Scott Adams’ transparent burbclave

Paul Raven @ 17-03-2011

Via SlashDot, here’s a provocative post from Scott “Dilbert” Adams where he contemplates the costs of privacy, by trying to imagine a sort of gated community where you surrender a lot of privacy in exchange for living in more affordable, safe and efficient environment. It’s like a hybrid of David Brin’s Transparent Society and Neal Stephenson’s burbclaves… and given how certain sections of the US seem to be reading Snow Crash as a manual of statecraft rather than a dystopian warning, maybe Noprivacyville isn’t as ludicrous as you’d initially imagine.

Although you would never live in a city without privacy, I think that if one could save 30% on basic living expenses, and live in a relatively crime-free area, plenty of volunteers would come forward.

Let’s assume that residents of this city agree to get “chipped” so their locations are always known. Everyone’s online activities are also tracked, as are all purchases, and so on. We’ll have to assume this hypothetical city exists in the not-so-distant future when technology can handle everything I’m about to describe.

This city of no privacy wouldn’t need much of a police force because no criminal would agree to live in such a monitored situation. And let’s assume you have to have a chip to enter the city at all. The few crooks that might make the mistake of opting in would be easy to round up. If anything big went down, you could contract with neighboring towns to get SWAT support in emergency situations.

You wouldn’t need police to catch speeders. Cars would automatically report the speed and location of every driver.  That sucks, you say, because you usually speed, and you like it. But consider that speed limits in this hypothetical town would be much higher than normal because every car would be aware of the location of every other car, every child, and every pet. Accidents could be nearly eliminated.

Healthcare costs might plunge with the elimination of privacy. For example, your pill container would monitor whether you took your prescription pills on schedule. I understand that noncompliance of doctor-ordered dosing is a huge problem, especially with older folks.

Interesting to see Adams factoring in one inevitable outcome of a transparent society, wherein things that we’re obliged to keep secret become a much smaller deal once it’s clear to see that they’re actually quite common; I’ve talked about this in relation to today’s teenagers and their propensity for publicly displaying their transgressions of “acceptable” behaviour, but Adams uses it to highlight health insurance issues as well:

Employment would seem problematic in this world of no privacy. You assume that no employer would hire someone who has risky lifestyle preferences, or DNA that suggests major health problems. But I’ll bet employers would learn that everyone has issues of one kind or another, so hiring a qualified candidate who might later become ill will look like a good deal. And on the plus side, employers would rarely hire someone who had a bad employment record, as that information would not be as hidden as it is today. Bad workers would end up voluntarily moving out of the city to find work. Imagine a world where your coworkers are competent. You might need a lack of privacy to get to that happy situation.

Just to be clear, I’m not holding up Adams’ hypothetical city as some sort of ideal or exemplar that I’d want to live in (and I’m not sure that Adams is trying to do that either), but he’s raising some interesting points about the power of transparency to fix prices and squelch certain social ills. However, implicit in Noprivacyville is some sort of panopticon governance system; your basic choices there are rhizomatic or hierarchical, which would make for very different living experiences and degrees of personal involvement with the politics of your new city-state.

I’m sure someone will tell me how I’m totally wrong about this, but I’m convinced we’ll see experiments of both sorts in the relatively near future as the nation-state model continues to collapse under its own structural weight. As Adams says, plenty of people would see Noprivacyville as a worthwhile exchange; how long they’d retain that opinion, however, is very much an open question.

Recycling the Pacific Trash Vortex into an island

Paul Raven @ 15-07-2010

I don’t know whether or not Kay Kenyon heard about this before writing her Shine anthology story “Castoff World”, but if not, the similarities are uncanny. A Dutch firm of architects have proposed a project to turn the Pacific Trash Vortex into a habitable (and indeed arable) sea-worthy island, simply by recycling in situ all the plasticky crap that’s already there [via SlashDot]:

The Pacific Ocean trash dump is twice the size of Texas, or the size of Spain combined with France.  The Pacific Vortex as it is sometimes called, is made up of four million tons of Plastic.  Cleaning it up is going to cost a lot of money and require a great deal of either scooping up the plastic and shipping it back to shore, or some sort of onsite recycling for building something like Recycled Island.

