Sunday, July 5, 2015

Exponential Curves

     About twelve years ago – yes, I’ve been doing this for that long; since 1997 in fact – I wrote an essay titled “Curves” that appeared at the old Palace of Reason, about the curve of technological advance. Its peroration went like this:

     The test of any political theory is what results it produces in practice. Just-war theory holds that we must wait to be struck before striking back. Now that a modest sum will buy the expertise and components with which to fabricate devices that can kill thousands, even millions, the cost of waiting to be struck has become unacceptable.

     At that time I was mainly concerned about its implications for terrorism and the safety of Americans and our nation. My central point was that the rate of technological advancement is directly proportional to the prevailing level of technology. If we let y represent the level of technology at time t, the equation becomes:

dy/dt = C1y

     ...where C1 represents some arbitrary (in this case, unknown) constant. This is one of the first differential equations any calculus student learns to solve:

y = eC1t + C2

     ...where C2 is an indeterminate constant and e is the familiar exponential base:

e = limit((1 + 1/n)n) n increases toward infinity: approximately 2.71828.

     And now that I’ve exhausted some of you and baffled the rest with (“I was told there would be no...”) mathematics, let’s talk about our situation as regards personal privacy.

     It’s well known that the public streets of every significant city in the U.S. are heavily stippled with surveillance cameras. I don’t think we’re yet at the level of Person of Interest, but we’re approaching at an accelerating clip. Indeed, the rate of acceleration is itself increasing. Extrapolating the current trend not too unreasonably, by 2025 every district in the nation with a non-negligible population density will be so heavily equipped with surveillance devices that there will be no public space free of them.

     What follows from that, Gentle Reader? What follows from that plus license plate readers, vehicle recognition systems, government backdoors into credit-card-payment-processing systems and large cellular communications services, and the rest of the we can see you trends of the Twenty-First Century? How much meaning will the concept of privacy have at that point?

     For that matter, would the trend toward total government surveillance necessarily stop there? Might it not extend its feelers into nominally private spaces? After all, if “they” can see and hear you at any and every moment of your life, wouldn’t it cut down on crime, and quite sharply at that? Wouldn’t “they” be likely to argue that it would make offenses like insider trading and domestic abuse things of the past, and that it would therefore constitute a matter of “compelling government interest?”

     Think about it.

     He who knows where you are at every moment can exert a great influence upon you through that mechanism alone. He who also knows, to a fairly detailed degree, what you’re doing and with whom can exert still more influence. When the “he” in question is a State without Constitutional bounds, equipped with every imaginable coercive instrument and ruled by men to whom only power matters, we arrive at the genuinely total totalitarianism Orwell imagined but which 1948 technology could not produce.

     Am I dead certain that such a future is headed toward us? No; as I said above, I’m “extrapolating the current trend not too unreasonably.” After all, how long ago did the Supreme Court rule that a government may seize private property and simply turn it over to another private party, as long as it was “for a public purpose?” Your privacy depends entirely on your property rights; once the latter are dissolved, the foundation beneath the former must collapse.

     The irony of the Left’s habitual demands for incursions upon private property should be plain at this point. But no one expects the run-of-the-mill Leftist to grasp it; his “compact and unified church” will shield him against such an intellectual excursion.

     As technology advances, monitoring devices will become ever smaller and harder to detect. Yet they’ll be as sensitive as their predecessors, if not more so. The exponential curve of technological advance guarantees this, until we reach some limit imposed by the laws of physics. The consequences strike me as both irrefutable and dire. I cannot take the attitude that Bob Shaw’s protagonists took at the conclusion of his blockbuster novel Other Days, Other Eyes:

     In later decades, men were to come to accept the universal presence of Retardite eyes and they learned to live without subterfuge or shame as they had done in a distant past when it was known that the eyes of God could see everywhere.

     Privacy – space and time in which what we do, and with whom, and to what end, is entirely at our discretion, such that we may choose and act without fear of politically imposed consequences – is one of the main reasons we value freedom. It’s not a right apart from the property rights that make it possible, but it’s a great part of the reason we value those property rights. It is severely reduced today. It might well be gone entirely tomorrow.

     Can you imagine enjoying such a future, Gentle Reader? Enduring it without complaint or regret? If your answer is no, there’s another, much harder question you must confront: once it’s in place, can you imagine successfully rebelling against it? Overthrowing the regime that’s imposed it?

     Food for thought.


Brass said...

Reminds me of Lacey and His Friends.


Francis W. Porretto said...

Thank you, Ryan. I meant to mention that collection, and I simply forgot it in the heat of composition.