In 1996 David Brin wrote a piece for Wired, The Transparent Society. Later turned into a book of the same name, Brin’s article asks us to imagine a world 20 years into the future…in other words, 2016. The key thesis of Brin’s argument is that it is critical to watch the watchers. After the recent revelations of the NSA‘s activities, this would seem a wise prescription. And there has been some democratization of information. Though police officers seem to chafe and resist it, it seems likely that in the near future ubiquitous video technology will allow the public to record them, just as they are no doubt watching us. But it isn’t just the authorities, as Brin himself imagined the decline of street crime due to surveillance. A recent article in The New York Times reports on the growing trend of people tracking their stolen iPhones, and retrieving them from thieves. Though the piece highlights the worries of authorities about vigilantism, it is obvious that in many jurisdictions petty theft is a crime which can be committed with impunity because it is too low on the priority list.
But putting the focus on crime is too narrow. Today we live in a world of “helicopter parents,” who shadow their children and ferry them from point to point, as if there is a constant risk that they’ll be put in harm’s way. As a parent myself I understand the impulse, though I also know that it’s irrational. In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker points out that parents who drive their children to school, rather than letting them walk, may be increasing the risk of death because of the danger of road fatalities. Parents who behave in a more laissez faire manner more typical of the period before 1990 are today likely to be harassed by authorities and other parents who perceive a risk of child neglect or endangerment. In the past “free range childhood” was just childhood.
I believe that there may be a technical “fix” to this social malady. It seems unlikely that an innovation like Google Glass will remain as bulky and visible as it is in this pre-alpha stage. In the near future I imagine Google contacts. Not only would these be less visible, and obviously more immune to theft and destruction, but their interface with the surface of the body and contact with tears could allow it to serve as a critical input for direct physiological input. The lens could not only respond to conscious signals, but it could monitor biomarkers via the tears, as well as one’s mental state via tracking eye movements and pupil dilation.
One of the primary fears of any parent today in the United States is sexual abuse. A device with a simple built-in artificial intelligence with robust pattern matching capabilities might be able to “alert” parents and authorities immediately. The fact is that parents don’t want to really observe and monitor every waking moment of their child’s lives. What they fear are those few moments which might be dangerous for the child, and it is those moments where the full power of total transparency might be unleashed.
This is not a cyberpunk science fiction pipe dream. It is the near future. That’s pretty obvious if you talk to anyone working in Silicon Valley. The question is not when, but what we’ll do as a society, and what normative frameworks we want the technology to amplify.