An interview with Cory Doctorow, via Jacobin:
Many historians have observed that social surveillance was the norm in the small agricultural towns where everybody knew everybody else’s business in the seventeenth century. Even if the only “everyone” whose business you knew were people who lived nearby, you had a very intimate view into their lives. There are ways in which that is corrosive.
But it’s a different kind of corrosiveness to the kind of overwhelming corporate and state surveillance. The argument I hear more often than the “sousveillance” argument is that corporations are scarier than governments, or governments are scarier than corporations. But the reality is that the only reason overwhelming surveillance is possible is because, on the one hand, the state has failed to regulate private data collection and, on the other, the state raids corporate databases.
After the Church Committee in the 1970s, when the FBI’s surveillance powers were limited, the credit bureaus sprang up. A lot of them were started by ex-FBI agents, and although they supplied intelligence to mortgage lenders and lots of other entities, their major client was the FBI. The FBI wasn’t allowed to maintain dossiers on people unless they had specific, articulable criminal suspicions about them, but credit bureaus were.
Whether you are worried about the state surveilling you or corporations surveilling you, the problem of mass surveillance is inseparable from state or corporate surveillance. When you have one, you’ll have the other, and until you rein in one, you’ll never rein in the other.
I mean, Google is stuffed full of people from the military-industrial complex, not least Eric Schmidt. His speciality at Sun Microsystems was providing data services to the intelligence services in the military. He is really on the inside, so it’s not surprising that they were that cooperative.
In the UK, thanks to Tony Blair, there is RIPA, so they can put you in jail for not giving up your password. Or they can get a warrant to sneak into your house and put in a camera that can watch you type your password. There have been lots of examples of that.
In 2005, Mark Klein came to our offices at EFF and showed us documentation that the NSA had directed him, through his bosses, to build a secret room at the AT&T Switching Center on Folsom Street, put a beam splitter in their fiber optic backbone, and begin to place the entire Internet under surveillance.
We knew that in 2005. Long before WikiLeaks and long before Snowden, we had that knowledge. When Little Brother came out in 2008, people characterized it as prescient. It wasn’t — people had simply missed something that had been on the front page of the New York Times for weeks at a time but was lost in the general order of things. It had been in the news, but not in the zeitgeist.
So I think it’s wrong to call it “paranoid” because paranoid implies delusion. And as a belief system, paranoia is entangled with a belief in the intrinsic wickedness of your fellow humans, and that power corrupts, that the state is always evil and all of these other elements.
So in that sense, I’d call my novels highly politicized rather than paranoid. I don’t object to government surveillance per se, but to unaccountable surveillance by state actors on a mass scale.
I believe in civil liberties, and I think that states are the least-worst option right now for solving some difficult collective action problems. But I also think that we’re learning every day how much hierarchy we can remove from complex endeavors.
Imagine something futuristic, like something on the scale of an operating system or an encyclopedia, with the same degree of complexity, the number of human hours and the amount of knowledge that goes into it, and something else on that scale, like a Canary Wharf tower, and imagine it being built the way that we built Wikipedia.
I have a plot of dirt, and I’m going to invite any stranger who has structural steel, trunking, rebar, cement, gravel, diggers, architectural drawings, or ideas to come and just muck around for a while. We’ll shout at each other a lot, and we’ll have some false starts. Some bits will come down, some bits will go up, and at the end, we will have not just an office tower, but the greatest office tower ever built, and it will be infinitely reproducible at zero cost.
Imagine a space program run like that. Imagine an aviation system run like that. Imagine a state run like that. That’s a futuristic thing, right? That’s a futuristic parable that uses Wikipedia and any Linux project to think about the scale at which we can operate in the absence of hierarchy.
I don’t propose that we will never have authority or authorities. I propose that those authorities should always be checked and, wherever possible, eliminated by systems that are resilient and distributed.
If there is a way that people who were in situations of oppression could resist that oppression without recourse to a capricious central authority whose interests can only be captured after a lot of blood and treasure is spilt, if people had access to self-help measures, then I think that is always the preferred first recourse. The thing about central authority is that it works well, but it fails badly.
If we could come up with an alternative, perhaps a central authority that’s not a bourgeois libertarian ideal but is engaged with the lived experience and lessons learned from contemporary struggles, I think that might be desirable.