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Can We Avoid a Surveillance State Dystopia?

NSA Headquarters Yes. Yes we can. The last year has brought with it the revelations of massive government-run domestic spying machineries in the US and UK. On the horizon is more technology that will make it even easier for governments to monitor and track everything that citizens do. Yet I'm convinced that, if we're sufficiently motivated and sufficiently clever, the future can be one of more freedom rather than less.

I saw this tweet not so long ago:

It's quite droll. In fact, though, we've been promised an oppressive state that used media technologies to control the populace for far longer than that. George Orwell published 1984 in 1948. One of the central features of that novel was the use of media and surveillance technologies to control the populace. Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932. And while Brave New World is remembered more for predicting government-controlled biological engineering of the masses, it also features government surveillance, media manipulation, and thought control.

This is an old idea. Yet somehow, today, in most of the world, governments have dramatically less control over their people than they did when Huxley and Orwell wrote those words. Indeed, the average person on Earth is more free today, in 2014, than he or she would have been in the actual year 1984. The arc of history has bent towards more freedom.

That is not to say it's been perfect. The confluence of 9/11 and the availability of new technology has rolled back freedoms in the US, and much of that has infected the UK as well, often in worse ways than the US. This recent wave needs to be actively combated, and our freedoms won back. (This is, indeed, one of the motivators behind the War-on-Terror extrapolations in my near future science fiction.)

There are two separate tools in our arsenal to win back and extend our freedoms. And both are fronts that need to be pushed on. One is the nature of technology itself, and its tendency to grow cheaper and spread into more hands. The other is democracy.

In my friend Clive Thompson's wonderful book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, he talks about one of the big influences on Orwell's thinking in writing 1984: Joseph Stalin's manipulation of history.

Over the course of his rule of the USSR, Stalin purged millions of people. Among them were important Soviet officials who appeared in pictures with him. Stalin, not content with merely executing his former friends and underlings, wanted them out of history. So he employed a staff of photo editors who painstakingly retouched photographs to simply remove any evidence that these men (and occasionally women) had ever existed. You can see this in the example of his former chief inquisitor Nikolai Yezhov.

Or look at the set of pictures below. The first picture shows Stalin with Nikolai Antipov, Sergey Kirov, and Nikolay Shvernik. Then, one by one, as the men fall out of favor (and as they're killed) Stalin has them removed from the photograph, until only he is in it.

Stalin Rewrites History.jpg

This terrified Orwell. If a dictator can do this, he or she can re-write history. He could even re-write the present. He could lie to the people with impunity.

What Clive Thompson points out is that something very different has happened. It's actually become harder for governments to lie to the people, instead of easier.

In 2008, the media arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guard announced a successful launch of four Shahab-3 long-range missiles at the same time. These are missiles that can potentially take nuclear warheads, so this was considered a big deal. The announcement came with a photo of the launch.

Four Missiles Launched

The story and the image were carried by the Associated Press and ran on the front page of the New York Times, the LA Times, etc..

But within hours, people looking at the photo started to notice some oddities. Patterns of thrust and smoke in the photo seemed to repeat. It's not something I ever would have noticed. But if you're skilled with photoshop, perhaps you would have. The photo had been doctored.

Four Missiles Were Fake.jpg

And indeed, after all media sources had come to the conclusion that the photo had been doctored and that very likely only three missiles had been launched, an anonymous source provided a new photo. In this photo, there's a fourth missile launcher, siting there, apparently meant to launch its missile, but with a dud.

One Missile is a Dud.jpg

That, of course, led to some hilarious Photoshop mockery of the Iranian pictures.

What's happened here is that the technology isn't just in the hands of the state, or the super rich. Nor are the skills. Technology gets cheap, fast. At least digital technology does. And as it gets cheap, it gets into more and more hands. It brings additional skills and capabilities to a wider and wider set of people. And that in turn builds a defense against digital oppression by the state.

So let's bring it back to today. There are three trends in digital technology that are relevant to the current issues with state surveillance and state overreach.

1) Cheap Cameras - Sousveillance
David Brin is arguably the most vocal proponent of 'sousveillance', the people monitoring the authorities as the ultimate tool to prevent oppression. I don't see it as the whole of the solution. (I'm not willing to give up on privacy protection.) But it's a vital part of the solution.

