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

Monday, May 30, 2005

EIV. Truths to Power

David Brin is a storyteller first of all, and his argument that we should embrace ubiquitous and “uniform” surveillance while we demand universal access to the personal information it gathers is braided throughout with memorable tales and illustrative fables all of which aim to render the idiosyncrasies of his argument more familiar and its recommendations less threatening. The Transparent Society is never so clear, so compelling, nor so provocative as when it speaks in parables.

In a passage that occurs between the tale of two cities with which his book begins and the tale of Akademos with which it ends, Brin offers up a quick little fairy tale that conveys for me the terms and the stakes of his whole argument more vividly than any of his more extended arguments manage to do elsewhere in the book. And since I also think that the deficiencies of and confusions in the case he is making are never more palpable than they are here in this evocative passage, I want to devote special attention to this moment in his account as well.

There was once a kingdom where most people could not see,” begins the tale, but where “about one person in a hundred did have eyesight[.]” The sighted people in this kingdom of the blind “took care of jobs like policing, shouting directions, or reporting when something new was going on.

Brin is careful to stipulate at the outset of his fable that these sighted caretakers “weren’t superior” to the blind, but that “[t]hey acquired vision by eating a certain type of extremely bitter fruit.” Since quite clearly the sighted would and do acquire special powers and privileges over the blind in his fabulous kingdom, he seems to mean in denying their obvious superiority simply to foreground that such superiority as they had was not any kind of innate characteristic with which they were born but a prosthetic attainment of which, and of course this is the key presumption, anybody could avail themselves if they chose to do so.

Everyone else thanked them for undergoing this sacrifice,” Brin adds, and it seems that he means the “sacrifice” here to indicate more than just the ordeal of consuming the bitter “en-sighting” fruit, but the bother of administration and caretaking itself which the sighted are thereafter empowered and expected to take on, since there follows as a consequence of this sacrifice not just the people’s “thanks” but the result that “and so [the blind majority] left the task of seeing to [the sighted minority of] professionals.

But then, “[o]ne day a rumor spread across the kingdom. Some of the sighted were not faithfully telling the complete truth.” By this Brin surely means to suggest that the kingdom’s sighted elites were abusing their prosthetic powers, not that by virtue of being “sighted” they somehow had access to “the complete truth” in the first place.

This is less clear than it might otherwise be and, I maintain, rather more momentous than you might initially expect, since Brin seems to identify the blindness of the non-sighted with a kind of blanket insensitivity to or ignorance of the world (despite the fact that the blind are certainly perceptive enough to intelligibly share the kingdom with the sighted and with each other). And just as it is the case that the non-sighted seem to be monolithically relegated to the status of the insensate here, is it likewise true that the sighted themselves are always equally so? Are none of them more near-sighted or far-sighted than others? Are none of them more than medicinally sighted but also possibly bespectacled, squinting at microscopes, or peering through telescopes? Are none of them more nor less perceptive than other, none more nor less trustworthy than others?

Further, the broad brushstrokes of Brin’s fable have provided no sense that the verdicts of the sighted ever simply disagreed about the world they watched over in the first place. But certainly it seems that honest disagreements among the reports of the sighted would blunt any naïve dream that they told authoritatively “complete truths” quite as much as any outright lies some of them might tell might do.

In any case, the sighted caretakers of the kingdom had sadly but predictably come to betray the people’s trust. “Shouted directions sometimes sent normal blind people into ditches,” Brin intones, and “[o]ccasional[ly] harsh laughter was heard…

Scandal and panic rocks the kingdom. “This news worried all the blind subjects of the kingdom.” (One imagines that at least some of the sighted would have been troubled as well.) “Some kept to their homes. Others banded together in groups, waving sticks and threatening the sighted, in hopes of ensuring correct information.” It is intriguing to notice that political organizing in Brin’s fable is given the singular expression of the formation of a mob. “One faction suggested blinding everybody, permanently, in order to be sure of true equality -– or else setting fires to shroud the land in a smoky haze.” These, no doubt, would represent for Brin the kingdom’s local chapter of the ACLU and its contingent of disaffected Cypherpunks, respectively. “‘No one can bully anybody else, if we’re all in the dark,’” Brin would have “these enthusiasts urge[.]

But then the tale takes an unexpected turn when, “one day, a little girl had an idea. She called together everybody in the kingdom and made an announcement. ‘I know what to do!’ she said.” From here the resolution, as well as Brin’s lesson, follows swiftly, indeed: “’Here,’ said the little girl, pushing bitter fruit under the noses of her parents and friends, who squirmed and made sour faces. ‘Eat it,’ she insisted.” And as she goes on to scold the blind people of the kingdom, she could not more palpably be ventriloquizing Brin himself: “Stop whining about liars and go see for yourselves.

Of course, the fable’s culminating recommendation here in the voice of this castigatory child perfectly inverts the prior demand of those fearful ones in the tale who had proposed that “[n]o one can bully anybody else, if we’re all in the dark.” Both viewpoints rely for their intelligibility and force on the same strict and simple demarcation of the sighted and the blind. Both viewpoints figure power as a substance either uniformly and monolithically present or absent, a demarcation precisely correlated to the same social division. And both viewpoints seem to assume that the prostheticized “seeing” of the sighted always illuminates the same world in the same way for all, an awareness always and equally unavailable to those who do not so “see.”

In Hans Christian Anderson’s famous exemplary fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a vain but insecure monarch is fooled by swindlers into the pretense that his nudity is cloaked by an exquisite garment immediately apparent to finer sensibilities. This elaborate fiction is supported by all of the corrupt and likewise insecure people of his kingdom until a single child in the throng of flatterers punctures the obvious lie with a simple statement of the evident truth. Brin’s own innocent and precocious child is clearly a variation in this genre of fabulous truth-telling moppets, but for Brin it would appear to be literally every fact in the world that is naked, awaiting exposure in its self-evidence by an innocence empowered by the prostheticized “seeing” of ubiquitous surveillance. Recall that for Brin “honorable people have little to fear if others know a great deal about them,” immersed in a transparency that solicits consensus simply so long as everybody is really, truly “seeing” aright.

Given his apparent faith in the inherently regulatory force of the stable self-evident testimony of the facts of the world as they are, just so long as everybody is equally empowered to “see” them, it is especially interesting to note that Brin’s fable of the kingdom of the blind is included as part of a discussion of the ways in which digital media provide opportunities for especially pernicious forms of tampering that might seem to call such testimony into question in an unprecedented way. As Brin proceeds to make his case that this is finally a misguided or at any rate overblown worry, he jockeys back and forth between straightforward editorializing and parabolic storytelling.

