Friday, January 09, 2015

Omniveillance and Ubiquitous Law Enforcement

I will comment soon about the tragedy in Paris, where we lived for a couple of years, back in the 1990s. I'll have some yin-yang, big-picture perspectives.  But first...

From Orwell to Vinge, authors have long suggested that technology might empower future tyrants.  Indeed, it goes back further, to (for example) the tech-driven cat and mouse struggles between Czarist secret police and underground rebel cells.  Indeed cypher-and-surveillance tussles have been ageless.

But Vernor Vinge made clear that omni-veillance – and (as I show in Sundiver and The Transparent Society) the possible arrival of genuine lie detectors and personality testers – may take us into the era of “ubiquitous law enforcement.”

At which point, we still don't have Big Brother.  For that to happen - or indeed, to avoid him forever - one basic choice must be made.

== The Problem of technological-social control ==

To set the problem in its most-modern perspective, let me recommend an interesting article, Ai Weiwei is Living in Our Future by Hans de Zwart, about the onrushing age of surveillance. Take this excerpt:

It is not only the government who is following us and trying to influence our behavior. In fact, it is the standard business model of the Internet. Our behaviour on the Internet is nearly always mediated by a third party. Facebook and WhatsApp sit between you and your best friend, Spotify sits between you and BeyoncĂ©, Netflix sits between you and Breaking Bad and Amazon sits between you and however many Shades of Grey. The biggest commercial intermediary is Google who by now decides, among other things how I walk from the station to the theatre, in which way I will treat the symptoms of my cold, whether an email I’ve sent to somebody else should be marked as spam, where best I can book a hotel, and whether or not I have an appointment next week Thursday.”

Or this: after describing how Disney tracks patrons by RFID… and folks track their pets and kids… 

“If your child is ignoring your calls and doesn’t reply to your texts, you can use the ‘Ignore no more’ app. It will lock your child’s phone until they call you back.”

The author does one of the best jobs I have seen, at conveying the rapid advance of commercially available surveillance and nosy sites like Tindr and Grindr. 

“It should be clear by now that it is only a matter of time before the storage and power technologies have advanced far enough to continuously film everything and to store it forever.”

This piece is thoroughly-prepared, rich with examples from around the world and vivid illustrations.

== We’d all love to see your plan… ==

Alas, things start declining in Mr. de Zwart’s article as soon as he cites Dave Eggers’s book The Circle, (which I reviewed earlier), without mentioning that it plays with a very, very heavily loaded deck. For a writer who just finished telling us about casinos, this lapse of attention is pretty unforgivable. 

De Zwart goes on to cite me and Kevin Kelly and the notion that citizens might retain freedom, escaping such traps by exposing them and looking back at power. Which is — ironically — exactly what Hans de Zwart tries to achieve with his article. 

Ponder that, a moment. His aim in writing the piece was to shine light on dangerous trends, with a presumed goal of altering the course of affairs, thereby. How is that ironic? Because Mr. De Zwart then turns around to say:

“With the inescapable number of cameras and other sensors in the public space they will soon have the means to enforce absolute compliance. I am therefore not a strong believer in the ‘sousveillance’ and ‘coveillance’ discourse. I think we need to solve this problem in another way.”

Truly? Having spent all that time, trying to achieve exactly what Kelly and I recommend, by shining your own light at problems and eliciting greater citizen awareness? After all that effort to shine light on power, now you are about to suggest we all turn away from sousveillance and awareness and try something else?

Well, well, please elaborate! We are interested in your solution. Or — as Jon Stewart often croons, leaning forward with chin in hand: “Go on!”

Sigh and alack, it is always thus. At the end of these jeremiads, they fall apart.

After many pages of cogent alarums, de Zwart lightly and blithely cites Nasim Taleb’s call for social resilience — a theme that I have pushed far longer than Taleb — and basically concludes:

“Yeah… that’s the ticket. Let’s all be resilient!”

Um. Thanks. Yes. And breathe air. And rely on gravity.

But do read the article! Just don’t count on getting any answers at the end. Kevin and I at least have a suggestion. It happens to be precisely the method that got us the freedom we now have, to read and ponder essays like Mr. de Zwart’s… and his own freedom to write them.

Indeed, it is precisely the method Mr. de Zwart attempts to use, in this fascinating (read for the details!) but ultimately disappointing piece. 

== Again from the Transparency Front ==

Yet more evidence that hiding is not the best approach: U.S. Postal Service 'mail imaging' program used for law enforcement, surveillance. The metadata recording thing applies to snail-mail too, evidently. All mail gets its picture taken and stored for later perusal. As with phones, a warrant is required to see the contents, but not to see the outer edges.  And you plan to stop this... how? The irony, if you pass a law to keep elites from snooping, that law only works if you are truly free and the elites are already accountable enough to obey laws. 

Otherwise, they just chuckle and pretend to obey the "law." Accountability is a prerequisite for privacy laws to work.  And you only get accountability from... transparency.

Oh, let's finish with some miscellany: here’s a first scientific report showing that body cameras can prevent unacceptable use-of-force.

Look up one of the most important and heroic organizations on the planet that is fighting for transparency and accountability — the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.  Look at the amazing things they are doing and the uphill battle that we face, in preventing a worldwide dive into crime-based feudalism.  Get on their mailing list. Even that helps.


Anonymous said...

Why does humanity want to be a hive mind when it grows up?
Is it feasible to suppress free thought? Arthur C Clarke's brain cap computer interfaces are coming up at some point. Putting a camera everywhere to keep the public from doing anything other than work will help the owner class exactly how? I thought consumer spending was the cornerstone of the economy?

Alfred Differ said...

Suppress free thought and you'll see this wonderful market collapse. Some could arrange to benefit from that, but I'm doubtful they'd get enough support to create feasible, scalable solutions for pulling it off.

The cameras won't keep us working. They will keep us working on creative solutions for useful illusions of working. 8)

Jumper said...

