate privacy in its glare. In this, Brin’s “transparency” is more than notionally correlated to the perfectly controlled discretionary opacity of the Cypherpunk’s “strong privacy” against which it would array itself. Both seek to implement a comparable ideal evacuation of the agonistic public through recourse to certain new tools on which their advocates have fixated their own attentions in a lingering fascination they have possibly mistaken for the tracking of developmental inevitabilities.

“I never promised a road map to a transparent utopia,” writes Brin a few pages later. “My main task was… to criticize… an appealing but wrongheaded mythology: that you can enduringly protect freedom, personal safety, and even privacy by preventing other people from knowing things.” But surely what worries many skeptics and critics of emerging regimes of ubiquitous surveillance is not so much that unspecified “other people” will “know things,” likewise unspecified, about them, as Brin would apparently have it.

Critics of surveillance worry, to the contrary, that some information-gatherers will mistake what they know for knowing everything, knowing enough, knowing what to do “about us” with whatever knowledges they have gleaned. They worry that some information-gatherers will be better empowered to make use of personal information than others. They worry that some information will be more prone to abuse than others. They worry, of course, that the selective gathering and deployment of personal information could too easily facilitate exploitation by replacing persons with profiles compiled by others with particular interests in mind and particular powers in hand.

There is after all an indefinite amount of knowledge to be had where subjects are concerned, and what will matter as much as the knowledges we arrive at will be the significance ascribed to such knowledges and the uses to which these knowledges are put.

For unduly empowered information-gatherers the public world, populated as it is with problematically unpredictable, threatening, vulnerable, promising people, is too readily replaced by a data-terrain of interested and targeted instrumental descriptions: Profiles culled from archives of economic transactions re-write people in the image of an impoverished and bleakly predictable constellation of consumption and payment patterns for credit card companies and target marketers to surveil. Profiles culled from archives of medical histories and genetic information that re-write people in the image of a constellation of predispositions and resistances to disease for pharmaceutical companies and insurance providers to surveil. Programs compiled in the stress of abstruse geopolitical urgencies that re-write people as targets on the grid of a smart-missile honing in on a foreign field.

“[T]ransparency,” Brin is quick to add by way of reassurance, “could be… bad, if taken to extremes, or if applied too unevenly, or too soon.” But to the extent that “extremity” registers distance from contemporary norms just what form of “transparency” would be anything but extreme? To the extent that Brin characterizes these developments as already emerging, as gathering in momentum, and as inevitable in their sweep and scope just what can he mean when he cautions that “transparency” be applied more evenly or more deliberately? Who is empowered to “apply” these ferocious developmental forces temperately in Brin’s accounting of them, by what mechanisms actually on offer?

“Whenever anyone asks for more openness from you, it is perfectly reasonable to demand that it be reciprocal,” Brin perfectly reasonably insists. Indeed, he goes on to say: “That is what the tussle of accountability is all about” Surely civil libertarians are little likely to deny these anemic utterances, but will still want to concentrate their attentions instead on the incomparably more difficult effort to determine specific interventions that might actually render the “tussle of accountability” something more like a fair fight. With what kind of force can one back up a demand for accountability from the powerful, when Brin admits repeatedly otherwise they are as little likely to welcome scrutiny as anybody else? Certainly, more is wanted than the sense among civil libertarians that such demands are “perfectly reasonable.”

Recall that in his essay “Three Cheers for the Surveillance Society,” Brin seemed to belittle somewhat as mere “bogeym[e]n” worries about abuses of emerging techniques of surveillance at the disproportionate disposal of “commercial, aristocratic, bureaucratic, intellectual, foreign, criminal or technological elite[s].” It is especially interesting, then, to notice that in his interview with Shane Peterson, conducted at roughly the same time he published this essay and made these deflationary claims about elites, he singles out as just such a pernicious “elite” one group of individuals in particular… civil libertarians seeking to regulate surveillance to protect especially vulnerable people from its plausible misuses.

“You can't blame the civil liberties guys for being elitist,” Brin chuckles, “putting themselves forward as the people's protectors. Exactly the way the government people picture themselves. Everyone is great at rationalizing why they should be elites.” It is rather difficult to see just how privacy advocates are engaging in the project of rationalization Brin decries. Brin sprinkles even his most energetic polemics with qualification and caveats that forcefully suggest both that he recognizes surveillance powers might be distributed unevenly and that such unevenness might invite abuses and otherwise avoidable harms. And so it is puzzling that he would seem to want nonetheless to preemptively disdain any restrictions that might redress this unevenness or at any rate ameliorate the pace at which such unevenness is emerging as always only a covert attempt on the part of reformists, advocates, and critics to “picture themselves” or “put themselves forward” as replacements to the elites whose abuses they would frustrate.