The fable is broken up into italicized snippets that unfold in turns alongside the development of his more conventional argument, the two modes subtly commenting on one another but rarely corresponding in any directly allegorical way until the very end of his account when the two discursive strands collapse into a single argumentative movement, a single thesis: “In real life, the ‘bitter fruit’ is realizing that we must all share responsibility for keeping an eye on the world.”

To this rather genial generality, Brin immediately adds, “[p]eople know that others tell untruths.” He continues on, “[e]ven when they sincerely believe their own testimony, it can be twisted by unconscious drives or involuntary misperceptions. Detectives have long grown used to the glaring omissions and bizarre embellishments that often warp eyewitness testimony.” Brin accommodates the apparent threat to his faith in the stable self-regulatory self-evidence of the world of facts to which transparency would recur and by means of which it would frustrate its own abuse by the relatively more powerful by pathologizing dissensus in a rhetoric of deliberate “untruths,” “twist[ing],” “glaring omissions,” “bizarre embellishment,” “warp[ing],” and the like. In each case here his registration of the actually threatening susceptibility of the world to diverging warranted description manages nonetheless to bespeak instead its more normative stability, simply by making such a spectacle of itself in the almost comical violence of its delinquency. But can Brin really accommodate digital tampering quite so smoothly as he tries to do these more familiar ambiguities of witnessing, given the special reliance of his case for a congenial and even emancipatory “transparency” on these very technologies?

“For generations,” Brin proposes, “we [have] relied on cameras to be the fairest of fair witnesses.” He grants that all along “there have been infamous photographic-fakes,” but insists, “for the most part scientists and technicians have been able to expose forgeries by magnifying and revealing the inevitable traces that meddling left behind.” Unfortunately, however, it seems “[w]e are fast reaching the point where expertly controlled computers can adjust an image, pixel by microscopic pixel, and not leave a clue behind.” But, as Brin summarizes the worry, “[i]f cameras can no longer be trusted, then what good are they?” Or, more specifically worrying to his own account: “How can open information flows be used to enforce accountability on the mighty, if anyone with a computer can change images at will?”

Brin’s first impulse is a deliberately and insistently deflationary one: “So cameras can now lie? Photographs can deceive? So what? People have been untrustworthy for a very long time, and we’ve coped.” Of course, the problem under discussion is precisely that people might use cameras to lie in new ways, and so proposing such an analogy is at once obvious and rather beside the point.

He admits that many “have fallen into a habit of perceiving pictures as unchanging documents, unique and intrinsically valid in their own right,” and that “[t]o have that accustomed validity challenged is unnerving.” But it seems unlikely that the sense of “intrinsic validity” that has often uncritically attached to mechanical recordings derives so much from their “unchangeability.” Such recordings have often seemed nearly as notoriously prone, after all, to disintegration, degradation, and an ongoing impoverishment of signal, especially over a longer span of years, as are the embodied memories with which they would compete in Brin’s formulation here.

It is more likely that technological recordings have been imbued with an “objectivity” denied eyewitness testimony out of the sense that the causal processes through which a mechanism generates its impressions of the environment are somehow apolitical, uninterested, neutral. Brin relies on such an intuition himself when he goes on to argue that cameras “don’t lie except when they are told to. It takes a deliberate act of meddling to alter most images in decisive ways. Cameras don’t have imaginations.”

Of course, the images generated by cameras can be deeply perplexing, provocative, and irreconcilably proliferative without being “deceptive,” exactly. And whether or not they have or might come to have imaginations, certainly the people who use them and attend to their recordings do. To offer up the products of mechanical recording as apolitical and so objective is to deny the inevitable partiality and selectivity of these impressions, and to disavow the special enabling literacies (the mastery, for example, of photographic or filmic conventions) that will typically be mobilized in their reception to render them legible as representations of the world in the first place. These quandaries are not introduced by the digitization of recording technologies, surely, but it is probably right to agree that digitization considerably exacerbates them.

“We’ll [re]solve [these quandaries],” Brin proposes in the concluding sentence of this section, “by giving up the comforting blanket of darkness, opening up these new eyes, and sharing the world with six billion fellow witnesses.” 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”? Perhaps those who resist already have uncomfortable knowledges at hand. What does it mean exactly to figure the public as a realm where six billion people could in some meaningful sense “share” their lives? What kinds of differences are likely to register in the awareness, in the interests, and so in the “witnessing” of these global billions?

Whatever the interpretive instability of the photographic image in the age of digital reproduction, Brin ultimately will insist on a compensatory stability in the world itself to compel a consensus of interpretation that would restabilize it. “[I]n a world where anyone can bear false witness, try to make damn sure there are lots of witnesses,” he insists.

By way of illustration he prompts, “[w]ould we be tormenting ourselves over the Kennedy assassination today if fifty cameras had been rolling, instead of poor Abraham Zapruder’s?” The point is well taken, of course, but there is a sense in which I would want to know just whose cameras these were first before I answered. If the images emerging from a non-negligible minority of cameras seemed to facilitate a different interpretation of events than a strong consensus interpretation arising from a significant majority of cameras most of which were in the hands of individuals with a decisive interest in the widest possible acceptance of just this consensus interpretation, then it is not at all clear to me, for example, that we should take comfort in the fact that such a consensus emerged after all. Digital media facilitate new forms of tampering not only with representations as such, but with the narrative flows in which representations are embedded and generate meanings. And so, even overabundantly documented recorded testimony to politically inconvenient facts can vanish in a torrent of spam or in a flash of scandalous distraction, can languish in the vicissitudes of the broadcast “news cycle,” or can be domesticated in their force by the manufacture of selectively contentious “debates.”

We do not live in the kingdom of the blind. We are all of us differently en-sighted, incompatibly empowered, and perceptive in ways that are already ineradicably prostheticized. What is wanted is neither an uncritical wholesale embrace of ubiquitous surveillance or digital media, or a comparably uncritical blanket repudiation of them, but relentlessly power-sensitive documentations of their various effects and both precautionary and remediative interventions into their ongoing development to whatever extent that circumstances demand or permit.

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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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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

More Random Wilde

Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it has merely been detected.

Technoprogressive Applications of the Precautionary Principle

Chris Mooney contemplates with dread the upcoming hurricane season. No wonder, given how much of his family is in New Orleans (one of the three cities in America the existence of which makes it possible for me to feel something like patriotism occasionally despite the ongoing horror show of fundy know-nothingness, race hatred, mean-spirited privilege, and militarism), forevermore poised for destruction by heavy weather whatever the climate-change deniers say.

Here's the sentence in his brief post that really struck my fancy: "I'm still waiting for us to start thinking about the hurricane vulnerability of coastal cities as a meta-problem potentially requiring massive technological and engineering fixes to prevent catastrophic destruction -- in short, some serious application of the precautionary principle."

