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

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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David said...

I posted a comment, a few days ago, concerning your engagement of Hughes' idealized encryption utopia. Curious as to how you saw his proposal for privacy through encryption as pernicious--considering how encryption software can be easily construed to work like pop-up blockers--I have been thinking intermittently about it for the last few days.

This post, EI Either/Or, was very helpful in complicating the issue of privacy and openness for me. The layering of different technologies in a vortex of surveillance and super-surveillance (cypherpunks neatly buffered by encryption codes, being watched by unseen cameras over the shoulder etc.,). And, of course, what if there are cameras watching the women watching the cypherpunks through the cameras? Your espousal of a dissipate and sporadic surveillance culture marked as much by idiosyncrasy and unmodelability as by privledge and oppression seems to be a good touchstone for critical thought. Accountability could be approached through a dialectic of sorts: much like a dialoguical engagement of content in educative situations. But where would the authority lie? Even in the least hierarchical of seminar style classrooms there is a facilitator (responsible for asking questions and otherwise espousing a progressive environment composed of responsbile thought and action). In a perfect democracy this general accountability would come in the dictatorship of a majority.

I guess you could superimpose a recognizable political reality on this surveillance and control vortex, leaving us at ground zero of the panoptical revolution (in other words, we'd be right back where we started, in most respects). Seen this way, the introduction of so many pictures and cameras into our lives would not have effected a radical change in political potentialities. Perhaps it would have given us another layer of cyborg culture, and also come more choices, but it wouldn't have changed things at a fundamental level in terms of how we relate to one another.

Is this the best we can hope for?

Dale Carrico said...

I have replied to your earlier comment if you want to scroll back and give it a looksee. Thanks for that. I hope what I am up to in this chapter will be much clearer when I get around to blogging the other five sections in the next few days -- my teaching is coming down to the wire and is distracting me a bit from getting the writing online. More to come quite soon, though! Thanks so much for the very helpful comments.

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