I recently finished Dave Eggers’s “The Circle” which provided a good challenge to my baseline view that more transparency is good and that data protection is a futile effort. One of the systems in the novel is an easy to deploy camera that anyone can point at anything and provide a livestream. Called “SeeChange” the promoters argue that it will provide for reduced crime, increased safety and just additional information all around. The detractors are either smeared (with planted information) or hunted down by aggressive mobs.
SeeChange doesn’t exist in precisely that form, but cameras are rapidly becoming cheaper and eventually a bundle of camera plus networking plus battery / solar recharge will drop below $50 and millions of always on cameras will be watching us. This is not a question of if but when. And there are startups, such as Placemeter which lets individuals contribute and be paid for video feeds to help with city data (including car and foot traffic flows).
I was thinking about this a lot over the weekend as Susan and I were driving a lot to visit two of our children at different summer camps. We were on the road for over 12 hours and saw a lot of police cars that had pulled over speeders. We too were speeding most of the time. It struck me that the existing system of enforcement is both arbitrary and inefficient. Conversely a system of cameras would let us raise the overall speed limit and more importantly make it adaptive to the conditions (eg visibility, rain). Tickets can then be issued automatically on the basis of reading license plates. Similar systems are already in use in Germany.
Here then are two possible extremes: one one end, we could try to outlaw such cameras or outlaw their broad based deployment. This seems like a complete losing proposition to me. Enforcement would be impossible (short of a dictatorship). We would wind up with police surveillance owned and controlled by the existing power structure. And if you doubt the potency of video to curtail official violence read the grim account of officers deliberately taking inmates to areas on Rikers without video cameras before brutally beating them.
The other extreme would be to actively promote more cameras and make all the streams public at all times. In The Circle this extreme also includes cameras (not unlike Google Glass) worn around the neck that broadcast what the wearer is doing — including their meetings and conversations, which politicians are using to “go transparent.” A centralized system would of course have a huge opportunity for manipulation so the extreme would be to have lots of these streaming directly or through many different systems.
There may be viable in-between positions which impose some limits (eg requiring disclosure of cameras inside of restaurants or other semi-public locations). This is a real challenge and one we should debate publicly with some urgency. Literature can and should contribute to that debate. Much as I am a fan of work like Egger’s and Doctorow’s it is almost too easy to write a dystopia these days. The real challenge, it seems to me, is to write a new utopia.