Aside from an Occupy march or three, my life is unexciting. I’ve never had a speeding ticket, never been arrested, don’t do drugs. But if I *wanted* to smoke a joint in my backyard, I’d like to think I could do so without some drone hovering a mile overhead watching me do it. Don’t they even make little drones that look like insects and birds and stuff or did I read that in a Michael Crichton book?
This article in The Atlantic should have all of us pretty pissed off. There’s a limit to how much surveillance we need to keep everyone on the straight and narrow:
Drones, in my mind, make it clear how many of our feelings about privacy rest on the assumption that surveillance is time consuming or difficult. If someone smokes a joint in her backyard, she is making the (pretty good) calculation that a police officer is not watching. In our cars, we assume we can quickly send a text message at a red light or not wear our seatbelts for a few minutes or drive a few miles over the speed limit. We don’t expect that someone is watching our every move and that gives the law some give, a bendiness that reflects it’s a human construction.
But these little flying video and audio recorders, paired with powerful data analysis tools, make previously unthinkable levels of surveillance possible, even easy. Before the Internet, tracking someone’s reading and shopping activities would have been nearly impossible without a private detective. Now, new online tracking tools make it possible to easily capture every page that you visit on the Internet. So companies do. Technology doesn’t create entirely novel privacy questions, but it tilts the playing field towards or away from increased privacy without many citizens (or courts!) really noticing that anything had changed.
Let’s look at one example of how drones change the privacy equation. We tend to think of our homes as having a perimeter. Property maps are two-dimensional, we talk about property lines as if they were burned into the ground. There are access points in two-dimensional space — paths and roads — that channel visitors through a small number of places. We can build fences or plant hedges and they need not be high to mark the territory out.
A flying drone with a zoom lens, though, makes that whole sense of two-dimensional privacy an anachronism. If one wanted privacy from the government or other citizens, one would have to defend the entire volume of airspace reaching up from one’s property to several hundred feet up, if not much farther. This vastly increases the cost of physically hiding one’s activities. And, vis a vis law enforcement, the idea of “plain sight” hardly even makes sense anymore, as Jonathan Zittrain pointed out yesterday:
“The prospect of constant government surveillance of citizens through cheap drones tests the “plain sight” doctrine by which, under our Constitution, police are generally allowed to scope out whatever is in plain view, without requiring a warrant. Supercharged technologies face some limits — extra-sensitive remote microphones, or heat signature detectors of the sort that might be pointed at the wall of a home to detect marijuana-growing lamps in use inside.”
Anyway, the concept of a drone is sort of what my concept of biblical God is. Doesn’t God have better things to do with his/her time than watch ordinary people do things that shouldn’t be illegal? And what kind of life do you have when everyone is afraid to step out of line even a fraction of an inch for fear of being fined or jailed? Isn’t that like being a cow or some other dumb animal? You get up in the morning, go out to a pasture, chew some cud, go home and go to sleep. What would be the point? I’m sure the apocalyptic evangelical fundamentalist crowd would see this scenario as some kind of earthly paradise but what about the rest of us?
On the other hand, all of those people who are looking for houses with a lot of “privacy” from their neighbors might as well give it up. You’re never going to get a chance to have a threesome in the pool with your wife and that personal fitness instructor that you’ve been fantasizing about.
The writer of the Atlantic article thinks the additional surveillance (just because we can) will prompt citizens to run screaming to their legislatures and courts demanding legal protections and that the backlash will include things we don’t even think about now, like various internet giants tracking our every move through the web. I don’t care if they check out where I’ve been but there is a limit to how much information I’m willing to share with the outside world and the world right now is pushing it. And giving an entity this much power is an invitation to abuse.
One other thing that’s worth noting is the effect this will have on our most innovative, artistic, and politically useful people. If everyone is forced to conform as if they live in a fanatical townhouse association with the Staasi for neighbors, then we’ll get the same cookie cutouts running our elected offices too. Nassir Ghaemi, author of A First Rate Madness says that in times of crisis, the last thing you want is some normal dude or dudess who has no mental abnormalities and has never tested the bounds of what is socially acceptable, which is why it should come as no surprise that George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been such disasters. Monogamous, normal, sane, conformity minded people make the worst leaders in times of crisis and make horrendous decisions. In fact, it helps to have had a mental health crisis of some kind or to have broken some social taboo. Think Winston Churchill and his cyclical political career, JFK and his affairs and illnesses, Abraham Lincoln and his depression and atheism and finally Steve Jobs and his LSD use. If there’s a drone watching you and listening in to every conversation, it’s much harder to think out of the box and do what needs to be done without fear of severe reprisals. In fact, you may never get the chance. Drones are going to nip a first rate madness in the bud (no pun intended).
Maybe the world works best when there’s a little bit of unravelling, a soupçon of testing the limits. Sometimes you have to go up in energy to overcome some barrier. That involves a certain amount of risk taking that others may not approve of. As Nucky Thompson said, “We all have to decide how much sin we can live with.” With a drone buzzing up above, that decision may be made for us. And that’s not a good thing.
The People’s Party considers non-violence:
In other news: Chemists are screwed. The statistic in this article is old. The pace of job losses has accelerated in the last two years for chemists. You know, I can’t think of a more depressing prospect for a chemist than to have spent at least 4 years stuffing my brain with all this complexicated nollij and then be stuck in a CRO lab doing the same damn thing, day after day, like some low level factory worker, never being involved in the design of the compound or asked to participate in a project. So, maybe it’s better if we just didn’t have American chemists at all. Yeah, let’s all devolve.
The only guy who could compete with Jon Stewart, George Carlin, takes on the pro-life (actually, the pro-dirty, illegal abortionist) position:
It’s hard to believe he’s been dead for 4 years because he could have written this material yesterday.