“Funny how it always boils down to protecting the people by preventing them from seeing,” Brin dourly concludes about too many of (all of?) these efforts at reform. Notice here that, once again, “seeing” is mobilized as a neutral abstraction to which all “people” presumably might otherwise make equal recourse. Like the generic evocation of “people,” followed by the apparently coextensive pronoun “them,” this generalized “seeing” functions to evacuate precisely the worrisome unevenness in the distribution of power likely to be expressed and exacerbated by the deployment of the new techniques of surveillance that is the very issue at hand.

It is very difficult to imagine that Brin would decry the institutionalization of search warrants as a lamentable blunting of “seeing” or “knowing” even if the failure to secure one might indeed sometimes eventuate in at least some people seeing less and knowing less than they otherwise would. It is also difficult to imagine that Brin would propose that technological development will render search warrants an “inevitable” irrelevance. But, given his premises, it is just as difficult to guess on what basis he would finally justify these hesitations or confidently hope to address them.

“If a transparent society is in our future,” Brin proposes, “there will be a rough transition before its advantages crystallize around us.” The figural conjuration of spontaneous order in his choice of the word “crystallize” to designate the developmental process he has in mind here could not be more significant. Brin speaks then of a “transparency threshold” that would have to be arrived at before ubiquitous surveillance can be counted on to enforce the congenial accountability he advocates rather than simply exacerbating injustice and facilitating novel and acute forms of oppression. Crucially, the terms in which he delineates this developmental “threshold” reside perfectly comfortably within the bounds of the market libertarian discursive universe with which we have now grown well-familiar. The “transparency threshold” is the moment when “the odds of getting caught finally make sneakiness and cheating unprofitable.” Shepherding us along the way to this threshold, Brin assures us, “practical tools will help,” and these, he is quick to amplify will employ “free-market means.”

For my part, to say the least, my confidence in whatever happens to count as “market forces” at the moment is always incomparably bolstered whenever I know them to be articulated by the oversight of skeptical and democratically accountable authorities and reasonable regulation. While I share Brin’s appreciation of the usefulness of “practical tools” whenever they are put to proper uses it seems to me a fairly conventional political problem to strive to ensure the propriety of their use, one that requires us to pay close attention to just who has just which tools, just what they are doing with these and to whom, on something like a moment to moment basis.

It seems sensible to me to recognize at a minimum that individuals who enjoy special privileges in consequence of their participation in unique social forms should bear special compensatory burdens and responsibilities as well. To the extent that individuals are uniquely empowered to make public decisions that impact the lives of others, it seems useful to ensure that among these burdens would be an incomparable exposure to the scrutiny of those whose lives are impacted by their conduct. It is easy to see the sense of the Brinian demand for “transparency” imposed particularly, first, on those representatives of governments who are uniquely empowered to make recourse to coercion to enforce the law and to promote the general welfare; second, on investors and officers in commercial enterprises who are uniquely empowered by the special attributes of the limited liability corporation; and third, on scientific researchers at public universities who are uniquely empowered by tenure and public funding of their work. Why on earth should we not resist and insist that these see and say less of us while we see and say more of them, when they are manifestly the ones most capable of abusing the disproportionate powers at their disposal?

And so, quite simply, I think that we should strive for more transparent public institutions and for the ongoing regulation of organizational as opposed to personal deployments of surveillance technologies. Otherwise, I fear that informational asymmetries exacerbated by the pace of technological development will too likely sediment into more authoritative personal profiles that better facilitate the exploitation of relatively weaker people by relatively stronger ones. Such a vision hardly need represent anything like a futile technophobic recommendation of blanket bans on surveillance technologies, any more than it recommends a manic technophilic multiplication of such technologies, willy-nilly, but should encourage a more technoprogressive advocacy of their deliberative development and deployment. One imagines instead a rather fraught, fragile, error-prone, selective, power-sensitive, and responsible ongoing regulation of emerging surveillance technologies.

Technoprogressive practices of regulation would want to be attentive first of all to the dangers of authoritarian concentrations of surveillance powers in the service of parochial projects of exploitation and domination. But it would be alive as well to the many congenial opportunities for empowerment, remediation, and for the facilitation of public goods inhering in these developments –- for example, the expansion of nonpunitive public medical knowledge, the expansion of networks that facilitate novel forms of collaboration and communication, the development of better means for monitoring catastrophic climate change, global pandemics, trafficking in unprecedentedly destructive weapons, and the like.