And it has never been easier to monitor the authorities, particularly to monitor the police in their interactions with every day people. That, in turn, is a tremendously powerful tool against police abuse of power, something which happens all too often.

In the United States, you have the right to record both audio and video of on-duty police officers. Your recordings are protected from seizure by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In the UK, it's also fully legal to record on-duty police, and the Metropolitan Police have issued clear guidance that police can't interfere with such filming.

That doesn't mean that police officers won't try. In a case recently in Omaha, Nebraska, police officers brutalized a man, and then destroyed two cell phone cameras held by his brothers that recorded the interactions.

But what happened next was telling. Cameras are now so ubiquitous that it turns out the neighbor across the street, who the officers couldn't see, was also recording the interaction. That third video, which later surfaced, has led to the firing of four of those officers, criminal charges being filed against two of them, and civil charges against the city and 32 officers.

That's today. Cameras will just become more ubiquitous, smaller, harder to detect, with more data storage, meaning that they can be left recording for longer and longer periods of time. We're used to thinking of that as a threat against our privacy. But the technology, when expensive benefits the big players. The technology getting cheaper becomes distributed, benefiting the citizenry.

2) Crypto and Anonymity Blunt Surveillance Tools
One of the most interesting things in all of the many documents released of those taken by Edward Snowden was the revelation that the NSA had extremely little success penetrating Tor, a popular online anonymity system. An NSA presentation started with the slide below, proclaiming that, from their perspective, "Tor Stinks".

NSA - Tor Stinks.JPG

Now, I want to immediately put some caveats around this. What Tor does is encrypt and anonymize the traffic from point A to point B. What the NSA has never succeeded in doing is breaking any substantial amount of Tor traffic. The NSA still has many other tools up its sleeve. If it knows that John Q. Smith at 101 Willow Lane is a target, it has many potential ways to break into Mr. Smith's computer. And if, remarkably, Mr. Smith has completely secured his computer (including against zero-day vulnerabilities that the NSA purchases and which no one else has heard of), there's always the possibility that FBI or local police officers could simply enter the home on a 'sneak-and-peek' warrant. If one is already a suspect or a target, with a known location, anonymity is of only so much value.

But for everyone who is not yet a target, a tool such as Tor provides significant value. And we can see this by the numbers. Roughly 3 million people use Tor daily. The NSA documents suggest that they've never managed to de-anonymize more than a few handfuls of Tor accounts in a given a day. And even that, as the slide above shows, happens with manual analysis, not via automated methods.

I bring this up because there's a kind of privacy fatalism that I see in some corners, an attitude (explicit in the case of David Brin, of whom I'm both a fan and a friend) that we won't ever be able to stop government from gleaning the data it wants, so why try?

Yet security expert Bruce Schneier, who has seen the Snowden docs, says that encryption works, and offers a list of things you can do to secure your data. Edward Snowden also has said that encryption works.

For someone already under specific investigation, it's likely that very little will be effective. But what most of us fear, I think, is the widening dragnet that, with no real suspicion, can suck up large amounts of data about us. And the evidence is that encryption and anonymity tools are effective against the dragnet.

3) Information is Ever More Viral
Edward SnowdenCharlie wrote a great piece about the sociological problem facing intelligence agencies a while back. For Gen Y employees with greater focus on autonomy and less focus on organizational loyalty, leaking may come more easily.

And because one leaker out of an organization of tens of thousands can blow the lid off of behavior that (s)he finds unethical, leaking is a kind of asymmetric threat to those organizations. It's extremely difficult to combat. Any modern intelligence organization - in fact, any modern organization of any sort has to operate on the assumption that everything it does will one day become known.

That wasn't always true. And that, I think, has a tremendous potential to shift the landscape.

That's multiplied in impact by other qualities of information. Information is viral. It only takes one copy of it getting out to spread a contagion.

A generation ago, a leak the size of Snowden's would have been incredibly difficult. It would have been nearly impossible for him to search through millions of files to find the relevant documents, let alone copy and gather them without anyone being suspicious, let alone make his way out of the building with tens or hundreds of thousands (or evens millions) of pages of paper without being detected.

