Spying and Surveillance is Rapidly Becoming Worthless
While spying and surveillance have traditionally been important tools for terrorizing and subjugating populations, I believe that recent technological developments (ubiquity and negligible cost of communication) may have made them worse than useless. On the other hand, there are those who believe that technology has made spying and surveillance easier. As I will try to show in the rest of this post- both views are true, but not for the reasons you might imagine. So let us begin by looking at how those who believe that technology facilitates spying and surveillance are correct.
I will be the first to admit that services such google, facebook, twitter, email, IMs, texting does make spying and surveillance much easier. There is however an often ignored cost for this ease of data collection and classification. The sheer volume and multiplicity of data requires extensive and automated computerized analysis leading to a problem that I had discussed in a previous post on a related topic– a high percentage of false positives if you tighten the criteria for flagging and a high percentage of false negatives if you loosen them. Both result in an exponential increase in the cost, effort and disruptions caused by implementing such systems- albeit via different pathways. Couple this with the tendency of bureaucracies to expand and consume more resources and you quickly end up in a scenario where the society spends most of its time spying and monitoring itself- with disastrous effects of productivity, morale and the social contract.
There is however another way for technological advances in communication to negate traditional ideas about spying on and monitoring people. To understand how it works, one has to start by looking at what people typically communicate about.
The vast majority of inter-personal communication isn’t about seditious ideas or actions. It is about everyday “stuff”.. what is happening in their lives, what they ate that day, what they are read or heard about, how their jobs are working out, how other people are behaving etc. Paradoxically, it is the discussion of these everyday topics (gossip) which poses the greatest threat to any hierarchy. People learn a lot about what is happening around them and elsewhere through these casual and often oblique titbits of information. A substantial part of their world view comes either directly from such casual information or its extrapolation into their lives. The most frequent source of exposure to new ideas and concepts is also via gossip.
Cynicism about the world and loss of faith in the ability or power of institutions occurs via steady and constant exposure to common gossip. However it is hard to stop gossip because most human communication IS gossip. Furthermore, gossip almost never corrodes belief in the system via a single large hit. It does so through an incessant shower of small facts and titbits from different and often unrelated sources.
Therefore efforts to spy on and monitor populations in our highly connected era to preserve the status quo are, at best, a waste of time and resources. They do however enrich a few and give others a false sense of security.
What do you think? Comments?