The personal motto of lawyer and privacy activist Richard Glen Boire is that the one way to truly elude the Thought Police, whoever they may be, is always to subsist as a paradox. In tune with this sensible recommendation and against metaphors of personal “transparency,” I am attracted myself to formulations of privacy as a kind of personal inscrutability. What civil libertarians and privacy advocates typically bemoan as an intensifying vulnerability to technological exposure seems to me better described as a vulnerability to the technological imposition of authoritative descriptions. The susceptibility to description inhering in political life is rarely threatening -– even if, occasionally, it is embarrassing –- except when established authorities manage to police the interpretation of descriptions in the service of their own particular ends.

Every description is always an interested one, and, luckily, every individual is endlessly interesting. The emerging scene of digital networked surveillance might become in my accounting of it a scene of proliferating and ineradicably incoherent co-incident interpellations issuing from an overabundance of differently interested institutional locations in culture. The collisions among these descriptions and demands generates privacy as, among other things, an abiding problem of interpretative instability. Part of what we are deprived of by privacy and part of what we enjoy as privacy on my view is precisely the deprivation of any ready, definitive, or conclusive intelligibility conferred by our participation in public life. The problem of privacy becomes on my account less the fraught effort to control one’s secrets, but to resist the imposition of definitive descriptions that would facilitate one’s instrumentalization while pretending to confer the intelligibility of some deeper, “secret” self.

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6 comments:

david said...

Dale,

I was wondering if you could point me to specific places in Brin's writing that illustrate his flippant disregard for elites of all kinds, while disproportionately mistrusting civil libertarians. I think i've seen the article you reference ("Three Cheers...") hyperlinked somewhere, but I can't remember where the hyperlink was. Also, is the interview referenced above available online?

Dale Carrico said...

"Three Cheers" is here.

The interview is here.

I only provided an actual link at the first reference to either text, rather like the way I provide a full citation only at the first reference in the printed edition.

david said...

after reading both "Three Cheers," and the interview--then giving myself a day or so to reflect--there are a few primary observations I'd like to make.

first, Brin seems respectably concerned with giving at least nominal attention to counterarguments. There are many times during "Three Cheers," that he concedes the "valid" worries of civil libertarians. One of these instances goes as follows: "Naturally, this is yet another trend that has put privacy activists in a lather. They worry -- with some justification -- about civil liberties implications when the police or FBI might scan multitudes (say, at a sporting event) in search of fugitives or suspects. Automatic software agents will recognize individuals who pass through one camera view, then perform a smooth handoff to the next camera, and the next, planting a "tail" on dozens, hundreds, or tens of thousands of people at a time."


This is both reassuring and troublesome. It can either mean that he is willing to consider things deeply and variously, or he is using standard rhetorical tools to neutralize dissent.

There are a few details of his vision that helped me decide the question--at least for myself.

First. There is a point in "Three Cheers," about midway through, when Brin writes about the public being the beneficiaries of Pentagon and otherwise military technology 'making its way' into the public domain: "[a] spinoff effect has emerged from military development of inexpensive UAV battlefield reconnaissance drones. Some of the "toys" offered by Draganfly Innovations can cruise independently for more than an hour along a GPS-guided path, transmit 2.4 GHz digital video, then return automatically to the hobbyist owner. In other companies and laboratories, the aim is toward miniaturization, developing micro-flyers that can assist an infantry squad in an urban skirmish or carry eavesdropping equipment into the lair of a suspected terrorist. Again, civilian models are already starting to emerge. There may already be some in your neighborhood."

Brin has worked for major aeronautics corporations in a research capacity, and he refrains from going into any background info on how most of these military technological endeavors are funded. He fails to mention that it is public money being dished out to heavy lobbying corporations that feeds this military industrial complex, and also seems not to notice the direction it takes: public money to corporate welfare, then military technology sold back to the public in largely innocuous (in terms of defensible usefulness) pornographic forms pasted in front of our faces and talked up feverously as the 'newest' thing that all people have to buy with their (many times)meager savings--in order to keep up with the Cheney's. (and call me cynical, but, civilians using their remote control cars to spy on law enforcement officers, or employing nanoscale muppets in the stratosphere to take pictures of the President still seems pretty far-fetched).

