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. 🙂


Today’s Tomorrows, 2011 edition

Paul Raven @ 04-01-2011

Apologies to Brenda for re-using the title of her column, but it’s the start of the year… and despite most of us knowing that dates (and indeed time itself) are relative, we tend to take that as an opportunity to step ourselves out of the temporal flow for a few days and take a look both backward and forward. Of course, looking backward and forward (with a side-serving of sideways) is our daily bread here at Futurismic, but it’s nice to feel like the rest of the world’s playing along, you know? 🙂

So why not pop over to The Guardian, where a collection of clever folk make twenty predictions about the next 25 years? Some are no-brainers (“Rivals will take greater risks against the US” – that’s more of a trend than a prediction, really), some seem a little naively optimistic (“The popular revolt against bankers will become impossible to resist” – I’d love to see it happen but doubt we will, at least here in the UK), and some are reheated versions of classic cyberpunk transhumanism, suddenly made mundane and plausible in the face of unprecedented technological advancement (“We’ll be able to plug information streams directly into the cortex”).

They all mark what, to me, is one of the most interesting social shifts of the last year or two: namely the sudden widespread acceptance of speculative thinking in mainstream media. Sure, it’s always been there, but it seems more ubiquitous now. Strange how we had to wait until the future was all around us before we started thinking hard about what shape it would be, no?

Speaking of speculative thinking, the BBC got in on the game back in December, picking apart some old (and largely failed) predictions from the 70s and quizzing present-day “futurologists” (which I maintain is a horrible noun) about how they do their work. David Brin’s response suggests that I’ve at least got the basic methodology sussed out:

“The top method is simply to stay keenly attuned to trends in the laboratories and research centres around the world, taking note of even things that seem impractical or useless,” says Brin.

“You then ask yourself: ‘What if they found a way to do that thing ten thousand times as quickly/powerfully/well? What if someone weaponised it? Monopolised it? Or commercialised it, enabling millions of people to do this new thing, routinely? What would society look like, if everybody took this new thing for granted?'”

That’s pretty much the query-set that sits in my forebrain as I drink from the RSS firehose each morning… 🙂

And last but not least, it wouldn’t be early January without Chairman Bruce and Jon Lebkowsky taking the virtual podium at The WELL for their annual State Of The World discussion. Hell knows there’s plenty to talk about, right?

While Futurismic is no WELL (and I’m surely no Bruce Sterling, much to my own disappointment), I like the format they use there: like phone-in talk radio, but text based. So I’d like to take this opportunity to remind regular Futurismic heads that the contact page is always open – if you’ve seen something you think we should be talking about, or just have your own take on a story we’ve looked at already, then by all means drop me a line and let me know.


David Brin guestblogging at Sentient Developments this week

Paul Raven @ 24-03-2009

David BrinThis week, transhumanist blogger George Dvorsky’s site Sentient Developments plays host to no less a science fiction luminary than David Brin as guest blogger. Says Dvorsky:

David will be writing about biological uplift, the Singularity, Active SETI (messages to extraterrestrial intelligences), and how a transparent society might work to help us mitigate catastrophic risks.

Topics that should be of some interest to Futurismic regulars, then; I file David Brin among the group of authors and thinkers with whom I don’t always agree, but who never fail to challenge my thinking.

Dvorsky has taken the time to provide a reading list around Brin’s first topic, namely biological uplift, and that first post is ready to read as I type. Here’s a snippet:

1. Can we replicate – in other creatures or in AI – the stunning way that Homo sapiens outstripped the needs of mere hunter-gathering, to reach levels of mentation that can take us to other planets and invent symphonies and possibly destroy the world? That was one hell of a leap! In Earth I speculated about half a dozen quirky things that might explain that vast overshoot in ability. In my next novel Existence I speculate on a dozen more.

In truth, we just don’t know. I frankly think it may be harder than it looks.

Go read. [Brin portrait from Wikimedia Commons]


Transparency bites – Brin blasts back

Paul Raven @ 12-03-2008

transparent-train-carriage Wired has given David Brin some rebuttal space to defend his Transparent Society concept in response to Bruce Schneier’s recent criticisms (as covered earlier here on Futurismic):

“How did we get the freedom we already have, becoming the first civilization in history to (somewhat) defy ancient patterns? Yes, it’s imperfect, always under threat. We swim against hard currents of human nature. But reciprocal accountability is the innovation that lets us even try.

Schneier claims that The Transparent Society doesn’t address “the inherent value of privacy.” But several chapters do, and I conclude that privacy is an inherent human need, too important to leave in the hands of state elites, who are themselves following ornate information-control rules written by other elites — rules, by the way, that never work. (Robert Heinlein said “‘privacy laws’ only make the bugs smaller.”)”

Going back and reading Schneier’s piece again, it does seem like he’s arguing a similar point from a different direction – they’re both opposed to top-heavy hierarchies of control. It would be great if Wired could arrange some sort of formal public debate between Schneier and Brin – the topic has never been more relevant, after all, and as Cory Doctorow points out, talking about these issues is the best way to ensure things don’t get any worse. [image by David de Groot]