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Panopticon Singularity
Alex Steffen, 27 Jan 04

The Panopticon Singularity is an essay I asked Charlie Stross to write for the "lost" issue of Whole Earth. It's a truly frightening look at what could go wrong with the surveillance technologies now being developed, and an essential primer, I think, for those seeking to preserve civil liberties in the face of rapid technological change:

"The 18th century utopian philosopher Jeremy Bentham's panopticon was a prison; a circle of cells with windows facing inwards, towards a tower, wherein jailers could look out and inspect the prisoners at any time, unseen by their subjects.

"Though originally proposed as a humane experiment in penal reform in 1785, Bentham's idea has eerie resonances today. One of the risks of the technologies that may give rise to a singularity is that they may also permit the construction of a Panopticon society -- a police state characterised by omniscient surveillance and mechanical law enforcement. ...

"Moore's Law states that the price of integrated circuitry falls exponentially over time. The tools of surveillance today are based on integrated circuits: unlike the grim secret policemen of the 20th century's totalitarian regimes they're getting cheaper, so that an intelligence agency with a fixed budget can hope to expand the breadth of its surveillance rapidly."

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Good stuff. I hadn't thought to put Moore's Observation (hehe) together with surveillance. Very enlightening mix.

Posted by: Taran on 27 Jan 04

wait 'til he gets a load of holographic databases :D

"In particular, searching a holographic store for a specific set of data is simple. Just as shining the appropriate reference beam produces a replica of the original data beam, so shining the appropriate data beam produces a replica of the reference beam. A beam that carries part of the original data will produce a weaker replica reference beam, making it possible to locate all the files that contain a particular set of data by shining in a beam containing that set and looking at the reference beams that come out. The intensity of each emergent beam indicates the degree to which the data stored in the file producing it match the target. Somebody sifting through a huge database could thus be directed rapidly to the best matches.

"With the growing commercial interest in data-mining—which involves sifting through vast amounts of information in order to find useful relationships—this aspect of holographic memory is extremely attractive. Indeed, according to Dr Coufal, it was the cause of IBM's renewed interest in holographic storage."


Posted by: reflexorset on 29 Jan 04

As a footnote, part of the present Los Angeles county jail is based on the panopticon principle.

The most telling comment of the piece for me, was the statement that we are all potential criminals in the eyes of the law and when we travel through an airport in the US these days, we are viewed as potential terrrorists.

If you remove the word 'potential' from this statement you have reached, in one simple move, the basic premis for the creation of the Panopticon Singularity. Its nearer than we think!

Posted by: Stefan Thomas on 30 Jan 04

Here's an alternative point of view:

I think that widespread surveillance, and use of technology to interpret it, is inevitable. Even small crimes are enough motive to demand such a thing; if you were attacked in the street, would you prefer that the event was recorded, or not?

I'd say that what's really needed is better access to information. I'd quite happily trade any supposed privacy (which is trivial in the face of technology anyway) for information which could hold accountable the government and corporations. I want to know why the education minister chose one company over another for a construction contract, given the bids. I want to know how much my boss gets paid. And, if there is a camera on my street, I want access to the video and analysis so I can see who's been stalking me.

I haven't spent a huge amount of time thinking about this, and I'm yet to be totally convinced. I think the above is an interesting chain of thought to follow, though.

Posted by: Alisdair on 31 Jan 04

"I'd quite happily trade any supposed privacy (which is trivial in the face of technology anyway) for information which could hold accountable the government and corporations."

i read recently (i forget where :) that privacy is a function of normalcy. meaning the extent to which one values privacy depends on how close-to or how outside the norm one is. (or maybe it was speech? i dunno, whatever :)

anyway, the "norm" has different axes, but the ones i'm thinking of are social and ethical. if one is 'deviant', say having an incurable fabric softener fetish, then practising such behaviour away from prying eyes holds a certain cachet.

that's why going to the bathroom carries so much social baggage, and is such a good indicator of what type of culture one lives in. it's okay for men to go together in public toilets, yet stalls are still afforded for privacy. and nary do men and women mix when going together.

so basically, i think social privacy should be protected.

alisdair, i think what you're talking about is privacy that allows ethical infringements, which i think most people would agree should rather be conducted in the open to ensure transparency. the problem, of course, is that (un)social and (un)ethical behaviour often overlap to form a Grey Area!

oftimes it's not easy to separate one from the other, and while it's tempting to just say to hell with it and throw the doors wide open, i'd think losing one's social privacy, esp if one is an outlier, should give one pause. cuz we really might be opening up the doors to a living hell of cultural censure and societal scrutiny. and i for one think it'd be a shame to lose such diversity to unsolicited and unnecessary criticism, even if it were out of sight to begin with. cuz where's the mystery!?