And continuing with Muppets, Brin writes, "Cheap, innumerable eyes in the sky. One might envision dozens of potentially harmful uses ... hundreds of beneficial ones ... and millions of others in between ranging from irksome to innocuous ... all leading toward a fundamental change in the way each of us relates to the horizon that so cruelly constrained the imagination of our ancestors. Just as baby boomers grew accustomed to viewing faraway places through the magical -- though professionally mediated -- channel of network television, so the next generation will simply assume that there is always another independent way to glimpse real-time events, either far away or just above the streets where they live."

It's funny, though, that Brin doesn't mention how there is already a sizable structure of prohibitive laws restricting the ways and places in which citizens can use video-recording devices. Furthermore, embedded in his example of "the magical world" of television, there is a stark example of historical precedent that flies in the face of his interpretation of corporations and govt. agencies as 'bogeymen': if we are to go on how television has Ted Turnered out, we'd be using corporal punishment for those incidious enough to call themselves 'inventors.'

I really had been planning on challenging your interpretation Dale (if only just to help with the evolution of your ideas), but after looking at the texts, I can see where your concern comes from.

Sadly, someone openly espousing America as a haven of freedom and democracy, has begun to set off alarms in my political consciousness--but I did a decent job in moving beyond this in Brin's case. I do like some of his ideas. For instance, as he writes "Hey, you can look at the future and shiver with fear, or you can peer ahead and say, 'How can we maximize the good while minimizing the bad?'"

Ironically (after engaging your critique of his vision) he continues with "[this is] a question that dichotomy pushers refuse ever to ask, and it's the only question that ever makes any sense. How can we get all the good stuff without having any of the bad?"

Yet Brin has already conceded the fact that "Elites won't let us blind them." He likens this group of elites to a bunch of Alpha Monkeys (and includes civil libertarians in this category), then says "Try this experiment. Go down to the zoo, climb into the baboon enclosure and try to poke a pointed stick into the eye of the biggest baboon.

He won't let you."

So Brin has already conceded the impossibility of limiting the powerful. Instead, he suggests we just match their purchasing power. In other words, 'pick your favorite nanoscale muppet, and send her down to city hall to spy on the mayor.' After all, technology is bound to bring us back to a state of self-reliance.

What tangled webs.

Dale Carrico said...

Although I daresay it isn't exactly conspicuous in my reading -- I do find elements of Brin's viewpoint sympathetic. Certainly his viewpoint seems more in point than that of the Cypherpunks with whom I see him sparring most palpably especially in his earlies texts. I also agree that his case is a more nuanced and qualified one as a straightforward piece of rhetoric.

It's simply that his qualifications seem to get shunted aside by the thrust of his points over and over again. The registrations about likely abuses and attempted consolations about personal dignity never seem make much of a dint in the overall argument beyond signalling that Brin has the worries of any reasonable relatively decent person contemplating these developments.

And so, despite my sympathies, I am left with the sense that the shared market libertarian and hyperindividualist imaginary of the projects of Brinian transparency and of the Cypherpunks' strong privacy finally renders them importantly continuous whatever their superificial differences.

I propose that we find better resources for an intervention into the emergence of ubiquitous surveillance conjoined to conspicuous asymmetries of power in Foucault and Arendt. Arendt's argument that the privacy in modernity is more proximately distinguished from the social than the public (as it was figured in antiquity), and Foucault's discussion of surveillance as disciplinarity in the service of biopower seem an incomparably richer accounting. Arendt's phenomenology of the political in The Human Condition is, recall, no less concerned with visibility than Foucault's project in Discipline and Punish. Foucauldian biopower and Arendtian social administration align, as do their accounts of power.

This is no suprise since The Human Condition, no less than Discipline and Punish, is in an important sense Arendt's own conspicuous genuflection in the direction of Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals.

Hopefully, in the remaining few sections I have to publish here you'll get a better sense of what I would want to do with these connections!

david said...

I got all that Dale. although i am less familiar with Arendt, than Foucault, I'd have to largely agree. what strikes me in Brin's accounting, is the gaps in normative prescriptions. It is a largely cluster-conceptual description of the situation, imo. also, there were certain political presuppositions that got under my skin.

thanks for the response.

Anonymous said...

But is it right to suggest, really, that we live in “darkness” because we are not yet immersed in ubiquitous surveillance? Is it right to imply that our eyes have been closed? Is it right to imply that all those who would resist the emergence of relentless and ubiquitous technological scrutiny value “comfort” over “vigilance”?

This is a valid question, since it exposes (some of) the assumptions on which Brin's position rests. He does, ultimately, paint such concerns as yours as neo-Luddite, and worse. I say this because I've just emerged from a most frustrating "dialogue" with Mr. Brin on this topic.

