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

Why Non-surveillance States Will Out-compete Surveillance States

So, we have this proposal for cameras and mics in classrooms:

Johnson’s not a particularly important person and one can pick apart his logic (teachers don’t have guns), but the logic of unchecked surveillance — of cameras and microphones everywhere — leads to this place and far worse.

Right now, governments and corporations track your every move through your phone. They can force your microphone on and listen to you, and we know that they have. Infrared, gait recognition, and facial recognition, combined with drones, satellites, and ubiquitous cameras mean that it will soon be possible to track citizens’ movements 24/7 and listen in much of the time. Add in the cameras and microphones most people voluntarily put into their houses, which are in no way secure and which EULAs often allow access to anyway, and there is little to none of your life that will be unknown.

We are heading to this place. It is not in question — there is a VAST appetite for information in corporations so they can train their AIs and model and manipulate you, and from governments driven by the idea that “well, if we don’t surveil everyone and anything bad happens, we can be blamed,” from police and intelligence agencies.

There is an argument, put first, so far as I know, by David Brin, that mass surveilance is inevitable. The technology will exist (he wrote in 1998) and it will be used, and the only question is whether it ends up that everyone is surveilled and everyone can watch it, or if only criminals, government, and big corps get to watch and listen, and the rest of us are just passive victims.

I will suggest that there is a third path.

We live in a time when we have repeatedly refused to actually control technology if a profit can be made from it. Obviously, evil technologies have been allowed to run rampant to the point where we may render our entire planet unliveable.

So we assume we can’t control technology: “If it exists, it will be used.”

There is a counter-example. The Japanese Tokugawa Shogunate didn’t like firearms. They limited them and, over time, got rid of most of them except for a few old ones.

That ended badly for them: The American White Ships came, forced Japan open, and the Shogunate fell to a an internal rebellion, whose motto might as well have been “More guns! Lots more Guns! And Gunships! And EMPIRE!”

But only the first part applies to rejecting most surveillance technology because surveillance tech is not a competitive advantage between states (one can argue it makes training modern “AIs” easier, but that is minor).

Surveillance states, where people know that everything they do or say is recorded, create stultifying conformity. Almost everyone acts the same way and the easiest way to act the same way is to think and feel the same way.

Since the age of helicopter parenting and insecurity (which requires kids to go to school and get good grades and do everything right), measures of American creativity have crashed.

But this is a general rule: States where you can’t be different without being punished, where you can’t say or think what others disagree with, are obviously less creative.

Less creative states are less competitive states in eras where technology and culture matter.

If any state is brave enough to outlaw surveillance tech (except in limited circumstances), and do the work to make it stick (ie. re-engineer modern telecom tech, which is designed to be insecure from the ground up, plus be pro-active and criminally punitive to those who violate the law) they will have a massive advantage over surveillance states, technologically and culturally. I’m willing to predict, with near 100 percent certainty, that if most countries go to full-surveillance state mode, whichever ones don’t are the places which will have technological and artistic golden ages — especially if they are also smart enough to welcome refugees from surveillance states.

Freedom; real freedom, is a competitive advantage in eras where technology or culture (really, the two are intertwined) determine who wins. States which embrace surveillance technology will be ones where elites are more concerned with maintaining their internal position, i.e., staying in charge of their society and keeping the peons down, rather than those who look outwards to competition against other societies and who want the most vibrant and interesting culture internally.

The choice to embrace surveillance states is the choice to stagnate.

Many think it is otherwise, “we must embrace all technologies without choosing how they are used or we will fall behind.”

This is an immature stance; a foolish one. The mature, intelligent stance is to look at technologies and see what their results are likely to be, and then use them intelligently, to control technology and not be controlled by it.

Certainly there are technologies that are so bad overall that, as long as we have individual states, we will have to use them or fall behind in a world where those who fall behind are treated abominably; but surveillance isn’t one of those technologies. Rather, embracing it will make societies less competitive and reduce their inhabitants’ quality of life. Its only advantage is for those seeking a steady-state police state or cyberpunk dystopia.

