How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Telescreen


David Brin's notion that a panopticon America will be big fun so long as we can watch the police back, laid out at length in The Transparent Society, always struck me as a bit sanguine. Still, he always makes for interesting reading, so this updated essay on that theme is worth sitting through the annoying Salon ad. Even if you're less enthusiastic than Brin about the world he describes, he's probably right that this particular genie can't be rebottled, and we'd best begin thinking about how to live with these technologies.

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  1. That was a thought-provoking article. It seems to me that in this information rich world, the government as a means of organization will become less and less powerful. People will increasingly connect across geographic/linguistic lines; information, access, and communication will be completely beyond government control.

    At the same time, I suppose the individual becomes more identified and labeled by society as his every action is added to the collective conciousness/database.

    er…I’m rambling.

    a fascinating read!

  2. I think that privacy may paradoxically lead to greater state power. Privacy makes people anonymous. Individuals fear and mistrust other anonymous individuals. Afraid of their fellow citizens, they turn to the State to protect them. Certainly, State power has grown as people moved away from low privacy small towns and urban neighborhoods and into high privacy urban and suburban areas. More privacy seems to lead to greater political support for an invasive State.

    If new technology makes individuals less anonymous to each other it might lead to less political support for an invasive State.

  3. Hmmmm… interesting concept, I’ll have to add this to my reading list.

  4. Interesting.. personally I just want my dystopian Blade Runner/Shadowrun world filled with various opportunities to “live off the grid” and stay on the run from an incredibly regulated society.

  5. “Shadowrun”

    I was more of a Cyberpunk 2020 guy myself. I couldn’t get past the dragon CEOs, pixie assassins, and Ogre crimelords.

  6. Some parts of what Brin says ring true, but I feel like he just handwaves away anything he doesn’t like. Government reading all your mail? Nah. Not important. Not gonna happen. On to the next issue! And he seems to feel free to contradict himself at will. For example, when talking about RFID, he claims that RFID-based surveillance will be impossible to legislate against: “And if we try to stop it with legislation, the chief effect will only be to drive the surveillance into secret networks that are just as pervasive.” (So he seriously thinks that if, for example, Walmart is prevented from doing this sort of thing, they’ll just set up a secret underground network?) But later he says “Should we push for yet another unenforceable law to guard our backyards against peeping Toms and their drone planes? Or perhaps we’d be better off simply insisting that the companies that make the little robot spies give us the means to trace them back to their nosy pilots.” So, if he thinks laws are unenforceable, how does he propose that we “insist” that companies make all robot spies traceable? For that matter, where’s the tracing technology supposed to come from? We just insist it into existence?

    The more I think about this essay, the less I like it. It’s basically a giant grab bag of ideas – IPV6! Robot spies! RFID! Subvocal commands! – that he never ties into any sort of coherent whole; any time he has trouble with one idea, he just drops it and runs off to the next. I think what coherent idea he does express – “don’t fear Big Brother” – is misguided anyway. State power doesn’t come from a technology differential: for the vast majority of human history, state technology was little more advanced than civilian technology. I don’t care if I can spy on the private life of IRS agent Joe Shmoe, because I have neither the time nor the inclination to do so. But the state’s very raison d’etre is snooping on me, and I’m forced to pay for them to do it.

  7. JD makes the most compelling point-being nosy is the business of government.
    I also think it’s fairly naive to think that people will be swayed by evidence of government malfeasance. If anything, I suspect that people would cheer the government on-after all, they are protecting our children from terrorists.

  8. Use this link to skip the Salon ads:

  9. Interesting, but still way too sanguine. Sure, if we have the freedom to acquire the technology, we can use it against state encroachment of our liberty. Brinn brought up the private citizen video that caught police assaulting Rodney King and wound up sending those criminal cops to prison.

    Also, it was either in the late 60’s or early 70’s that police were conducting murderous “shoot first ask questions later” machine gun raids on Black Panther facilities, killing many innocents including children. But, when the Panthers started shooting back and killing cops during the raids, the police gave consideration of “public safety” as the pretext for the adaption of more constitutional tactics.

    Brinn seems to dismiss the threats of government using tech. by considering simultaneously non-government uses of the same tech, as if that by itself, can make the government’s use any less ominous:

    But who needs implantation when your clothing and innocuous possessions will carry cheap tags of their own that can be associated with their owners?

    Implantation of RFID or GP devices in individuals who represent a “terrorist risk” may be urged by the government as being quite necessary for “public safety”.

    On another matter, Brinn makes an excellent point:

    By far the most worrisome and dangerous parts of the PATRIOT Act are those that remove the tools of supervision, allowing agents of the state to act secretly, without checks or accountability.

    He then writes:

    Ironically, these are the very portions that the ACLU and other groups have most neglected.

    Is that true?

    Which ever, Brinn also takes to reason:

    We modern citizens are living proof that people can and should have both. Freedom and safety, in fact, work together, not in opposition.

    But he doesn’t finish the point. Freedom IS safety from aggression by the state.

    But our need to watch the watchers will only grow.

    But watching them can’t be as good as restraining them with the rule of law.

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