One of the three major aims of the project is to clean up the floating trash by recycling it on site.  Two, the project would create new land for sustainable habitation complete with its own food sources and energy sources.  Lastly, Recycled Island is to be a sea worthy island.


Further aspects of the island would be: the creation of “fertile ground” from compost toilets.  The island would also be non-polluting, using natural resources.  Recycled Island would be 10,000 Km2 or the size of Hawaii’s main island.  It would be self-sustaining and not dependant on other countries.  The urban housing would be designed for future climate refugees. These are very lofty goals but if carried out, Recycled Island would turn the trash into a money making enterprise rather than an economic sink hole.

Hmmm… an ideal candidate for city-state status, then. But any nation-state along the edge of the Pacific is going to be a bit uneasy about a recycled island that can move itself around at will, and which isn’t dependent on anyone for anything. Compare and contrast to The Raft from Snow Crash: with the latter, refugees want to invade, assimilate themselves; on the other hand, a self-sufficient pirate island will attract away your own malcontents, weaken your authority.

Recycled Island is a great idea from a technological perspective, but the geopolitics are too horrifying to contemplate. Think of the way Antarctica is being scrabbled over, thanks to its oil reserves; the very same economic pressures and scarcities will eventually make a huge lump of plastic floating in the sea look like a natural resource well worth exploiting. But then, that might mean invading a moving country populated entirely by people displaced by climate change… so I wouldn’t plan for your invasion being a cakewalk if they’ve decided they want to stay.

New Athens? The Bay Area as city-state

Paul Raven @ 15-07-2010

Continuing economic woes in California… which puts the state on a par with the rest of the world, if nothing else, but hey-ho. So, what to do? Futurist Paul Saffo steps up to the punditry plate to suggest hiving off the Bay Area as an independent city-state [via Bruce Sterling]:

In an age when nations have become so large that their citizens no longer identify with distant governments, city-states are political units large enough to have a global economic impact but small enough for even the most casual citizen to understand the relationships that make their city-state work. Politicians are local and thus more inclined to pragmatism and constructive action. Businesses understand that their fortunes are tied to the success of the local community. This balance between effect and size and the tendency toward social cohesion make contemporary city-states like Singapore and Hong Kong bright spots in an uncertain global economy.


City-states have pragmatic governments. Pragmatism grows up from the local level, where decisionmakers witness the consequences of their decisions in their own backyards. Bay Area cities may be in considerable pain, but cities like San Jose started facing up to their problems years before Sacramento got serious, and towns like San Carlos have been proactive in attempts to re-engineer services (the city recently outsourced its police department). The Bay Area might not resemble Singapore with its highly disciplined government ministries, but our local governmental bodies have shown remarkable foresight in creating regional bodies like BART, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to achieve pragmatic long-term goals. City-states also have awkward relationships with their neighbors. Malaysia still resents Singapore’s independence and success, and Hong Kong citizens regularly oppose policies imposed on it by Beijing’s central government. The Bay Area hasn’t experienced this sort of tension with Sacramento, or other California regions, but it is time to do so. Tension would signal that the Bay Area is finally acting as a single body when it comes to looking out for its vital interests.

I’ve been waffling about the return to the city-state model for years now… whether that makes me smarter than I thought (or makes Saffo an uniformed loon, or both) is an open question. The real obvious downside of a shift in that direction would be the increase of nationalist rhetoric that the new identity would bring with it… but seeing as how economic hardship tends to boost nationalism anyway, you might as well take the economic benefits as well, right?

[ Addendum – The name and ideas rang a Pavlovian bell, and a quick search revealed that Saffo has previous: he’s the guy who gave the American economic model “five decades to live” back in 2007. I wonder if he’s shortened that expected life-span by now? I’m a lot less skeptical of it this time round. ]

Nation-state gives way to city-state?