All others should steer well clear, and all individuals who aren’t themselves very powerful should understand that surveillance is intended to dis-empower them — to get the most out of them possible, while giving the least in return, and turning them into automata for the benefit of the overlords (think Amazon warehouses and delivery drivers).

You cannot be more free than if you are unknown to your masters. The more they know, the more they will control. If you let the powerful turn you into a surveillance object, they will wring you dry, and you will have to hope that some society, somewhere, is still free and defeats your dystopia.

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  1. Chiron

    Since the 90s there was articles about how increasing technology would reduce privacy, every country that has the tech will become a Surveillance State which the big ones being US and Zionist Occupied Palestine (Intel chips have backdoors).

  2. Synoptocon

    “But this is a general rule: states where you can’t be different without being punished; where you can’t say or think what others disagree with are obviously less creative.”

    I’m not so sure. The great engineering cultures of the former Soviet Union and China would seem to argue to the contrary. I rather suspect that factors beyond coercion and conformity matter a great deal (and are probably predominant) and that correctly defining the specific natures of creativity, conformity and suppression are key.

  3. Plague Species

    The Diplomat agrees. It argues that China’s massive surveillance state is an indicator not of its strength, but rather of its fragility. Chiron is wrong, America is not the biggest surveillance state. China is. And America has been happy to help China build it.

    In 40 years or less, states or nations, whatever you want to them, will be a relic of the past. There’s no escape from what’s coming.

  4. Feral Finster

    If there is any truth to The Iron Law of Oligarchy, free states may or may not enjoy a competitive advantage over police states, but the free states will eventually succumb to the police state temptation and be every bit as oppressive as the police states they out-competed.

  5. Dan Lynch

    Teaching K-12 has been horribly micromanaged long before surveillance technology came along and, yes, the micromanagement deters creativity and drives out a lot of good people. The teachers who can survive in a micromanaged work environment are the dullest and most conformist, the one who don’t rock the boat and who don’t take chances. And the same is probably true for most occupations.

    So Ian is correct and I would only reframe the issue as “micromanagement” of which surveillance technology is just one small part. And the focus should not be on making your country competitive — are we supposed to be competing to see which country has the biggest dick? Instead, the focus should be on making your country a nice place to live. If that happens to make it more “competitive,” fine, but who really cares as long as it is a nice place to live?

    The broader solution includes replacing fire-at-will employment with “just cause” laws that make it hard for employers to fire workers. Have a UBI or a strong safety net to fall back on if you do get fired, so ordinary people can have the courage to take chances. Full employment so employers are forced to accept any worker who has the basic qualifications. Require corporate boards of directors to include workers and require school boards to include teachers.

  6. Ché Pasa

    I’m so old, I remember a time of extreme hyperbole and hysterics over the idea of government surveillance. It was especially intense after the Snowden revelations of mass warrantless surveillance of practically everybody almost all the time. I’m sure Ian and many of his readers remember, too.

    At the time, I remember asking, “What about corporate surveillance? It’s much more pervasive and intrusive. ” Nah, they said, that’s different. Corporations are benign, they suggested. Government is evil. Government has The Power to compel. Corporations do not. I pointed out that’s not true. Corporations are quite capable of enforcing their rule on whomever they want whenever they want, and they do it, too. Government may or may not do it, depending on lots of factors including the desires of their corporate overlords.

    And did you know, I asked, that Government buys surveillance product from private corporations all the time. It does no good to prohibit government surveillance, because more and better information is always available on the market.

    The Snowden revelations did not lead to any reduction in surveillance, government or corporate. If anything it’s increased exponentially, and there appears to be nothing much we can do about it.

    As for surveillance enforcing conformity, it doesn’t seem to be, does it?

