DAVID BRIN's world of ideas


The Solution of Looking Back

by David Brin, Ph.D.

(Copyright © 2005)

"Surveillance comes with a price. It dulls the edge of public debate, imposes a sense of conformity, introduces a feeling of being watched. It chills culture and stifles dissent." -- Robert O'Harrow Jr., in No Place To Hide

[image from Issues Deliberation]

This sounds intuitively obvious, and it was almost certainly true in most other societies, in which narrow elites monopolized both power and the flow of information. But should we accept it, unexamined, as a valid assumption about us? Ask almost any American, next door or on the street, if they plan to be docile, indimidated, or back down from voicing opinionated views, even in the coming panopticon world. Generally, they are much more worried about being harmed than they are about being seen.

O'Harrow does allude, briefly, to the underlying reason for this historically unusual degree of citizen confidence. Our rambunctious civilization owes much of its success to methodologies worked out by an eclectic series of Enlightenment figures, ranging from Locke and Smith all the way to Brandeis and Marshall, Eisenhower and Hayek, King and Kerouac, all promoting the notion of reciprocal accountability. Citizens may learn to thrive, even in an environment where varied elites know much about them. That is, if citizens, in turn, remain fiercely knowledgable.

Alas, O'Harrow shrugs off this alternative with another truism: "By definition, it (surveillance) is very often secret and hard to hold accountable." Certainly, this is the core danger and it would have been nice if the author spotlighted it for more than a sentence or two. Instead, the phrase "by definition" simply wipes away the possibility of alternatives. Like the option of looking back. By this way of thinking, the most objectionable sections of the Patriot Act were not those portions allowing the FBI to see, or surveil, a little better. (How, in any event, will you prevent it?) Rather, the truly scary parts of that law were those removing oversight, supervision and the power of each well-informed citizen to hold public servants accountable.

Some have started speaking up for that option. Take, for example, the souseveillance movement. Where surveillance means "watching from above," the French prefix "souse" (pronounced soo) suggests looking back from below, or watching the watchmen. It should be no surprise that this movement has a technical and somewhat nerdy radical fringe. Some, like University of Toronto Professor Steve Mann, have been wearing internet links over one eye for a decade, calling themselves the world's first "cyborgs." Naturally, they reject fashionable Luddism, believing that technology will empower 21st Century citizenship. To a degree that even I find a bit weird.

But then, I consider myself a moderate. Don't you?

* * *


They watch when you're shopping and driving and eating.
They watch who you're calling and watch who you're meeting.
They watch where you're surfing and watch who you're mailing,
But tables are turned with some inverse surveilling.

You'll know the places that they'll know you're going
Since they watched your to-ing but you watched their fro-ing.
And if you would share what you know on the 'net -
Light disinfects! So they're less a threat.

Since spiers when spied on, I think it's apparent,
Are quite like a mirror that's fully transparent.
So don't just take action - record it, transmit it.
If that's viewed as sin then I say "go commit it."

Yes, spend some time watching and spread the word blogging.
Buy wearable cameras and learn cyborglogging.
Then Big Brother, in a fate he'll find irksome, ironic,
Will be stripped to his skivvies in a world panopticonic.

Copyright © 2005 by Gregory K. Pincus