Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Future Perspectives… and does the ACLU (at last) understand sousveillance?

== Perspectives on our future ==

Smithsonian-imaginationA reminder: I’ll be performing at this event in mid May -- THE FUTURE IS HERE: Science meets Science Fiction, Imagination, Inspiration and Invention --  will be a lavish/spectacular event MAY 16-18, 2014 in Washington DC, presented by the Smithsonian Magazine in collaboration with the UC San Diego  Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, Nerd Nite, Smithsonian Grand Challenges Consortia, and the Smithsonian Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

Presenters include: Patrick Stewart, David Brin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Brian Greene,  Adam Steltzner, George Takei,  Stewart Brand, Sara Seager, and some of the Mythbusters .

Reaching back a bit…I had a chance to speak with the mighty maven of tech-future Journalism, Tim O'Reilly, during my previous visit to Washington DC. The next day in Forbes, Tim cited me with the following quotation: "It is intrinsically impossible to know if someone does not have information about you. It is much easier to tell if they do something to you." His article, The Creep Factor: How to Think about Big Data and Privacy, is cogent.

Dragnet-Nation-cover-art Elsewhere I tout Julia Angwin's Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance. It' a very entertaining and wise book, in which Ms. Angwin kindly cites my book (The Transparent Society) as partial inspiration. But here's a quotation from an interview the author recently gave… a thought-provoking call for us to drop the sick temptations of cynicism and to re-acquire that good old, optimistic, can-do spirit.

"I am aware that I take a slightly irrationally optimistic view of this. But I also think that the only way to get change is to be irrationally optimistic. Change happens all the time. I compare privacy to environmental damage. We lived in a world where we were perfectly willing to tolerate our rivers catching fire and the air being filled with soot and people dying of black lung disease and then all of a sudden, after 50 years of that, we decided maybe we don’t want that kind of world. And we’ve been very successful at cleaning up our environment. We did it partly through laws, but we also did it by changing our social norms. I mean if you told someone 50 years ago that Upper East Side women in fur would be picking up their dog’s poop, they would have laughed at you. But we did it, we changed our social habits. I think privacy is a similar social problem. It’s something that we will change both through laws and also through being smart about what choices we make about what technology we use." 

I had a chance to meet Ms. Angwin during a privacy (IAPP) conference in DC a few months back. Delightful and very smart.

== Is the ACLU Catching On? At last? ==

alpr-slide-title-720x450-v02_0License plate readers and face recognition are already ubiquitous. And Vigilant Solutions is bringing it to you. And yes, the ACLU is (legitimately) concerned about increasing powers of unbalanced surveillance. And yes, the ACLU joins those (foolishly) whining about it, instead of seeking the obvious and only possible answer.
Only… maybe I am too harsh. The ACLU report, "You Are Being Tracked," does conclude by suggesting two reforms that smack of intelligent sousveillance…

1) People should be able to find out if plate data of vehicles registered to them are contained in a law enforcement agency’s database.

2) Any entity that uses license plate readers should be required to report its usage publicly on at least an annual basis.

Okay… maybe they are starting to catch on. Still, to even imagine that we won't all be using face-recog and things like license plate scanning in the near future displays the kind of stunning myopia that always puzzles me, when displayed by intelligent and well-meaning people.

== Transparency News ==

 The Internet of Cops is Coming… FirstNet (First Responder Network Authority)—pitched as a state of the art communications network for paramedics, firemen and law enforcement at the federal, state and local level—will give cops on the streets unprecedented technological powers, and possibly hand over even more intimate data about our lives to the higher ends of the government and its intelligence agencies. FirstNet will also give local law enforcement the ability to take digital “fingerprints from the field,” record and share high quality video, and instantaneously marry these freshly sourced data with others over the network. In the video above, a demonstrator uses facial recognition software on a tablet; finds out if the target is in a linked database, and is immediately provided with a wealth of information on him.

Of course, having a police officer be able to instantly identify you with a tablet —or the “single […] device for voice, data, and video” being developed—is open to abuse, and raises serious worries for privacy.