Could you even fly with that much paper on a commercial flight?

Now it's just data.

A generation ago, a government might have hoped to be able to find all the copies of the files and burn them. The process of making new copies would have been long and time consuming, slowing it down.

Now we see the spectacle of Guardian staff being forced to destroy their hard drives at the orders of the UK Prime Minister, and it may make you laugh or cry or shake your fist (or none of those) but at the end you know that it's a complete farce. That action accomplished nothing. The probability that the NSA or GCHQ ever finds and destroys all copies of the Snowden files is essentially zero.

For all that trends in technology point in several anti-authoritarian directions, they also point in authoritarian ones. We still see more cameras in public places. The movement of all vehicle license plates are near to being tracked. Phone calls, emails, text messages, web browsing sessions, GPS data, and so on are all being captured to some degree or another. Journalists are being harassed. Many of the technology directions I just pointed to could be squelched by aggressive governments as well.

We need legal changes to protect the rights of journalists (defined as broadly as possible) to do their work, the rights of everyone to speak out. We need legal changes to curtail the amount of information law enforcement and intelligence agencies can access prior to demonstrated probable cause and being issued a specific warrant for a specific person, number, or account. We need legal changes to force more transparency on the part of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and much more accountability when they overstep, including criminal sanctions for members of those organizations who act egregiously.

I'm not one of those who thinks we should abolish intelligence agencies. Far from it. They serve a valuable purpose. But they should be refocused on that purpose. The same is true of law enforcement. Police serve a vital role in society. Yet all power must be held in check.

Is it possible for us to actually act, as citizens in democracies, to curtail the power of intelligence and police agencies?

We've done it before.

Hoover.jpgIn the 1960s, the abuses of the FBI were many, many times worse than what we've seen from NSA or GCHQ today. Consider just one example. J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, had a personal dislike for Martin Luther King and for the Civil Rights movement. With the blessing of JFK (who was worried about King's Communist connections), Hoover had King's hotel rooms bugged by FBI agents.

In so doing, Hoover turned up evidence that Martin Luther King was having an affair. Seeing his chance, he tried to blackmail Martin Luther King into suicide.

Agents under Hoover sent King an anonymous letter, which included these excerpts:
Martin Luther King

King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes. White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don't have one at this time anywhere near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God... Clearly you don't believe in any personal moral principles.

King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do it (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significance). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.

Even reading this again now I'm still shocked by it. The Director of the FBI, with the assistance of his agents, tried to blackmail the leader of the US Civil Rights Movement into suicide. And that's just one of the many things Hoover did in his day.

To me, the Hoover FBI is the best case of why we need to staunch the NSA's power. Because a future Hoover wouldn't need to have agents place physical bugs in dozens of hotel rooms around the country. He'd only need to issue a few database queries to find all the evidence he wanted. And that is too much power too centralized.

But it's also telling what happened afterwards. In 1975, in the wake of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Hoover stint at the FBI, the US Senate saw the Church Committee, which created what is now known as FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which for the next 26 years severely constrained domestic surveillance in the United States.

It's possible. It took years and multiple major scandals to build the political will for it. But we did it once.

The FISA act was effectively gutted by 9/11, and then gutted again in law by the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. Most people respond to concrete events much more than to abstractions. The shock of 9/11 had a huge emotional effect that shoved the pendulum of liberty vs. state control far off to one side. Yet that emotional blow is clearly receding, or we wouldn't see the public response to the NSA revelations that we have. Every year that goes by without another 9/11, people find intrusions into their privacy more onerous.

I agree with the Electronic Frontier Foundation that what we need in the US is a new Church Committee. Something similar is needed in the UK.

For now, more is happening on the legal front than most people realize: President Obama has proposed a set of reforms, though I find these inadequate. Multiple alternative NSA reform bills are in committee in the US Congress, the author of the Patriot Act has stated publicly that the NSA abused it, the phone-spying provisions of the Patriot Act expire in 2015 if they're not actively renewed, a different Senator has sued the President and the heads of several intelligence agencies over NSA spying, and pledges to take it to the Supreme Court, and a Federal Judge has ruled much of the domestic spying program unconstitutional, setting up a higher court ruling, also possibly taking it to the Supreme Court.

