The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Why Elites Are Creating Surveillance States

It’s commonplace now to note that China is a surveillance state.

But most other countries–including the UK and the US–are on their way. Cameras proliferate everywhere, virtually everyone carries a phone which is tracked constantly (and 5G networks will be so precise they can tell which room of a building you are in), and audio surveillance is increasingly being added. (That much of this surveillance is private, rather than government, changes little.)

AI + various recognition algos (face, gait, etc…) and cheap long term storage means that, increasingly, it is possible to know where people were, when, and store that information for years. Cameras and phones and other devices which listen in, plus access to all chat, phone, email, and other messaging means we know what they were doing and saying.

1984 was nothing on this. Big Brother couldn’t store information (no video tape even) and someone had to actually be watching the camera and listening in when you did something The Powers That Be didn’t like. If no one was watching, you got away with it.

The endgame, as I’ve been pointing out for years, is a society in which where you are and what you’re doing, and have done is, always known, or at least knowable. And that information is known forever, so the moment someone with power wants to take you out, they can go back through your life in minute detail. If laws or norms change so that what was okay ten or 30 years ago isn’t okay now, well, they can get you on that.

Surveillance societies are sterile societies. Everyone does what they’re supposed to do all the time, and because we become what we do, it affects our personalities. It particularly affects our creativity, and is a large part of why Communist surveillance societies were less creative than the West, particularly as their police states ramped up.

Surveillance societies also just suck to live in: paranoia, fear, little freedom.

So why create them? I mean in one sense the answer is obvious: Surveillance is control, and powerful people always want small people under their thumb, and small people can be sold on arguments like, “This stops crime!” and “Oh, think of the children!”

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing and want more of it, please consider donating.)

But there are three specific reasons for this upsurge in the surveillance state beyond, “We can, so why not?”

The first is that elites have become very aware that modern military technology is mostly not in their favour. Iraqis fought the US to a standstill. The US military had to pay militias to let it leave. You don’t do that if you won. The Taliban is straight up winning in Afghanistan. The biggest and arguably the most expensive military in the world has lost to opponents who don’t have one percent of its budget. Israel lost to Hezbollah the last time it invaded Lebanon, and even lost the e-lint war.

The issue is that a big military like America’s can’t be defeated on the battlefield by rabble, but technologies of area denial (most notably IEDs) mean that large parts of any sizeable country can be made into no go zones. The state can’t rule them and neither can the militias really (because air power can be used to devastate them).

Meanwhile technologies like drones, and, I suspect, in the longer run, weaponized robots, are actually technologies that will be more useful to the weak than the strong. Bombers that cost a billion bucks and can only be made by huge firms or government organizations, and then require teams of specialists to run and maintain? Those are weapons of the strong.

But drones and weaponized robots and IEDs are or will be technologies that any competent mechanic/engineer will be able to make.

What is even scarier is that, as Bush and Obama made clear, drones are weapons of assassination. Like daggers and pistols in earlier eras, they make it possible to kill important people and are really hard to stop.

That will remain true as they disperse out to non-state actors, which is already happening.

They are also excellent weapons of sabotage. A few drones shut down Heathrow Airport, Britain’s most important airport, for days, without having to do anything beyond buzz about.

So, the technological soup to which we are coming makes assassination, sabotage, and area denial easy (as does cyber warfare). A single ransomware attack can shut down an entire bureaucracy, private or public.

The only way our elites can see to stop this is to know what everyone is doing all the time. Oh, there is one other way, but they are ideologically opposed to it.

The Rise of Inequality

The other way to stop people from sabotage, assassination, and insurgency is to make life good. People who are happy, expect the future to be better than the past, and have great social ties (love/friendship) don’t commit violence except when it is socially acceptable violence.

But this requires actually letting ordinary people have stuff: money and good futures. It means not treating them badly at work. It means sharing power (because there is no shared wealth without shared power over time). It also means, in an increasingly small world, actually giving developing country inhabitants decent lives–equality within and between societies.

If you are the richest rich in the history of the world, you sure don’t want to do that. Moreover, you are aware that you have so much, and that other people want it, and you are scared. Especially because you know serious disruptions to the social order will occur as climate change and ecological collapse worsen.

So, to keep your position, and save your lives when things go bad, you need a surveillance state. People have good reason to hate you, the smarter among you realize that, and know that only real, credible fear will stop them.

Remember, the surveillance state, combined with the technologies we’ve discussed, already means the state can easily kill and capture you. If they know where you are, who all your friends are, and everything you’ve done or do, it’s just a matter of visiting some violence on you, and they have plenty of violent capability. Finding you is the important part. The rest is easy.