"One scary thought is that it could help set up … “communications systems apartheid”: where the public are relegated to an “insecure, heavily monitored network that can be turned off at the flick of a switch,” while the government enjoys the benefits of an encrypted network that is far more stable."

Of course this is a downside scenario I long ago described in The Transparent Society.  And yet, in all the years since, I keep hearing people come crying "stop them from looking at me!" To which I respond, don't blame me!  Blame yourselves for all the endless whining about stuff like this. Whining that will go on and on and on and that you all will never stop doing

MILITANT-SOUSVEILLANCE …rather than focusing on what might work: the militant, assertive and practical measures that might defend freedom.  Not by trying to resist the absolutely unstoppable trend toward the mighty getting to look at us. (They will; and whimpering about it is pathetic.) But instead to strip the mighty naked with supervision so that they will never dare to use all that vision to actually harm us.

That is an activity we can accomplish. That is do-able and might actually work. We should be militant! But focused.

Alas, I have to wonder, is this generation even the same species as the ones who 200 years ago understood this distinction so well?  No matter how many times I explain the difference between militant sousveillance and impotent whines of "don't look at me!"... it always turns out that 1% actually get it... and the rest go right back to the same futile refrain -- "don't look at me!"

Case in point. This reporter - on a dare - investigated another person simply based upon an anonymous tweet… and figured our enough information that he could have emptied the other guy's bank account. Scary stuff.  Would you bet your life or security on any assurance that this capability has been stopped?  Really?

Let's insist on getting to detect when and who makes such enquiries.  That might be achievable.

== And… ==

In "The Secret Cost of a Surveillance Society" you can see a truly awful article, in which the author utterly conflates causation with correlation and draws unwarranted conclusions. Still, there is a glimmer of a point: that a sensitivity to surveillance may be deterring individuals from seeking basic services like hospitalization. As a raising of possibilities, it seems worth a read.
Watch Your Privacy: A Google Glass App overlays the streetscene with warnings (in red) of where cameras may be pointing. Close appraisal suggests they may over-promise. But the implications are interesting.

Cameras with wireless transmitters will soon be so small that they could be taped to an appliance, wall, ceiling, dashboard. “Our aim is to add eyes to any digital device, no matter how small,” says an innovator about the system--  which requires no lens… the heaviest and bulkiest part of most modern optics. "It might become almost impossible for an ordinary person to know if they are in a private space." complains one critic, without offering any suggested way to stop the trend. We'll need to learn more about this, and think about the ramifications.



Alfred Differ said...

Heh. I don't mind people being able to watch me as long as they don't blame me for their boredom. Maybe I'll do something more exciting if more people DID watch. 8)

Seriously, though, the trend in US suburbia has been to not watch each other so completely that we often don't know our neighbors beyond very basic information. The social rules have already adapted in most places where I've ever lived in the last 20 years. We rarely look over the backyard fence at each other because the agreed upon approach is to make eye contact while we are out on the front yard or driveway if we want more interaction. No one taught these rules as far as I remember, but they've emerged anyway a bit like the table manners David describes elsewhere. Even the guy a few blocks over with security cameras all along his fence points them AWAY from his immediate neighbors.

I want a little camera that can be embedded in the skin like a pet chip. Make it look like a mole and send pictures to my personal network very infrequently, but just often enough to be a risk to someone messing with me. 8)

Tom Crowl said...

Just catching up and wanted to comment about the need for another FDR!

I agree... he was a man who was about solving problems rather than ideology.

But I don't think today the problem is a lack of "FDR" personalities or inclinations...

I think the problem is we have a cultural/political environment which would not allow such a leader to either gain power or implement decisions.

Many hoped for such a leader with Obama... and maybe he has many of the qualities and inclinations (I don't really know... he seems way too pro-Wall Street to me)...

But it never really mattered. Because we don't have the 'social atmosphere' allowing a "Roosevelt-type administration" to happen.(and that includes especially problems with the social personality of the network necessary to get someone elected in the first place).

I'm currently reading "Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes (great book)...

and it makes it very apparent that we had a different breed of political and corporate leaders then... much more faith in their fellow citizens.(even though they were mostly 'elites' themselves)

And that worked both ways.