Once the gun nuts put 2 and 2 together the camera problem will go away for a while.

locumranch said...

Omni-surveillance is yet another example of Corporatism extending its dominance over the body politic, its purpose being to instill fear, stifle dissent and ensure a full-day's labour from the employee class.

The West's descent into Corporatism is undeniable: Our primary & secondary schools are worker indoctrination centres, more concerned with teaching what-to-think than how-to-think; our universities are little more than management training programs (with the possible exception of STEM); Social Security & Medicare are employee pension analogues; Fannie & Freddie Mae mortgage providers are the Company Store & Company Housing rolled into one whose purpose is to keep the employee class debt-ridden and therefore amenable to endless labour; Medicaid and/or MediCal (which provide benefits for an impoverished service class) have been transformed into cut-rate employee healthcare providers for corporate giants like Walmart; the so-called Protestant Work Ethic (Methodism in practice, really) is a religion specifically designed to increase worker productivity(1); and the federal government (which once represented the best interests of the polity) now serves to perpetuate a wage slavery culture as evidenced by its preoccupation with keeping unemployment low & employees lower.

As an antidote to Employer Omni-surveillance, the idea of Transparency (and/or 'reciprocal accountability') is nonsensical because it assumes unrealistic employer/employee equality. Can a wage slave challenge the decisions of his master? Can a low-level employee set company policy? Does the average Walmart peon, or the Microsoft key-puncher, command the Walton family and/or Bills Gates?

Of course not!! The very idea is patently absurd because there can be no such thing as 'reciprocity' in the face of Almighty Corporate Power and the manifest presence of worker inequality & wage slavery.

Resistance is futile, so you best 'Keep your mouth shut' or you may lose your job-income-status-car-family-home, and wind up living on the street, begging for offal, until the militarized corporate police come to deprive you of your previously-known level of (haha) freedom and throw you into prison where you'll be COMPELLED to work (2) for pennies to the enrichment of your government, nation & corporate overlords.

In the face of such monumental inequality and powerlessness, only a hopeless ROMANTIC would idealise Transparency to such a ridiculous extent.

(1) Methodism in America:

(2) Prison Labor in the USA:

David Brin said...

Never, ever, ever will he look at himself as an example of epiphenomena of liberty that was earned by those very same universities and the very same transparency-based accountability systems at which he sniffs.

Laurent Weppe said...

"Can a wage slave challenge the decisions of his master? Can a low-level employee set company policy? Does the average Walmart peon, or the Microsoft key-puncher, command the Walton family and/or Bills Gates?"

No, but a labor union pissed enough can, and will twist the owner class' arms... unless they're outright banned, in which case you'll end with a Jacquerie down the line.

Tacitus2 said...

I have been staying out of the last couple of discussions because, to be frank, they bore me.

But locumranch's last post caught my eye.

Once or twice when OGH has been a little over the top rhetorically I have declared it "Isomeric Brin Day" and written a well heated post in my best comedic imitation of Brin in full lather. DIG IT!

David has been a reasonably fair sport about this.

It looks to me as if my friend LarryHart has declared it Isomeric Locumranch Day and refashioned his thoughts on Corporations in the stylings of locumranch, a patois that I personally had considered quite literally inimitable!

If so I say, "Well done Sir!".


Jumper said...

I have gained some accountability powers, while losing others. I now cultivate an email record of everything at work. I have begun secretly recording things my landlord says. (It's legal in my state.) Cops are slowly being made aware they can be caught more easily when they break laws, when recorded.

I have lost a lot also. Newspapers can now be changed; photos are not on film, online records mutable. I can't mail diamonds (luckily I don't need to), formerly the safest means of transport. I can't carry business secrets on a laptop through customs or be guaranteed that common encryption standards are really uncrackable.
I think soon the government, and shortly thereafter anyone, will be able to watch me make love. I can practically hear the voices telling me not to worry; I'm lost in the crowd.

LarryHart said...


Omni-surveillance is yet another example of Corporatism extending its dominance over the body politic, its purpose being to instill fear, stifle dissent and ensure a full-day's labour from the employee class.

Believe it or not, I'm right there with you on the dangers of corporate rule.

But I'm mystified by your assertion (in a previous post) that corporatocracy is the Blue State Agenda being inflicted upon Red-Staters. Seems to me that Republicans are the ones producing the legislation and court decisions which make such things possible.

Sure, Democrats don't fight against it as hard as they should, but that isn't the same thing as it being their agenda in the first place.

LarryHart said...


t looks to me as if my friend LarryHart has declared it Isomeric Locumranch Day and refashioned his thoughts on Corporations in the stylings of locumranch, a patois that I personally had considered quite literally inimitable!

Not on purpose, in fact I'm not quite sure exactly what you're referring to. If you mean the discussion on Three Laws of Corporatics, that one goes back many years here on this blog. Every once in a while, Dr Brin re-links to older posts about Ayn Rand and the "300" movie. One of those (pretty sure it's the Ayn Rand one) is where that discussion began.

LarryHart said...


Omni-surveillance is yet another example of Corporatism extending its dominance over the body politic, its purpose being to instill fear, stifle dissent and ensure a full-day's labour from the employee class.

While I already agreed with part of this, I disagree with the idea that the motivation is "a full day's labour". I'm specifically thinking of Kurt Vonnegut describing his older socialist uncle telling him that the purpose of the penal system is to force the underclass to work. But by the 1980s, Vonnegut himself was already counter-arguing that the corporatists didn't need most people to work any more. Thus, the purpose of the penal system had become a way to segregate and warehouse the vast army of non-essentials before they could assert their rights and dignity as human beings, not to force them to work.

Not that that's any better.

Tacitus2 said...


Just having a bit of fun with the fact -as you have also observed - that locum is at present largely agreeing with you.

Sorry for levity gone astray....


Paul451 said...

Off-topic and from the last post:

"Please, listen to what I'm saying, not to what you think I'm saying."

