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This website was archived on July 20, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.
Exolymph creator Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Reclaiming the Panopticon

The following is Tim Herd’s response to the previous dispatch about sousveillance.

A tech executive was quoted saying something like, “Privacy is dead. Deal with it.” [According to the Wall Street Journal, it was Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems. He said, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”]

I think he’s right, for most working definitions of “privacy”. I think that security professionals, privacy advocates, etc, are fighting rearguard actions and they will lose eventually.

Less than a year after Amazon rolls out Alexa, cops pull audio from it to get evidence for a conviction. That microphone is on 24/7, and in full knowledge of this people still buy them.


Information is valuable. The same technology that lets me look up photos of your house for shits and grins, or to stalk you, is what powers Google Maps.

Privacy and these new technologies will, and have already, come into conflict. The value of the new tech is way, way more than the value of the privacy lost.

This can devolve into 1984 lightning fast. On the other hand, think about this: “Probably the best-known recent example of sousveillance is when Los Angeles resident George Holliday videotaped police officers beating Rodney King after he had been stopped for a traffic violation.” [From the Steve Mann paper.]

The same surveillance tech that makes us spied on all the time, makes other people spied on all the time. I can’t get up to no good, but cops can’t either.

It’s a tool, and it all depends on how it’s used.

Take me, for example. With a handful of exceptions that I am not putting to paper, there is nothing in my life that is particularly problematic. If the government were spying on me 24/7, it wouldn’t even matter. I have nothing to hide.

(I understand the implications regarding wider social norms. I’m working under the assumption that That Ship Has Sailed.)

The people who do have things to hide, well, we made that shit illegal for a reason. Why should I care when they get burned? That’s the whole goddamn point of the law.

(Aside: I believe that the more strictly enforced a law is, the better it is for everyone overall, because consistency of expectations is important. I bet that the roads would be much safer and more orderly if every single time anyone sped, ever, they automatically got a speeding ticket. Always. No matter what. No cat-and-mouse games with cops, no wondering which lights have speed cameras. Just a dirt-simple law. Here is the rule. Follow it and we are fine. Break it and you will always lose. So many problems are caused by people trying to game the rules, break them whenever possible, and follow them only when they have to.)

(Continued aside: Obviously shit would hit the fan if we started automatically 100% enforcing every traffic law. But you better believe that within a month of that policy being rolled out nationwide, speed limits would rise by at least 50%.)

The reason we care about surveillance is that a lot of things are more illegal than we think they should be.

Obvious example: In a world of perfect surveillance, 50% of California gets thrown in federal prison for smoking weed.

All of this is build-up to my hypothesis:

  • The fully surveilled world is coming, whether we like it or not.
  • This will bring us a ton of benefits if we’re smart and brave enough to leverage it.
  • This will bring an unprecedented ability for authorities to impose on us and coerce us, if we are not careful.

Which brings me to the actual thesis: Libertarianism and formal anarchy is going to be way more important in the near future, to cope with this. In a world of perfect surveillance, every person in San Francisco can be thrown in prison if a prosecutor feels like it. Because, for example, literally every in-law rental is illegal (unless they changed the law).

The way you get a perfect surveillance world without everyone going to prison is drastic liberalization of criminal law, drastic reduction of regulatory law, and live-and-let-live social norms that focus very precisely on harms suffered and on restorative justice.

A more general idea that I am anchoring everything on: A lot of people think tech is bad, but that is because they do not take agency over it. Tech is a tool with unimaginable potential for good… if you take initiative and use it. If you sit back and just wait for it to happen, it goes bad.

If you sit back and wait as Facebook starts spying on you more and more, then you will get burned. But if instead you take advantage of it and come up with a harebrained scheme to find dates by using Facebook’s extremely powerful ad-targeting technology… you will benefit so hard.

Header artwork depicting Facebook as a global panopticon by Joelle L.

Uninformation Campaigns

So, this is fun! A black-hat “reputation management” firm seems to be filing illegitimate lawsuits in order to get judgments that will force Google to take down unflattering search results. The case-by-case details are worth reading, but here’s a taste of what Washington Post reporters Eugene Volokh and Paul Alan concluded:

Google and various other Internet platforms have a policy: They won’t take down material (or, in Google’s case, remove it from Google indexes) just because someone says it’s defamatory. […] But if they see a court order that declares that some material is defamatory, they tend to take down or deindex the material, relying on the court’s decision. […]

Who is behind these cases? For many of these, we don’t know. As we mentioned, many of the plaintiffs might well not have known what was happening. They might have hired a reputation management company, expecting it to get the negative posts removed legitimately (e.g., through a legitimate libel lawsuit, or through negotiation with the actual authors).

(Bold in original. Story via @counternotions on Twitter.)

