Imagine you are kidnapped off the streets and after a period blindfolded isolation transported to a small coastal village. instead of being chased by a balloon-like automaton, you find yourself constantly watched by cameras. You begin to notice that everywhere you go, there is a camera. You even discoverer them in the bathroom and in your sleeping quarters. Further, these cameras are beaming your activities to a large screen in the middle of the village in real-time.
Once you discovered the reality in which you were now living, you would begin to mull over the consequences. For example, escape would no longer be a possibility, as the cameras would be broadcasting your efforts in real-time. You could not try to plot with others in the village, as that would be broadcast to the whole village as well. Of course, things you may do in private, but never in public, would suddenly become public, once you forgot about the camera and did them as usual.
This is a good plot for a sci-fin story, but it is pretty close to reality now for cops in the United States. They don’t have to deal with cameras in the toilet yet, but they are recorded constantly as they go about their jobs. Often, they are recorded without their knowledge, so they now must assume they are always performing in front of an audience that is hostile to them. They get called to handle a misbehaving black and there will be an army of militant millennials holding up cellphones.
It is not just cameras on the street. The use of selective editing, which has become a feature of these hoaxes, means the cops wear body cams. Remember back to the O.J. Simpson trial and the cops had to deal with secret audio recordings of themselves long before Simpson murdered his wife. Mark Furman’s life was ruined by recordings of himself using colorful metaphors in an interview years prior. Cops are fired now for private communications that become public.
One thing these latest batch of riots seem to be revealing is that conventional policing is impossible in the Synopticon. The Panopticon is a situation where the few watch the man, like in a prison or an authoritarian state. The Synopticon is where the many watch the few, like a theater. The crowd watches the actors on the stage. In modern America, we have a combination of both. The state and its technology patterns watch us, while the masses and their cameras watch the police.
Most of the debate about the emerging surveillance state focuses on the state and its private collaborators spying on citizens. So far, we have not had a riot over Apple harvesting your metadata. We have been convulsed by video of cops beating blacks turning up on social media. Just wait until deep fakes make it possible for people to post realistic fake videos of cops abusing blacks. What happens when activists can use technology to identify the cops and that gets posted on-line?
If you are a cop, unless you are a rage-head moron, you have to realize that your range of motion is increasingly restricted. In these riots, the cops have been mostly useless, because there is no way for them to be effective. Even if they are following direct orders to end the violence, they know their bosses will not back them if a video of them getting rough with a hooligan shows up on-line. If a rioter captures one of them using colorful language in a melee with rioters, the cop is fired.
We think of privacy as just the area of our life that is off-limits to the public, but in reality, privacy is a spectrum. There are things that exist only in our head or perhaps with a few people in our lives. Then there are things known to family and close friends. Out further and there are things that are known to the community or maybe the workplace. The most distant belt is where we are supposed to find the things available to anyone interested enough to discover them, like an address or phone number.
Technology is collapsing the normal structure of privacy. There are things that get done in public that should not be broadcast to the world, just as there are things done in private that should not be made public. Those cops who took down the Gentle Giant did not spring from nothing. They were operating in the context of a career dealing with these sorts of people. The bit of the event we see is not the entirety of the event, It is devoid of context that would change how we view it.
This is happening all over. An academic, for example, discussing speech laws at a conference, could be secretly recorded. The recording is then edited to only include his recitation of prohibited words and phrases. All of a sudden, he is being forced into a struggle session by the mob. Alternatively, we have the situation of a jilted lover releasing private information about a public man. Things said in the heat of the moment, assumed to be private, suddenly become public.
There are some inevitable results of this. One is what we see with the cops. They can no longer do their job without personal risk, so they will evolve to avoid any situation where they could be shown in a bad light. We will no doubt see laws passed that ban the filming of rich people and politicians. They will not want to be subjected to what is happening with the cops. We’re already seeing signs in public buildings banning the use of cellphone cameras, Soon, phones will be banned entirely.
The more important change will be the contraction of the public space. On the one hand, those with nothing to lose will feel liberated in the public space. On the other hand, the auxiliary volunteer army of ideological enforcers will be emboldened to go crazy recording and reporting everyone. Those with anything thoughtful or controversial to say will flee the scene entirely. Even private conversation will collapse, as you cannot trust anyone to respect the ancient rules governing privacy.
Another consequence will be the collapse of what remains of trust. If you are a dissident, for example, you will no longer speak with anyone in possession of a mobile phone, even if you know them. In fact, the new tracking laws will mean all dissident will meet without phones. Not only will they fear recording; they must fear tracking, as the tech companies share this data with Antifa now. To voice a controversial idea now means living in a world closer to organized crime than politics.
Even apolitical people will have to assume that even their closest friends will be tempted to fink on them. Think of the “leaked” video of stars or ballplayers at private events or in private phone calls. These are all leaked by people close to the subject, so everyone now must distrust even their closest friends. The Synopticon will accelerate us into the no-trust society. The only place trust will exist is in secret societies that enforce their codes of silence the old-fashioned way.
In a world of a million leering eyeballs following your every move, lots of necessary things will simply stop happening. They will have to retreat to the world of intimate thought, but even there, coded to make it impossible to publicize. Outside, in the outer rings of the public-private spectrum, life will become simultaneously more intolerant and more vulgar. It will be a riot of uninhibited vulgarians and reckless scolds, where no useful work necessary for society can be done.
It remains to be seen if such a world can function. The riots suggest there is a point where the machine just stops. On the other hand, within living memory, people thought the current state was beyond the pale. Maybe people in the Synopticon will quickly evolve to become the uninhibited vulgarian or the reckless scold. Or maybe as we see in these cities, we stagger from one crisis to the next until finally the people are exhausted. We collapse while livestreaming it to the world.
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