More than half of Americans now believe the NSA has gone too far. That political swing is a direct result of the technological trends that made Snowden's massive leak possible, and thus enabled the week-by-week drumbeat of news that kept it on people's minds. Politics and technology interact and feed back on each other.

Will that be enough to drive change? We'll almost certainly get some change. The question is how much. I don't expect to get everything I'd like, not right away, but political change takes time. The pendulum that swung hard away from privacy with 9/11 now appears to be swinging back.

And every organization in the world must now be on notice - everything it does may eventually become known. If the people don't like it, they'll overturn it.


This'll be my last post here for the foreseeable future. I have to go off and finish the third Nexus novel to get it to my editor. It's been a pleasure. I was a fan of Charlie's for quite a long time before ever being a sci-fi writer myself, so it's an honor to be trusted with his blog. Thanks to Charlie, and thanks to all of you for tuning in.

And if you've enjoyed any of this, feel free to check out my novels Nexus and Crux, which deal with the technology to link minds together, and what happens when that technology is suppressed in a future version of the War-on-Terror / War-on-Drugs. Or just follow me on twitter @ramez.




As others have noted on their blogs, there are two other problems with a surveillance state.

One is that it leaks. I don't think the NSA thinks about what would happen if all their files became public, but history suggests that it often happens. They got nailed by the standard Washington problem that the coverup gets them nailed more thoroughly than the crime. For all the other surveillance states out there, the lesson of what happened in Germany after the STASI files were made public is also instructive. Secret and clandestine ops are actually a lot like hazardous waste--they cause damage long after they've been used and discarded (cf: STUXNET), they're a pain to clean up after they leak, and keep them from leaking is harder than the proponents think.

The second, bigger problem is false positives. It's something that was pounded into my head during multivariates stats class: if you start looking for correlation patterns in a data set and do it often enough, you will find patterns. However, your confidence that such patterns are real is close to zero. It's same thing humans do when the dots are stars and we're connecting the dots into constellations. Which patterns matter?

For the terrorist-hunting intelligence community, the problem becomes separating the real conspiracy from the mass of false patterns around it, and evidence strongly suggests that this isn't possible, especially if they're trying to predict a terrorist action. Rather, despite everything they've thrown at it, unmasking a conspiracy seems to be a black swan problem: the pattern can be studied after it's been unmasked, but it's effectively impossible to find it before it goes active, especially if only one or two people are involved.

It also worries me that the US is using traffic pattern analysis to target terrorists for drone strikes. I suspect we're going to find out that a lot of innocent people have died during the drone war, simply because they were standing near the wrong cell phone at the wrong time. I actually kind of hope it blows up in Obama's face, not because I'm a conservative, but because I'd hate to see the tactic spread beyond his administration.


The problem I have with such a mass surveillance state is not the invasion of privacy per se, but merely the sheer inefficiency of the thing. The head of the NSA now admits that their electronic dragnet has not nabbed a single terrorist in all the time it has existed; invasions of privacy aside this programme has cost billions which might have been put to much better use elsewhere, such as in healthcare or infrastructure.

Most crime is also not terroristic in nature; most crime is based around stupidity and poor policing. Were this electronic snoopery replaced by a policing system which at the very low end of criminal behaviour inflicted aversive punishments on minor criminals, then a fair amount of criminality would cease as we taught potential criminals that minor crime is painful.


Off-topic AFAIK neither Nexus nor Crux are available in dead tree in the UK? Pity, if so.


Off-topic AFAIK neither Nexus nor Crux are available in dead tree in the UK? Pity, if so.

They are available in paper in the UK, actually!




The second, bigger problem is false positives. It's something that was pounded into my head during multivariates stats class: if you start looking for correlation patterns in a data set and do it often enough, you will find patterns. However, your confidence that such patterns are real is close to zero. It's same thing humans do when the dots are stars and we're connecting the dots into constellations. Which patterns matter?

Indeed. And this means either one can't act on the basis of pattern matching alone, or that doing so will bring injustice to many innocents.


The problem I have with such a mass surveillance state is not the invasion of privacy per se, but merely the sheer inefficiency of the thing. The head of the NSA now admits that their electronic dragnet has not nabbed a single terrorist in all the time it has existed;

An excellent point. The cost in both dollars and in violation of civil liberties has come with, so far as we can tell, zero benefit in increased safety.