I could not agree more.

Together with post-Tsunami arguments one now sometimes hears about how the precautionary principle should inspire the creation of a global network to observe and warn people everywhere in the world about quick-looming climate-threats and mobilize disaster relief, as well as occasional comments one hears about how the principle might mobilize technological interventions to avoid extinction level asteroid impacts and other existential threats, all of these arguments suggest ways in which the precautionary principle can inspire reasonable people to invent and apply technological solutions to proximate problems.

This matters because the corporate shills and libertopians who have dominated so much technophilic discourse over the last couple of decades have long indulged an hysterical crusade against the manifestly reasonable precautionary principle, arguing that it expresses hostility for progress just because they rightly fear the more democratic developmental deliberation it champions and the fairer distribution of risks, costs, and benefits it would certainly demand will have an impact on the short-term profit margins that are all they really care about.

I made this argument in a more systematic way in a column a year ago called "The Need for Fair Risk," and elaborated the position a bit in a defense against some critics of that column in a post called "Two Visions of Precaution: Paranoia Against Proportion," and more recently connected precaution to peer-to-peer bioethics. After the blasted dissertation is filed (we're down to days, now, people!) one of the very first things I mean to do is weave the arguments of these papers into something tighter and more elaborate. Till then I am encouraged whenever I see such technoprogressive applications of the precautionary principle happening, and I'll try to report on them more often here.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

The English public take no interest in a work of art until it is told that the work in question is obscene.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Bush Administration is Libertopia

Although decent market libertarians will protest that they rightly despise the Bush Administration quite as much as I do, for its war-mongering, for its hankering after fundamentalist theocracy, for its Real ID and Total Information Awareness, the fact is that the Bush Administration is what libertarianism plays out as in the real world outside of Ayn Rand novels and Chicago style armchair economics textbooks.

Grover Norquist is John Galt. Baghdad Year Zero is Galt's Gulch.

I know some of you boys didn't want it to be like this, but there it is.

Market fundamentalists who voted for Bush because you wanted lower taxes and an extra sawbuck to spend in a charred cinder of a world not worth living in have to make your choice like all the rest of the fundamentalists now (who have suddenly realized that their own cult of Jeebus might not be the officially sanctioned one after all): How do you like your politics, faith-based or reality-based?

Bailey on the CybDemite Menace

Market libertarian Ronald Bailey posts up a quick (but not, you know, "quick") review of James Hughes' excellent Citizen Cyborg in his latest column for Reason online.

The subtitle of Bailey's column is the laugh-out-funny answer to a question only a libertarian would ever think to ask in the first place, "Why libertarians will win the future." His "answer" amounts to the usual faithful libertopian response: "because I say so."

Bailey trots out the by now unbearably tired suggestion that market libertarians have "transcended" the usual "left-right" political axis, and then accuses everybody else in the world of benighted confusion because we won't go along with him on that magic carpet ride.

For decades now American libertarians have been complaining via their "World's Shortest Political Quiz," about the stubborn refusal of majorities of Americans to recognize that they are "really, truly" libertarians after all because of their bland embrace of fiscally conservative and socially liberal viewpoints.

Lately some libertarians have sought to "sex up" this dead-on-arrival proposition by rewriting the claim as one about an emerging technopolitical terrain arraying "dynamists" against "stasists." Alas, this Postrellian sleight of hand is compelling only to those who already imagine "left" versus "right" is a less illuminating way to carve up the ideological spectrum than "libertarians" versus "everybody else."

Bailey spends a lot of his time properly complimenting Hughes for his clearheaded surveys of recent technoscientific developments, but then tsk tsks, "[w]here Hughes goes wrong is in fetishizing democratic decision-making." By "fetishizing" democracy I fear Bailey means to point out simply that Hughes values democracy at all. As for himself, well, Bailey prefers to think of democracy as "meddling."

Like most market libertarians, Bailey invests "the private sphere" with a radically expanded sense and significance that wants to evacuate the political sphere of some of its real (and I would say ineradicable) threat. But through this maneuver he and the other market libertarians manage in fact only to render themselves oblivious and complacent to most of the forms in which public threat actually plays out in the world.

Bailey writes that "the Enlightenment project that spawned modern liberal democracies began by trying to keep certain questions about the transcendent out of the public sphere." We'll bracket for the moment the ways in which libertarian rhetoric inevitably transcendentalizes as "market forces" what are in fact contingent arrangments themselves. He continues,
Questions about the ultimate meaning and destiny of humanity are private concerns. Worries about biotechnological progress must not to be used as excuses to breach the Enlightenment understanding of what belongs in the private sphere and what belongs in the public. Technologies dealing with the birth, death and the meaning of life need protection from meddling —- even democratic meddling -— by others who want to control them as a way to force their visions of right and wrong on the rest of us.

Of course, the overabundant majority of democratically-minded people are advocates of a robust human rights culture, and so the conjuration of democracy as skeery mob-rule here is just a clownish cartoon that doesn't connect up to actual reality. Our embarrassment for Bailey at trotting out such tired cliches is especially acute in an historical moment when all the people most conspicuously eager to impose their views of morality on everybody with whom they disagree are of course Republicans in an Administration that steals all of Bailey's own moves when it comes to genuflecting in the direction of the triumph of "market forces."

All of this is just too obvious and rather sad, but it raises deeper questions that are marginally more interesting about the function of "privacy" as a prop to human dignity and self-determination, as a figure through which we try to articulate certain intuitions about tangible and less tangible violations of "personal" life, and about the conditions in which "privacy" so conceived best thrives. For me, it appears that the libertarian perspective weirdly disavows the extent to which privacy always relies on public practices, public institutions, public rituals, public legitimacy for its real force and intelligibility.

Libertarians, in taking "privacy" as a secure pre-political or anti-political foundation simply seem to ignore the political conditions that sustain it.

This move correlates precisely to the way in which they likewise treat "natural markets" as foundational forces slogging through history as sublimely ahistorically as the Laws of Thermodymanics do, and as if big bad ol' States never had much to do with their maintenence, even their definition at the most basic level, through, you know, promulgating laws and treaties and agreements, dispensing favors to members of elites who like to talk like Bailey does, enforcing norms, subsidizing infrastructure, stabilizing uncertainties, and all the rest.

All of this is just to say, and forgive me for being blunt, market libertarians, for all their smug self-congratulation to the contrary, are often awfully dim.