Mostly I find this amusing, but I also feel a touch uneasy. For one thing, the courts appear to have verified nothing. So this is a case of slimy lawyers tricking the state into suppressing free speech, solely because their clients paid them to. The state went along with it happily (except for one skeptical judge). Systems that only work when everyone acts in good faith… well, those systems are easy to break.

You can argue that Google is not the government and it’s not a legal free speech issue for them to exclude whatever they see fit from their search results. And to be honest, I don’t know where the official line falls. But I do think it’s notable that Google is only deindexing this material because a government entity has instructed them to, however indirectly.

I guess that wouldn’t be a problem if the court were acting competently?

In other news, some modern humans find themselves in this situation: “Still haven’t had a first cup of tea this morning, debugging the kettle and now iWifi base-station has reset. Boiling water in saucepan now.”

Header image by Sean MacEntee.

Unconvincing Androids

Kids called them Hollow Heads. When the androids hit the market, the term “Bunnies” almost caught on instead, inspired by the ear-like antenna prongs, but the alliteration of “Hollow Heads” was more appealing to the first generation who interacted with the machines.

Artwork by NicoTag.

Artwork by NicoTag.

Besides, the increasingly powerful House Rabbit Society lobbied against the trend conflating their beloved pets with humanoid robots. After dogs died out in the 2030s, rabbits got a lot more popular, and their owners weren’t keen on having their endearments coopted.

One of the original engineers admitted on a virtustream that his design riffed off of an old film, back when screens were dominant. He said it was called Chappie. No one else seemed to remember this movie and soon the engineer disappeared from spokesmanship.

The other big innovation, besides the distinctive “ears” (which didn’t actually have any audio-processing capabilities), was to make the androids slightly insectoid. Just a little something in their structure. Babies found them unsettling, and this was judged to be good. Faces without heads — you could relate to them, but you’d never mistake them for human.

At first the market responded better to realistic androids. Boutiques liked them, as did hotels. But after a couple of high-profile impersonations splashed all over the virtustreams, along with that one abduction, the Bureau of Consumer Protection pushed Congress to regulate the new machines. They codified the Hollow Head design, and soon a thousand variations were being imported from China.

It wasn’t that the androids had been going rogue. Their owners programmed them for nefarious purposes. The nice thing about the Hollow Heads is that they really stood out, so you wouldn’t have them going around signing contracts without being detected.

Of course, the US Empire’s sphere of influence was only so big. Plenty of factories in Russia kept churning out androids with full craniums, some also featuring convincingly visible pores.

Something Something Blockchain

Yay, We Don’t Need Politics Anymore!

The DAO's logo, grabbed from their website.

The DAO’s logo, grabbed from their website.

I wanted to resist writing about The DAO — that stands for “decentralized autonomous organization” — but after going through my notes from this past week’s reading, I realized that I can’t avoid it.

The reason I wanted to steer clear is that everyone else has already said it better, but maybe you don’t subscribe to their newsletters. Besides, who else will address the cyberpunk angle?

Bloomberg columnist Matt Levine covered The DAO with delightful snark:

“One of the great joys of our modern age, with its rapid advances in financial technology, is examining the latest innovation to try to figure out what centuries-old idea has been dressed up in cryptographical mystification.”

To summarize aggressively, The DAO wants to crowdsource an entire company, which will sort of act as a venture capital partnership, dispensing ETH, a bitcoin-like cryptocurrency. You can read plenty more about their structure and setup on their website. The DAO’s main differentiators are “smart contracts” and, as the name suggests, decentralized governance:

“The ETH held by The DAO will never be centrally managed. DAO Token Holders are able to vote on important decisions relating to the management of The DAO, including the power to redistribute its ETH amongst themselves.”

Cryptocurrency Art Gallery by Namecoin.

Cryptocurrency Art Gallery by Namecoin.

The cryptocurrency crowd fascinates me because many of them seem to think they can opt out of normal human power structures, or somehow use code to avoid disputes. And I think that’s… well, impossible. (Maybe I am strawmanning egregiously, in which case I hope a cryptocurrency enthusiast or garden-variety libertarian will email me to point it out.) As I’ve written before:

“There is a reason why centralization happens over and over again in human history. We didn’t invent the Code of Hammurabi out of the blue. Monarchy did not develop randomly, and republics require executive branches.”

Direct democracy is a terrible system; I would go so far as to say it’s unworkable. Does anyone endorse mob rule? And centralized power is an oft-repeated pattern because it’s efficient. Furthermore, we have courts and the like because they’re useful — because the need for arbitration arises frequently despite the existence of contracts. Going back to Matt Levine’s article:

“The reason that ‘law and jurisdiction’ come into play is that sometimes stuff happens that is not addressed with perfect clarity in the contract. Sometimes the parties need to renegotiate to address something not specifically anticipated in the contract. Sometimes they can’t agree, and need an outside adjudicator to decide what should happen. And sometimes the project affects people who never signed the contract in the first place, but who have a claim nevertheless.”

