Cameras herald a brave new organism


Kingscliff business owner Kelly Craig was quoted in these pages last week seeking the protection of closed circuit television cameras. In contrast to the burghers of Nimbin, most business owners on the Tweed Coast seem to feel the same way.

We hope that a watchful eye will keep things under control.

Be careful what you wish for. We are building a world where everything we do in public is visible to anyone in the world.

In the four decades since Andy Warhol said, “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” digital cameras, reality television and online social networks have rendered this almost true. The difference is that we are visible rather than famous.

There are now more images of us being captured than it is possible to watch. Central London has over one million closed circuit television cameras, 10,000 of them owned and operated by local councils. The presence of these cameras has almost no impact on the rate of solving crimes, partly because there is no way that anyone can afford to pay staff to watch the millions of images being captured. As a result, a flourishing industry in image-recognition-software has developed so that computers can detect unusual and suspicious activity.

We are creating a vast, digital nervous system that watches us for our own good.

This mimics the commercial network that traces every cent we spend and the communications network that pinpoints our location every time we use a mobile phone.

Visiting a precomputer India twenty years ago, I was amazed at the amount of paperwork required to book a hotel room or train ticket or to exchange foreign currency. As a commentator on computer systems at the time, I inevitably compared the Indian paper-based system to the automation that was delivering vast profits to modern corporations. In a practical sense, the major difference between the two systems is that the automated one employs less humans and is therefore cheaper.

What automation enables, though, is the ability to add layer upon layer to the system. For example, the systems have already been developed to replace printed barcodes with microchips that can be read from a distance. Using these ‘active’ product ids, every item of clothing you wear and everything in your pockets can be identified as you walk through the mall. Advertisers are salivating at the opportunity to sell you items based on what you already own.

As this “intelligent” nervous system develops, individual humans will be reduced to cells in a much larger organism, an organism designed to maximise profits, not empower or protect individuals. This is not wild speculation or alarmist semantics, it is the stated purpose of these inventions.

If you already feel trapped on a treadmill that funnels wealth and power into someone else’s hands, you are far from mistaken you have simply awakened. To revive another sixties phrase, “Do not adjust your set, reality is at fault.”

There are two ways to look at this.

You can, like the people of Nimbin, decide this is not the future for you. Or, you can rejoice in the brilliance of the brave new world that globalisation delivers and accept the loss of individuality as an inevitable consequence.

Just don’t delude yourself that you are in control.

Giovanni is the founder of the Ebono Institute.

and then as it became true

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