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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1 comment:

david said...


the discursive framework employed in this post reminds me of Dewey's "Experience In Education." perhaps this is mostly because he was one of the founders of my alma mater, and so I've been exposed to much of his work, but critical evaluation of the either/or paradigm keeps recurring for me (not only in your writing and thinking, but also in my own--and throughout much of the responsible academic literature I tend to engage).

lately, i've been trying to imagine an alternative to this kind of discursive thought, this kind of complication steeped in empiricism and fragmentation. i've been imagining some kind of technologically enabled probability 'vision' capable of cracking quantuum uncertainties (at least to a limited degree). I haven't yet been able to create any meaningful tools to connect this imaginative exercise with the methods of responsible scholarship that often show themselves in symbolic ('abstract') communication and otherwise critical intellectual endeavors, but I often try to test my ways of thinking in creative ways to avoid falling into formulaic paradigmatic thinking patterns: convenient structures to use somewhat habitually in critique or other types of critical engagment.

I am intensely curious about the ways in which our human brains (as currently commonly configured) are limited in their functions of understanding and acquiring 'knowledge,' and i was wondering if you can see any potentiality for a radical break in our perceptual/preceptual/conceptual engagment of the cosmos? Do you see technology as capable of radically changing the way in which we see and understand the world (in terms of neurophysical/ neurobiological processing?) Not only in the ways in which information is processed, but the raw material that is translated to begin with, or the final product: that combination of watercolor demarcations that emerge from the blackdrop? The reason I am wondering this, is because the more a look into neurophysiology and perception, the more I believe there are limits (or at least hypothetical frontiers as of yet untraversable by empirically centered imaginations) to the radical transformations possible through technology as we currently know it (as it pertains to enhancing human epistemological capacities). This may not pertain directly to your project, but it may be food for thought.

oh, bythwy, your observation of Brin's argument as linear and oppositional in its macroformal emergence seems to be right on, and it is a welcome and important critique, imo. i'm going to take a look at some of Brin's work, so my observations can be more relevant as pertains to content and detail.