    Certainly not in the US, though if one of the fascist outfits gains complete control of the government, we might go through a period of forced conformity supported by mass surveillance. But experience says it will dissipate. The most conformist period in the US I’m aware of was during WWII and for a decade and some years afterwards. It wasn’t a heavily surveilled society — there wasn’t the technology to do it. But it was rigidly and almost absurdly conformist. And yet, it was highly innovative and creative (not necessarily on behalf of what’s good and right!).

    So I think we need to ponder what mass surveillance is doing now, what are the likely upshots, and how much avoidance of surveillance is necessary or desirable.

  7. NR

    So the same political party that wants to give teacher guns also wants to put cameras in the classrooms because they don’t trust teachers. Interesting.

    Someone should ask the Republicans why they want to give guns to a bunch of Marxist indoctrinators.

  8. Plague Species

    Someone should ask the Republicans why they want to give guns to a bunch of Marxist indoctrinators.

    Excellent point. One more example of how they are arrogant walking contradictions. Another one is vaccine recalcitrance. They have no problem drinking and eating Roundup and defending that, but God forbid they should receive a vaccine.

    Miners are on strike in Alabama and as you would expect if you’ve been studying these morons, there are a number of them on the picket lines with MAGA hats. Yes, McDonald Trump will get you that livable wage. WTF? Too funny.

    These folks cannot be rehabilitated. Sorry, Barbara Ehrenreich, proud ignorance and imbecility is part of their culture. Maybe even in their DNA. They were born to be slaves. There is no helping them. You cannot help those who will not help themselves and instead engage in self-sabotage again and again.

  9. different clue

    Digital spytech is a particular weapons system for the Corporation Class and anyone else who uses it for digital spying. So it can be thought about in its own right even before or even whether we think about the more diffuse problem of micromanagement.

    To the extent that millions of little ” citizen we’s ” can blind and deafen and lobotomize the little bits of digital spytech in our own habitats, we can somewhat weaken the overall digital spytech weapons-web.

    So the individual person can examine herm’s own personal limited power to keep digital spytech out of some parts of herm’s life. If you have a dumm house, keep it dumm. Don’t engage with Amazon and disengage from it if you can. Follow Ian Welsh’s and other peoples’ advice about digital spyphone-cellphone hygeine. Pay cash not credit for many ordinary purchases.

    The Amish have long thought about technologies in this way. Could a technology be disruptive to the Amish Order? Then they won’t adopt it.

  10. different clue

    My lonely comment sits and weeps in moderation.

  11. nihil obstet

    Aren’t privacy and secrecy characteristics of an authoritarian hierarchy? For most of our species’ existence, we’ve lived in groups that pretty much knew what everybody else was doing. I suspect that our most likely acceptable solution to surveillance is to figure out how to take power out of secrecy.

  12. Willy

    I’m so old, I remember a time of extreme hyperbole and hysterics over the idea of government surveillance.

    That was back before corporations could buy government. Before the Gilded Age? Before the slave trade? Dang, you must be really old.

    (Sorry, I just got out of a debate over whether marxism or capitalism caused more deaths. You know, the one where the conservative keeps moving the definitions of “capitalism” until every possible government until The Framers was marxist. I’d rather roof a house with jello squares.)

  13. Trinity

    I would think cameras in classrooms will end education as we know it, especially if they allow parents to either livestream or view recordings. Then the lawsuits will begin, against classmates, the teacher, the school, the school district. Teachers will quit from the additional burden. The only people willing to work under full surveillance like that will be actors, narcissists, and other attention seekers.

    Note that this the addition of cameras, as they already have sound.

    Maybe that is their goal: to privatize (monetize) public education. Everything must be turned into some form of rent. They can even sell the videos, or force parents or college students to buy them if a class is missed. Why have 3000 public school districts when you can stream single lectures by grade/topic on the tube?

