Mathematics, psychology and sociology, philosophy.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Transparent Society[2], Foretold

2011 May 23rd

I. The Dead Past

A recent story on the BBC World Service caught my attention. Lawyers representing an unnamed football player in the UK were going after Twitter to "subpoena" records of users who helped spread news of an affair, the mere existence of which could be spoken of within the UK according to a court order.

The privacy laws as practised in England and Wales, and the court's enforcement thereof, are intended to avert some of the Orwellian consequences of the pervasive media environment, by attempting to legislate and enforce a right to personal privacy. (Ironically, the celebrity mistress in question had been in the television programme Big Brother.) In this particular case the consequences were repressive, untenable (or at least "unsustainable"), and often laughably amusing to the point of complete humiliation.

I got my first really good grasp of the multiple issues involved from a short story by Isaac Asimov, which I will attempt[1] to summarize here:

The protagonist is a scientist and polymath, employed as a historian, who has been frustrated in his research on ancient Carthage. Unable to get viewing time on the government's Chronoscope (a massively expensive machine enabling one to view events in the past as if watching them live on TV), he begins conducting his own research and soon works out a way to build his own Chronoscope in his basement.
   He does so, and is met with three challenges in succession. The first challenge is that the machine does not work as expected. Beyond about 100 years in the past, the images are completely washed out by static and nothing useful can be seen.
   While attempting to work out flaws in the design, the inventor is confronted with a second challenge: his wife, who has yet to accept the tragic loss of their young child a few years earlier, starts using the machine to relive his brief life.
   He experiences the third and greatest challenge when, while he is preparing a paper on his Chronoscope work for the academic press, he discovers that the government is tracking his activity and trying to block publication.
   The government's supernatural ability to know what he is doing drives him to paranoia. After a few plot twists, and deciding to destroy his own chronoscope after his wife is reduced to dysfunctional obsession watching their dead child, he manages to get his manuscript out to several journals. Mere hours later, police surrounded his home and he is confronted by government agents.
   They explain to him how they were able to stalk him so effectively, and simultaneously reveal why the government's Chronoscope is so tightly controlled: The real flaw of the Chronoscope comes not from trying to watch the distant past of 2000 years ago, nor from watching a baby take his first steps 10 years ago -- but from watching events of one second ago. The Chronoscope allows anyone to instantly see everything that is happening, anywhere the viewer decides to look, violating every type of privacy with complete impunity.
   The scientist then reveals that he had succeeded in getting his paper to the journals some hours ago, and all parties, now feeling shared remorse, realize it is too late to stop publication. Soon everyone in the world will have the ability to spy on the present and past lives of everyone else. The agents wish the scientist a "happy fishbowl" and together they toast the dead past -- the simpler life that will never be again.
    -- (The Dead Past, by Isaac Asimov, here paraphrased from my memory[1])

I was initially attracted to this story because of its depiction of the academic community. Like the protagonist, I enjoy invention, research, and combining ideas from diverse fields. I was bothered by the story's depiction of a society that placed severe limits on academic research (particularly interdisciplinary research, which was effectively banned). The twist ending was a good contrast to some of the other futurism-related books I was reading at the time, such as Future Shock, 1984, Brave New World and the like.

A year or two later I learned about RSA encryption through the original (August 1977) Scientific American article. My main interest here was the calculation of large integer exponents, and I was disappointed they didn't explain the arbitrary-precision arithmetic in detail. The article discussed some of the applications of one-way or "trapdoor" codes, facilitating a certain type of privacy that would clearly have significant impact in the areas of spying, criminal activity and law enforcement. I also remember wondering at the time whether these codes could make it easier for someone to broadcast a secret without being caught. There was no clear answer.

Perhaps the biggest influence on my thinking about future social and political change came from Microtechnology for the Masses, the article[3] by Jon Roland for The FUTURIST magazine in 1979. This article explored the impact of an extrapolated Moore's law on most aspects of life and society. It correctly predicted many details, such as a worldwide data network accessed through dators, hand-held devices recognizable as today's smart phones. Possessing greater computational power than the fastest computer of the day[4], and a dator would be:

... a universal personal accessory that will be more important in our daily lives than the clock, the telephone, the typewriter, television, the calculator, the recorder, the copier, the checkbook, the camera, mail, books or files, because it will replace all of these things.

This article also left out a lot, but the creative reader could extrapolate and fill in many details. It was easy to predict an end to the sale of recorded music; somewhat harder to see whether the "datornet" would foster or discourage crime.

(Parts II and III are planned within the next few days)

[1] I have not read the story in 30 years, but the memory seems clear enough. I'll have to find my copy to see how much I got right...
[2] See The Transparent Society and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
[3] Jon Roland, The Microelectronic Revolution. The Futurist, April 1979.
[4] The fastest computer at the time of the Futurist article (April 1979) was a Cray-1. A present-day smartphone is at least as fast; see [5].
[5] Michael Croucher, Supercomputers vs Mobile Phones, ("Walking Randomly" blog article), 2010 Jun 2.