Only if you do the same. I said: "Sometimes accidentally, due to a poorly worded order." I'm not just saying that "robots can be ordered to lie", I'm saying that "Prove you are not a robot" is such an order.

You are insisting that a robot facing the instruction "Prove you are not a robot" could only interpret that in a strict mathematical sense of the proof: Ie, "Prove 1 = 2". (Which you can do, btw. But it too involves lying. Mathematically speaking.)

Instead there are three possible solutions:
1) Reject the order as impossible.
2) Halt and catch fire.
3) Interpret the order as an order to lie.

The robots in Asimov's stories typically didn't react to logical impossibilities by simply rejecting the order or exploding/failing (1&2). They reacted by becoming creative in their interpretation (3).

For example, Little Lost Robot is ordered to "Get Lost" and interprets this to allow it to lie to humans and pretend to be a different robot. (It didn't mimic a human, it mimicked other robots. But the same principle applied. Basically, "Prove you are not what you are". Since "you are not what you are" is an impossible statement, "prove" is interpreted by the robot as "pretend", hence "lie".)

Similarly, Stephen Byerley (too-perfect politician who is a suspected robot-in-disguise) is demanded to "Prove you are not a robot", does so by punching the person making the demand (violating the 1st Law, thus proving he is not a robot). Susan Calvin notes that a robot could obey both the First Law and the order if the "person" punched was also just a robot.

In other words, if you give a robot a self-contradicting and thus impossible order such as "Prove you are not a robot", most of the robots in Asimov's stories would interpret it as an order to lie.

Paul451 said...

Q. Prove 1 = 2.

A. Let non-zero integers x = y

Multiply both sides by x

x^2 = xy

Subtract y^2 from both sides

x^2 - y^2 = xy - y^2

Factorise both sides

(x+y)(x-y) = y(x-y)

Divide both sides by (x-y)

x+y = y

Subst x = y (as in step one)

y+y = y,

Hence 2y = y

Divide both sides by y

2 = 1

QED - "The thing required to be shown" :)

Anonymous said...

If x=y, you can't divide by x-y.

Anonymous said...

Quantum theorists divide by Zero all the time

LarryHart said...


For example, Little Lost Robot is ordered to "Get Lost" and interprets this to allow it to lie to humans and pretend to be a different robot. (It didn't mimic a human, it mimicked other robots. But the same principle applied. Basically, "Prove you are not what you are". Since "you are not what you are" is an impossible statement, "prove" is interpreted by the robot as "pretend", hence "lie".)

Similarly, Stephen Byerley (too-perfect politician who is a suspected robot-in-disguise) is demanded to "Prove you are not a robot", does so by punching the person making the demand (violating the 1st Law, thus proving he is not a robot). Susan Calvin notes that a robot could obey both the First Law and the order if the "person" punched was also just a robot.

I realize I'm being incredibly nit-picky here, but in both cases you cite, the robot's goal was to convince others of a falsehood, not to prove the falsehood.

I don't deny that a robot could play the "catchpa" game and therefore meet the requirements allowing it to post.


1) It could not prove that it is not a robot. Because it is a robot. In this case, the order is not "Convince people that you're not a robot." It's the explicit and unambigouos "Prove you are not a robot." Not much wiggle room that I can see.

I'm not speculating on what exactly would happen to the robot afterwards if it had the Second Law to contend with, just pointing out that there would be consequences.


(Separate from the Asimov thing)

If the robot in question was a sentient being, or even if it was programmed to act as if it were sentient, it might have its "feelings" hurt at the implicit notion that "getting the answer correct" is proof of not being a robot. Or that being a robot is something negative in the first place.

LarryHart said...


Q. Prove 1 = 2.


Similarly, you can "prove" by induction that any collection of marbles must all be the same color. Any set of 1 marbles is "all the same color". And if any set of n-1 marbles must all be the same color, then so must any set of n marbles (because "these four" must be the same color, and "these other four" must also be all the same color, so the entire set of five must be).

The "proof" conveniently ignores the step that fails when n=2.

Point being, constructing a proof that includes a logical fallacy does not constitute "proving". Not in my book anyway.

LarryHart said...


"If x=y, you can't divide by x-y."

Quantum theorists divide by Zero all the time

Nonetheless, the fact remains that:

x * 0 = y * 0

does NOT logically lead to the conclusion that x = y.

It looks as if it does, but it doesn't.

LarryHart said...


For example, Little Lost Robot is ordered to "Get Lost" and interprets this to allow it to lie to humans and pretend to be a different robot. (It didn't mimic a human, it mimicked other robots. But the same principle applied. Basically, "Prove you are not what you are". Since "you are not what you are" is an impossible statement, "prove" is interpreted by the robot as "pretend", hence "lie".)

The robot was ordered to get lost. I'd say the imperative was not even so much to lie, but to hide. Sure, the robot did so by pretending to be something he is not* , but that was his own tactic--it wasn't the direct nature of the order.

* And actually, he didn't so much "pretend to be something he isn't" (an impossibility), but "appear indistinguishable from those unlike him in order to be anonymous in the crowd." Which is getting further away from "Prove an impossible thing."

BTW, I hope you realize that I'm continuing this argument only because it's a fun source of speculation.

locumranch said...

I freely admit that I am a fortunate example of 'the epiphenomena of liberty', a product of those very same universities and the very same transparency-based accountability systems lionised by David, but unlike others, I also recognise that we (and I include myself) represent exceptions (Black Swan events, as it were) rather than the rule, proving the statistically unlikely nature of social success in a growing era of social dysfunction.

And, although we all now enjoy an exceptional standard of living (paid for by borrowing from the future, achieved at great environmental cost) and managed to educate ourselves (aided by and perhaps despite an increasingly petrified educational system), we do ourselves a great disservice to assume that the 'good times' bubble will last forever without a pop.

