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Thu, 29 Jan 2004

Panopticon Singularities: some feedback

Paul Hughes has posted a piece giving his reasons for believing a panopticon singularity is impossible. (I disagree with some of his reasoning -- and I'll try to find the energy to explain why later -- but I hope he's right.) My main objection is that we're already seeing a trend towards automated law enforcement -- I defy anyone to look at this case and conclude that a human being actually looked at the court summons before it was issued. Secondly, law enforcement and the penal system is a profit centre -- there's money to be made in locking people up, for construction, security services, and all the various ancilliary industries that have sprung up: see, for example, the WikiPedia entry for Wackenhut Corporation. As corporate political lobbying becomes ever-more influential in securing the election of politicians, and as profits can be made in this sector, I can see the formation of a very strong business lobby who seek to profit through deploying ubiquitous law enforcement tools piecemeal, without any of their employees being in a position to stand up and say "hey, wait a moment!" But then, as Jason Kottke noted recently, corporations are psychotic (if you evaluate their social behaviour using the DSM IV psychiatric diagnostic criteria).

It bears repeating that superorganisms composed of humans working together can exhibit bizarre behavioural patterns that are pathologically at odds with the individual best interests of their members: and that members of such organisations may be reluctant or unable to speak out against such behaviour. The consequences of dissent range from loss of employment privileges (in a western corporation) all the way up to torture and death (in a political party within a dictatorship, such as the former Iraqi Ba'ath Party). Thus, legal/penal policy is not set by individual human beings, but by a legislative superorganism which may have profoundly inhumane goals and organisational motivations. (For an existence proof of this reluctance to speak out against irrational or painful behaviour that's closer to home, consider cannabis and the willingness of politicians -- who in some cases have publicly admitted using and liking the stuff -- to advocate full legalisation.)

Meanwhile, the idea got noticed by MetaFilter, and among the peanut gallery there are some useful comments. Yes, Moore's Law is not a law of nature, it's just a temporary scaling effect: and yes, RFID chips are vulnerable to static. (So were early digital watches and pocket calculators -- this goes with the territory when evaluating IC based applications in their early phases.) These two objections do not, in and of themselves, invalidate the whole argument. Yes, there is an arms race between new surveillance technologies and technologies for evasion. But every iteration of this cycle raises the barrier to entry, making it harder for outsiders to get into the game. For example: if you're worried about drive-by RFID probing and teraherz radar, sure you can turn your apartment into a Faraday cage lined with lead. However, firstly this is not cost-free, secondly you need to learn enough about these technologies to do it properly, and thirdly, human nature suggests that most people won't bother -- thus marking out people who do bother as targets who are clearly trying to hide something.

I could go on: thanks for the feedback, everybody. As I think I said elsewhere, the essay was written for Whole Earth Review, who prefer brief overviews to academic papers -- they edited the version they were going to publish down to around half the length of this version -- and at some point I need to come back and address all the issues in minute detail. But not today ...

[thesis][antithesis][peanut gallery]

posted at: 13:02 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
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"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
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Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
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BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

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(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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