No matter what the future may contain, one thing is certain: just about everything in it, including us, will increasingly be under surveillance. Our habits, patterns, health, and preferences will be translated into data.
Who will benefit from this valuable information, and how can we start developing the mindset to deal with this reality now? To get started, let’s filter a few core concepts and tough questions through our imaginations.
The concept of privacy is relative, and it may be a luxury, but it’s good when people are able to relax, think, live and create without fearing that curiosity and exploration will come back to haunt them.
Surveillance limits our freedom, but it could also allow us to save lives. For example, if there are detectable patterns that lead to genocide (and experts say there are), could public surveillance in Myanmar lead to the prevention of what some fear is rapidly becoming a mass scale humanitarian crisis for the country’s Muslims?
If we could see such events before they escalate, what would we do about it? Is the possibility of detecting and preventing calamities, which we’ve never been able to do before, worth the loss of privacy in public places?
Maybe real life in a surveillance environment will resemble a massively multiplayer game, and maybe it will retain some of the individual character of life as we now perceive it, but my guess is that some blend of the two will occur. Game designer Richard Garriott de Cayeux (AKA Lord British) is working on a new project, Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, which gives us a glimpse of the possible future of ethics in a surveillance state that invisibly watches and judges.
The story line in many games is that you are the hero and you fight your way up to the final battle against some evil character. Often, the player who is supposed to be the hero does all kinds of evil things on his way to gaining power on the path of least resistance, while the bad guy often has done nothing but wait for the supposed hero to arrive for deadly combat. In response to this paradigm, Garriott created a system for Ultima IV made up of eight virtues: honesty, love, valor, justice, self-sacrifice, honor, spirituality and humility. As the hero progresses through the game, he still has all the usual opportunities to lie, cheat and steal. Later, however, the hero’s delusion of supremacy is shattered when his tally of misdeeds is revealed, requiring an ethical do-over in order to win.
"We held up a mirror to exactly what you did do," Garriott says. "Are you a hero?"
Are we ready to face the consequences of our misdeeds the same way we already face the possibility of getting a ticket in the mail when an invisible speed trap clocks us going over the limit? And who will be the arbiter of motivation? Will surveillance help us think about our preconceived notions of good and evil at another level, so we can assess our weaknesses and improve our character, or will it be a tool to help us reinforce our misperceptions and act on them at an irrevocable scale?
Right now, privacy is violated by cameras, code, scanners, and drones. In the future our bodies will contain chips, implants and nanobots. Garriott says he realizes it may be a futile gesture, but he opts out of scanners at the airport because he wants to stay in touch with the right to exercise some degree of privacy while he can. Security expert Bruce Schneier made some changes to his blog this week to enable people to share while protecting privacy. "Fighting against the massive amount of surveillance data collected about us as we surf the Internet is hard, and possibly even fruitless," Schneier wrote. "But I think it’s important to try."
Here’s a possible timeline for the future of surveillance:
- In the near future, an increasingly milquetoast society will live in fear that experimentation might be misconstrued and punished without motivation and context being thoughtfully considered.
- Meanwhile, genuine maniacs will find a way to behave violently when they are able to escape detection.
- In the longer term, the intelligent underground counterculture will struggle to stay a step ahead of slow-moving bureaucracies.
- After the full penetration of surveillance reaches its apex, some catalyzing event will result in widespread nostalgia (to whatever degree our cyborg lives and circumstances permit at that point) for some semblance of privacy.
- The counterculture will start to go mainstream as meaningful analysis of data gains greater depth.
- The distant future will belong to storytellers who can make sense of the data and help us understand what it means to be human in an increasingly technological environment.