"Hughes's analysis," Bailey sighs, "is largely free of economics -— he simply ignores the processes by which wealth is created and gets busy redistributing the wealth through government health care and government subsidized eugenics." All of this to say, Hughes simply refuses to ignore the processes of regulation, redistribution, and subsidization which inevitably form the public context in which "market forces" are constituted and sustained whereupon they go on to "get busy" themselves, in the splendid spectacle of trade and production and exploitation that so enraptures Bailey and his fellow marketeers with its shiny surfaces.

"After reading Citizen Cyborg, you might come away thinking that Hughes believes that corporations exist primarily to oppress people." This little bit of hyperbole registers the fact that Hughes is aware of (as all but market libertarians and Republicans already know abundantly), that corporations, like governments, are social locations in which power and authority concentrates in ways that can and have and do oppress people and so in ways that demand public address. The idea! Aunt Pittypat, my smelling salts!

Of course, American technophilia has long been tainted with market libertarian enthusiasms, and Hughes concedes this as generously as possible for someone who knows what a sorry sociopathic embarrassment these views finally amount to. The libertopian taint is nowhere more conspicuous and disastrous than in the "extropian" flavors of "transhumanist" technophilia, so-called, and since Hughes has devoted himself tirelessly to pushing the intellectual and political culture of "transhumanism" in directions that better accommodate social democracy, global fairness, environmental sustainability, and other pesky bits of actual incalcitrant reality these taints are especially troubling for him.

Bailey writes: "Although it clearly pains him, Hughes grudgingly recognizes that libertarian transhumanists still belong in his big tent." This is true, and it bespeaks Hughes' generosity and optimism and faith in the capacity of humans to learn from their mistakes and open their hearts.

It's hard not to adore these attitudes in James Hughes and admire the ways in which they patiently play out in his writing and political practice, but I'll admit I fail to live up to them myself.

I personally fear that any tent big enough to accommodate the libertopian noise brigade will be a tent largely empty of anybody but market libertarians themselves.

"Hughes himself has not transcended the left/right politics of the past two centuries," Bailey crows dynamistically to the True Believing libertopian Dynamists still on hand to hear him. "The good news is that if his social democratic transhumanism flounders, Hughes will reluctantly choose biotech progress. 'Even if the rich do get more enhancements in the short term, it's probably still good for the rest of us in the long term,' writes Hughes. 'If the wealthy stay on the bleeding edge of life extension treatments, nano-implants and cryo-suspension, the result will be cheaper, higher-quality technology.'"

This trickle-down viewpoint is one on which I might disagree with Hughes somewhat myself. Here and now, in this era of ongoing, radically disruptive, emerging technologies, I have to worry about any developmental politics that would complacently extol the benefit or empowerment of the "rich" over the "poor" (however one construes this blunt instrument of a distinction). However time-honored, such a lumpy distribution of developmental costs, risks, and benefits looks to me ever more likely to impose irreversible climate devastation on the planet or might manage to re-write inequality at the level of speciation for which political remedies are no longer available, and so on.

But what I would call attention to most forcefully in this specific context is simply the way in which Bailey reveals here that his political advocacy of markets is, when all is said and done, as usual, little more than a scarcely stealthy advocacy of the politics of "the wealthy" with whom he obviously identifies.

This is ultimately the reason why Bailey is wrong to imagine "libertarians" of all people will "win" the future. For one thing, humanity may simply not survive at all if the future has "winners" and "losers" as these things are reckoned in the mean, sad, and tragically impoverished libertopian world view. But, come what may, the future belongs to all of us, not only to the elites and their apologists. I personally believe that libertarians will never be more influential than they are right now, in this exact historical moment, undergirding the sociopathic depredations of the Bush Administration. For a sense of the future we can win together, a good place to look instead is James Hughes' Citizen Cyborg.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Octavia Butler's Next: Fledgling

[via The California Aggie] Just heard that one of my favorite science fiction novelists, Octavia Butler, after a painfully long hiatus, has a new novel coming out in November, called Fledgling.

Only a couple of days ago I was pouting about how long it's been since her last (and not my favorite) Parable of the Talents came out. And now here's a new one.

"Genetically-engineered vampires" are promised. Can't wait.

Those who don't know Octavia Butler really need to read the earth-shattering time-traveling slave narrative, Kindred, the novels of the Xenogenesis trilogy and, my personal favorite, Wild Seed. Clay's Ark is also a brutal bloodcurdling marvel of a thing. All too amazing for words. She's a great short story writer, too.

Only news of a new novel by Bruce Sterling or Gary Indiana could possibly excite me so much, but after the long wait a new Butler will be a specially sweet treat.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The Virginia Edition

Woo-hoo! Check out the whole announcement. Despite his not infrequent wanderings into what seems to me straight-up political awfulness, Heinlein remains for me an incomparably rewarding American writer. I'm happy to admit that I am one of those freaks who adores The Number of the Beast and the other rambling and perverse concoctions of the later years while disdaining altogether the much beloved juvenalia. Come what may, I'll be happy tho' to give the whole immaculate collection nearly as much shelf space as I've earmarked for Twain (or for Dickens, for that matter). Only Bruce Sterling promises a body of work to merit a comparable edition in the genre one day as far as I can see, especially now that Octavia Butler seems to have vanished from the scene. Anyway, here's the news:

Meisha Merlin Publishing, Inc. is proud to announce that it has been chosen by the Robert A. and Virginia Heinlein Prize Trust and the Butler Library Foundation to publish The Virginia Edition: The Definitive Collection of Robert A. Heinlein.

This historical project will consist of forty-six titles spanning the entire writing career of Robert A. Heinlein. The Virginia Edition will contain all of Heinlein’s novels and short stories. It will also include all of his non-fiction titles along with the vast majority of his interviews, social commentaries, speeches and articles. Finally the Robert A. and Virginia Heinlein Prize Trust has agreed to allow us to include several volumes of Heinlein’s letters and personal correspondence.

EII. Eye Infinitum

“Typically we are told, often and passionately, that Big Brother may abuse these new powers [of technological surveillance],” David Brin writes in his essay, “Three Cheers for the Surveillance Society.” We are warned, he continues, that “our privacy and rights will be violated by some other group.” He goes on rather airily to list such “groups” as including, possibly, say, “commercial, aristocratic, bureaucratic, intellectual, foreign, criminal or technological elite[s].” To this he then appends a deflationary parenthetical aside: “(Pick your favorite bogeyman.)”