The second, bigger problem is false positives.

The biggest problem is that for the security apparatus, false positives aren't a problem. In fact, they're essential; there aren't nearly enough real terrorists to justify the existence of the national security state.

If they actually had perfect intel on every terrorist, they'd arrest all of them, maybe three a year, and that would be it. False positives make the threat look bigger than it is, which is extremely helpful in getting Congress to fund all sorts of career-making projects.


You were promised an oppressive cyberpunk dystopia.

I seem to recall being promised a hollowed-out, neo-third-world Detroit being policed by cyborgs. One out of two isn't bad.


"Every year that goes by without another 9/11..."

I certainly don't think 9/11 was an inside job, but I'm sure the more repressive & authoritarian factions in power aren't averse to some less spectacular false flag operations to keep the conservative public on-side.

That said, I do enjoy this kind of balanced optimism, it gives a little hope.

I'm now going to check out your books 'cause they look ace!


First - Ramez, you've been a terrific guest host, thank you and I look forward to reading your books soon!

Speed/priority/personal preference of info distribution are still factors. I would guess that part of NSA's problem is that they're assuming that all communications channel preferences are the same regardless of 'terrorist/threat' group. If the NSA is still not catching terrorists, it's because they're monitoring the wrong communications media. (I believe that one of the stories that came out about the Bin Laden capture was that Bin Laden and his circle relied primarily on one-to-one verbal, in-person communication. But who knows - maybe this group's Gen Y kids will move online.)


Ramez,thank you for citing David Brin. Even though it was written 15 tears ago, Brin's "The Transparent Society" remains, if anything, more relevant today.


Yes and no.

Yes, I agree that if the whole point of the War On Terror Industrial Complex is to cynically perpetuate itself at public expense, then false positives do look inflated. In fact, one could even argue that if the business of the Terror Industrial Complex is to cynically perpetuate itself at public expense (this would be the bad guys, if you're confused), then they can do a great job by sending out "chatter" on hoaxes like, oh, toothpaste and shoe bombs, just to get their street cred up, evaluate which parts of their network are compromised, and drum up more money from their supporters.

The problem with this as a business model is that it's unsustainable for the people paying for it, and as such it can crash quite suddenly when it becomes an unsupportable burden.


Ramez,thank you for citing David Brin. Even though it was written 15 tears ago, Brin's "The Transparent Society" remains, if anything, more relevant today

Indeed! The Transparent Society by David Brin is a wonderful and important book which anyone interested in this topic should read. I should have linked to it above. Here's a link now.

In the US:

In the UK:

I'm less willing to give up on privacy than David is. I want transparent government (to a great degree, but not absolute) with a great deal of privacy protection for citizens from government.

But regardless, I recommend the book. It's extremely thought provoking, and as Rick York says, it's even more relevant today than it was when it was published.


Err ... as a business model is that it's unsustainable for the people paying for it, and as such it can crash quite suddenly when it becomes an unsupportable burden. But this can be a VERY long time - as long as 42 years, as in 1948-90 in the case of the STASI. Do we really want to go though more than a whole generation of this rubbish? Better to trash it now, if we can.


" Indeed, the average person on Earth is more free today, in 2014, than he or she would have been in the actual year 1984."

Except the UK, for one. In my estimation our actual freedom peaked somwehere just pre-Thatcher. From there it has all been more restrictive week by week.


Strangely, our reality had congealed with not only the world changing fiction written from the two authors that have come, an early exit from Eton college--but with their lives. In true cosmic projection, the details of their very lives have been aligned, like the stars in the sky, with the fulfillment of the great prophesies of our Lord of Light, and his great mystery religions. Some will wonder what came first, if all this really is just a reverse engineered blame game... designed to save all or none, like has happened before.

Out of Eden, as it were, a quantum and prescient link between Orwell and Huxley forms on the face of the waters. And then, nearly a lifetime later, we finally begin to glimpse the greatness and care that has gone into our liberation from the tyranny of self.


But this can be a VERY long time - as long as 42 years, as in 1948-90 in the case of the STASI.

