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Our Creeping Surveillance State

Beware the siren song of connectivity

I’m not sure when I went from tipping point to over the edge. Maybe it was learning that “embedded connectivity” will soon be standard in new cars, or that digital phenotyping — tracking your online clicks — is being proposed as a clue to health and disease. Maybe it was reading one too many articles on how I’d better get used to a future with a virtual assistant that “anticipates” me. Or maybe it was hearing the heavy breathing of acolytes aroused by the impending intelligence explosion of the “singularity”. Perhaps it was all of it, the ubiquity of ubiquity stories, the assumption that a techno-utopian future is the only one anyone should want.

Well, call me a me-too pessimist, a bandwagon jumper, a foul-weather fan. The alarm has been ringing loudly of late, and too few have heard it. Those who believe that the Internet of Things is not a religion need to speak up.

It’s not that I’m anti-tech; I’m just pro-human. In declaring my fealty, I’m acknowledging the obvious. Humans can be generous, brave, and ethical. We can also be flawed, easily tempted, and often delusional. Yet we are all that we have, dark side included. That’s why we need to be careful about anything packaged as irresistible progress. We need to be critical thinkers not skimmers.

Consider the many examples from human history where one group’s need to know everything about others — often cloaked as “safety and security” — has mutated into tools to control, suppress, and imprison. What’s different now is the scale and scope. I’m not a conspiracy monger, but I am a student of history. Let’s not forget that the very effective authoritarian networks of the past, like Robespierre’s Committee for Surveillance, East Germany’s Stasi, and the Ming Dynasty’s Jinyiwei were entirely analog. They lacked what our digiterati are fine-tuning this very second — a digital infrastructure that is global and personal, embedded into our home and work lives, fully connected, and anticipatory. It will “know” us through our behavioral profiles. Sounds like the siren-song of an incipient surveillance state to me. Yet each new product in the convenience universe is greeted with uncritical applause by the far too influential early adopters and their marketing communications allies.

Forget CCTV, the NSA, and Russian hackers. The real enemy seems to be our own gullibility. How else to explain the quiet that reigns in our collective amygdala? Where’s the outrage? Where’s the political action? Where’s the demand for new privacy rules and limits on information sharing? Where’s the critical disbelief? Perhaps our addictive nature has overruled our fear reflex. Maybe the compulsion to stay connected through a dizzying array of devices seems acceptable if you assume you’re a boring specimen with nothing to hide. Who cares what recipes we like, what music makes us happy, how many times we use the dry cleaner, or if our conversations are being catalogued and archived?

Warning to the complacent: To those who seek influence over your buying habits or authority over your life, no detail is too boring. The Stasi operated a network of 189,000 unofficial collaborators (ironically known as IM for short) who spied on everyone. They reported on family members, bugged bedrooms and bathrooms, gathered spurious intelligence on sports clubs and church groups. In the most sinister sense of the phrase, they understood what we seem to have forgotten: to know one fully is to own one completely. And they didn’t even have a Siri or an Alexa on their IM team.

So what to do? If nothing else, be choosy about the kind of smartness you allow into your life. A smart window that automatically adapts to light conditions is good for the planet because it reduces the need for heating and air-conditioning. A smart system that employs in-room video to monitor whether patients have fallen is a good idea in managed care facilities. A refrigerator that tells you when you need eggs isn’t. Similarly, a device that plays videos might also include a camera as well as a voice command system. If the risks seem remote, consider how easy it was to hack baby monitors.

Be careful, too, of “smart” buildings, “smart” housing developments, or “smart” cities. Without stricter and enforceable privacy rules, these could become surveillance hot zones reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s infamous 18th-century Panopticon. In Bentham’s original architectural scheme, a central tower housed a single watchman, who used a bright light to spy on anyone in the rooms arrayed around the tower. The occupants of these rooms can’t see the watchman. They have to assume they are always being observed and act accordingly. In this way, one person can control the behavior of many. How efficient.

And while we’re on this “smart” jag, let’s reconsider how the word itself has been hijacked. Maybe we should reserve the word “smart” for those who really are and reclaim “adaptive” and “interactive” for the tools of our imagination. It won’t change the future, but it will help sharpen our awareness of how “dumb” has become an insidious putdown for tech backwardness. After all, we don’t call old clothes trash. We revive and relabel some as vintage. We don’t assume all cars are scrap. We restore and honor some as classics. In the rush to tech utopia, dumb does not get a second life. It is brushed aside as forever quaint — and more dangerously, voiceless. I may still be “too analog and too long form” as one tech enthusiast once criticized. But my human instincts, forged by evolutionary experience on the African savanna, keep reminding me that predators lurk around every watering hole. Stay wary.

Culture writer with an eye for history, science, sports, art, politics, photography, travel, and the original story between the lines.

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