Before we have time to dwell on whether or not Brin really wants to imply here that such elites are entirely imaginary or possibly perfectly harmless after all, he has already moved on to make still more striking claims. In their panic about the suddenly ubiquitous tools and techniques of surveillance, privacy advocates, he complains, are apt to make two profoundly misguided recommendations at once. First, “[b]ecause one or more… centers of power might use the new tools to see better, we’re told that we should all be very afraid.” And second, “our only hope may be to squelch or fiercely control the onslaught of change.” Brin then dourly summarizes this “typical” argument, against which he will go on to array his own contrary view: “For the sake of safety and liberty, we are offered one prescription: We must limit the power of others to see.” Of course, Brin will propose instead that we must resist the temptation to limit this curiously neutral exercise of “seeing” and ensure instead that all are likewise empowered to “see.”

While it is true of course that privacy advocates do worry about the uses to which new surveillance tools might be put (and elsewhere in his writing Brin seems quite as anxious about these possible abuses as any other civil libertarian would be, and so it isn’t completely clear why his formulations here seem so insistently complacent), but it is in any case hardly typical for privacy advocacy to express this concern as a fear of any greater clarity in the vision of the powerful. Far from worrying that surveillance will enable the powerful to “see better,” as Brin idiosyncratically puts the point, privacy advocates more generally fret that proliferating personal information gathered, organized, and distributed by new techniques of surveillance and media threatens to distort the ways in which we circulate as public figures. Privacy advocates and civil libertarians tend to worry about the ways in which these new tools and techniques will likely facilitate our exploitation by powerful interests by re-writing us in the impoverished but compelling image of administrative profiling, target marketing, stringent legalism, normative hygiene, parochial moralism, and so on.

It is altogether unclear to me why it would presumably be better to describe the effort to regulate certain threatening practices of surveillance as “limit[ing] the power of others to see” rather than, say, directing the gaze of the relatively more powerful to more helpful than harmful uses. Since there are infinitely many things to see in the world it certainly seems at least a bit hyperbolic to compare the effort to regulate or redirect the mischievous gaze of the powerful, as Brin somewhat stunningly does later in his essay, to “blinding the mighty.”

However, when Brin goes on to insist we resist the urge “to squelch or fiercely control the onslaught of change” for fear of worst outcomes, this is at least in part a useful repudiation of any blanket, reactive, and almost certainly hopeless (however understandable) program that would attempt to dis-invent or ban such technologies altogether. Sweeping bans of these technologies would most likely simply drive a too considerable portion of their development and distribution into a deeper and more pernicious secrecy and into the more exclusive use of the powerful and the unscrupulous, without proper regulation and oversight, hence exacerbating precisely the kinds of abuses the threat of which would inspire the desire for a ban in the first place.

But there seems to be in Brin’s formulation here a more worrisome hostility to the very notion of efficacious regulation of technological development altogether as well. In an interview conducted with Shane Peterson just prior to the publication of his essay for, Brin rather forcefully consolidates this impression when he baldly claims that “we won’t stave off Big Brother” -– here, again, the libertarian conjuration of pernicious authority as always an oppressive and centralized State –- “by passing minor regulations of what the Justice Department is allowed to see or know.” By such “minor regulations,” he goes on to amplify that he means “bickering over minute details of search warrant policy, or when and how to wiretap.” In the shadow of the rhetoric of developmental inevitability such efforts can only seem a matter of trivial and ineffectual bickering, indeed, and he writes “[w]ith the new cameras, databases and other tools coming online, that whole path is futile.” Brin goes on to reiterate this point extraordinarily starkly: “Not one thing we do will reduce the growing power of elites to look at us.”

It is difficult to read this statement as anything but sheer hyperbole, since it is so manifestly true that legal penalties (in any case just one among the many forms of regulation available to us ) will always have at least some limited impact on conduct, but also because Brin himself seems to rely on the limited efficacy of such regulation to plausibly qualify what might otherwise appear a threateningly extreme advocacy of transparency to the cost of even the most negligible notions of personal privacy elsewhere in his text.

Let us return briefly to the conjuration of the ideal Two Cities with which Brin begins his account in The Transparent Society. The conspicuous force of Brin’s case relies, remember, on his immediate mobilization of a rather stark either/or. He takes for granted, and in fact repeatedly insists on this as an inevitability, that tools and techniques are emerging already that will soon enable the aggregation, circulation, and deployment of incomparably powerful, fine-grained, exhaustively descriptive, profoundly predictive personal profiles that cannot help but transform the everyday sense and significance of privacy, possibly entirely beyond recognition. This unprecedented transformation will be accomplished, and indeed is already underway, by means of a proliferation and convergence of ever cheaper, ever more powerful, ever more ubiquitous surveillance, information gathering, networked media, and modeling technologies. Given his view of this inevitability, Brin lodges his own hopes, and his own intervention, in what he sees as a key alternative between “either” a concentration of ubiquitous surveillance technologies in the hands of powerful elites, “or” of universal access to this ubiquitous surveillance. While the prospect of ubiquitous surveillance is likely to be distressing whatever form it takes, what matters most is to ensure that its potential for abuse be ameliorated by universal access and so general accountability.

But Brin goes on to qualify his sketch of the “transparent society,” of the more desirable and accountable kind of ubiquitous surveillance he champions, in ways that are hard to reconcile with the case he seems to be making otherwise. For example, quite early on in his book Brin curiously says of “city number two,” the Transparent City, the city of ubiquitous surveillance, universal access, and general accountability, “microcameras are banned from some indoor places…” The ellipses occur in the original here, a curious refusal of specificity in this moment. But he goes on: “microcameras are banned in some indoor places… but not from police headquarters!”

It is easy to imagine that even surveillance enthusiasts might want, with Brin, to keep “some indoor spaces,” presumably bathrooms, bedrooms, torture chambers, or what have you, “camera free” –- but it simply is not at all clear why his own premises would provide room for these exceptions. Or, more to the point, if it actually would be possible to provide for such exceptions through legal injunctions (his word here is “bans”), social norms, or the usual regulatory paraphernalia, then why doesn’t this altogether domesticate the presumably sweeping transformations demanded by “transparency” in the first place?

Brin very sensibly wants to reassure his nervous readership that surveillance will be “banned” from the bathroom, say, but there really is nothing in his argument to support such reassuring noises –- while there is every reason, from powerful and widespread voyeuristic fascination to a long mostly pernicious history of the policing of public sex practices in the name of moralism, hygiene, and such, to suggest, if anything, surveillance will of course insinuate itself in the bathroom before it finds its way to any number of other places in fact. With the evocation of “indoor spaces” insulated from the glare of otherwise ubiquitous surveillance, Brin manages at least figuratively, if not literally, to resecure the comforting space of the very privacy, the very withdrawal into interiority, he otherwise claims we must obliterate in the service of accountability.