Statistics paint a much less pleasant picture: A vanishing small percentage of our eminently civilized population is engaged in anything resembling meaningful labour; the Middle Class hasn't been 'diamond-shaped' for decades and is almost gone; employment stats hide the fact that menial service jobs now predominate; the Dependency-to-worker ratio approaches 30% and is expected to exceed 50% in just 15 years; and less than 1% of the US population is involved in food production (0.5% in healthcare) and these numbers are set to plummet in less than 10 years. Even writers & authors inferior to David are an extreme rarity -- the blackest of the black swans--representing less than 0.004% of the total US population.

That said, I agree with Larry about both higher education AND prisons as they both represent supply-side labour reservoirs that serve to create a labour overabundance that suppresses wages; I agree with Laurent about the need for militant unionization if we ever hope to reverse this trend (assuming we acknowledge that union success is inexorably tied to the fate of the Middle Class); and I even agree with David when he naysays Red Rural moral superiority as long as he concedes the same in regard to Blue Urban morality (because neither preference can be said to be 'superior' to any other).

Our society faces very real and imminent problems that cannot be well served by baseless optimism, wishful thinking & self-delusion.


Rocky said...

I wonder if mass surveillance and even sousveillance would result in emergence of mass psychological phenomena? If culture war becomes psychopathic... okay okay more psychopathic.

Ioan said...


Long time lurker, first time poster. Thought you guys would enjoy this comment about the police slowdown in NYC and an impact of sousveillance. Note that I am not its author

"My spouse did witness some regular bullshit last week. A person in a car was having a seizure ( hitting the horn from his grand mal). Spouse pulled person out of car, got them on the ground. Other people began to assemble, call 911, offer first aid. Eventually, one citizen began directing traffic around the incident.

Cops watching in a parked squad car did nothing. Not even when people walked over and asked them to help. Nothing.

It was only when the bystanders whipped out camera phones to document that cops doing nothing that they *reluctantly* got out and came over.

Same shit, different day."

On another topic, I've noticed that you have praised China for their newfound interest in science fiction. Same with Latin America. I have noticed that few sites seem to mention science fiction from Africa.

I have not read much science fiction set on that continent. However, I have found this great article which recommends science fiction authors from said continent. If this is not the best place to post this information, I'm open to suggestions.

Jumper said...

31 percent of all U.S. households, or an estimated 36 million households, participated in food gardening in 2008. Just saying.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dear Loan (odd name),

Thanks for the article on African sci-fi. Are you familiar with Michael Resnick? He lived in Kenya for many years and wrote an African-themed novel called "Kirinyaga: A Fable of Utopia." It's the only thing I have read by him, but I found it enjoyable. Most of the stories take place on an asteroid, where someone is trying to recreate his notion of an unspoiled, pre-Colonial Kenya. Not an action-packed thriller, but very interesting.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

It's kind of funny how loci, who seems to want to self-identify with the REDs, has gone so far to the right he ended up on the left. The idea that corporations are taking over has been a real leftie battle cry for decades now, while the right-wingers deny it on the one hand and play bait-and-switch, riling up anger over "social issues" like gay marriage, prayer in school or the war on Christmas, while their leaders steal the whole country from its citizens.

It just shows that it doesn't pay to pigeon-hole people, including ourselves. We are individuals, no matter how hard we try to conform to our stereotypes, we inevitably have our own, individual perspectives on all things.

I laughed when he wrote that the Red and Blue states will have to divide into separate polities, while claiming to love democracy. When everyone within a democracy thinks and votes exactly the same way, it is democracy in name only. If the bobbleheads all bobble down to the polls and bubble in exactly the same things on their ballots (whether they are Limbaugh bobbleheads or Huffington bobbleheads), then the results of every election will be a foregone conclusion, like when Stalin was unanimously reelected for every term. A democracy is not democratic if everyone is exactly alike, all meme clones saying and thinking exactly the same things. Nor is it democracy when a majority social group uses its majority to run roughshod of the rights of minorities, what Mary Renault referred to as the tyranny of the majority. If we accept that we are humans, meaning quirky individuals (some quirkier than others) and give up on the eternal label-maker, we can have real democracy.

On the suppression of wages, the politics has tended to focus on jobs largely because when people are unemployed, they are desperate and make a lot of noise. People who are working enough to pay the bills but not making as much as they would like are less noisy. But the suppression of wages probably has less to do with politics than the law of supply and demand. Put simply, the more labor there is on the market, the less they will get paid. This is a function of population. The more babies we have, the less money they will be able to make when they are old enough to work. Ehrlich's population bomb is the kind of bomb that explodes slowly, because it is not lobbed by one enemy. A cartoon character whose name escapes me once famously said, "I have seen the enemy, and they are us." Okay, I'm paraphrasing here.

Ioan said...

Dear Paul Shen-Brown,

Thank you for the story.

PS: The name is Ioan (with an I, not an L). It is the Romanian translation of the name Johh. It is similar to how Jan is the Dutch version and Giovanni is the Italian version. It's my middle name. Don't worry, no offense taken.

PPS: It's pronounced E1 or E-o-n, in case you're curious.

Ioan said...

Sorry, that should be John, not Johh. This should teach me to be more careful in checking my post before submitting.

David Brin said...

loan hello and thanks for speaking up. You appear to be our type of person. Insights and links are welcome. Especially the African SF bit.

locum does not even consider the possibility that ego - a frantic desire to inflate his own sense of exceptionalism and uniqueness - might be a compelling drive behind his contempt for the masses. Sure, in some ways he clearly is above average and more aware than the sheep around him. But frantic exceptionalism can be just as blinding as the conformist pablum that he sneers at the masses for imbibing. Just as drug-like and difficult to escape…

… especially since exceptionalism is THE main propaganda message in mass media and books. Flattering the viewer and reader that “YOU are better than the sheep! YOU can SEE the conformist plots!!”

LarryHart said...

