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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Surveillance, privacy, and existential risk

Many of us are horrified by the idea that what we read, what substances (even legal ones) we ingest, who might enter our bedrooms from time to time (even in the most non-sexual circumstances), what odd hobbies we might have ... and on and on ... might be increasingly knowable by our governments, our police forces, or even our neighbours. If we feel that horror, we may be glad of the big-city anonymity that allows us much greater control of how much these things are known about us, and by whom, than was ever possible in small communities. We may want to fight new methods by which governments obtain practical power to snoop on us, collate information, create profiles of our tastes, activities, and thoughts. Even if we trust our current governments - but let's face it, who does? - what about some future government that has a more aggressive agenda of monitoring and controlling its citizens?

This should make it a no-brainer to oppose new kinds of surveillance. But here's the rub. Whether we like it or not, there's a significant possibility that near-future technological advances will increasingly place destructive power in the hands even of small groups of people, even small groups whose members are not immensely rich. If that's the way it turns out, this will intensify the current pressures for more and more surveillance and monitoring of citizens.

I don't especially like this, and I'm not necessarily going to accept it without resistance.

However, whether we accept surveillance creep or not, we can try to agree on one important point. As time goes on, we need more than procedural safeguards against the rising panopticon. Even more important is the need for a society of increased tolerance.

If higher levels of surveillance are likely, perhaps irresistible in the longer term, it is all the more reason to press for a social and legal ethos of far greater tolerance of activities that are not significantly harmful.

This entails a shift in values, away from moralism and paternalism to a more narrowly-focused concern with secular harm to others, especially with harmful actions that might cause destruction on a large scale. Arguably, that kind of shift was taking place in the 1960s and 1970s, but it has not continued evenly since. To some extent, it has actually been reversed. A great deal of sententious moralism has been creeping back into public policy and the law.

With that in mind, we need a transvaluation of values, though not of the sort that Nietzsche demanded. We need to become more tolerant of differences over relatively harmless things and more focused on possibilities of great harm. This should involve scepticism about moral panics and the kneejerk legislation that often results.

So let's have no more laws against well-known social drugs, reproductive or therapeutic cloning, "sodomy", images of scantily-clad people, collecting antiques ... or whatever the latest moral bugbear might be. Let's make absolutely sure that any new forms of surveillance or monitoring that do get developed - perhaps over our vehement protests - are not abused by being used collaterally to catch people for unimportant things. Where such laws exist, let's roll them back.

Surely we can all agree on a simple message: Western societies must stop worrying disproportionally about minor risks and problems, while refocusing on the identification of major risks (involving large-scale destruction) and on what to do about them.

This link is not often made in the press and other media, but it ought to be. The point is true, important, and becoming more and more timely.


Brian English said...

Western societies must stop worrying disproportionally about minor risks and problems, while refocusing on the identification of major risks (involving large-scale destruction) and on what to do about them.

Politicians seem to fair far better in beating up a minor problem like terrorism and ignoring a major problem like global warming. We seem to accept this.
How do we change this? Not in a one-off protest movement, but in a systematic way?

By the way. Have a great festival of SOL INVICTVS. :P

Brian English said...

fare, not fair. I suck a spelling, grammar, logic,.....

Have a beer or 3 for me!

Russell Blackford said...

I take your point about global warming, but I don't think we should consider terrorism a minor problem. No one expected a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11. I pray to father Zeus that we don't see one an order of magitude, or two or three, greater in the next few years.

Much as I get impatient at airports - I was feeling pretty pissed-off when made to walk through a scanner twice a few days ago because I had my hands in my pockets the first time! - I'm glad to see the problem treated with some seriousness. But what are the limits of intrusiveness and of collateral benefit to the government in dealing with truly unimportant things?

Oh, and a merry feast of the Invincible Sun to you as well.

Russell Blackford said...

er, "magnitude". Of course "Magi-tude" would be a good word at this time of year. :)

Brian English. said...

I'm not sure Terrorism is such a threat. I've got a much better chance of being killed at home or in an accident (or not accident) with a car than being killed by a terrorist act.
Seems to me we've overreacted on terrorism, and probably scored a few home goals because of this....

Russell Blackford said...

I don't think it's possible to talk about terrorism without making a lot of points pro and con, some of them subtle ones.

For example, I was amazed at how many people refused to travel by plane in the days immediately after the September 11 attack. But only a few days after it, Jenny and I travelled to Europe (as we'd planned) to attend a conference that many people, including most of the guests of honour, cancellled from. It seems that the subjective salience of the images of terrorism overcame rational calculations of the actual probability of the risk ... as you mention. (I remember Darko Suvin fulminating about this at the conference; and he was right, of course.)

Probability neglect is a huge factor in people's reactions to many nasty things that happen and are portrayed in the media. Unfortunately, politicians give in to popular fears that are based on probability neglect (often combined with stupid moralism).

But the real issue isn't my personal chance of dying in a kamikaze-style terrorist attack such as Sept 11, or being blown up by explosives, Bali style. That chance is indeed very low.

The danger is of a massive terrorist attack (perhaps on Manhattan or another iconic centre in the US) with some kind of makeshift nuclear device, or some other kind of device capable of killing tens or hundreds of thousands of people - and perhaps of multiple such attacks. I don't count the probability of such an attack as being low. I'm sure there are all too many groups that would do it if they had the means, and the means may not be hard to come by over time.

The chance of a particular individual (like me, for example) dying in that way is tiny. But it the consequences of attacks on that scale would be horrific, not only in the immediate target area but for the world economy, Western confidence, etc. I do think that this is a scenario worth worrying about.

Of course, the chance that over-zealous scanning of local Aussies at Williamtown airport for the flight to Tullamarine will have any effect on this is totally remote. A lot of precautions are presumably taken more in the spirit of non-discrimination than because such and such a particular person at such and such a particular time is even remotely a terrorist risk. I suppose we just have to put up with some of the irrationalities of airport security in a spirit of solidarity, non-stigmatisation, etc.

Brian English said...

I watched the 2 hours of round-table between Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris on the RD website. If there were another terrorist attack of 9/11 or greater proportions, something Hitch about extirpating radical Islam would be a chilling possibility. I guess as you say it's a not probably existential threat in my case, but another major terrorist attack may something akin to armageddon that the religious types often pine for.....