Later in the book, Brin seemingly secures still more conventional privacy from the glare of his transparency: “Despite the central thesis of this book, that transparency is beneficial to all levels of society, we must surely protect the power of private individuals to do certain things under cover of feigned identities.” With this “surely,” Brin is mobilizing general intuitions, assumptions, and expectations about privacy, all of which he has quite dramatically called into question elsewhere in his text. But of just what can we be “sure” in this formulation, after all? Why is “transparency” treated as blandly and universally “beneficial” here? If this is an account that assumes a demarcation of society into “levels” why wouldn’t this sensitivity to a differential distribution of power imply a comparable distribution in the benefits and dangers of “transparency”? And why does Brin refuse specificity again in a moment when he would reassure his readers that “certain things” would be “protected” from publicity?

Brin’s account is one that consistently values accountability over secrecy, but it is his recognition that sometimes accountability itself requires such secrecy, as when anonymity protects a whistleblower from reprisals or pseudonymity protects critics from stigmatization, that impels him into making some necessary qualifications. Now, it is certainly welcome that these nuances find their way into Brin’s account, just as it is appealing that he devotes attention to the special suffering the deep demands of transparency might exact especially on the shy, the eccentric, the reformed, or the improvisatory. Still, it remains unclear to me how Brin actually accommodates these nuances within the terms of the recommendations he makes, or just why, in accommodating them, he is not conceding the efficacy of regulation that might overcome some of the conspicuous binds of the ubiquitous surveillance he otherwise describes as inevitable, and elude some of the special and alien exactions of the “transparency” he proposes as the solitary hurdle to tyrannical deployments of this inevitable ubiquitous surveillance.

“[I]n an environment of transparency,” writes Brin, “where officials and CEOs must reveal everything down to their tax returns and billing records, the average citizen’s freedom will not be enhanced by maintaining a private right to secrete, plot, and ultimately conspire against his or her neighbors.” I will pause to note the curiously prejudicial formulation here, which seems to presume that the relatively less powerful “average citizen” desires privacy primarily to “secrete,” “plot,” and “conspire,” as if there are no more legitimate enjoyments to be had from private life. Brin continues on to insist that such privacy “will not enhance the average person’s freedom for one simple reason: the rich and powerful are sure to be far, far better at exploiting that right than little people ever will be, any time, any place.

That regulation is difficult or law susceptible to abuse is scarcely, however, on its own, reason to abandon either. Surely it would be absurd to hear someone seriously propose, for example, that those lucky enough to have prospered most from their participation in society should be exempt from the taxes others pay to maintain that society, just because the prosperous are best positioned to evade such taxes anyway by hiring slippery accountants and the like.

In any case, if it really is true that relatively more powerful people will always better exploit these technologies to their own ends than relatively less powerful people to theirs, it is very difficult to see just how any of the measures Brin proposes to facilitate the emergence of an informational regime of universal access over elite concentration could have any expectation of successful implementation either, let alone provide for the special protection of pockets of privacy that Brin offers in the way of reassurance against the grain of his general case for transparency.

And even if it were true that the emergence of ubiquitous surveillance is ultimately, over the longer term, exactly as inevitable as Brin proposes it is, and for all of the reasons that he proposes that this is the case, it could still be the function of even imperfectly effective regulation to frustrate pernicious forms that this “inevitable” development might take all the while encouraging more appealing forms -– disincentivizing information concentration while incentivizing more distributed surveillance practices, for example. While such practices can scarcely be expected or even hoped to eventuate in the universal access or benign transparency of the Brinian ideal, it might still be the case that such regulation could at least facilitate a sufficiently wider distribution of surveillance technologies and information resources to ameliorate some of the more conspicuous abuses that would likely arise from the emerging powers of surveillance uniquely available to the most powerful.

In his recent essay “The Panopticon Singularity,” Charles Stross worries that richly multiform contemporary conventions of regulation and law enforcement might collapse via mechanization into profoundly inhumane interpretations and practices, and that this development is especially worrisome in light of the sorts of emerging surveillance technologies that preoccupy Brin as well. A couple of the technologies that Stross discusses, which did not find their way into the more recent and comparable survey of such developments in Brin’s own update of The Transparent Society, his essay “Three Cheers for the Surveillance Society,” include gait analysis, or the unique “signature” associated with the idiosyncratic way in which each individual walks, a biometric marker more readily discernible technologically and less susceptible to change or disguise than facial recognition; and devices that exploit short wavelength radio waves which can be tuned to peer beneath solid surfaces like layers of clothing or drywall.

Stross points out that at present “legislators do not pass laws in the expectation that everybody who violates them will automatically be caught and punished.” Sometimes especially stringent penalties are mandated primarily to signal moral disapproval of certain conduct (often to enlist popular favor), or on the assumption that this will discourage a particular behavior. Further, “many old laws are retained despite widespread unpopularity, because a vocal minority support them.” In such cases, “old laws which may not match current social norms are retained because it is easier to ignore them than to repeal them.” Stross concludes that “[t]hese laws… highlight the fact that with a few exceptions (mostly major felonies) our legal systems were not designed with universal enforcement in mind.” However, the convergence of new surveillance technologies is likely to expose illegality and delinquency, so-called, to incomparably higher visibility while at once imposing incomparably more stringent and ubiquitous regimes of enforcement than have been possible hitherto.

Stross sketches the familiar slippery slope that haunts civil libertarians who spend much of their time contemplating emerging surveillance technologies. “Nobody… cracks a joke in the waiting line at airport security -– we’re all afraid of attracting the unwelcome attention of people in uniform with no sense of humor whatsoever. Now imagine the straightjacket policing of aviation security extended into every aspect of daily life, with unblinking and remorseless surveillance of everything you do and say.” In the past, we have largely been protected from the imposition of such relentless and pitiless nightmares of perfect scrutiny by the brute limits of human capacities for attention, and by the organizational difficulties of co-ordinating and administering human surveillance practices over time and at a distance. When Stross finally conjures up as the diabolic reductio of his slippery slope the science fictional figure of “enforcers [that] are machines, tireless and efficient and incapable of turning a blind eye,” the force of the point does not depend in fact on the literal arrival of robot armies. Stross is italicizing here the ways in which the traditional tradeoffs associated with practices of human intelligence gathering are transforming with the emergence of new augmentative technologies of surveillance and data aggregation and hence compelling us likewise to radically reassess the practical limits that have come to form our expectations of reasonable (even natural) privacy and the likely provocation of the energies of legal enforcement.

Mark Poster has pointed out that as traditional expectations of privacy defined by what long constituted the practical limits of surveillance no longer prevail “[i]t must become safe for people to be public about things that previously had been secluded to private arenas.” He offers up the example of attitudes to sexual orientation. “In the history of the gay movement, until recently and perhaps to some extent still today, there were serious risks… in coming out of the closet. Such minority life choices and life styles must become accepted politically.” Stross’ own example is similarly blunt: “[C]urrently it is illegal to smoke cannabis, but many people do so. [Soon] it will not only be illegal but impossible.”

