It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and Americans Feel Fine

When I was young, we would be assigned to read books like 1984 in high school.  These were viewed as dystopian novels, as cautionary tales.  We would have the usual earnest class discussions.  Some feared the outcome, some thought it unlikely.  But everyone agreed that it would be a really bad thing.

Robin Hanson points out that 1984 has arrived, albeit 27 years late.  And what’s interesting is that no one seems to care:

Soon the police will always be watching every public move you make:

“A vast system that tracks the comings and goings of anyone driving around the District. … More than 250 cameras in the District and its suburbs scan license plates in real time. ..

With virtually no public debate, police agencies have begun storing the information from the cameras, building databases that document the travels of millions of vehicles. … The District [of Columbia] … has more than one plate-reader per square mile, the highest concentration in the nation. Police in the Washington suburbs have dozens of them as well … creating a comprehensive dragnet that will include all the approaches into the District. … The data are kept for three years in the District. … Police can also plug any license plate number into the database and, as long as it passed a camera, determine where that vehicle has been and when. …”

As prices rapidly fall, this will be widely deployed. Unless there is a public outcry, which seems unlikely at the moment, within twenty years most traffic intersections will probably have tag readers, neighboring jurisdictions will share databases, and so police will basically track all cars all the time. With this precedent, cameras that track pedestrians and people in cars via their faces and gaits will follow within another decade or two.

If firms tried to set up camera networks to collect and sell similar info, I would expect an outcry and regulations to stop them. But police will be not only be allowed to continue, they’ll probably also succeed in intimidating citizens away from recording police interactions with citizens, no matter what the official rules say.

I’m not really sure what to say, so I’ll provide two endings to this post and you can choose the one you prefer.

Ending #1:   My fellow Americans have become a bunch of pathetic sheep.  We’ve been cowed by authorities with their phony wars on terror, drugs, and crime.  We meekly submit to all sorts of indignities.  We’ve lost the spirit of 1776.  We now prize security above liberty.  Soon it will be impossible to teach 1984 in classrooms, as students will wonder; “what’s the big deal?”

Ending #2:  Sumner, you’re just an old reactionary.  Time moves along, and the world doesn’t cater to your preferences, it reflects the desires of the next generation.  They grew up with computers, social media, cell phones, etc.  They are quite comfortable with the fact that there is no privacy in a technocracy.  Your childhood was just a brief interlude between millenia of village life, with no privacy about what you purchased or where you traveled, and the coming millenia of technocracy, where big brother will know everything.  You just happened to have been born in a time when big cities granted anonymity, but technology hadn’t yet advanced enough for bureaucracies to know everything about us.  You should just hole up in a hotel penthouse in Vegas and watch reruns of your precious 1940s film noirs.  Nobody else cares; indeed in a few more decades no one will even be able to understand those films.  Hire a detective to find someone?  What would be the purpose when everyone knows where everyone else is?

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About Scott Sumner 492 Articles

Affiliation: Bentley University

Scott Sumner has taught economics at Bentley University for the past 27 years.

He earned a BA in economics at Wisconsin and a PhD at University of Chicago.

Professor Sumner's current research topics include monetary policy targets and the Great Depression. His areas of interest are macroeconomics, monetary theory and policy, and history of economic thought.

Professor Sumner has published articles in the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, and the Bulletin of Economic Research.

Visit: TheMoneyIllusion

3 Comments on It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and Americans Feel Fine

  1. “Robin Hanson points out that 1984 has arrived, albeit 27 years late. And what’s interesting is that no one seems to care:”

    Outside of a few million people occupying the public parks and streets of America screaming for change, that is!

  2. The database of biometric faces and cell phone “ping” tags means that the database is not restricted to cars, but includes your face on camera (which within 3 years will also have read-back capability) and cell phone trace to include your cell phone location (or at least it’s memory card), which already has “read-back” capability. The database will also allow for one-touch read back of locations for everyone in the ADP database of co-workers, the Social Security and DMV databases for family (same house-hold or extended), and location cross-reference with any credit cards that have a remote electric reader feature in stores.

    Read-back features are also already in place for many transit systems that will both send you data on the system schedules (next train, next bus, etc.) and send your location and that of others with the same function to centralized databases. It will then be a simple algorithm to aggregate you to your “travel clan” group that will allow the government or any paying vendor to determine the absolute (home) and relative (most common daily habituation: job, store, gas station, etc.) locations to allow an informed enforcement or correction agent to find and detain you and anyone that knows you within one hour of packaged instruction. Given that the government no longer needs to admit that you have been detained, nor to provide you with a trial, nor to provide you with the opportunity to be confronted with the reason for your detention or the substance of any accusation made against you, this means that you are no longer an independent agent with individual rights of any kind. But it’s more than that. Now the government can simply make that data (or doctored data of their own making) available to everyone or those who do not have your interests at heart to destroy your life, your livelihood, your marriage, your family, even your neighborhood. They can tailor disinformation with instant refinement to destroy your credit, your reputation, anything that is programmed. And you have no means, access, or even sufficient knowledge of systems and authority to appeal what is done.

    This isn’t just about privacy, it’s about the abrogation of your constitutional rights on all scores: life, liberty, the pursuit of anything.

    Orwell was a poor ex-cop from Burma that thought you needed guns to suppress populations. With the information now available, we are as far past 1984 as Mr. Blair was past the Pre-Cambrian age. Readers don’t get it. It doesn’t matter if you care. It doesn’t matter if you scream, pray or take up arms for change. It’s too late: you are part of the macroorganism of the state now. You are no longer you.

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