Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Surveillance and Virtue

The recent news that a no-fly zone was enacted over the site of the Exxon tar sands pipeline spill in Arkansas is in line with the movement in state legislatures to make it a crime to record animal cruelty, even when it is plainly in the public interest to do so.  I recently learned it is a crime to film trains carrying nuclear waste, leading me to wonder how I'm supposed to know what any given train is carrying.  So taking a family photo while a train passes in the distant background could be a felony?  Bizarre.

These are signs that our technology is racing ahead of us.  It is easier to create new machines for surveillance than it is to devise a set of rules for ethical use of those machines. The problem of Google Glass is not something altogether new; but the technology sharpens the ethical issues: can I wear it in the locker room at the gym?  Can I wear it while talking with the police, or border guards?  Can I wear it at a party where co-workers are drinking?

The problem of drones is similar: we have increased our ability to watch others without being watched.  As Foucault observed, this is one of the main functions of the prison, a relatively modern invention.  The prison is an architectural technology that allows us to watch over our fellow citizens without having them watch us.

Be kind; love one another.
 The technology is helpful, and it's not patently evil.  Information is power, we are told, and everyone likes power.  But we should remember the Ring.  The Ring of Gyges, or the One Ring of Tolkien, either one will do; in both stories, the ability to observe while unobserved, this ultimate and total camouflage, is too much power.  And there is some truth to the dictum that power corrupts.

We are unlikely to slow our own technological progress, so we must devote equal energy and resources to ethical reasoning and to ethical living. Here is where I suggest we start:

First, if you're ashamed of someone seeing what your community is doing, don't do it.  It is one thing to protect trademarked secrets and patented methods of production, to enjoy the economic benefits of one's creativity. But if your reason for concealing your business process is that you know I won't buy your product if I know how it's made, you deserve to be exposed because you are manipulating me by concealing information that would affect my decisions.

Second, devote yourself to respecting the privacy and dignity of others.  Do this not just for others, but for yourself.  We know ourselves to be less than we wish we were; and we know that the social impulse is balanced in our species by a desire to do some things alone, unobserved, or only in intimate company. To expose those things unbidden is to dominate.  It is crass, and unkind. If you do not respect others, the technologies of surveillance will become your Ring, and you will destroy your own soul.

At times these two principles will be in conflict with one another - underscoring the importance of continued ethical reasoning.  We can't simply fall back on facile rules.  We have got to keep thinking, and thinking hard, together.  The simple principles, however, can provide a good place to start: do not attempt to dominate or destroy others. Put positively: love one another. 

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