A Grand Experiment in Cost

Traditional surveillance societies were expensive. The East German Stasi reputedly had one-third of its population spying on the other two-thirds. That’s ludicrous. It guts productivity, making the state poor. Combined with the creativity effects of surveillance societies, you will eventually lose to healthy, non-surveillance societies.

But what if you only had to pay a few percentage points of people to spy on the others, and, if necessary, kill or capture, the rest of the population. What if most of the work was done by AI, algos, and robots? Even better, this gets rid of the need to keep a large number of internal police and spies loyal, so you need a much smaller class of people to keep your surveillance state running.

But wait! It gets better! (Worse.) What if these new technologies mean that you don’t actually need peons? What if you can do the manufacturing, delivery, and service jobs all with combinations of AI and robots. Who needs workers? Just give the peons a guaranteed annual income large enough for them to buy your shitty goods and services, stick them in sub-par housing, and run the society mostly without them!

Oh sure, the same technology could be used to create a utopia (luxury-automated communism) but why do that? That would mean you wouldn’t be the richest, most powerful elite the world has ever known.

As members of the powerful elite, the problem of peons and minions revolting has always been the thorn in your bowl of cherries.

Finally, finally, technology offers a solution. A possibility of a permanent state where you never can, or will, lose your power.

Give it a little longer and make sure that you get access to the new gene-editing technologies (and the peons don’t), and you can even give yourself another permanent advantage by making yourself and your children actually, biologically superior to the hoi polloi.

The possibilities! The possibilities! If you can just hang on and get all of this into place, this could be the greatest age of aristocracy and autocracy the world has ever seen, and one that has no reason to ever end.


It’s always good to be rich and powerful, but potentially this is the best era ever to be rich and powerful, with the best yet to come!


Week-end Wrap, June 2, 2019


Fundraising Update


  1. Joan

    I wish I could write this off due to climate disruption, but the truth is, we’ll probably get a full helping of both. Some young people raised on the internet actually believe “You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide.” I’ve heard people justify surveillance by rationalizing that it doesn’t affect good people, but who decides if you are one of the good people?

  2. Dan Lynch

    Yet the surveillance state cannot stop climate change. Their wealth and power will buy the rich some time when the climate shit hits the fan, but they won’t be able to stay in their luxurious bunkers forever.

    The surveillance network is easily knocked out by sabotage or by war. If the U.S. ever gets into a real shooting war with a major power, the internet, many satellites, cell phones, electricity, etc.. will be knocked out in the first few weeks. Good times!

    So yes, we are being surveilled and censored. It’s already happening on Facebook, etc.. But sometimes we turn the tables by surveilling the authorities and posting their misdeeds on the internet. Some people, like Assange, will pay a heavy price for it, but there will always be a small number of people who are willing to sacrifice their life for something they believe in.

    Interesting times.


    At this rate, in 200 years or less, maybe way less, the Canadien Rockies and American Appalachians will be indistinguishable from the mountains of Afghanistan in EVERY way.

    North America, meet your future.

    The Land of the Enlightened

    In this seamless blend of fictional and documentary form, we experience a stunning cinematic journey into the beauty of war-tormented Afghanistan. Shot over seven years on evocative 16mm footage, first-time director Pieter-Jan De Pue paints a whimsical yet haunting look at the condition of Afghanistan left for the next generation. As American soldiers prepare to leave, we follow De Pue deep into this hidden land where young boys form wild gangs to control trade routes, sell explosives from mines left over from war, and climb rusting tanks as playgrounds—making the new rules of war based on the harsh landscape left to them. De Pue’s transportative and wonderfully crafted film confronts the visceral beauty and roughness of survival, serving as a testament to the spirited innovation of childhood and the extreme resilience of a people and country.

  4. ponderer

    It’s interesting how this corresponds with Hillary Clinton and the surveillance states efforts to entrap and blackmail the Trump campaign. They used intelligence assets to get incriminating evidence on INT that they could then use in their FISA application for more “legal” spying and future blackmailing. If Hillary had won instead of lost, Trump could have been on trial for Treason now. The only reason for those conspirators to go through the trouble of making the surveillance look legal was for it to be used in a court of law eventually. It’s going to be highly entertaining to see the counter investigation played out as the deep state starts to realize just how dangerous it can be to itself.

    I wait patiently for someone to use commercial surveillance data to start bringing down the establishment / rich (though it will probably be one faction smearing the other). What Google and friends don’t seem to have is a way to filter out data for the top 10% before turning it over to their business partners.