@Paul Shen-Brown,

The cartoon character you are thinking of is Pogo, and I believe the line is "We have met the enemy, and it is us."

But the suppression of wages probably has less to do with politics than the law of supply and demand. Put simply, the more labor there is on the market, the less they will get paid.

That's all true. However, in a first-world technological society which is already devaluing human labor, you'd think the means of survival and even some of the means of comfort would be avaiable to all as part of the commons. One should not need to earn a living--literally earn one's right to live--by the value of one's physical labor if the system doesn't require that much physical labor to begin with.

Increased productivity should free us from slavery and drudgery. That should not equate to "freedom" from earning a living.

The rugged individualists claim that poverty is a condition of not being willing to work enough to support oneself. That attitude conveniently ignores the fact that most of the means of survival is already considered to be someone else's property--that it is not sufficient to work for a living, but one must convince the owners of food and energy that one is worth money to them. That's not a consequence of nature, but a very specific social structure.

Duncan Cairncross said...

"But the suppression of wages probably has less to do with politics than the law of supply and demand."

Here I disagree - when we had strong unions and a "connected" voting public the the concentrated power of the "owners" was balanced (to a certain extent)

Only after the unions were broken and the public mislead could the "owners" force wages down

It was NOT supply and demand as much as a power in-balance

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dear Ioan,

I took a couple linguistics classes in college, and I found it quite fascinating how names change from language to language. Thanks for the explanation. The Spanish Juan sounds much closer to the English, while the Greek Yannis sounds so different it stretches the imagination. Yours sounds almost half-way between the Greek and English, if I am saying it right.

Larry, when I tapped that out this morning, I kept thinking the character was called Togo, but I knew it couldn't be right. I hadn't read Pogo since I was a kid. It sounds like what you are saying here is that the transition to an information economy, one that heavily emphasizes brain work & technological skills over mindless drudgery, should result in a much more evenly distributed pie. I would be inclined to agree, except that food still needs to be produced, textiles and hardware manufactured, so while some of us, mainly in a handful of countries, are able to benefit from the information economy, there are still going to be huge sweatshops in the poorer nations manufacturing our physical needs and material desires. Even if 3-d printing takes off to heights as lofty as Star Trek, someone will still have to dig out the raw materials.

Duncan, I actually agree with you on the labor unions, the breaking of which was a very political and propagandistic act. I'm not really an infrastructural determinist at heart, but I strongly suspect that humans will hit a carry capacity we cannot get around with technological solutions. I also strongly suspect that K will have less to do with food and more to do with the fundamental psychological makeup of the species - the Ratopolis problem.

On that cheery note ...

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Carrying capacity, not carry capacity! I can try to pass the blame to my fingers.

Tacitus2 said...

The original version was "We have met the enemy and they are ours". Oliver Hazard Perry after his naval victory on Lake Erie during the War of 1812.

Pogo was a brilliant satire for its day. Dr. Brin's next post is hinted to be on the perils and promise of satire.


Ioan said...

This will probably be the last post on my name. I doubt the other posters are really interested in this topic.

Basically, Romanian is a Romance language. However, the area was part of the Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire, and has German and Slavic speaking neighbors. This might have something to do with the sounds.

As for the question of unions vs. supply and demand, I do think that globalization has been ignored in this debate. Don't get me wrong, sending jobs overseas has so far been the most effective way for the standard of living of the rest of the world to catch up to us. Even if the benefits massively outweigh the cost, I do think that wage suppression is a cost. Furthermore, I do think that outsourcing would not have been anywhere as successful if unions hadn't been gutted. They would have done everything they could to gut IT.

How to undo the concentration of wealth at the global top within the top without jeopardizing the rise of the global bottom?

locumranch said...

Capable of distorting almost everything, it's amazing how resilient the Blue Urban perspective can be, especially since my point about Black Swan exceptionalism was populist to the extreme, but I will try to spell it out in a more succinct fashion.

Exceptional individuals are outliers by definition: They cannot be said to 'represent' the mean; they cannot be said to speak for mean; they cannot be said to be either better or worse than the mean; and their actions, abilities and belief systems, by virtue of being exceptional, cannot be generalized to describe the mean.

Such a misunderstanding is understandable, however, when one considers how the Blue Urban agenda is so inherently elitist, egotistical, self-serving and self-absorbed:

"We are morally superior," the Blues pompously assert, "because we are much more educated, intelligent, sophisticated, enlightened and urbane than the average non-urban yokel, meaning that we feel entitled to shove our values, opinions & beliefs down everyone else's throat".

By definition, 'exceptionalism' sets an individual apart, and that apartness largely disqualifies us (exceptional individuals) from trying to lead, assuming what's best for, and dictating terms to others, unless we expect those unexceptional others to do the same in return, in spades, putting us first against the wall when the revolution comes.


Stick around Ioan. You views are welcome here.

Paul451 said...

"It's the explicit and unambigouos "Prove you are not a robot." Not much wiggle room that I can see."

In the case of Stephen Byerley, the order was quite literally "Prove you're not a robot". And his proof was also unambiguous... (except for the loophole Susan Calvin found.)

Beyond that, as I said, you're insisting on a mathematical definition of "prove" that is an artificial constraint. Such pedantic literalism isn't implied by the instruction, nor a reasonable reading of how Asimovian robots interpret orders. (However, it would be perfectly Asimovian for the robot in trying to obey the order, especially a simpler robot, to become queered by the paradox. For example, in order to strictly obey the letter of the order it might suddenly believe that it's human and wander around performing a childish parody of human behaviour.)

However, if you insist on a pedantic solution:

1. The instruction is "Please prove you're not a robot", note that "please" softens the order. Below it, you have the less ambiguous "I'm not a robot". And below that, the completely unambiguous order: "Choose an identity".

2. The check-box for "I'm not a robot" proves a clear indication of the method being requested by the soft order to "Please prove you're not a robot", while the much firmer instruction "Choose an identity" is giving the robot permission to mimic by calling identity a choice.