    And then control the content, given that in their minds, the future non-oligarchs will be spending their very short lives in space, mining minerals and building the Enterprise for space exploration. The less education we receive the better is probably what they are thinking.

    Who knows, maybe what they really want is for us to have to rent even our K-12 educations. They’ve already done that with college educations.

    It’s one thing to have a computer listen for specific spoken words (and they still missed things), it’s something else entirely to analyze millions of hours of streaming video. They had better hurry up, because climate change is becoming serious.

  14. Plague Species

    Surveillance is already in the classroom. For those of us who have kids, we know that kids have their smart phones with them wherever they go and wherever they are, including the classroom. Their smart phones are their true guardians. Their true mentors. Their smart phones are what form and shape them. Their smart phones have taken the place of their parents. And they welcome it and they couldn’t care less they are being surveilled. Being surveilled is just fine with them. You all are not them. You’ll be dead soon enough and they don’t give one iota what you think and feel about surveillance. Your opinion on the matter simply doesn’t matter to them and nothing you do or say will change the fact that the hearts and minds of the Youth have been conquered and captured. The war is won. Now it’s just directing.

  15. Trinity

    Well, actually I do have a child, and he hasn’t been captured, and he does have a smart phone (and had one in a classroom) and he and his friends do want to hear what I say, because I spent the majority of my adult life making $7 an hour while working full time and putting myself through school part-time, and I fell into almost every trap they laid down until I schooled myself to their tricks. So, I’ve been aware of these problems for many decades (and he previously didn’t believe me and now he does) so we discuss these things often. Together we are planning his future survival because my expiration date is 22 years closer than his.

    But I can see why your kids would ignore you, Plague. Your lack of compassion and empathy combined with your clearly-visible rage would turn most people away from you. You also declare your assumptions as fact, and you generalize everything so incredibly much no one should listen to you.

    Or perhaps your goal is really to shut down this blog, given how much you hate it, it’s owner, and the people who frequent here. You make this very clear on your own blog. If this is your goal, I would love to know how much they are paying you. If you hate this blog and the people who comment here so much, why else are you here? Do you really think your blog’s sole topic of attacking this blog will make it successful? Or is your blog what it appears to be, an ineffective outlet of your misdirected rage?

    I didn’t create the problems and my son has the ability to recognize that, but I don’t dictate for the simple reason he has to literally live with our choices. We solve problems together, we come up with ideas together. You, on the other hand, inappropriately (and ineffectively) direct your rage at the powerless.

    If you are not trying to shut this blog down, I hope you find a way through and past your rage and gain the ability to reconnect with your kids. Some anger management classes might help. I would prefer, for your family’s sake, that you become more effective in guiding them into our uncertain future.

  16. Plague Species

    Good for you, “Trinity.” Your kid, if you really have one, is an exception to the rule and trend. My observations are not isolated to just my children. It’s everywhere. Like picking fruit, it’s so ubiquitous and in your face. But hey, deny it if it makes you feel better. You win. You’re a better parent. Here’s your gold star.

  17. different clue


    In general, and not commenting about anyone in particular, no hostile troll can shut down a blog. All they can do is fill it up with radioactive trash comments.

    But God made a scroll button. It takes only a second per troll-identified comment to scroll past each one. That means it would take a minute to scroll past 60 troll trash comments. That isn’t too hard to do.

    The trick is to not engage and not reply. Because ” engaging and replying” is called feeding the troll and ” not engaging and replying” is called not feeding the troll.

    If the high-value readers-writers restrict themselves to reading the posts and then reading eachothers’ comments and replying if indicated, then the troll trash can be bypassed. And it is worth the minimal effort it takes to keep scrolling scrolling scrolling.

    God made a scroll button.

  18. Plague Species

    God made a scroll button.

    God made the “troll trash” too according to that logic. Also by that logic, God made nuclear weaponry and climate change. God made guns and heroin. But best of all, God made The Net.

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