Paul Raven @ 08-06-2010

More future politics, courtesy SlashDot: excerpts from a speech by John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (and former Grateful Dead songsmith), in which he states that the mechanics of national government in the US is failing because it’s swamped by too much data, and that a move back to the city-state model may be on the cards:

“The political system is broken partly because of Internet,” Barlow said. “It’s made it impossible to govern anything the size of the nation-state. We’re going back to the city-state. The nation-state is ungovernably information-rich.”


Barlow also said that President Barack Obama’s election, driven largely by small donations, has fundamentally changed American politics. He said a similar bottom-up structure is needed for governing as well.

“It’s not the second coming, everything won’t get better overnight, but that made it possible to see a future where it wasn’t simply a matter of money to define who won these things,” Barlow said. “The government could finally start belonging to people eventually.”


“There is a circle of fat around the Beltway that is incredibly thick” Barlow said. “We can no longer try to run this country from the center. We’ve got to run it, just like the Internet, from the edges.”

I expect Barlow’s quintessential hippie credentials will invalidate his ideas for some, but I think he’s on to something here. I’m no mathematician, but I suspect that the resources needed to maintain centralised control of any system will rise exponentially in proportion to the complexity and size of said system; in effect, we’re trying to run huge nations using software that can’t scale up effectively enough to cope.

However, I’m not naive enough to think that governments will be keen to devolve into federations of city-states; large systems gain a sort of momentum, and develop subroutines to protect their integrity and position of control. But perhaps the economic phase shift that some pundits are saying is just round the corner will leave them with little choice; at some point, it may simply be the path of least resistance (not to mention least resource expenditure) to let small communities hive off and self-manage within the loose framework of a (global? continental?) federal constitution. As Barlow points out, we have the technology to make such a world possible; it’s the lock-in compatibility issues of the current socio-politicall operating system that will prevent such a change from happening.

Related: responding to the UK government’s sudden embracing of transparency, Aditya Chakrabortty at The Guardian wonders whether it’s going to do as much good as its advocates hope:

Who could be against see-through government? After all, it feels so democratic and bipartisan (civil servants privately admit that they had already prepared the pay document for former Labour minister Liam Byrne), and it feels so modish and internet-friendly. But the mistake that is being made here is assuming that merely pumping out information is an end in itself, which doesn’t require context or any consideration of what it’s in aid of.

That might sound odd coming from a journalist, but it’s an argument that’s gaining traction in other quarters too. Last year, the American legal scholar Larry Lessig wrote an essay called Against Transparency. It made precisely the opposite case that you might expect from a stalwart of the transparency movement. In the face of all Barack Obama’s promises of greater openness, Lessig argued that more and more information released “unqualified or unrestrained by other considerations” would be harmful both to political debate and in the end to the ability of government to get things done (the example he used was campaign donations).

[ We talked about the Lessig article here at the time. ]

Beyond the bash-the-public-sector headlines, all this transparency is most helpful to those who are already able and willing to use it – that is, with the internet connections and time to sift through all the data. And, researchers have found, those tend to be the same relatively well-off and highly educated people who are already pretty well served by the public sector. As Tobias Escher at Oxford University puts it: “You end up giving more of a voice to those who already have pretty good representation.

There’s also another concern, namely the sizeable number of people who simply don’t care to find out how their government works, though one might argue that they’ve dug their own hole. But the point remains – transparency isn’t going to be a panacea to the problems of large-scale nation-state governance. If anything, it’s just providing greater amounts of evidence for the underlying problem: a system too large and complex for anyone to fully understand, let alone begin to fix. That said, I’d rather the data was available than not, even if it’s analysed primarily for pillorying the public sector for headline-worthy misdemeanours (while more complex but fundamental issues are ignored because they lack a narrative hook or easy non-partisan explanation).

The times, they are a-changin’