3. The robot would therefore obey the instruction to "choose an identity" so that it allows the robot to obey the order to "Please prove you're not a robot", by simply accepting the suggested identity, "I'm not a robot".

Paul451 said...

Re: 2 = 1

As I said, that proof also requires a lie.

greg byshenk said...

A slightly belated comment on the previous discussion...

Larry Hart noted:
A different (though not contradictory) way of looking at it is that urban living requires reliance on specialized systems for the necessities of life. You're not completely separate from your neighbors' concerns when you're counting on those neighbors (and they're counting on you) to provide food, water, heat, and sewage removal.

I'd suggest that what makes the difference is that it is very difficult to pretend that you're not relying on your neighbors. The number of truly self-sufficient people, even in rural areas, is tiny. But in the city it's hard even to pretend that one is.

Tony Fisk said...

Re: proving that 2=1.

Your powers of deception and trickery are bewildering, child.

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Dwayne Summerfield said...

Though not mentioned in the summary, The First Immortal explores privacy and monitoring. Great novel!

David Brin said...

Wow. Real grist for discussion — and a choice piece of well-named counter-propaganda. To highlight the negative impacts of anti-technology initiatives, ITIF (the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation) is presenting the 2014 Luddite Awards, a Top Ten List of the “worst of the worst” from the past year. Please vote on what you believe is the most egregious anti-innovation action/proposal of the year, and for more details on each action/proposal see the ITIF report "The 2014 ITIF Luddite Awards". The "winner" will be announced on February 5.

Paul451 said...

From the main post:

"And you plan to stop this... how? The irony, if you pass a law to keep elites from snooping, that law only works if you are truly free and the elites are already accountable enough to obey laws."

You criticised Hans de Zwart for not providing answers, but your comments on surveillance regularly do the same thing. I think it's unintentional, I know that you believe that souveillance/reciprocal-accountability/watching-back is more important than fighting surveillance. (You specifically state here that laws against surveillance are worthless without reciprocal accountability. Ie, if you can't see Them, you have no way to regulate Their actions, attempting to do so just pushes Them further into the dark.) But your emphasis on the inevitable failure of fighting surveillance is much greater than your suggestions of solutions.

The result is that even if you are merely trying to convince those fighting against government/corporate surveillance to focus on reciprocal accountability, the way it's written comes across as Locumranchian smug cynical fatalism: "You can't win, stupid, just give up."

There's a huge difference between saying "One day you will die, so seize the day" and "One day you die, why bother".

[I before E except after C... and V... and S... and H...]

David Brin said...

Paul451 your comment puzzles me. I am always coming forward with very specific examples of sousveillance measures that would increase our confidence in the application of accountability upon elites, in all directions.

Paul451 said...

You quite literally wrote the book. I'm saying that your blog posts often emphasise the inevitability of the failure of controlling surveillance, in a way that seems fatalistic.

"This won't work" rather than "this would only work if..."

Just a perception thing. Not a claim about what you believe.

David Brin said...

I get that there are times - Paul - when I moderate my general line with a softer one.

Defying folks to name one time when elites ever allowed themselves to be blinded, I only rarely get the right response, which is "Us!" Right now, occasionally, we can force some elites not to look. But hardly anyone ever says that! Because the reflex is to assume we are in a dark age.

When someone DOES point that out, I show that yes, it can happen, but only when the elite in question is thoroughly tamed and held accountable.

But it boils down to the same thing. Reciprocal accountability is the only thing that possibly CAN work. I never offered guarantees that it WILL.

LarryHart said...


In the case of Stephen Byerley, the order was quite literally "Prove you're not a robot". And his proof was also unambiguous... (except for the loophole Susan Calvin found.)

Hmmmm, I can't recall now whether a robot is constrained to take orders from another robot. If not, then "Please prove you are not a robot" wouldn't have any force of "law" at all, as long as it's just printing on a website.

So let's focus on the other half of my speculation.

Forget Asimov for the moment. Just imagine a sentient robot of the type depicted in "Existence", for example. What would he think when presented with an admonition to "Prove you are not a robot"?

Would it bother him that "not being a robot" is apparently a precondition to posting a response?

And would he shed a tear or give a mirthful smirk at the thought that "getting the answer correct" is supposed to constitute such a proof?

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Ioan, your comments are insightful, and even if they seem off-topic, you never know when something you say might strike a chord with somebody else. Feel free to communicate. A blog is just a conversation, and conversations tend to meander. I know I have gone off topic, as have others. If no one is interested, they just won't comment on your posts. Also, I would bet that a lot of people here are fans of Babylon 5 and are aware that some of the actors on that show were from Romania, so perhaps that might garner some interest.

On Romance languages, people usually think of Italian, Spanish & French, but many don't know about Romanian and also Romansch, which is spoken in some parts of Switzerland. But no language is ever pure. What of the people who lived there before the Romans? Surely some of their language must have survived. I had a history professor who explained that almost 1/3rd of English words come from French by way of William the Conqueror, not enough to qualify it as a Romance language,but English still contains vocabulary from before the Romans. I have always wondered how the language of the Celt Iberians might have influenced modern Spanish, for instance, or what remnants of Etruscan linger in modern Italian. Is there any element of Magyar in Romanian? Magyar is part of that odd Uralic language group that is dispersed in isolated regions of Europe, making it a bit of a puzzle. I'll confess, though, that some of my interest grows out of a childhood love of Franz Liszt, a famous musical neighbor. He was actually from a German family, though, so not so close to Romania.

locumranch said...

Did everyone notice that small exchange between David & Paul?

By admitting that reciprocal accountability "can happen but only when the elite in question is thoroughly tamed and held accountable", David experiences a brief moment of lucidity, admits that reciprocal transparency is a function of tyranny by mass unexceptionalism, (then) relapses to his elite technocratic stance and forgets that history tends to relegate elite exceptionalism to guillotines, gulags, box cars and killing fields, especially when those elites try to saddle and ride the reactionary populist tiger.

