April 26 2012

The March of Progress

By The Philosophy Channel Editorial Staff

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You’re wondering why I’ve called you here. The reason is simple. To answer all your questions. I mean – all. This is the greatest news of our time. As of today, whatever you want to know, provided it’s in the datanet, you can know. In other words, there are no more secrets. --- (John Brunner, "The Shockwave Rider")

James Bamford, writing in WIRED magazine recently, describes the construction of a new security installation for the NSA:

“The spring air in the small, sand-dusted town has a soft haze to it, and clumps of green-gray sagebrush rustle in the breeze. Bluffdale sits in a bowl-shaped valley in the shadow of Utah’s Wasatch Range to the east and the Oquirrh Mountains to the west.

“Today Bluffdale is home to one of the nation’s largest sects of polygamists, the Apostolic United Brethren, with upwards of 9,000 members.

“But new pioneers have quietly begun moving into the area, secretive outsiders who say little and keep to themselves. Like the pious polygamists, they are focused on deciphering cryptic messages that only they have the power to understand. Just off Beef Hollow Road, less than a mile from brethren headquarters, thousands of hard-hatted construction workers in sweat-soaked T-shirts are laying the groundwork for the newcomers’ own temple and archive, a massive complex so large that it necessitated expanding the town’s boundaries. Once built, it will be more than five times the size of the US Capitol.

“Rather than Bibles, prophets, and worshippers, this temple will be filled with servers, computer intelligence experts, and armed guards. And instead of listening for words flowing down from heaven, these newcomers will be secretly capturing, storing, and analyzing vast quantities of words and images hurtling through the world’s telecommunications networks. In the little town of Bluffdale, Big Love and Big Brother have become uneasy neighbors.

“Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter.’ ”

David Brin, in his book The Transparent Society, published in 1998, frames “a tale of two cities. Cities of the near future…

“At first sight, these two municipalities look pretty much alike. Both contain dazzling technological marvels, especially in the realm of electronic media. Both suffer familiar urban quandaries of frustration and decay.”

But something has changed: “Street crime has nearly vanished from both towns. But that is only a symptom. A result.

“The real change peers down from every lamppost, every rooftop and street sign.

“Tiny cameras, panning left and right, survey traffic and pedestrians, observing everything in open view.

“Have we entered an Orwellian nightmare? Have the [mayors] of both towns banished muggings at the cost of creating a Stalinist dystopia?

“Consider city number one. In this place, all the myriad cameras [and digital traffic monitoring techniques] report their urban scenes straight to Police Central, where security officers use sophisticated image [audio and related online network surveillance] processors to scan for infractions against public order – or perhaps against an established way of thought. Citizens walk the street aware that any word or deed may be noted by agents of some mysterious bureau.”

In city number two, things look pretty much the same. “Only here we soon find a crucial difference. These devices do not report to the secret police. Rather, each and every citizen of this metropolis can use his or her wristwatch television [or smartphone] to call up images [and information] from any camera [or automatically translated database] in town [or across the world].”

The cameras aren’t everywhere. They are banned from private homes “and some indoor places ... but not police headquarters! There any citizen may tune in on bookings, arraignments, and especially the camera [and digital surveillance] control room itself, making sure the agents on duty look out for [...] crime [and genuine security threats only]. 

“The reader may find both situations somewhat chilling. Both futures may seem undesirable. But can there be any doubt which city we’d rather live in, if these two make up our only choice?”

Over the last few weeks, 14 million or so people have been contemplating a third option. One brought to us by the good folks at Google. It’s revealed in a YouTube video that takes us through a day in the near future while our protagonist is wearing “Google Glasses.” These are network-connected specs that gather and display all manner of online information as we go about our daily business. They certainly look like an interesting, and, potentially, revolutionary instance of a technological intervention in how we conduct our lives.

Of course, critics are saying that Google will just use all that new, on-the-go information to sell more advertising. Maybe so, but I think the folks on Beef Hollow Road will help keep them in line, don’t you?     

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