  5. Hugh

    The problem with surveillance states and luxury bunkers is that our overclass/rich and elites need a fair number of peons to run, maintain, and defend these. These systems are never absolute. People find workarounds, samizdat to communicate offline, offgrid. And as Hannah Arendt observed even in the most absolute of totalitarian states, there is an inherent and ongoing challenge posed by each new generation. The result is these systems have difficulty lasting even a couple of generations. Examples like North Korea aren’t useful because this regime has depended on subsidies from the Chinese to exist. Even so, it is doing a slow motion collapse. At some point, the calculus changes. Chaos gets introduced in the system, grows: the peons move to replace the overlords.

  6. Willy

    I’ve heard people justify surveillance by rationalizing that it doesn’t affect good people, but who decides if you are one of the good people?


    I was one of the good people working inside a total surveillance society (a corporation where every project was publicly tracked and since everybody had access to that network, everybody knew exactly who was accomplishing what). You’d think it’d be impossible for any valuable “best and brightest” type to lose. Still, the PTB there were mis-persuaded that I was a threat to them personally, and they knew exactly how to get rid of me – by employing the mediocre minions to do their dirtywork. (At that company I was far from the only one. There were others who got theirs.)

    This doesn’t work in well-run small companies, especially with an ownership that knows everybody. But in a stressed larger corporate environment, many easily manipulable “hope and fear” mediocres will be more than happy to rationalize the ruining of you. Their families are depending on it (so they’re led to believe) and the law of averages ensures that they vastly outnumber your kind.

    The dilemma is over how to counter this. The more you defend yourself the more mediocres will side with the PTB, because of course, their families are depending on it. Attacking the PTB publicly isn’t wise since that would give them a more credible reason to eliminate you. Assuming you cannot quit (on our much larger scale, quit the world) it seems that the cleverly anonymous ratfucking (punishing) the PTB is ones best option. But how does one go about this?

    IMO, educating mediocres may yield mixed results but one should still try. I’ve had some positive results with neoliberals and neocons by trying to keep it simple, for the stupids. I try to get rationalistic tribalistic binary thinkers to understand that in every society of any kind, there aren’t just two contrasting power/opinion poles for each issue, but three. In our current world it appears that only a left and right are duking it out over a best-fit governing. But there is always a third PTB pole which cares only about which “side” will best enable their own antisocial personal power pathology. If both “sides” are on to the PTB, then the PTB may try to get the two other sides to waste their energies and focus on battling each other, so they can get away with business as usual. Or some other misdirection strategy.

    There are probably better ways to explain this concept, or better concepts which are more easily explainable.

    Going back to that corporation, the PTB always cared very much about their corporations bottom line, in public. Privately, they’d ruin anybody who they perceived was a personal threat to their own personal bottom line. This behavior should only be seen for what it is, a pathology.

  7. nihil obstet

    If the elites don’t need peons, why keep us around? To remind the few workers that are needed to keep the robots running that they may lose their privilege? As a way of sloshing money around a consumer-based economic system so that it comes back up and redistributes among the elite? Logically, the elites should want to exterminate the bulk of the population, both because we’re a drain on them and because that would help enormously with climate change, but any elite system is based on lots of peons, and I don’t think there’s a way around that.

    I wonder how superior gene-edited children would feel about their inferior natural parents.

  8. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    Why does Mr. Welsh bother asking for money, when he obviously has a great future in dystopian science fiction? 😛

  9. someofparts

    “And as Hannah Arendt observed even in the most absolute of totalitarian states, there is an inherent and ongoing challenge posed by each new generation. The result is these systems have difficulty lasting even a couple of generations.”

  10. Riccardo Pusceddu

    Why Elites need peons? They surely could just produce everything they want with the energy and the commodities they have. So why all this masquerade of producing goods for the peons to make Elites richer? I think the answer is that Elites are not that evil. They have as much empathy as the peons and that will only change when there\’ll be a planetary crisis with a severe shortage of resources. At that point the Elites will loose their empathy and will assiduously exterminate the peons, directly and indirectly by leaving them at their own device. That\’s called an evolutionary bottleneck and the result of such thing are new and improved species. So the Elites will be Homo sapiens 2.0.

  11. mago

    How much wood would a woodpeck peck if a woodpeck could peck wood?
    Get off it, dood.
    On topic though, that tech knife cuts many ways.
    And New Zealand ain’t no refuge.

  12. Tom

    Surveilance States as you envision are dead on arrival.

    This country is imploding before our very eyes with the heartland and urbanites so far apart that civil war is inevitable.

    The PTB won’t survive that civil war and are themselves fighting amongst each other as their foreign wars blew up in their faces.

    Since the Urbanites refuse to meet the core demands of the Heartland, thus ensuring there are zero reforms, collapse and a dark age on par with the bronze age collapse is inevitable.