Remember Danton!! And, never forget that those despicable Luddites were elite guildsmen, artisans and unionists.


matthew said...

Locumranch, if "reciprocal transparency is a function of tyranny by mass unexceptionalism" then what is the mechanism of that tyranny? Is knowing what your local city council is planning to do with property taxes in five years tyranny? Is knowing who was the winning bidder in a government contract tyranny? Is democracy tyranny to you?

I know that you like to make etymological arguments to the point of absurdity, so here is an etymological question to you. How do you define "tyranny?" Also, how do you define "reciprocal transparency?" Because I do not think that these words mean what you think they mean.

locumranch said...

Matthew asks some rather excellent questions and, in response, I would say that some ideas compound well but others do not.

Being a prerequisite for democracy, I am a big fan of informational transparency because the polity would not, could not and cannot make informed decisions without accurate information and, most certainly, I'm also a big fan of reciprocity for the same reason because (as David says) it's presence is absolutely necessary for any type of fair & balanced competition.

That said, no amount of reciprocity and/or transparency (even to an infinite degree) is any guarentee of accountability because accountability, defined as a state of being 'held responsible' and/or liable, implies inescapable consequence which (as defined) implies the cruel, harsh, unreasonable and oppressive application of power.

For without this tyrannical possibility -- the oppressive, cruel, harsh and unreasonable application of holding someone or something 'to account' -- the term 'reciprocal accountability' is (in essence) a nonsensically meaningless statement that signifies nothing.


A.F. Rey said...

The "cruel, harsh, unreasonable and oppressive application of power" is inescapable in human society, much like surveillance.

Each human has the capacity to inflict power on nature or other humans. Nothing can stop it. Likewise, humans can group together and inflict their power on smaller or less-well-armed groups. It's a fact of nature.

So the only question is who do we authorize to use this power, either to enforce rules (which would otherwise be useless without the threat of punishment) or to oppose the power of others.

But you can't escape the "cruel, harsh, unreasonable and oppressive application of power," even if you decry its use. Because then the other guy will simply use such power on you, to which you cannot morally respond to. It's a win-win--for him. :)

sociotard said...

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A.F. Rey said...

Yep, and Marco Rubio is now the chairman of the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard subcommittee and James Inhofe is chairman of Environment and Public Works committee.

The foxes have taken over the henhouse.

David Brin said...

Even when he calms down and doesn't strawman... as in the very latest posting, locum is utterly illogical.

"The "cruel, harsh, unreasonable and oppressive application of power" is inescapable in human society, much like surveillance."

if transparency leads to sousveilance => reciprocal accountability and enforced limitations on the oppressive power of elites... then locum's only complaint is that those limitations have to be "cruel, harsh, unreasonable"

Um... if society DEEMS actions to be "cruel, harsh, unreasonable" and always CATCHES such actions... and deters them, then where are the "cruel, harsh, unreasonable" actions going to happen?

Is all deterrence "cruel, harsh, unreasonable"? Huh. Seems to me that most scandinavian countries have been striving hard to treat even murderers far more gently than before.

Illogical, always and forever.

Ioan said...

Dear Paul Shen-Brown,

Thank you. I know that the region was inhabited by people called Dacians before the Romans came, but I don't know enough history to say what extent Dacian words survive in Romanian. That would be like asking how many Gallic words survive in French, or how many words from pre-Roman England survive?

As for Babylon 5, who's exactly from Romania? I know that the actress who played Delenn was from Croatia and the actress who played Lyta was from (I think) Slovakia, but I'm not aware of Romanians on the show (yes, I am a fan of it).

As for the debate on reciprocal accountability, to paraphrase Charles Stross, both sides of the debate are assuming perfectly spherical, frictionless cows.

I think that the effectiveness of reciprocal accountability would vary too much based on local conditions (not just Red vs. Blue states) to describe in anything other than VERY generalized terms.

Alfred Differ said...

...(Our host) forgets that history tends to relegate elite exceptionalism to guillotines, gulags, box cars and killing fields, especially when those elites try to saddle and ride the reactionary populist tiger.

Heh. I have to smile at that considering his past comments about tumbrels and how I had to go look up that word to add it to my vocabulary.

David hasn't forgotten this. Quite the opposite.

locumranch said...

This is what David forgets: That one elite is much like any another; that the exceptional individual is 'deviant' (and therefore "bad") by definition; and that exceptionalism is anathema to democratic principles.

More on 'Unexceptionalism' later. Plus apologies to AF Rey as his/her words have been mistakenly attributed to lil' ol' me.


Jumper said...

Guessing this means even if the powerful are seen to be doing wrong, they have the power and will just continue. True, the precedent for how this is overturned is in the history of unions or the French Revolution, or any revolution you might name, but that gets complicated fast. (Mao, Pol Pot?)

Common law is a ballast; not to be sneezed at, but it can take forms which appall Westerners. Such as insistence by Saudis that decapitation for witchcraft simply must continue.

Oh, well, no conclusions.

Ioan, I'm no linguist but I do like to learn roots of language I use myself. And occasionally others. I was looking for the Arabic word for "crescent" just the other day. Interesting. I'll leave it as an exercise.

Jumper said...

I don't think it's democracy that won't tolerate exceptionalism; it's something in the times we live in. ("No child gets ahead.") My dad's generation revered the image of Thomas Edison, as one exceptional man, and while we learn he had feet of clay, (thus I say "image") that image at the time was not disparaged.

Paul Shen-Brown said...


Since I am not a linguist, I can only be curious. I don't remember much about the Dacians except that they were an Indo-European offshoot, their language related to the Thracians, neighbors of the Greeks to the northeast. When I was in college my school hired a linguist and I took too classes before the she was driven away. The university paid her a higher starting salary than some old, tenured male professors, who tried to sue for reverse discrimination. The stereotype is that all professors are flaming liberals, but reality and stereotype are not as closely related as some people think. I would have taken more, but even though the old curmudgeons lost the suit, they made life pretty hostile - hostile enough to leave the country completely.