I actually came to Brin's Contrary Brin blog via his essay Singularities & Nightmares that has attracted a good deal of attention at Ray Kurzweils' AI website. I was curious about two elements of that essay: how Brin foresaw the implementation of his concept of reciprocal accountability (given that the organs of accountability are pretty much owned by those most in need of it), and how he imagined the the transition from our economies based on scarcity to one based on abundance would effect the social and economic hierarchies accreted during the old paradigm (the possibility of an emergent egalitarianism). In other words, I wanted him to engage in some speculation. He is, in addition to those other activites in his CV, a science fiction writer, after all.

Well. It didn't quite work out as I had planned. Not only was he reluctant to engage in the speculative arts; he actually refused to address either of my questions at all. Instead, he treated me to Brin's View of History, in which the benevolent, "uplifting" force of capitalism moves through history shedding its light and liberty-- a bizarre version of Kant & Hegel's concept of Spirit.

When pressed about the notion of how those elites who currently "see" would be encouraged to allow others to see them, and eventually give back the carte blanche prerogative that national security allowed them to possess, he answered by assuring me that he was working hard to persuade his "contacts" in the M/I Complex to voluntarily comply with the new transparency. He concluded, after a long and rather vitriolic defense of the joys of capitalism, by telling me that I simply had to trust in the good judgment of those who have my best interest as their primary concern.

The most astounding thing about the entire exchange was that the calm, open demeanor of Brin in the S&N essay was nowhere in evidence in the actual discourse he so highly praises as the means to those admirable ends, his transparent society.

Looking back over Brin's S&N essay, I shouldn't have been surprised by Brin's unwillingness to imagine a better world. He claims there that sci-fi writers aren't any good at predicting positive futures; only in cautionary tales can they be trusted to give us vivid warnings of what might go wrong. When I discovered that he also believes that we shouldn't actively work to make a better world, since "giants" like Adam Smith set this grand process in motion and who do we think we are, anyway, my stomach turned, my mind rebelled.

There are sci-fi writers who aren't afraid to swim in those futuristic waters. When Charles Stross wrote his famous piece for the last issue of Whole Earth on the coming panopticon (The Panopticon Singularity), he left a small door open to investigate the weakness of the surveillance society, a door that Rupert Goodwins quickly stepped into with The Blind Spot in the Panopticon, where he suggested something which, on the surface sounds like Brin, but it actually points in a different direction altogether. Goodwins writes:

When the machinery is automatic, unbribable and universal, nobody gets off and everyone's watched. A system that efficiently gathers, collates and analyses data must also make it available -- and this is why there's a paradox, not a singularity, in Stross' panopticon.

For once it becomes difficult to do anything unremarked, once surveillance is a given rather than an exception, then the logic behind keeping official secrets becomes much harder to defend -- and the practice of keeping them becomes harder, too. The classic "What have you got to hide?" polemic that so often justifies yet another loss of privacy can be turned around: "Why are you keeping those secrets?" Or "If you believe in open government -- here's the key. Why aren't you using it?". Cheap, easy to deploy technology doesn't care who's running it, and although the civil service, judiciary and government may try for monopolies on data access, in any society with claims to democracy they cannot deny effective oversight. They try, my goodness how they try, but in the end the contradictions mount up and the questions become unavoidable.

By building the panopticon, therefore, the great bureaucracy of state control would be building a world without fudge, duplicity, secrecy or buck-passing. Such things are as necessary to the bureaucrats as blood is to Count Dracula, and the panopticon as welcome as a greenhouse for garlic. So the warning signs of singularity aren't that the technologies exist and are used, nor that they are used by those in power to watch those defined as worth watching: it's the refusal to allow the selfsame concepts to be used on those in power -- or even discussed. When that happens, it may be time to disprove that old saying about stones and glass houses.


While Goodwins makes his own assumptions, most notably that the panopticon really will become a two-way conduit of information, he is echoed by some of those writers who are quite unafraid of imagining how this might come about. The best I've found in surveying the field of intrepid explorers of what's next (and how we'll survive it) is Rudy Rucker.

Rucker's hope resides in chaos, the fractal unpredictability of information & life itself. Rucker is extremely smart, accessible, hopeful and even humorous. His vision is one in which chaos prevents the our jailers, the brain police, from imprisoning us, since the unpredictability of information flow and life itself, in all its crazy, fractal splendor, is beyond the control of those who've thus far been so confident of their dastardly schemes.

I won't do Rudy the injustice of condensing his philosophy into a blog comment--dive into his world if you're interested in something a bit different from what Brin is selling.