Meanwhile, the demands of work ever more conspicuously disrupt the “personal time” of weekends and after-hours. They invade via e-mail, pages, text messages, and calls to cellphones secreted in cars, in pockets, in hotel rooms, on beachfronts, hiking trails, into the precincts of “personal space” and anything like a domestic sphere.

There is no question that conventional expectations of privacy will no longer provide quite the same protective cover, however fraught, for marginal lifeways vulnerable to popular stigmatization. Nor can it be counted on to help ameliorate to the extent it once did the stresses of moral contestation among peers in relatively democratic societies.

But do these new quandaries really demand the more sweeping relinquishment of privacy that Brin’s advocacy of transparency sometimes seems to recommend explicitly or to which he otherwise seems committed whatever his various qualifications to the contrary simply by the force of its entailments?

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Monday, May 02, 2005

EI. Either/Or

Onto the portrait of the Cypherpunk, assembling his Fortress of Solitude there in lines of code that bloom across the livid glow of a desktop screen, the writer David Brin introduces a new and unobtrusive detail. Practically as small as a dust mote: a tiny surveillance camera, unblinking, drinking in every keystroke, observing and unobserved, somewhere just behind our Cypherpunk’s shoulder, it effortlessly circumvents his Strong Privacy in a publicity that is stronger still. “[E]ncyption,” writes Brin, “would have stymied hardly any of the surveillance techniques used by the Gestapo, or Beria’s NKVD, let alone the far more advanced abilities that will be available in an age of gnat cameras, data ferrets, and spy satellites.”

David Brin is a physicist, a widely popular Hugo and Nebula Award-winning science fiction novelist, and a controversial essayist on questions of technology policy and popular technoculture. In his 1998 book, The Transparent Society, he proposed the thesis that the ongoing proliferation and intensification of surveillance techniques is inevitable, that it is likely to transform the meaning of privacy in everyday life, if not obliterate it altogether, and that, quite contrary to prevailing attitudes in these matters, all of this might be a welcome development after all.

Brin’s argument shares with the Cypherpunks an insistently reiterated commitment to a value he calls “openness.” But where for Eric Hughes, say, openness appears to demand the strongest possible individual control over the terms in which personal information circulates publicly, for Brin openness appears to demand, almost exactly to the contrary, an unprecedented exposure of such information by everyone, to everyone, and for everyone’s sake.

The Transparent Society begins with an emblematic image, “a tale of two cities.” Superficially these cities appear to be identical to one another, and in fact appear little different from conventional American cities of the present day. Where they differ palpably from contemporary cities (he proposes) is in their almost complete lack of discernible public disruption or criminal behavior. But where they differ more importantly, and for Brin the more noticeable lack of criminality presumably follows from this latter difference, is in a “real change [that] peers down from every lamppost, every rooftop and street sign.” This difference? “Tiny cameras, panning left and right, survey traffic and pedestrians, observing everything in open view.” And he will go on to amplify, the cameras are not simply observing public conduct, but recording it and archiving it, and interminably subjecting it to automatic digital cross-inferential scanning techniques in swelling global databases that correlate faces and behaviors and public records of all kinds, and on and on and on.

But more significant than these quite stunning differences the two cities share in contrast to the cities of the present day (or at any rate did at the time when he wrote The Transparent Society), is for Brin a deeper difference that distinguishes them from one another despite their similarities. In one of these ideal cities, as Brin tells the tale, “all the myriad cameras report their urban scenes straight to Police Central,” while in the other city, “each and every citizen of this metropolis can use his or her wristwatch television to call up images from any camera in town.”

One can quibble about the details in this illustrative fable, about whether or not everybody in the tale’s more “utopian” city really can afford all the Dick Tracy gee-whiz wrist-gizmos, about whether or not the “non-citizens” of this fair metropolis have a comparable shake at open access. But what matters here for Brin is the decisive difference between the social effects that would likely arise from “universal” (or at any rate conspicuously wide) access to the information corralled in this gathering glut of ubiquitous surveillance as against the effects arising instead from restricted public access to the same information in the control of particular authorities or powerful groups. “Despite their initial similarity,” he writes, “these are very different cities, representing disparate ways of life, completely opposite relationships between citizens and their civic guardians.”

Brin readily concedes that readers might “find both situations somewhat chilling. Both futures may seem undesirable.” But then he pronounces the assumption that organizes and mobilizes the energies of the argument that will follow for the next three hundred pages: either/or.

“But can there be any doubt which city we’d rather live in, if these two make up our only choice?” he wheedles. With the proposal of this rather stark dilemma the initial section of the book concludes, followed by a section heading announcing in a bold typeface: “TECHNOLOGY’S VERDICT.” A technologist’s verdict is sure to follow hard upon the heels of such a declaration. Thereupon, Brin begins the next section of the book with what is, of course, a prescription masquerading as a description and all but a foregone conclusion: “Alas,” (and how reluctantly Brin accedes to the “inevitable” here!) “they do appear to be our only options.”

It is the breathtaking multiplication of closed circuit television cameras monitoring public places in Great Britain, in Japan, in Thailand, in Singapore, and in some places in the United States, most notably New York City, that impels the narrative urgency of The Transparent Society, and lends its formulations their ready intelligibility, its predictions their tremulous ache of near inevitability, and its recommendations their stark forcefulness. “Today, over 300,000 cameras are in place throughout the United Kingdom,” wrote Brin in 1998. All of these cameras are “transmitting round-the-clock images to a hundred constabularies,” and, more to the point, “all of them reporting decreases in public misconduct.” Because, no doubt, the decrease in misconduct is widely attributed to the increase in surveillance, Brin unsurprisingly notes that (unspecified) “[p]olls report the cameras are extremely popular with citizens,” even if, he goes on drolly to qualify, “civil libertarian John Waddham and others have bemoaned this proliferation of snoop technology, claiming… ‘it could be abused.’”

In an article published online on half a decade later, in August, 2004, and more or less reiterating his earlier thesis, Brin compares the time in which he wrote the book to the current state of affairs: “In the mid-’90s, when I began writing The Transparent Society it seemed dismaying to note that Great Britain had almost 150,000 CCD police cameras scanning public streets. Today, they number in the millions.” And to the example of surveillance cameras, Brin adds other recent developments in surveillance technology: cheap, ubiquitous radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, sophisticated software that tracks movements and compiles eerily powerfully predictive personal profiles from data mined and correlated from various public sources of information, and other techniques.

