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June 24, 2003

Chiba City Times-Picayune. Bill Gibson used to be taken aback by people who called his Neuromancer a “dystopia.” As he pointed out, considering the alternatives, its future was pretty optimistic.

Bill’s still an optimist, only now on the New York Times op-ed page:

That our own biggish brothers, in the name of national security, draw from ever wider and increasingly transparent fields of data may disturb us, but this is something that corporations, nongovernmental organizations and individuals do as well, with greater and greater frequency. The collection and management of information, at every level, is exponentially empowered by the global nature of the system itself, a system unfettered by national boundaries or, increasingly, government control.

It is becoming unprecedentedly difficult for anyone, anyone at all, to keep a secret.

In the age of the leak and the blog, of evidence extraction and link discovery, truths will either out or be outed, later if not sooner. This is something I would bring to the attention of every diplomat, politician and corporate leader: the future, eventually, will find you out. The future, wielding unimaginable tools of transparency, will have its way with you. In the end, you will be seen to have done that which you did.

Hope he’s right. I find I’m a little more suspicious of this kind of deterministic techno-optimism than I was just three or four years ago.
I say “truths,” however, and not “truth,” as the other side of information’s new ubiquity can look not so much transparent as outright crazy. Regardless of the number and power of the tools used to extract patterns from information, any sense of meaning depends on context, with interpretation coming along in support of one agenda or another. A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and a quotidian degree of madness. We may be able to see what’s going on more quickly, but that doesn’t mean we’ll agree about it any more readily.
That certainly describes something real. [11:13 PM]
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Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Chiba City Times-Picayune.:

edub ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 12:36 AM:

I'm grasping here, because I haven't read the book, but isn't this somewhat similar to what David Brin suggested in The Transparent Society?

From the Amazon.com review, because I'm too lazy to dig any deeper:

There's even talk of bringing in microphones to augment the cameras. Brin has no doubt that it's only a matter of time before they're installed in numbers to cover every urban area in every developed nation.
While this has the makings for an Orwellian nightmare, Brin argues that we can choose to make the same scenario a setting for even greater freedom. The determining factor is whether the power of observation and surveillance is held only by the police and the powerful or is shared by us all. In the latter case, Brin argues that people will have nothing to fear from the watchers because everyone will be watching each other. . .

It's all about transparency, which many people probably won't give a hoot about, and will cause some, on the left and the right, to go absolutely ballistic. And while I'm connecting my dots, it isn't too far-fetched to suggest that dna testing (the ultimate transparency, especially if given to certain third parties) might lead to universal health coverage. Dwight Meredith certainly believes so:

People with few or no genetic predispositions for diseases will be unwilling to enter insurance pools with those who are genetically predisposed become sick.

Insurance companies will be reluctant to assume the risk of large health care expenses for individuals with genetic defects related to expensive diseases.

Given those two factors, our current system of private health insurance will collapse. We will either then mandate universal coverage regardless of individual risk assessment or abandon the concept of health care insurance leaving each individual to the luck of the genetic draw.

Brave New World, but with a good dose of individualism (not to mention a massive governmental program) thrown in.

Will this mean an end to the fortune-telling business? Only time will tell.

Alec Austin ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 12:44 AM:

The general erosion of privacy and the ability to keep secrets is something that’s been in the air for a while, and while I’d certainly like to believe that optimists like Gibson and David Brin are right in suggesting that a world without effective barriers to the transfer of information will eventually empower the public, I find that I agree most strongly with the last paragraph Patrick quotes.

I’ll try to keep this succinct (I’ve been thinking about this for a while) and only bring up a few points regarding the filtering of information, context, and suchlike.

The saying goes that data drives out information, information drives out knowledge, and knowledge drives out wisdom; and in a world as saturated with misinformation and triviality as the one we live in, it’s easy to imagine that searching for significant information in the news or government disclosures could become a Sisyphean modern version of Poe's The Purloined Letter, with horrifying projects hidden in plain sight, buried beneath tons of memos about nothing in particular which are written in identical bureaucratic language. It doesn’t matter if you have the best library in the world at your disposal if it’s not sorted or indexed in a way that lets you find what you need or want, and I expect the future will become even more data- and information-saturated than the present, with a corresponding loss to our ability to keep abreast of current events. I’m not certain if we really will be able to see what’s going on more quickly, at least if people are clever enough about how the conceal what they're doing.