It can be a good deal longer. The Kim regime in N. Korea is 65 years old; the Tokugawa regime lasted 250 years or so. It's hard to fight paranoia from a political standpoint; the death mode for a paranoid regime that isn't disrupted by outsiders is usually long and dismal.


'Government' has been central in three key sectors for the longest time: warehousing and relay of information/education; mass and personal communication; and, money/finance. Therefore had the 'right' to monitor in these sectors. But previously, these sectors used different channels so generally ended up operating under different laws/rules. Because of this piecemeal/non-overlapping different houses approach, individuals and corporations could retain some privacy. Now that the Internet is the primary channel for these three key sectors, that is, all three sectors are essentially the same data stream, how do you figure to parse this out? Not sure, but I don't think there's a historical precedent.


60 years ago is 1954. The Jetsons were on TV in 1963, and flying cars were a routine part of the future in the '70s (Larry Niven's "Known Space" is full of them). Neuromancer is only 30 years old today, and earlier cyberpunk dystopias (like Stand on Zanzibar and Shockwave Rider) didn't really catch on... so I'd say if you're over 30, and certainly if you were over 40, you're still owed a flying car.


flying cars were a routine part of the future in the '70s (Larry Niven's "Known Space" is full of them).

As far as I can recall, almost all flying cars in Known Space were actually "flying taxis" -- controlled by the traffic computers, not by the riders. ARM agents could override these controls, but civilians could not.


Oh thank you for encouraging us with that data!


Indeed yes. The assumptions made in Kyle Marquis's tweet are arrant nonsense - he's talking out of his arse. Sadly it's been retweeted so many times it's taken on a life of its own, an example of the way that given a head start, a lie can outdistance the truth.

(Why yes, yes, I am peeved by falsehoods on the 'net.)


For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Ecclesiastes 1:18


It does sum up a change in thinking. But it is at the soundbite-level. That's what Tweets are.

Blade Runner, as a movie, has the flying cars and the urban dystopia, and that's almost enough on its own to demolish the tweet. There has been a change, but it wasn't any sort of sharp transition and it was later than we think. If anything, flying cars became an emblem of privilege and power and escape, rather than something everyone had.

And that guy born sixty years ago would have been the right age to see the Jetsons. And the space race. By the time of that movie, it was all over. Men had been to the Moon. There was the space plane, but there was a feeling that things had stalled.

You can point to the politics too, a sense that change was no longer really wanted. The change in SF was reflecting people such as Thatcher and Reagan. There was the microprocessor revolution. There was Apple.

That tweet is wrong in so many ways.

But sometimes it is worth printing the legend.


And my reply to that isn't even remotely printable in a family blog.

[Actually, it's typical of religious obscurantism & mysticism. Deliberately rejecting knowledege & understanding. Guck.]

26: 4 - Thanks from me (also?). For some reason an earlier MZN search only showed the "pile of dry sticks" edition.

To be brutally honest, we already have an equivalent of a flying car; the gyroplane. As aircraft go, it is about as forgiving as it is possible to get, as it is difficult to stall, will land almost vertically and lacks the horrendous complexity of helicopters.

Nobody much uses these vehicles, because even though they are nice to fly, you're still flying and to do so means you have a very steep learning curve to climb in order not to kill yourself in short order, let alone fly safely over built-up areas with passengers. Automation of controls can only go so far where aircraft are concerned; you still have to know an awful lot about weather, dynamics of how winds behave near the ground, and a whole host of other physical phenomena and regulations.

Fifty years of incremental improvements have made our roads fairly safe. "Fairly safe" in this case means "Doesn't kill or maim very many people", but this is the same population of drivers you are proposing to give the ability to fly to.

Please don't.

60 years ago is 1954. The Jetsons were on TV in 1963, and flying cars were a routine part of the future in the '70s (Larry Niven's "Known Space" is full of them). Neuromancer is only 30 years old today

Well, there is 10-25 years between birth and "were promised"... That's much more reasonable.

In any case, if the correct age limit is 45 rather than 60, it still works. It's a minor correction, not a fundamental error.


the death mode for a paranoid regime that isn't disrupted by outsiders is usually long and dismal

Not always. Lest we forget, Stalin's USSR -- famously paranoid -- decayed completely within less than fifty years of his dead.

I would speculate that the source of the decay in the case of the USSR was, paradoxically, the idealism and optimism at the core of the governing ideology. Communism was a messianic, utopian creed: then Lenin came along and decided to drag his people into utopia, kicking and screaming at the barrel of a gun if need be. Stalin, intelligent and paranoid, probably believed this: and believed himself the true guardian of the plan, and did what he believed necessary to push forward -- working hard to ignore the pyramids of skulls he was building. ("One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.") But the appeal of utopia is hard to resist. So naive idealists signed up, and then became tired, cynical, disillusioned functionaries who nevertheless hoped that something good could come of the tears in the end. As the cognitive dissonance mounted -- the rupture growing between what is and what should be -- gradually the paranoid regime subverted itself: and so in the end they elected a leader who was a lawyer and an administrator, rather than a revolutionary, and he tried desperately to deal with the mounting problems, and then the fiscal crisis triggered by the end of the Iran/Iraq war struck. Saudi Arabia opened the stopcocks on the oil, the price of gas dropped like a stone, the USSR's foreign exchange balance of payments blew out ... and while an earlier regime might have fired up the tanks and advanced into the Fulda Gap, Gorbachev apologized to the bundesbank and initiated the Soviet equivalent of an austerity budget -- cutting support to the Warsaw Pact.

And the rest is history.

To my way of thinking, the GDR and its Stasi only persisted as long as they did because of Soviet support. There was an anti-soviet uprising in East Germany in 1953; it was brutally suppressed. Once Soviet support was withdrawn, the regime collapsed rapidly.

And so it is with most tyrannies. It takes external circumstances to contribute to their longevity: North Korea is hemmed in between a hostile power to the south and China to the north, with a hermit ideology, hence its persistence. Iran ... is not a tyranny of this kind, in the same sense: it's a really complex system with multiple power centres, whose claim to legitimacy is partially based on ethnic politics and the actual no-shit insurgencies raging in some quarters of the former Persian Empire. The regime is paranoid and repressive because it fears (collectively) that its grip on the public imagination is fading. (I suspect the main reason Iran is still an Islamic Republic is George W. Bush and his excellent Mesopotamian adventure: nobody likes a foreign hegemonic imperial power.)


Lest we forget, Stalin's USSR -- famously paranoid -- decayed completely within less than fifty years of his dead.

I agree with much of what you said, but can't help noticing that the KGB (or whatever they're calling themselves now) is still in charge in Russia. That's where Putin came from, and seems to be his major power base.


Greg, I'm not religious. The quote was just a reminder that ever since the Bronze age, people have found that optimism is often based in ignorance, and knowledge brings an understanding of the limits and constraints on our actions.


Hmmm. I'd point out that there are really strong echoes of the old Korean hermit kingdom in modern North Korea. Similarly, there are some echoes of the old Tsarist regime in Stalin, and even now with Putin.

The Korean case is particularly interesting because Korea's always been in this messy relationship with Japan, and also in a useful, centuries-long "junior client" relationship with China, wherein the Korean rulers acknowledge China's paramount power, do some trading with China whenever they send delegates to pay homage to the Chinese leaders, and otherwise do their own thing behind their own closed borders. IIRC, this system is at least four hundred years old.

Now in this case, echoes don't mean that Stalin crowned himself Tsar or that North Korea runs on a strong Confucian model. Rather, they both have strong leaders, both have aristocrats/oligarchs under them whose competence at governance varies wildly, and both borrowed heavily from past institutions to make their systems work.

Can they fall apart quickly? Oh yes. The problem is that building democracies out of the rubble also turns out to be difficult, because there's no shadow democracy there ready to step in to make sure people get fed and have opportunities to make their lives better. I'd also point out that it's taken South Korea decades to become a real democracy, so even if the DMZ comes down, I wouldn't expect a reunified Korea to be fully functional for decades either. Even then, they're going to be haunted by the ghosts of kings, yangbans, and peasants past.


...the idealism and optimism at the core of the governing ideology... So naive idealists signed up, and then became tired, cynical, disillusioned functionaries...