I was told that Mira Furlan, the actress who played Delenn, was from Romania, but I never fact-checked it. Oh well!

Spherical, frictionless cows? That sounds like the extremes in any debate. Look at locum's insistence on a cityslicker conspiracy theory. If you put things in vague enough terms and assume that you have all the pieces, you can justify any position you want. He assumes that whatever he has experienced is universal and should be obvious to everyone who isn't childishly naive.

Both of my parents came from rural, small towns - one from Alabama the other the Netherlands. Their views were worlds apart, in spite of sharing their rural roots. The culture had more to do with their mentality than any rural/urban divide. Likewise the Red/Blue divide, which isn't really isometric with the rural/urban divide. the rural population just isn't big enough to account for all those Republican votes. I grew up in a city of just a quarter million, most of whom were extreme right-wingers (and my home town has always had an extremely high rate of both sex- and hate-crimes), but now live in an urban area of over 10 million. I have coworkers who regularly tell me that the president should be lynched. Most of the history teachers tell the students that climate change is a hoax every year.

American culture has some ugly stereotypes, and their stereotypes of rural people are no less reprehensible than any other. Ditto the South. If an American wants to make the voice of a stupid person, they usually put on a Southern accent. An education professor I had once was from Tennessee, accent and all, and he was sharp as a whip.

But a collection of small-minded people with vicious stereotypes do not a conspiracy make. Spherical frictionless cows, all around.

Ioan said...

I don't know enough about Dacians to comment further on them.

As for spherical frictionless cows, whatever the merit of the rest of the views, I think you misunderstand the definition.

I'll give an example (I'm strawmanning David's position here to make a point):

Reciprocal accountability means that both the elites and the rest of the people can keep each other accountable, assuming all other things are equal (in other words, spherical frictionless cows). Even if the technology exists and can be used in most places, there will still be places where watching the elites would not be possible. Perhaps most people can't afford the technology? There could be threats of cultural ostracism (Romanian culture frowns on being anything less than VERY polite to priests, for instance. The thought that they could use the technology to check the priests wouldn't cross some people's minds, even if they could). Would these stop reciprocal accountability? No. But they introduce friction which could hurt a lot of people.

Apologies if my point is less than clear, I'm rushed right now with work. I'll get back to this when I have more time.

David Brin said...

Ioan I have never said the elites won't still have advantages, amidst transparency accountability.

But transparency accountability will limit the SIZE of their plots and schemes. It will limit the number of henchmen they can employ, while worrying about generous whistle blower laws, plus the fact that their brightest children will often defect to enter the arts or sciences.

Ioan said...


I agree. I mentioned that I was strawmanning your views, after all.

The original point I was making was that the size of their plots, number of henchmenm, etc. would vary by region. Thus, attempts by people to argue how different scenarios would play out ignore the fact that there will probably be more than one solution, some of them probably horrible in terms of liberties.

Hence, my use of spherical, frictionless cows. That's the only situation where such wide variations won't exist in my opinion.

Perhaps I was unclear earlier?

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Ioan said...


I was rushing a bit and I never answered the last part of your question.

There is a Hungarian and German minority in Transylvania. Heck, the current Romanian president is from the German minority. Although I've lived in the US since I was a child, so I know very little Romanian history.

I am well aware about America's stereotypes about the South, having lived in Atlanta.

Oh, to nit-pick. You forgot Portuguese when listing Romance languages.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Portuguese, which can sound so beautiful sung!

I blame much of the misunderstanding on the nature of the medium through which we are communicating. It's amazing that,by tapping out a sequence of keys on a humming, electronic box, we can have a conversation with people all over the world. But it is nothing like having a conversation over dinner and a bottle of wine. Geologists say that the rovers on Mars accomplished in five years what a field geologist could accomplish in two weeks if they could just get to Mars. Likewise facts like your time in the American South or my mistaken identifications of the national origins of actors would slip out in conversation quickly and easily. Blogs, like other social media, tend to encourage brief, imperative communication. Sometimes it is good to parse words, but in a forum like this the tendency is to encourage people to try to "win" rather than conversing for the sake of mutual understanding and sharing ideas. I imagine my posts here annoy some people because of their length, but, ironically, I have to get to work and don't have time to elaborate further.

Since we have multiple Pauls here, but my name is kind of long to clack out, Paul SB or just PSB is fine.

Alfred Differ said...

locumranch, elite is much like any another;

I sincerely doubt he's missed this. He might rail at one more than another, but his neck vertebrae are not fused.

...that the exceptional individual is 'deviant' (and therefore "bad") by definition;

Hmm? What leads you to belief he considers this at all? When one believes they are exceptional, they are viewed as deviants by those whose views they oppose, right? For someone who can pivot and look all around them, though, they aren't 'bad'. They are just potentially deluded. We aren't all equal in the sense of natural talent and learned skill, so exceptional individuals are a fact of life. The danger occurs when we over-inflate our sense of difference, and I seriously doubt David is blind to this either.

...and that exceptionalism is anathema to democratic principles.

Heh. I think you are confused here. It is anathema to Liberty and only a danger to Democracy once someone decides not to respect the freedom of another.

Democracy is a procedure for making decisions when large scale consensus is needed. Liberty is something very different.

Alfred Differ said...


On another forum I frequent, it is my chosen duty to annoy the people who post short responses. My rule is simple. If I think what you wrote is interesting enough for a serious reply, you get a minimum three paragraph response. I'm in second place there for number of posts, but I think I have the top guy beat if you count keystrokes. 8)

Serious thought deserves the length required to create serious responses. It's an act of love in the sense that we are appreciating others who make the effort to share with us.

It helps to be able to type fast too. 8)

David Brin said...