Also, with regards to context and the ability to make sense of something taken out of it, the use of jargon and private references can often encode communications and impede effective interception more thoroughly than actual cryptography, if the interceptor has no means of getting the references being made. I wouldn’t want to be an analyst trying to decode a message written in coded allusions to a childhood fantasy world, for instance, or something obscure that happened to the writer in junior high school, and deliberately constructed jargon could be just as hard to decode.

Finally, I expect that as people get wise to the security risks involved in information technologies like computers and suchlike, that sensitive information won’t be digitized or kept around in the form of memos. Trying to piece together the trail of a secret operation (or what have you) will come to resemble reverse-engineering an engine by seeing what feeds into it and what comes out of it without ever opening the black box it’s locked inside-- not impossible, but protentially hellishly difficult, especially if the person who built the black box did so with the intent to frustrate comprehension. It may take some time for things to reach this pass, but even with perfect informational transparency on an electronic level, people can still hold secrets inside their heads, and feint and otherwise mislead others into believing that they’re doing things they’re not.

Given the game-theoretic advantages to calculated deception and defection, and the fact there are probably dozens of other ways to subvert informational transparency that I haven't even thought of, I doubt that anything like a truly open society will ever come into existence, despite what the optimists might say.

Derryl Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 01:42 AM:

What Alec said. As individuals, we don't have the resources to hide ourselves, our transgressions (real or perceived), and our plain old secrets. Corporations and governments can, even if it's just by creating too much busywork. And while you might argue that a Bill Clinton might care how he looks in the eyes of all 40 years down the road, I suspect that people like GW Bush take a different view of what legacy means.

I'm somewhat more pessimistic about the whole thing, I suspect. I wrote a paper on Panoptic prevalence last year, and my eyes, they can't see the positive possibilities as easily anymore.

Darren Madigan ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 02:54 AM:


First, it always tosses me when someone calls one of my favorite 'William' or a 'Robert' authors 'Bill' or 'Bob'. I had to really stop and think a second to get who 'Bill Gibson' was. That's not important, just a personal little piece of mental Zippitone.

As to 'transparency' and a 'world without secrets', well, for what it's worth (and I'm very unreliable, being merely a geek with no credentials at all): it seems to me that data is not the same thing as truth. It also seems to me that much of the 'data' that is out there, and that will be increasingly gathered in the future, is to some uncontrollable and even unknowable extent subjective. Said data will also be analyzed by human beings (or A.I. programs written by human beings) and thus subjectivity cannot be avoided. The 'objective truth' about who actually legitimately won the 2000 Presidential election is simply the most obvious example I or anyone else can come up with of something that no amount of 'transparency' is going to resolve, ever. Especially since I really should have put quote marks around 'legitimately' and 'won' in that sentence, as well, since it all came down to largely subjective game rules and their largely subjective interpretations that got made by people in power, all of whom behaved and decided at every juncture exactly as their political orientations and loyalties obviously inclined them to do. 'Truth' does not necessarily lie in a rational human being choosing to do something against their own selfish interests, but when a few hundred rational human authority figures make decisions affecting the fate of the entire world, and they all clearly do so based entirely on their own best interests, it seems to me that this is at least a bold marker that objective truth was not served.

But no matter how much data comes out, that one will never be definitively settled to everyone's satisfaction.

Both Gibson and Brin seem to be optimistic that evil will fade away when all activities must be done in the broad cold light of day... or at least, public scrutiny. But 'evil' is always largely subjective. Much of what Dubya has done is 'evil', or at least wrong, to all of us, but we are his ethical and political opposition, so of course we see it that way. I have some alarmingly intelligent contacts on the right wing and they make alarmingly intelligent arguments (that I don't believe) to support the idea that Dubya legitimately won the 2000 election, and that everything he has done (that we find 'evil') is actually fully justified, necessary, and, in their particular subjective view, honorable. And of course they think so, they're his moral and political supporters.

All 'transparency' is going to do is provide more data, and data is always subject to interpretation and analysis, and those things are always subjective, so there will never, or rarely, be any objective truth emerging from that morass.