BTW, the real source of the strength of the American dollar that arose after WWW II:

Production and morale!

And that's what's been squandered... and will be very difficult to regain in my opinion. I truly don't want to be a cynic... but its not easy.

P.S. Also catching up...

"The Martian" is the best, hard science fiction, optimistic, can-do, survival tale I've read in decades.

Unknown said...

NPR/WNYC's "On The Media" as a catchy little web spinoff called TLDR. The did an interesting story recently about a guy who posted his password on the washington post web site.

Acacia H. said...
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Tacitus said...

Per the WaPo a case study in how an Inspector General is NOT supposed to function:

Really, when folks in government screw up this badly some punishment other than reassignment and ongoing employ appears needed.

On a lighter note, be sure David to get a picture or two in DC. Especially you with Takai !

Tacitus Peregrinus

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred I want a little camera that can be embedded in the skin like a pet chip. .

It won't stop there. Given the right optics, power supply, bandwidth and compute power, these devices could be as common as dust, infiltrating everywhere (c.f. Bob Shaw's slow glass in "Other Days, Other Eyes"). And it won't just be images, but sound and other sensors. Theoretically it would be the total end of privacy, everywhere. Violent crime, indeed most crime, would be very hard to perpetrate as any incident would be accessible and the trail to the perp easily followed. Trials would be relatively simple, and fast. White collar crime might still be hard to prosecute, especially if perps become adapt at hiding their intentions in plain sight. Access to the data is crucial. If it is just law enforcement and their allies, all sorts of mischief could be enacted. OTOH, public access would be the ultimate sousveillance, although power asymmetries might limit effectiveness. But it doesn't stop there. All that redundant law enforcement has to maintain itself - so there will be an emphasis on predicting crimes and so we could have the algorithmic alternative to pre-cogs for pre-crime determination. A citizenry that lives in fear of a random arrest because their actions are predicted to result in a crime.

Alfred Differ said...

I don't doubt they will get very small, but I'm doubtful I shall see dust sized ones in my lifetime. I get the singularity argument others make, but I think they are a little optimistic about the timing.

Besides, all I really need can be found from a bit of game theory. If the risk of getting caught rises, the strategy used by a moderately well educated competitor must change. All I need to defend myself should be a credible threat upon which I can act (randomly) when the need arises. The random response lowers my costs and makes me partially unpredictable. That means the competitor will possibly spend more effort than me if they want to be unpleasant or adopt a more pleasant strategy.

If there is going to be a limit to the cameras and microphones before the physical (quantum?) limits it will be when we are no longer motivated to improve them. Game theory might offer a way to do it, but I'm sure that won't happen until we have the mole-sized ones or David's flexible hair stalks. 8)

jim said...

Hi David and everyone else,

I hesitate to do this, because the last time I linked to the Archdruid’s blog it produced more heat than light (in my opinion). But today’s essay may inspire something else.

Now the Archdriud has a much more pessimistic outlook on the future than David does. But his pessimism does not lead to despair but to an urgent need for action and the hope that if we act much can be saved and worst can be avoided. The central myth of our civilization is the Myth of the Hero. Will you join the fellowship?

*note* some of the more conservative among us may have trouble with the first half of the essay and some of the more liberal among us may have some trouble looking in the mirror after reading the second half of the essay.

Tom Crowl said...

Hey Jim...

I LOVE your re-telling of the tale!

I'm generally more a hard-sci fan but sometimes metaphor has more truth than any mathematical formula.

David Brin said...

GUYS! Members of the Blogmunity. I am preparing an essay of my favorite sci fi films. I'd like feedback and you are the best bunch. So I'm posting a draft here, under comments… for you to comment upon.

David Brin's favorite science fiction films.

Science Fiction is multi-dimensional and no one criterion can ever be used to determine a best-of list. Hence, I must divide my favorites into categories. And yes, each choice would be worth many paragraphs of explanation, including the runners-up and tragic misfires.

