Society / Technology

When Big Brother Lives Next Door

painted face with eyes watching

image: Drake Lelane

Picture this: it’s the near future, and you’re on a first date.  You’re at an average restaurant in the suburbs, somewhere in the US.  Your date, like half the people in the restaurant, is wearing a flat pin the size of a postage stamp on one lapel.  As if you didn’t have enough reasons to be nervous already, you know that this is a recording device: it snaps a photo every few seconds and sends the images to a cloud server.  Your date is effortlessly recording every moment of life, including the one where you knocked a water glass onto the floor.  And, they are probably so used to doing this they don’t even think about it anymore.  In fact, you nearly forgot about the one on your own lapel.

Sound like science fiction?  It’s not.  The device in question, the Memoto, is quite real – you can pre-order one today.  I have no doubt that this kind of scenario will soon be commonplace, and it’s time we come to grips with what that means.  If any event can be recorded at any time, what will those recordings be used for?  What happens when an entire society decides to surveil itself?  And what can we do about any of it?

The Mutual Surveillance Society is Here

I must stress that these questions are not hypothetical.  Here’s another story, but mind you – this one really happened:

On February 15, 2013, a meteor exploded over central Russia, shattering thousands of windows with a 500 kiloton shockwave.  Although completely unexpected, the explosion was the most recorded such event in history (see a whole compilation of videos here).  How?  It turns out that Russian drivers are victimized by insurance fraud so often that many of them drive with “dash cams” to record events exactly as they happen.  Of course, the camera records everything, no matter whether it’s scam artists or cosmic fireballs.

This will go down in history as one of the first “accidental” mass recordings of an important event, but this, too, will become increasingly common.

And if you’re still not convinced, you need to pick up your very own remote-controlled “consumer grade” surveillance drone and try it out.  Here’s one that Pop Sci tested.  Here’s another one you can buy on Amazon, for heaven’s sake, complete with vertical takeoff and video capability.  You think your neighbor couldn’t afford one of those if he really wanted one?  Make no mistake, the era of mutual surveillance has arrived, and it’s not going away.

"What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? ...Does it see into us clearly or darkly?" (image: Janna Gray)

“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? …Does it see into us clearly or darkly?” (image: Janna Gray)

…Which Is Creepy…

This development makes me uneasy, and I can think of two major reasons why that is.

1. The stalking problem. This is probably the first one that comes to most peoples’ minds.  Drones and automatic recorders allow you to capture permanent images of nearly anyone, without them being aware of it.  This would be of great convenience to stalkers, obviously.  But unless someone happens to already be stalking you, I’m not sure this presents much danger to the average person.

2. The privacy problem.  Privacy is an intrinsic human need.  It’s true that simply being watched all the time doesn’t do any obvious physical harm.  In fact, even if you were subjected to continuous surveillance, your life wouldn’t change at all unless you found out about it.  That doesn’t mean that our need for privacy is unjustified; it just means that it’s irreducible – privacy is valuable for its own sake.

So, if you buy that, then what does it mean to live in a society where you’re surrounded by electronic eyes in every direction?  In an essay on the 13.7 blog, philosopher Robert Krulwich laments a future where we can never be alone:

We need to be able to find a meadow, lay down in the grass and look up at the blue nothing above us.  But what if, lying there in the quiet, we have the odd sense that there are eyeballs above us, teeny invisible ones, looking down, noticing?

Today, there are already plenty of people who think it’s creepy that Facebook knows which kind of sour cream they like.  What’s going to happen when those same people can’t go out their front door without being video-recorded a dozen times over?  I can imagine a robust market for anti-surveillance equipment developing in the very near future.  In fact, there could even be an arms race between surveillance technology and countermeasures that would make both sides grow very sophisticated, very quickly.  The outcome of such a race is anyone’s guess.

…But Damn Useful

Of course, there is a lot to be concerned about here.  But I don’t want to gloss over the advantages, because they’re actually quite substantial.  For example, check out NBC’s story on how firefighters can use drones to manage fires, and how researchers use them to study weather.  PBS’ Media Shift wonders whether drones could help journalists, too. Dash cams, of course, keep honest drivers from being scammed.  And as for the Memoto, I have to admit I like the idea that I could review my entire life, exactly the way it happened.  Memories are notoriously imprecise, after all, and a little bit of honest reflection is good for the soul.  Not to mention that I could catch details I missed the first time around.

So there you have it: Big Brother’s here, and it turns out he’s not a shadowy government agency after all, but the little kid who lives next door.  So what do you think of all this?  Help us sort through this thorny issue by sharing your opinions in the comment box below!

I’ll leave you now with this, a second compilation of dash cam videos that brings us full circle. In this case, it seems that the mutual surveillance society can actually be… well, downright heartwarming.  Enjoy it, and if you liked this post, please subscribe for free on the right!

2 thoughts on “When Big Brother Lives Next Door

  1. This post is one of the many reasons that I value your blog so much, Scott! I had no idea about all this. Even though I read about the dash-cams that recorded the Russian meteor, I had not put this all together. As one of many people who needs my own quiet space to be unobserved and alone with myself, the thought of watching eyes all around really gives me the chills.

    • I’m definitely with you on the quiet, alone space. In fact, as an introvert, I can’t recharge my emotional batteries without it! Rural places have an advantage over urban space in that respect, and the advantage will be even starker once there are drones on every doorstep.

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