    Well the successor states to the US will just have to find their own ways then

  13. alex in san jose AKA digital Detroit

    The turd in the bowl of cherries is this: Computers\’n\’algos\’n\’AI are actually really freakin\’ expensive. They not only gobble gobs of electricity but I know a guy who works at a big ISP-for-ISP\’s place and he says a truck backs up each morning and drops off a load of hardware, and picked up that truckload of hardware that\’s worn out, broken, failed, emitted its magic smoke, that DAY.

    Silicon Valley is like a duck, looking all calm and collected and makin\’ it look easy on the surface, and paddling like mad underneath. We\’re sucking in code jockeys from wherever we can get \’em, and it takes legions of them, working 60-hour weeks, to keep things ticking along.

    The future\’s not going to be like The Jetsons, or like the worlds of Star Trek or Star Wars, it\’s going to most closely resemble the dystopias in 1980/90\’s cyberpunk novels.

  14. Herman


    While there is some intense polarization between some segments of the population (namely political partisans) I doubt there will be an American civil war. The country is actually pretty stable. Despite the constant mass shootings, crime rates are down from where they were 30 years ago and there was more upheaval in the 1960s and 1970s than today.

    I am not saying that America is in good shape. Deaths of despair and other signs of decline disprove that claim. But most people still basically support the current system so I don’t think we will see a civil war in the near future. It is also important to remember that the military still has widespread support among the American people so I think if things ever got really crazy the military would step in and most people would be happy with that.

    Of course, this is part of the problem. Many Americans are fine with surveillance because they have not only bought into the “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” argument but also because surveillance is always put forward as an anti-crime, anti-terror, pro-efficiency (especially when applied in workplaces) solution and it is hard to argue against surveillance when it is proposed to improve efficiency and reduce violence, things that are usually seen as unalloyed goods.

    For example, I do not support body cams for police even though I recognize that police misconduct is an important issue. Body cameras just further the idea that surveillance is the answer to every problem that faces us and normalizes it so that people get used to it as is happening already. It does NOT mean that I support police misconduct, just that I think more surveillance is a bad way to deal with the problem. The ubiquity of surveillance tech is probably a big factor in the relative docility of much of the population. Surveillance is becoming normalized.

  15. While all the pretty boys are agog at Moonbases and Mars Bitches!, it may be the only way we as a species – the human species – survive is in sealed environments. Controlled environments. Be they orbiting habitats or caves of steel. Like the migrations north out of the increasingly inhabitable equatorial and tropic regions of the planet, it is inevitable, you can’t stop it.

    It may be a few will indeed survive, tucked away in the nether-regions of the far northwest, but it will be a mean and brutish survival indeed. One damned few will have the wherewithal to weather.

    Adapt, or die. Ponder that.

  16. Mike Barry

    It\’ll be like all that zombie/rape/torture/cannibalism garbage on cable TV. (Not that I\’ve watched any TV in about 20 years.)

  17. Hugh

    nihil obstet, the rich and elites need us, or at least many of us, because their relationship to us is essentially that of parasites (them) to host (us).

    Willy, for me what you are describing is class war. The few set us the many at each others’ throats so they can exploit the situation and distract us from going after them.

    alex in san jose, a surveillance state is not actually about surveillance or accuracy. It’s about control. Going back to Arendt, in her discussion of the secret police in a totalitarian state (Stalinist Russia/Hitler’s Germany), she delineated three stages. In the first, the secret police were dispatched against real opponents of the totalitarian state in formation. When these were eliminated, the next group to go were so-called class enemies. These were people who had committed no crimes against the state. Rather they were seen as potential enemies because of who and what they were. Getting rid of all the real and potential enemies was not, however, enough. The third stage was about the installation of a climate of terror. Anyone could be picked up, charged, and disappeared. Selection was often random. No one except the leader (Hitler, Stalin) was immune. This was true even inside the secret police. Lower levels took out their bosses and vice versa, knowing that they too would be similarly liquidated down the road. At some point, the surveillance in a surveillance state becomes irrelevant. No one cares if you have anything to hide. Everyone is guilty, by definition. The problem as I stated above is that the totalitarian state is never static. It is always under attack by those born into it, not fully trained in its ways, and terrorized by them.

  18. Eric Anderson

    I’m currently almost through the 2nd book in the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. Both Ian’s post and some comments (looking at you Ten Bears) analogously track with the novels. The rich are already talking about terraforming mars. The agglomeration of transnational power continues uninterrupted.

    Dystopian science fiction writer, Ivory Bill? Really?
    Art precedes reality.
    Ian is documenting dystopian science fact.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén