David Brin talks sousveillance

Paul Raven @ 23-05-2011

Still got a lot of metaphorical balls in the air here, so continued quietness will be the norm for a few more days. In the meantime, here’s Ben Goertzel interviewing David Brin at H+ Magazine; regular readers will know that I’m very interested in Brin’s “Transparent Society” ideas, and sousveillance is the subject matter at hand. Snip:

Brin: Essentially, this is the greatest of all human experiments.  In theory… sousveillance should eventually equilibrate into a situation where people (for their own sakes and because they believe in the Golden Rule, and because they will be caught if they violate it) eagerly and fiercely zoom in upon areas where others might be conniving or scheming or cheating or pursuing grossly-harmful deluded paths…

… while looking away when none of these dangers apply. A socially sanctioned discretion based on “none of my business” and leaving each other alone… because you’ll want that other person to be your ally next time, when YOU are the one saying “make that guy leave me alone!”

That is where it should wind up.  If we’re capable of calm, or rationality and acting in our own self-interest.  It is stylishly cynical for most people to guffaw, at this point and assume this is a fairy tale. I can just hear some readers muttering “Humans aren’t like that!”

Well, maybe not. But I have seen plenty of evidence that we are now more like that than our ancestors ever imagined they could be.  The goal may not be attainable.  But we’ve already taken strides in that direction.

Goertzel: Hmmmm….  I definitely see this “best of both worlds” scenario as one possible attractor that a sousveillant society could fall into, but not necessarily the only one.  I suppose we could also have convergence to other, very different attractors, for instance ones in which there really is no privacy because endless spying has become the culture; and ones in which uneasy middle-grounds between surveillance and sousveillance arise, with companies and other organizations enforcing cultures of mutual overwhelming sousveillance among their employees or members.

Just as the current set of technologies has led to a variety of different cultural “attractors” in different places, based on complex reasons.

Brin: This is essentially my point. The old attractor states are immensely powerful.  Remember that 99% of post agricultural societies had no freedom because the oligarchs wanted it that way and they controlled the information flows.  That kind of feudal-aristocratic, top-down dominance always looms, ready to take over.  In fact, I think so-called Culture War is essentially an effort to discredit the “smartypants” intellectual elites who might challenge authoritarian/oligarchic attractor states, in favor of others that are based upon calm reason.

The odds have always been against the Enlightenment methodology – the core technique underlying our markets, democracy and science – called Reciprocal Accountability. On the other hand, sousveillance is nothing more or less than the final reification of that methodology.  Look, I want sousveillance primarily because it will end forever the threat of top-down tyranny.  But the core question you are zeroing in on, here, is a very smart one – could the cure be worse than the disease?

It’s also the sort of question that could only be answered one way: by trying it out. Obviously a global roll-out is never going to happen, but this is the sort of thing a small nimble post-geographical state – Iceland, I’m looking at you! – could pilot quite easily. My argument in favour is that the technology of surveillance isn’t going away, and if the choice is undersight or oversight, I’m going with undersight every time.

Interestingly enough, I tend to find that the people who argue in favour of panopticon surveillance with the tired and demonstrably false canard “if you’re doing nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to fear!” are completely unwilling to apply the same reasoning to being surveilled by their fellow citizens. Guessing the reasons why that might be so are left as an exercise for the reader. 🙂

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2 Responses to “David Brin talks sousveillance”

  1. Athena Andreadis says:

    “Sousveillance” was operative through most of humanity’s history by virtue of living in small communities where everyone’s business was known and rumors flew at the speed of sound. Only people whose views and mindsets are limited to fifties US suburbs would think this is a novel concept.

  2. Stephen J. says:

    “Reciprocal Accountability” sounds great, until you realize that its one big problem is: who enforces it?

    If each is expected to enforce it for himself, you have anarchy. If an organized minority enforces it for everyone, you have rule of law while they’re pure and dictatorship when they become corrupt. If all are expected out of self-interest to cooperatively enforce it against any violator, you run into the “Who’s First?!” problem if all members of the group are rational enough to realize costs won’t be evenly distributed, and the “mob justice” problem if they aren’t.

    People who favour surveillance over sousveillance need not be would-be dictators. They simply need to be people who prefer that if they must be monitored sometimes, the people doing so be detached impersonal professionals who can (in principle) be replaced via some kind of legal procedure, rather than fellow citizens with all their personal grudges, biases and ineptitudes, who can’t. In the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, the vast majority of accusations were made not by clergy or nobles but by the victims’ fellow citizens.