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Sci Tech    H3'ed 7/22/09

Robot Surveillance Mites (or Panopticism Canceling Itself Out)

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Originally posted:

Consider this as a thought experiment. What if someone were to build mite sized surveillance robots that were self-sustaining and self-replicating, and which were designed to spread out to cover the largest territory possible, observe audio and visual information in the area they found themselves, and send the information they observed to the Internet where anyone could access it. These robot surveillance mites would eventually spread out everywhere there are human beings, thus allowing anyone with access to the Internet to "go" anywhere-to see and listen to anything that anyone is doing. At first, of course, this would make everyone feel paranoid, since privacy in the sense of secrecy would no longer exist. But as time went on, people would become desensitized to this new reality. And if you were born into this type of a world you would accept it as being just the way things were. What would be the political and social implications of this? Well, the first fear that comes to mind is the possibility of a 1984 situation, in which a police state has total control over people's lives. But if these mites really did gain access to everyone and everyone retained access to the mites' observations, another situation would be possible-one in which the people had absolute oversight. I must stress that what is absolutely essential for this model is that unequal gaze has been thoroughly broken-that everyone has equal access to knowledge and thus equality of vision has been irreversibly established.

It would be difficult to execute a war or exploit people if everyone could see what you were doing. There would be no secret meetings. No back room deals. Politicians couldn't be cornered by moneyed interests-because everyone would see what was happening. Any attempt to subvert the surveillance in order to make "back room deals" would be considered an act of treason against the people. It would also be difficult for the masses to remain callous to segments of the population if they could see their living conditions and whatever they were going through. Blind acceptance of authority would be more difficult to justify. It's easy to idealize someone in the abstract, but as Leo Buscaglia observed, watching someone go to the bathroom makes them human very quickly. Violent crimes would be easily detected, and laws against victimless "crimes" would be quickly repealed. It's easy for people to turn a blind eye to things like marijuana laws if they think they can engage in such behavior on their own without being caught. But if that's no longer an option, they're unlikely to stand for such kinds of injustices. Whereas now people turn a blind eye to the fact that poor and black individuals can be charged for things that rich and white individuals are allowed to get away with (and the punishments given to the convicted for both groups are not at all equal), in the world of the robot surveillance mites this discrepancy would be much more difficult to ignore. The fourth estate of the media-now in the hands of the people-would really be able to do its job.

This would also force a sort of emotional maturity in the population. Knowing that everyone can see you, you're unlikely to be judgmental of others. You're also unlikely to be ashamed of your body, bodily activities, or activities in general-because those sort of emotions would never be given the opportunity to be reinforced. Those feelings wouldn't be encouraged, and they would, where present, grow dull through immersion. Those paranoid or ashamed by the fact that they're being watched would be the equivalent of any other individuals suffering from phobias that we recognize today. This would be a world without false value judgments, secrets, shame, hypocrisy, or lies. This would be a sharply and refreshingly honest world. While we may cringe at the possibility today because of our own insecurities-that is to say, our own weakness-the people of the future may one day embrace this kind of transparency as the best situation. I dream of a people so psychologically fit that they could have every action they perform known to the masses and yet not become slaves to the masses-and rather than double over in pain from the anxiety many of us may likely feel in such a situation, they would be absolutely free from it. Can humanity stand perfect honesty? Why would we want or not want this situation to be the case?

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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)
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