There is no denying at least the broad and gathering outline of the technological storm front of unprecedented surveillance Brin documents in these writings. And it is easy to agree with him that at the very least the expectations and experiences and customs that have come to freight the notion of privacy in the present day will surely transform under pressure of these technological developments in quite fundamental ways.

Many civil libertarians will be quick to recoil from and decry Brin’s vision of a more democratized distribution of ubiquitous surveillance as no less an Orwellian nightmare in the end than the explicitly despotic deployments of ubiquitous surveillance that preoccupy his own concern. But Brin insists that any such blanket repudiation of ubiquitous surveillance is dangerously naïve, since, at this general level at least, “none of those who denounce the new [surveillance] technologies have shown how it will be possible to stop this rising tide.” And for Brin, in any case, “one of the most oppressive metaphors in literature” bequeathed to us by Orwell, the image in fact in which we find the most characteristic expression of the conjunction of surveillance and tyranny we have come to label as most fearfully “Orwellian,” is the figure of “the telescreen.” But, Brin insists we recall that “[t]he worst aspect of Orwell’s telescreen –- the trait guaranteeing [its] tyranny -– was not that agents of the state could use it to see. The one thing that despots truly need is to avoid accountability. In 1984, this was achieved by keeping the telescreen aimed in just one direction! By preventing people from looking back.” It is not for Brin the fact that technology will likely facilitate a more intensive and extensive scrutiny of the details of our personal lives that constitutes its primary threat to our freedom, but the fact that this technologically augmented gaze might emanate exclusively from vantages of privilege, without eyes in the world it surveys comparably empowered to return that gaze and hence check its abuses.

And so, it is easy to affirm the general narrative that Brin spins here to set the scene in which he will make his case. Also, it is certainly appealing that Brin’s avowed focus in his writings on this topic is to promote a “democratization” of surveillance through the equitable distribution of these new technologies, and to insist on the priority of the greatest possible public accountability in the uses to which these new technologies are and will be put. But it is frankly much more difficult to follow along as he goes on to hang his hat on the horns of the curiously superlative dilemma, the hyperbolic “either/or” through which he goes on to frame his more specific case for what he will call transparency.

Far from inevitabilities, the contemporary distribution of these technologies suggests that developmental outcomes that would concentrate ubiquitous surveillance almost exclusively into the hands of powerful corporate and governmental elites, or that would distribute ubiquitous surveillance in a way instead that was universally and uniformly available to all represent in fact almost equally vanishingly unlikely prospects. The distribution of the exquisitely powerful surveillance technologies that Brin and others reasonably anticipate will almost surely be as lumpy as the distribution of technological capacities always has been hitherto. And we can expect that both access to and abuses of these technologies will likewise be profoundly uneven and ungainly.

This is not to say that I entertain romantic fantasies of inevitable “gaps in the grid,” of spaces of wilderness in which something like comfortably familiar privacies might still be fleshed out against the grain of prevailing digital publicities. Neither do I deny Brin’s position that what is most pernicious about emerging surveillance technologies is their susceptibility to abuse by unaccountable authorities or privileged elites. But we can easily and in fact much better accommodate such insights without making recourse to the conventionally libertarian figural terrain conjured up in Brin’s formulations, bounded by the dread of centralized authority embodied by “Big Brother” on the one hand and by the dream of unlimited and frictionless agency embodied by “transparency” on the other.

I find a much more likely and compelling figure for the emerging scene in Jamais Cascio’s image of a “participatory panopticon” of ubiquitous but conspicuously unevenly distributed surveillance, consisting of a practical and discursive tangle of many cooperating and competing monitors, from multiple (but hardly universal and not necessarily always even particularly plural) social and cultural locations, making recourse to a wide array of quite differently sensitive technologies, sometimes providing thin, fuzzy coverage vulnerable to disputed interpretations, sometimes providing thick, overabundant coverage and already disputed interpretations.

“Transparency” is scarcely the first word that would occur to me to denote such a breezing, buzzing confusion of surveillance, description, and disputation.

I want to be very careful to insist that my point here is not to propose some more “moderate” middle ground between what I might seem to be characterizing as Brin’s entrapment by immoderate idealizations. As a rule, Brin is in fact quite scrupulous about qualifying the claims he makes. My point is that the characteristic figures through which Brin articulates his case persistently nudge him into misdiagnoses of the threats that rightly preoccupy his concern and mischaracterizations of their remedies.

For instance, in his essay “Three Cheers for the Surveillance Society” Brin is quite interested in what he describes as the “dispersed ownership” of surveillance technologies in the United States today. He discusses how much of the key footage that has defined recent media and surveillance discourse –- from the beating of Rodney King, to the Oklahoma City bombing, the D.C. sniper episode, and the World Trade Center attacks in New York –- was captured by private surveillance cameras in convenience stores, or by tourists with camcorders, or by people with everyday cellphones in their hands, rather than surveillance cameras maintained by the police or other public authorities.

But it would be profoundly misleading to misrecognize such dispersal as universal: Even where dispersed ownership of monitoring and media devices has occasionally documented and so provided a welcome check on the abusive conduct of misbehaving authorities it would be mistaken to identify this state of affairs with the ubiquitous surveillance and open access Brin describes as transparency, or to discern in a particular congenial outcome from surveillance the workings of the regulative energies Brin attributes to his transparency.

More importantly, neither does it seem particularly illuminating to identify the current dispersal of surveillance technologies as a moment in a developmental trajectory that will inevitably eventuate in something like an “Orwellian” authoritarian concentration nor some more “transparent” and general access to surveillance data. We can read neither superlative outcome in the current distribution of technology, and our assessments of the promises and dangers inhering in this current distribution are scarcely sharpened by contemplating their distance from such outcomes. What will matter as we address and redress the emerging scene of technological surveillance from moment to moment will be, not to put too fine a point on it, to count the cameras, and to determine just who is aiming them at whom.

In his recent book No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society, Robert O’Harrow is particularly concerned, for example, to document the unique ways in which conventional expectations of privacy are especially undermined by a conspicuous contemporary privatization of information gathering to which governments and other authorities are increasingly making recourse. This troubling development, writes O’Harrow, is especially pronounced in the current environment of so-called “anti-terror” initiatives in which security concerns will often be said to trump concerns about civil liberties. Now, how well are we prepared to think through the particular risks and occasions for resistance inhering in the emergence of what O’Harrow calls “a security-industrial complex” by a Brinian discourse of “transparency,” when it is precisely the familiar rhetoric of dispersal, decentralization, and competition in the provision of surveillance services that offers the working rationale for the possibly pernicious loss of proper public accountability over that surveillance?

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