Leaving that aside, I think there are things even the 'little guy' can do to confuse those who, for whatever reasons, seek to monitor and profile him. The easiest is to insist on spending cash whenever you feasibly can. Barring that, one can occasionally buy things for friends on one's credit card and have them pay you back later; this messes up your consumer profile. One can even buy stuff one doesn't want, and this is in fact something one would never have a use for, although this is a bit extravagant for those of us with little disposable income. However, mixing our library take home up a little is free and easy; as a hard core SF geek, I try to always stir in at least two books I'll never read and have no interest in every time I go to the library these days.

Beyond that, when you can remain anonymous or use pseudonyms, do so (a rule I'm violating more and more lately simply out of weariness at 'net pseuds, but that's my own bad).

Probably the worst development for human freedom in a long time is corporate capitalism... the government may be too inherently inefficient and wasteful to implement 1984 effectively, but if a corporation can see a way to make a profit off monitoring us, it will find a way to do it. The profit motive, as I understand it, eventually led to the outlawing of slavery (it's much cheaper to just pay us common laborers an hourly wage and let us fend for ourselves in our off hours), but as technology increasingly makes more and more labor obsolete, we could see slavery (most likely phrased some other way, like lifetime corporate labor contracts, or some such) making a come back. Even now, I suspect marketing corporations are considerably more efficient at gathering data on individuals than, say, the NSA is. (And I really don't know whether or not I want that to be true, either.)

mfb ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 04:56 AM:

Yes, indeed. Mr. Gibson seems to be going through an optimistic phase again. (He seems, in his two trilogies, to quite closely mirror what the U.S. economy is doing -- down in the early 80s, up in the late 80s, down in the early 90s, up in the late 90s . . .)

Why he should be up now is a bit of a mystery to me; maybe my Marxist logic is a bit vulgar here. . .

Knowledge is power. Meaning, those who have power control, or create, the knowledge. Increasingly, not only can everything be known, but also everything can be faked. And increasingly it can be done by "expert systems", meaning you don't need an entire Ministry of Truth to fake millions of CCTV records if you want to.

It's only beginning, of course, but it doesn't look good for the future of democracy or the rule of law.

Scott Martens ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 08:29 AM:

I can only imagine Neuromancer as an optimistic text by comparison to nuclear war and environmental catastrophy. As dystopian visions go it's not 1984, but cyberpunk was hardly an upbeat literature. As Gibson points out - 1984 was about 1948, and Neuromancer was about 1984.

I'm optimisitic about the potential of information technology to prevent collectives from having any privacy. I'm a good deal less enthused by potential for individuals to not have any. Privacy isn't just a way to keep your dirty secrets secret. Privacy is a significant factor in social equality. Privacy means the people you interact with can't nearly so easily compare their status to yours, and their best chance of acting correctly is to treat everyone equally. That is why it is so vitally important to have the ability to withhold information about yourself and why even asking for you to volunteer information can be so damaging - the ones with something to brag about will volunteer their personal information, and the ones who don't can be assumed to have nothing to brag about. Privacy is the foundation of the presumption of equality, and I'd rather not lose that.

Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 09:11 AM:

Another piece of the problem is that your neighbors (and in the global village, everyone is your neighbor) can disapprove of *anything*. There's a reason why a lot of people don't want to live in small towns, and it's not just the lack of live theater.

Mike Kozlowski ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 09:32 AM:

I'm just bemused by the total destruction of privacy being considered an "optimistic" scenario. I mean, it beats a lot of the alternatives, but it's not exactly ideal.

Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 11:50 AM:

Alec Austin: Also, with regards to context and the ability to make sense of something taken out of it, the use of jargon and private references can often encode communications and impede effective interception more thoroughly than actual cryptography, if the interceptor has no means of getting the references being made. I wouldn’t want to be an analyst trying to decode a message written in coded allusions to a childhood fantasy world, for instance, or something obscure that happened to the writer in junior high school, and deliberately constructed jargon could be just as hard to decode.

This is flat-out wrong. Cryptanalysts don't need to get the references to decode messages written in private language. If multiple messages exist, with knowledge of who sent them, when, to whom, and so on, then breaking the code is even easier.

Such messages can be cracked by a single analyst with a bunch of sharpened pencils, a pad of paper, and plenty of coffee. The same analyst, faced with genuine strongly-encrypted message can only shrug and pass the message on to the computer center.

