Let us not be diverted by technological gadgets like electric cars or aircraft to the moon. For our everyday life, there are more critical technologies to keep an eye on. Automatic large-scale surveillance systems are a new technological reality. It is right now sneaking its way into our society. This will impact us profoundly; we want to talk about that.
What would you consider in the list of the most fundamental technological changes to come? For the last months, most of my friends talked about covid or commented on our so-called green transition and its flagship, the electric car.
Is the electric car really the figurehead of the upcoming technological and societal tsunamis? Mobility seems something of the past. Owning our own car waiting in a parking lot 97% of the time is an old-fashion idea. In A.I. also, there is a lot of focus on the self-driving car. Why? It is not even working yet! I do not understand this obsession with cars. Probably to divert our minds from what is worst to come?
There is a list of fancy new technologies/achievements that may become a reality in the next 15 years: bionics technologies, a moon (international?) station, delivery drones, brain implants, insect-based food, etc. Yet, we will also witness a less fancy revolution with automatic surveillance systems. Surveillance will be pushed to a new level. Hints are crawling all over the place.
It is already straightforward for novelists and film directors; recall “1984” by Georges Orwell or “The Circle” by James Ponsoldt with cameras everywhere, capturing every angle of our lives. Most of the science fiction films crawl with cameras and unprecedented tracking systems in cities. The fact is that this is not science-fiction anymore.
Often, seemingly insignificant technology breakthroughs can completely reshape the world. Here, a relatively unnoticed breakthrough in A.I. is that algorithms can efficiently perform action recognition on a video stream. This will profoundly affect how we monitor people, the way we make laws, and how we punish those who are caught not respecting the law. Why?
First, action recognition algorithms allow a handful of humans to monitor a big city like London. Imagine a system where each operator is responsible for a pool of a few thousand cameras. An for each camera, there is an action recognition algorithm that processes its video stream. Whenever the algorithm detects something illegal, the operator is notified and can decide whether or not to take action, for instance, call a police patrol.
This is not much of a technological change, but yet it is a turning point in history. We never had the technical power to achieve that. Electric cars do not change our capabilities. We already have cars. Going to the moon is nothing new either. It was just a matter of political will. Automatic surveillance is new, really unique. It is something we have never been capable of before. The world would be different if a dictator of the past had access to such technology. We should carefully think about the consequences of this new possibility. China is already implementing it! Will western societies follow? How will it affect our life?
The excellent book of Michel Foucault, “Punir et Surveiller”, gives us a hint as to what may happen. Societies always set up a specific balance between monitoring their people and the severity of punishments. Michel Foucault’s idea is that this balance better reflects the powerful’s interests than the values of the society. For instance, a softening of punishments may be due to increased surveillance rather than the genuine benevolence of lawmakers.
Kings focused on establishing their authority in the mind of their subjects. The best way was to strike hard, but only a few (any high-school teacher knows that). So there was not much surveillance, but punishments were spectacular. Indeed, it was a spectacle. Everyone could see that the king owned his subjects’ bodies. The king authority can decide to stripe them of their tongue, hands, and everything. The economy was not that of goods that need to be exchanged but that of authority that needs to be hammered in everyone’s mind.
On the contrary, after the French revolution, when the bourgeois class finally became the establishment, these barbaric punishments were eventually abandoned over compassionate pretenses. Foucault offers another point of view. The new society was industrial; it was the beginning of large-scale trading all over the world. In a business world, you need to better monitor your people than at the kings’ time. Your power depends on your wealth and ultimately on your sales margin. You need to have employees on time: schooling everyone is an excellent way to teach them that early on. You want to avoid thefts and thugs. Yet, if you punish all the robberies in the kings’ style, you end up with a society of one-armed citizens. In other words, to monitor more, you need to punish less. New forms of punishment emerge from new practices of surveillance.
How does it translate in today’s words? So far, the level of surveillance was capped by physical reasons. To monitor every one you need half of spies and half of spied. There is a limit to human capacities at monitoring everything that happens in a society. Technologies break that frontier. With Foucault’s idea in mind this means that there will be new forms of punishment. In China it is clear: punishment is a decrease in your social score resulting in less access to social benefits. I let you guess what are the equivalent in the western world. Interestingly, in that matter, the social medias and the information networks are replacing the departments of Justice. To keep on with the parallel, they are even trying to regulate themselves, set up rule for a fair lynching. They are very much careful about evidence. What is a deep fake? What is a fake news? What does it mean to break the rules of social media lynching justice?
The law will have to change also. Laws have never been written with the idea that it could be enforced all the time and everywhere. Sometimes laws are simply legal tools you want to dispose of to prosecute an individual breaking the social contract. Laws are dissuasive also. But it is a fact: laws have never been written with the idea that they could be enforced anytime and anywhere. And, please don’t believe that our society is any different from past ones. Not so long ago, homosexuality was prohibited. Imagine what it would have been if we had access to automatic surveillance systems sneaking everywhere? Imagine there is a global war, and you are asked to go fight against people you have nothing against? Wouldn’t you like an escape the law?
Now, you may then ask what justify in our world the need for more surveillance? Why would we even want to deploy that? Well, there is probably no clear answer. There is a combination of factors to take into account. A society where everything is controlled is perceived as more stable. With fast information circulating, one would want to contain social mass motion in the digital world. Read the book “Psychologie des Foules” of Gustave Le Bon to understand the fear of uncontrolled mass motion. Simply take the case in finance. The game stop story is a perfect example.
Also, we live in a world where we are freer than ever to come and go all around the world (I know it is still not a reality for everyone..), where we can transfer money as we please, where we have access to all sorts of technology that could relatively quickly be turned into weapons (e.g., plastic guns with 3D printers, drones attacks on oil refinery), etc. This seems to naturally call for more surveillance! Isn’t surveillance the price for freedom? And we have the technology to do it. Also, there is a rarely advertised but immediate application of 5G: it allows many surveillance cameras to simultaneously send back their video stream to a central server. It is easy to set up municipal lighting. Hence, it is easy to power street cameras. Yet, it is much harder to connect the camera to the internet. 5G makes it easy.
Is there a problem with these new forms of monitoring? First, this increase in monitoring is producing a new form of punishment that we are experimenting with as we speak. Social lynching is a new far-West that urgently needs a sheriff.
Second, my friends often argue that they are ok with more monitoring because it is the price of their freedom to come and go. And they are indeed good citizens that have nothing to worry about. Well, that reminds me of Montaigne in “Les Essais” who was surprised by how conventional the rules were. From one country to another, people speak a radically different language as well as the rules change. At wartime, you are forced into killing people you know nothing about. Isn’t it crazy? And aren’t our laws containing that possibility? Rules change and are not always for the benefit of the individuals.
By allowing a technology that could entirely monitor your actions, it becomes impossible to oppose the law when you see fit. You relinquish your conscience to a set of hard-coded principles. You free yourself away from the freedom not to respect it from time to time, or when you find it is suitable not to respect it. Law is a rigid set of rules that should be used as guidance, not as a religion. I fear the face of a human who lost the ability (by not exercising it) to adapt a set of rules to new situations.
A last example. Do you think that in Berlin people care less about covid than in Paris? Well, in Berlin you don’t need to wear a mask outside while in Paris you have. I wouldn’t like to have cameras checking if I wear a mask outside or not.