Yes, this. One of the easiest, if over-simplified, ways to explain the Prague Spring of 1968 is that many people listened to what was promised and wanted it; Czechs actually set out to build a free, liberal, Communist utopia. This freaked out the functionaries in Moscow so much that Warsaw Pact militaries invaded their own ally.


ss Very true However, note the similarity to the idealistic, messianic religion that communism appears to have morphed into a funhouse mirror of? [ Or maybe was to start with? ] Look at the idealism there. And what did you get? The Auto-da-fe & Calvin's tyrranical police state. Charlie occasionally reminds us that the last execution murder by the church, for "atheism" in Britain was 18th January 1697.


flying cars

Some years ago I thought it would be nice to build an ultralight aircraft. At the time, in the USA, Federal regulations allowed small aircraft of carefully restricted specification to be built and flown with very little regulation.

Building the airplane would have been easy enough, but when I looked into actually flying it near where I lived, it got ugly.

Where someone might stand on the ground and look up and see open sky, a pilot sees interlocking restricted flight paths, no-fly zones, altitude restrictions... I lived near one side of a triangle of a major airport, a minor airport, and a major military base. Other than a few places, the entire visible sky was off-limits to an ultralight.

Took all the fun out of it, right here. Regulations have changed a lot since then, and there's GPS and lightweight radios now, but that area is probably still a black hole for ultralights.

There have been many "flying cars" built over the years, from "convertibles" where the wings folded up to ones where the "car" part was detached and the "plane" part towed behind. The size and weight of any of these would put them in a different FAA category, and subject to entirely different regulations, not the least of which is a pilot's license, which is, in my opinion, way more expensive than it ought to be. Plus FAA-mandated regular maintenance and overhauls from FAA-certified technicians and all the other expenses of operating a light aircraft... that new Mercedes is quite a bargain by comparison. And it can go through the drive-through at the liquor store.

And if you think those windmills are annoyingly noisy, rotors, propellers, or jet engines raise that to a whole new level...


Regarding the photograph of Stalin and co. There seems to be something wrong with the story that the photo was retouched to remove each man as they fell out of favour and were killed.

I thought it was very convenient that each man was positioned so that his image could be removed from the outside-in, as they died. So I went to wikipedia to get the chronology of their removal.

There's no entry for Antipov (presumably the man on Stalin's right) but gives: Nikolai K. Antipov (April 27, 1935 - June 21, 1937)

Sergei Kirov is the man on Stalin's left. He was assassinated by gunfire on 1 December 1934. There is a debate about Stalin's involvement.

Nikolai Shvernik survived Stalin's death in 1953 and lived until 1970. At the time of Stalin's death he was the titular president of the USSR. After Stalin's death, he was replaced as president but served in many high ranking offices in the Kruschev era, becoming a member of the Praesidium again in 1957.

So the sequence of images and the text suggest that the men were deleted in the order: Antipov, Shvernik, Kirov.

But they died in this order: Kirov, Antipov, Shvernik. And it doesn't seem that Shvernik ever fell out of Stalin's favour and was liquidated.

At the very least, I don't think there is a chronological sequence to the photos based on the removal of the men. Why delete Antipov and leave Kirov? If Stalin was involved in Kirov's killing, and covered it up (he was a pall-bearer, and praised ), why delete him later? The second image has Shvernik removed, but he seemed not to be out of Stalin's favour, and survived Antipov and Kirov (and Stalin) by decades.

Without more details of the provenance of the photos, I am not persuaded that this sequence of images represents the rewriting of history for the sinister reasons given.

They may have been cropped and retouched to fit a new aspect ratio. The last one looks like someone selected a flattering pose of Stalin and removed the context. Maybe for an iconic picture. Or a teacup.

I thought a better example of Soviet era history rewriting was the example of the replacement of the entry in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia of the Lauverntiy Beria by an article on the Bering Strait. Encyclopedia owners were sent the new pages and instructed to cut the old pages out. This instance was in the Krushchev period, but Wikipedia reports that the encyclopedia was frequently re-edited to match political preferences.

These pages:

show examples of Soviet photo retouching that are much better evidence for Orwellian revisionism. Some of the examples cannot be explained as changing aspect ratios or context removal. People (known to have fallen out of favour) are clearly deleted.



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This page contains a single entry by Ramez Naam published on February 21, 2014 3:00 PM.

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