And as business analyst Ben Thompson wrote in his “Bitcoin and Diversity” essay:

“I can certainly see the allure of a system that seeks to take all decision-making authority out of the hands of individuals: it’s math! […] If humans made the rules, then appealing to the rules can never be non-political. Indeed, it’s arguably worse, because an appeal to ‘rules’ forecloses debate on the real world effects of said rules.”

Lots of people don’t want to do the hard things. They don’t want to admit that decisions always carry tradeoffs, and they don’t want to negotiate messy human disagreements. But a world without those hard things is fairyland — nothing more than a nice dream.

As we continue to integrate computing into our daily lives, our legal system, and our financial system, we will have to keep grappling with human fallibility — especially when we delude ourselves into thinking we can escape it.

Update circa June 19: I was tempted to write about The DAO again, since it’s been “hacked” (sort of) and a “thief” (sort of) absconded with $50 million (USD value). However, a lot of other people have already published variations of what I wanted to say. The drama is still unfolding — /r/ethereum is a decent place to keep track — so I can’t point you to a canonical writeup, but Matt Levine’s new analysis is both cogent and funny. Also this Hacker News comment is smart.

Gender =/= Genitalia

As was reported in The New York Times (as well as other media outlets) and decried on Twitter:

“North Carolina legislators, in a whirlwind special session on Wednesday, passed a wide-ranging bill barring transgender people from bathrooms and locker rooms that do not match the gender on their birth certificates. […] The bill also prohibits local governments from raising minimum wage levels above the state level — something a number of cities in other states have done.”

Perhaps you’ll be unsurprised to hear that this was a Republican initiative. It’s telling that the bill reinforces poverty in the same breath as criminalizing free gender expression. If you want an overview of why this law is not only bigoted but impracticable, I recommend Andi McClure’s tweets on the topics.

So how does transphobic legislation tie into cyberpunk? The genre is about straining against a technologically mediated dystopia. You can’t necessarily jam every type of oppression into that framework. But gender typifies how the analogue world has been bounded in a way that the digital world can’t be.

Our binary gender system is nominally based on reproductive phenotypes. It’s full of contradictions. If genitalia is what defines womanhood, then how does a cliterodectomy affect things? Or a hysterectomy? Is a post-op trans woman okay, even if her birth certificate lists her as male? What about intersex people, or those with three sex chromosomes? Why are we so beholden to this outdated set of assumptions? Why does it matter?

Mainstream opinion often conflates gender with reproductive capabilities, boiling identity down to our basic animal urges. I’m not anti-sex, but I do believe that we’re capable of acting on more than our primal mating impulse. The future is beyond bodies. A few decades from now — and during some parts of the present — we will not be confined to flesh, nor even to brains. It’s that old New Yorker joke: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” On the Internet, speech is an act, and you can create yourself anew with words and pixels.

I wish meatspace operated by the same principles. If you find the situation in North Carolina as appalling as I do, please join me in donating to Lambda Legal.

Power Is Necessary

“No freely occupied and used commons extends endlessly where human societies are involved.” That’s Doctor Chris Demchak, quoted in an article about LUElinks, which is an invite-only forum similar to Reddit. LUElinks was created in 2004 because another forum called GameFAQs banned a user named LlamaGuy for posting Goatse. (Do NOT search “Goatse” on Google Images.) LUElinks has never been as lawless as 4chan, but it was specifically created to escape rules. Recently — twelve years after the community’s inception — a high-profile user was banned for calling the cops on another user. (I know this because I’m friends with a longtime LUEser.)

As Doctor Demchak said, rules will always develop. Even if they’re not spelled out at first, community norms usually transition from implicit assumptions to specific codes of behavior, often written down. Controlling groups emerge — cliques, elected officials, or charismatic dictators. It’s impossible to escape power structures; the best anyone can manage is to pretend that they don’t exist (which is a bad idea). Human nature makes these dynamics unavoidable. Jo Freeman wrote a very insightful article on this topic called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. Bitcoin developers and community organizers should all read it.

Cyberpunk fascinates me as a genre because it explores the way technology manifests and accelerates human power differentials. The gadgetry is cool, but the political ramifications are deeply engrossing. (For the record, I am not a libertarian or an anarchist, although both philosophies appeal to me. Fundamentally I am a cynic/pragmatist rather than an idealist. Utopia is unachievable.)

The Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania. Flickr user fusion-of-horizons wrote an interesting caption:

“I feel like rioting when I remember how the statist world I was born in tried to destroy any place of personal freedom including organized religion and private property. Constructing the palace in this image and the huge remodeled area around it called The Civic Center required demolishing much of Bucharest’s historic district, including 19 Orthodox Christian churches (plus 8 relocated churches and monasteries), 6 Jewish synagogues, 3 Protestant churches, and 30,000 residences. Even the army was mobilized to build this and many soldiers and workers died during construction because safety was regularly sacrificed to increase building speed.”

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