Posted by: reflexorset on 31 Jan 04

also btw matt webb wrote an intriguing short story about a literally ancient panoptical society recently.

unfortunately it was apparently lost in a data crash! unrecoverable and irretrievable from the web archive :D

Posted by: reflexorset on 31 Jan 04

Alisdair and Reflexorset:

I am amazed in this kind of forum, to meet such naivite. Both of you presuppose the systems will be 'user-friendly', like 'smart' bombs?

Rememeber, just sixty years ago, a few thousand Nazis pushed millions of mentally-challeneged, homosexual, nomadic and semitic peoples through institutionalized extermination centres.

What is truly depressing for the future of the human race, is that this was accepted by the victims and victimizers as the 'norm'. You know you are going to your death - why not die with dignity - and fight back? The Nazis also knew that the 'norm' or freedom is taken away at a piece at a time.

This is a lesson that has been assimilted into the modern political process.

(The Nazis also invented the "Big Lie" now SOP for regimes throughout the world including the good ol' USA, but that's another subject).

Are you willing to embrace this kind of slavery for /peace or a piece of mind - then welcome to the new corporate fascist state - Big Mac? or Big Brother?

Posted by: Stefan Thomas on 1 Feb 04

"Both of you presuppose the systems will be 'user-friendly', like 'smart' bombs? ... then welcome to the new corporate fascist state - Big Mac? or Big Brother?"

i cannot speak for alisdair, but i daresay we advocate nothing of the kind. alisdair, indeed, spoke of more transparency to expose the "Big Lie" even.

as for me, although i'm sympathetic to your claims that the norm can be hijacked in 'plain view' so to speak, i also think that the tools of fascistic control are best countered by greater access to information.

Posted by: reflexorset on 1 Feb 04


I agree that if privacy turns out to be a basic psychological human need, then we need to preserve some. I'd guess though that it's mainly social conditioning. I do take your point, though, that it might encourage more repression, as people try to hide their fabric softener fetish (or whatever). This is possibly the best argument against 'throwing the doors wide open'. I would hope that the sort of openness I'm talking about might even breed tolerance, but it's by no means certain.


I suspect it would be fairly easy even now for even a moderately powerful organisation to compose a list of people of (for example) a specific religion living in a given country. This might even be easier than it was; copying data on computer rather than by hand. I forget who said it first, but I strongly believe that 'sunlight is the best disinfectant'. My argument is that in the face of the inevitability of government and other organisations holding information on people, we should have enough information on them to know what they are up to.

Posted by: Alisdair on 5 Feb 04

Alisdair and Refelexorset:

Thank you for your patient and thoughtful responses. How about some Greek Mythology? Narcissus and Echo - he was trapped in gazing at himself, she was trapped in gazing at him.

Love and Regards,


Posted by: Stefan Thomas on 7 Feb 04

Your point being (presumably) that having more info on each other will cause us to spend more time on narcissistic and 'echoistic' information gathering. An interesting point - for example it's now common practice to Google search one's own name, or somebody else's. It restates the question as a social one - with surveillance as another bit of tech for society to adapt to. The argument then becomes: should we let people use the technology as they will, and let society change through its use, or restrict the use of the technology?

And my cynical answer becomes: we can't restrict cheap, freely available technology, so we're just going to have to deal with it. Asking for more freedom of information is one way of trying to push the situation in a positive direction.

Posted by: Alisdair on 7 Feb 04


Key word: "trapped" = NOT free. Decyphering information is the crux of the matter, not the quantity.

Posted by: Stefan Thomas on 9 Feb 04



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