1. Films for grownups: I wish there were a lot more of these, but they are as rare as hen's teeth -- films in which the director and writer actually cared about the deep implications of their visual thought experiment -- their deliberate departure from reality. Works in which the creators paid close heed to logic (while delivering tasty action) and eschewed the lazy, "idiot plot"* assumption that civilization is worthless. Some institutions actually function! Adversaries have plausible motives and no red, glowing eyes! Protagonists aren't chosen-ones but merely above-average people with difficult challenges to overcome, in part by using their heads.

Inception works harder than any film I ever saw. It can be overbearing, especially with the sound cranked up! But I have never seen a director strive to juggle as many edgy intricacies as Nolan does in this mostly-successful tour-de-force.

Gattaca and Primer are much simpler films that nevertheless aim to tease your mind into real thinking. Gattaca isn't as dystopian as some lazily take it to be and the protagonist is actually a selfish jerk… but a true hero nonetheless, whose triumph is largely one of character and mind. Primer is simply a delight of logic and an example of what can be done when very smart people have a filming budget of about eighty-five cents.

James Cameron gets a couple of mentions here. But the one that was for grownups is The Abyss.

David Brin said...

2. Joyful slumming: At the opposite end are films that I could only watch by tuning my "dials" before entering the theater. Cranking IQ and science and even logic down to"popcorn" levels, without sacrificing my standards when it comes to deeper values, beauty, esthetics, ethics… all that stuff that must be left outside the theater, if I'm to enjoy most flicks. In other words, enjoying as-if-stoned a movie-movie that is simply way-successful at delivering fun.

Conan the Barbarian (the original) is simply the most successful film ever at delivering what it promised, while never promising intellect. Every scene is filled with visual and musical beauty amid a tale that hearkens to the deeply non-western, non-modern part of you and me, going back to the Iliad and Gilgamesh.

The Fifth Element is the single most joyful work of art I ever saw. Luc Bessant's sheer pleasure leaps upon your lap like a great big retriever and licks your face for ninety minutes.

Avatar… well, James Cameron would demand that we put Avatar in category number one. Sorry. Nice try. But yes it is beyond-brilliant in the popcorn category.

In contrast, the Back to the Future trilogy comes that close to vaulting into category three. It's fantastic fun. bighearted, unabashedly logical and darn near perfect.

Lord of the Rings… all right, Peter Jackson delivered a superb work of art and it was definitely not "just popcorn." I have great respect for Tolikien's complex world building craft and Jackson's fealty to the original material. Still, neither the books nor the flicks bear adult scrutiny. So turn down the "adult" dials. Be a kid and enjoy. I know I did!

David Brin said...

3. The whole package: Rarest of all -- films that take us beyond our familiar horizons on adventures that satisfy every age you contain within yourself, from awestruck kid to sober grownup to mystic dreamer.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan delivers from beginning to end. Not only a terrific motion picture but a love ode to the brash, Faustian, unbridled adolescent hopefulness that only Star Trek ever gave us, amid today's grotesque tsunami of grouchy dystopias.

Bladerunner. Of course. Nothing need be said

Runners-up: There are so many films that came close, or just missed. Dozens that were enjoyable and I'd have been proud to be associated with. Only nit-picking kept them off the top tiers.

Contact was well worthwhile and inspiring, if a bit preachy in spots.

2001: a Space Odyssey was epochal in its time -- it helped make me who I am, and remains a mind stretcher -- though it suffers a bit under close examination. So don't.

James Cameron's Aliens is the best film about motherhood ever created. And Terminator II was even better than the first one.

(Note: All through the 80s and 90s there was a "third movie curse" in which the third flick in a franchise betrayed everything good about the wondrous second film. It happened to Star Trek, Star Wars, Terminator and especially the Aliens series. But not Back to the Future, somehow.)

And so let me roll off some of my favorites, each one funky and unique and different in its own way: Forbidden Planet, District 9, Alien Nation, Rollerball, Men in Black, Galaxy Quest, Logan's Run, Serenity... plus weirdnesses like Altered States, Dark City, Brazil, Solaris and eXistenZ… which show the breadth and wondrous opportunities for creativity that science fiction offers those who think bold.