Relying on allusion and private language for security is about as secure as relying on igpay-atinlay.

Jonathan Miller ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 12:17 PM:

Alan Bostick writes: Such messages can be cracked by a single analyst with a bunch of sharpened pencils, a pad of paper, and plenty of coffee.

This is true if "cracking" is merely exposing the text being hidden.

After such an exposure, it's unlikely any cryptanalyst would then be able to accurately unpack the idiosyncrasies of meaning conveyed by a private or shared set of shorthand experiences.

To do so would certainly require access to a vastly disparate set of records, coercive discussions with several people, and no small number of intuitive leaps, if not outright guesses.

From what I can tell, Alec meant this kind of rich use of jargon/idiolect, rather than an alphabetic or mechanical substitution (e.g. using "baseball bat" to mean "WoMD" in every instance).

Ken MacLeod ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 12:40 PM:

Gibson: 'A world of informational transparency will necessarily be one of deliriously multiple viewpoints, shot through with misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and a quotidian degree of madness.'

That's what the Internet is now. One of Bruce Sterling's novels features people going mad trying to make sense of what they found when they had the Library of Congress, and more, on a PDA with good search facilities. My own take on it is 'a world of lone gunmen who think they're the Warren Commission.'

Raven ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 01:38 PM:

I was struck much more by the disparaging statements about the broadcast media in the same article:

The media of "1984" are broadcast technology imagined in the service of a totalitarian state, and no different from the media of Saddam Hussein's Iraq or of North Korea today 97 technologically backward societies in which information is still mostly broadcast. Indeed, today, reliance on broadcasting is the very definition of a technologically backward society.

(I make the assumption that Mr. Gibson did not mean to say that the US are "technologically backward".)

This assessment seems flat out wrong to me. While it is true that the internet is playing a role of increasing importance in the formation of public opinion, to most people in the US it is not near as important as television (and here I would certainly include cable television in the definition of broadcast media). I think in particular for propaganda purposes (such as in the buildup to and during the recent war) television is still unsurpassed, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. There is no better medium to influence a large percentage of the population.

I also believe that the formation of a public consensus through the internet is much more difficult to achieve than through the national television channels, exactly because of the wealth and the resulting fragmentation of information. Even though there are many more tv channels now than only a few years ago, they still move in lockstep to a certain degree, and the internet is even more fractured into different interests. Though Gibson outlines an interesting vision, I think he overlooks the role of information in propaganda. With the increasing disconnect between the actual events and television news coverage (and even newspapers), I'm not sure that "we've missed the train to Oceania".

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 03:29 PM:

I think we've not only missed the train, but tore up the tracks and turned the station into a trendy shopping destination.

One with *two* Starbucks outlets, and WiFi access, and a tropical fish store that sells glow-in-the-dark guppies.

Stranger problems indeed.

Chuck Divine ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 03:36 PM:

What bothers me most about this open society can be summed up in one word: fanatics.

Fanatics -- whether of the religious right, Marxist left or some other nutcase belief system -- have demonstrated an ability to organize themselves quite well and to take over, however briefly, much larger organizations. They judge everyone else according to their nutty standards, shout down opponents and avoid charges of being dishonest by actually holding to their own nutty standards of thought and behavior. Of course, fanatics eventually destroy everything they touch. But while they're doing so, they have great power.

Alec Austin ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 06:16 PM:

Re: Alan Bostick's reply to my paragraph on jargon and idiolect, Jonathan Miller got my meaning exactly. Simple word substitution is, of course, as easily cracked as Alan says.

Skarl ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 07:57 PM:

Re: jargon and idiolect, such systems are really just attempts to reduce the actual information contained in a transmission to the minimum necessary. This is effective, but there is a minimum limit, hence it will always be possible to extract some data.

Re: Fanatics, this is a definite problem with increasingly different viewpoints. On the other hand, the Internet does give people the option of hearing other viewpoints. IMO, a successful society in an information-saturated world will have to place a high value on honesty in the scientific sense - telling the truth as you see it, without allowing personal bias to interfere.

Whether Gibson's transparency takes place will be dependent more on whether media coverage can maintain this kind of honesty - with data to support any assumption (at the depth the average citizen has the time to absorb), only journalists who present the most valid data, without partisanship or bias, will be providing useful information.

Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 08:40 PM:

Alec Austin: Re: Alan Bostick's reply to my paragraph on jargon and idiolect, Jonathan Miller got my meaning exactly. Simple word substitution is, of course, as easily cracked as Alan says.

I wasn't talking about word substitution, I was talking about jargon and idiolect. Jargon and idiolect are easily cracked.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 08:47 PM:

Y'all may be interested in Platform for Change, which is an analysis of the problem of how to tell information from data (information causes change; that's how you can tell it from data) and the social issues surrounding this problem. It's a complex book that repays re-reading.

The short simple version of the argument is available in Designing Freedom, which might make a better introduction.

It is unlikely to be necessary to pay Amazon's prices to obtain a copy.

Both date from the early 1970s; both are in some sense about how to be organized without being authoritarian. I think the ideas involved are very important in avoiding a future in which people are unable to avoid being targetted consumers.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 08:52 PM:

Control of information, it seems to me, now rests in the control of the information that allows one to separate signal from noise. Hence, perhaps, the intense opposition to universal education we are now seeing.

Keith ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 10:10 PM:

Knowledge, like how to build an affordable, well-insulated house or an atom bombis different from wisdom, which is personal, unverifiable and pertains only to why we should build one and not the other. You can have all the knowledge in the world but it doesn't mean you'll have the wisdom to use it responsibly. Hoping that a beningn Democratic-socialist government will have the ability to use the abundance of knowledge wisely is, frankly, unrealistic. I don't mean to be a pesamist but all one has to do is look at the Office of Homeland security and shiver when we realize that they are the ones who would be using all this knowledge to police us. And they are far from wise.

Alec Austin ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2003, 03:41 PM:


I must confess that while I don't expect that the difficulties of translating from a private idiolect would be as difficult as those involved in translating from an unknown language, I can't imagine that 'easily cracked' means the same thing to me as to you. Then again, you're also assuming multiple messages and all kinds of context being available to the analyst.

Would you care to enlighten us with sources and references? I, for one, am curious as to how easily cracked allusive messages really are.

Dylan O'Donnell ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2003, 06:40 PM:

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Shaka, when the walls fell.

Josh ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2003, 08:09 PM:

Dylan: I would have said "it's in that place where I left that thing that time".

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 08:05 AM:

Dylan and Josh: I agree, messages whose meaning depends on knowledge which the speaker and listener share, but which are unknown to eavesdroppers, would be extraordinarily difficult to crack.

This is why it's impossible for a language to be structured like the Trek ep Dylan draws his example from. There's no way to TELL the stories in the first place! Maybe it's my background in linguistics, but I always thought that was one of the stupidest TNG episodes (not as stupid as the one where someone "regressed" into a spider -- whoever wrote that should be ashamed of hirself).

Anne ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2003, 08:51 AM:

Xopher, me too! I was taking my graduate pedagogy class at the time, and we did a fair amount of giggling at it. I mean, if you don't have normal syntax, how come you get to use prepositions and conjunctions? But I guess "Dharmak Jalal Tanagra walls" doesn't have the same exotic alien flavor. It's also an excellent example of how _not_ to teach a foreign language. Endangering your students' lives can be counterproductive.

Michael Griffin ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2003, 02:38 PM:

Castalia with the humming sound of this. Moderated discussions that debate the etiquette of participating in moderated discussions on the validity of journalized commentary on the evolution of information. Jots and tittles in huge catalogues randomly filed on reference shelving that may as well be infinite. The grain of sand in Gibson's pearls is always a machine. He contains it. For some of us it's more conjunction, we drag it around, or are dragged by it, Eng as android, Chang as borg. For others it's carapace, chitin, metal skin around soft amorphous 'self'. To say that Gibson has a kind of pathology driving his world-view is empty and dis-aesthetic, unless it's said to someone who hasn't gotten that far yet. The trope that information technology covering the earth will deny the sinner hiding place is ferro-deistic. There's a Babelian assumption at the heart of that, as though the combining of languages, the steady climbing spiral of knowing more and more will actually get somewhere. Like the all-knowing all-seeing and possibly all-powerful God of western metaphysic, it must be more than neutrally honest.
Without love information is viral, prionic.