Special Mention: No single Steven Spielberg film made my top ten sci fi films. But almost all Steven Spielberg films make it into my top fifty, while Close Encounters and War of the Worlds and Minority Report skate much closer. He and Zemeckis are the most consistent and skilled story tellers of our age.

Tragic misses: The Empire Strikes Back is a fine film in its own right, and it shows what a wonderful epic we might have had, if George Lucas had stuck to his strengths, as one of the greatest of all Hollywood producers, and simply hired great writers and directors for his film, the way he did in Empire… and the way he hired terrific artists for all the other Star Wars films. (Their one strong suit.) Alas, his choices became our tragedy.

The Day the Earth Stood Still… could have explored the immorality of the other side. It's preachiness prevented adding another layer of potentially really interesting counter-preachiness.

Total Recall… you're kidding me, right? You can be this creative -- in BOTH versions -- and still shy away from getting Phil Dick on us and getting us to actually fret that it's all actually an actual bummer recall-trip? Why? I mean, why not?

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial -- and the real villain is…………?

* Followup links:

About the "Idiot Plot" cliche that civilization must always be portrayed as worthless.

Other science fiction riffs by David Brin.

Anonymous said...

Any of these forgotten, or just didn't make the grade?

Europa Report
The Quiet Earth

David Brin said...

Thanks for reminding me of Limitless and Moon! I liked the other two, though less.

David Brin said...
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Alex Tolley said...


Good, thoughtful SF Movies:
Source Code (intelligent and fun?)
Robot and Frank
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Ghost in the Shell (anime)

Upside Down
Safety Not Guaranteed
The World's End
Watchmen (The book is better, but the movie is extremely entertaining)


Good, thoughtful:
The Andromeda Strain (The tv remake isn't bad too, although it made some unnecessary commercial changes)

Planet of the Apes (orig)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (orig)
Quatermass II (Actually I like all the early Quatermass movies, but this is my favorite. England seemed almost empty then).
The Illustrated Man

There is always an issue of the impact of taste. I love old movies, even when they are just silly. I love the original "The Thing", while I can barely watch Carpenter's remake, and still less the prequel. Other faves include "When Worlds Collide", "Destination Moon" and "This Island Earth". I would certainly put "Gravity" in the recent, fun category, as I would "Space Cowboys". "Gravity" and "Apollo 13" are probably the most "realistic" depictions of space and spacecraft. I just wish the future had looked like "2001: A Space Odyssey".

John Morales said...

The Matrix? Shame they never made a sequel...

Dumb but fun, Cloverfield.

Excellent, Children of Men.

I'm glad somebody recognizes the genius of Conan.

Soylent Green, great. Omega Man, not so great, but tries.

Various Ape Planet movies, mixed bag.

What about Surrogates? Hahahah. Sorry about that.

Tim H. said...

Don't forget Willow, an enjoyable there and back again story. And if Peter Jackson releases novelizations based on his LOTR scripts, I'll think unpleasant thoughts...

TheMadLibrarian said...

O ye prophets of sousveillance, how could you leave out The Truman Show? And I have a soft spot for Strange Days.


Tom Crowl said...

Lot's of great movies!

Here's one that I've always loved...

I know... essentially a thoughtless, "Hollywoodized" kid's version of the classic book.

But that's when I saw it... at a Saturday matinee as a kid:

"Journey to the Center of the Earth" with James Mason and Pat Boone

(we can't be eggheads all the time)

David Brin said...

Thanks all! Some good suggestions.

Wish Netflix offered "When Worlds Collide."

Surrogates? Ouch! I can't even be mad because it shows you've read my stuff enough to know where to stick the knife! ;-)

Jumper said...

Robocop is on my list somewhere.

Oh, and thanks, Jim, for the Archdruid pointer.

jim said...

Tom Crawl
I did not write that essay. John Michael Greer wrote it. (I like the Lord of the Rings, but I am not a LOR nerd)
I too liked the essay and consider it a call to arms or a needed kick in the pants.

How about Sci Fi movies that need to be made? I once read this series of books about humans and language using dolphins and chimps in space. It was really cool, set in a universe with many powerful aliens. The plucky humans and their allies need to navigate between not just stars but between far more powerful alien alliances all while uncovering an ancient secret.

Those books could make totally awesome movies (or even a series on HBO or Netflicks).

matthew said...

I'll second "Safety Not Guaranteed," though I'd put it in the Serious category.

"Moon" is one of my all time favorite movies.

For Fun, don't forget "Paul." Crude humor, but a great view of fandom and UFO culture.

And I have a soft spot for "Outland" as well. "Silent Runnings" is dated and ham-handed, but Bruce Dern owns it.

locumranch said...

What David dismisses as the 'idiot plot', the idea that 'civilization must always be portrayed as worthless', is perhaps the most important theme in both western literature & science fiction.

His list of fave films confirms this, each replete with a quirky and/or partially civilized protagonist who rebels against established authority in order to defend it:

Star Trek 2; 2001; Conan; Bladerunner; Fifth Element; Forbidden Planet; Gattaca; Rollerball; Men in Black; Galaxy Quest; Logan's Run; Serenity; Dark City; Brazil; and so on.

Now, imagine an entirely civilized protagonist who always defers to greater authority, who subsumes himself, who 'takes a knee' when ordered, and we are left with much more unpleasant tales that are reminiscent of 'The Pianist'.


Jonathan S. said...

Obviously, the villain of ET was the alien starship captain, who upon the approach of human investigators immediately abandoned a crewmate to his own devices, and declined to return until said crewate managed to build a beacon out of available materials. (And yet upon receiving the signal, said captain had no problem making a pretty doggone public return to the world in question, not to mention having abandoned the crewmate in a situation that almost guaranteed local authorities capturing him, so it's not because he couldn't let himself be seen by the natives...)

Alex Tolley said...

There is a difference between rebelling against authority and the civilization being worthless.

Where in 2001, or Bladerunner is civilization portrayed as worthless? The rebelling of HAL against the crew that will kill him, or the replicants against the humans that enslave them (and Deckard against his bosses) are quite rational. The civilizations that support the mission to Saturn/Jupiter or the creation of replicants to aid in colonizing the galaxy seem a lot better than worthless to me, and are acting quite competently.

One can rebel against authority without assuming that the authority is purely bad with no redeeming features, or incompetent and should be replaced at the earliest opportunity.

David Brin said...

Jonathan, right on top to bottom. That captain abandon's ET when threatened with… flashlights and cameras. Not a gun in sight.

Ah… Locum is back! Utterly conflating and misinterpreting with dazzling abandon.

Actually, Alex, you are right in your response, but in fact I diverge a bit. Suspicion of Authority SoA is our trained reflex and I elsewhere discuss how important it is at keeping us free… though its side effects are now being used by cynical manipulators to send left and right into a non-productive mutual fury…

but it is not Soa per se that is at issue. Rather the targeting of error modes. Soa can PROPEL an attack on a failure mode, but it is the failure itself that fiction usefully pillories.

Hence: "this KIND of mistake is one that bureaucracies often make and I will make such a criminal misbehavior the focus of my story" is wholly legitimate! And hence when the protagonists take on a corrupt institution… yay for that!

Locum is unable to grasp the difference between skewering specific failure modes -- which is the work of "social T Cell" critics and the reason we are alive today… versus the idiot plot of lazily declaring ALL civilization hopeless ALL the time and all our neighbors sheep and all institutions futile and all civil servants useless and all companies automatically evil.

Alas. Parsing that difference will be key to getting out of the dismal mess that storytelling is in.

LarryHart said...

I second the mention of "Soylent Green". I was a little too young to appreciate it in 1973, but every time I see it again, it seems more relevant to today's headlines. The pivotal scene with the movie/classical music in the background still brings me to tears. As an aside, the movie predicted global warming (which the book did not do, BTW) back in 1973.

I also second Cr Brin's choice of "Star Trek: Wrath of Khan". Unlike the first ST film, this one didn't forget to be an episode of Star Trek as well as a movie, giving us the best of both worlds.

I was as big a fan of "Star Wars" (the original only) in '77, but I can't bring myself to call it science fiction.

I'll try to make it back later with some others that haven't yet been mentioned.

David Brin said...