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technological innovation - 1 04 2003 - 11:07 - katatonik

On Openness

Sheldon J. Pacotti, a writer and game developer living in Austin, Texas, wrote a lengthy piece entitled “Are we doomed yet?” on salon.com. Subtitle: “The computer-networked, digital world poses enormous threats to humanity that no government, no matter how totalitarian, can stop. A fully open society is our best chance for survival”.

The essay contains some interesting observations, like:

“Ironically, though increases in individual power during the print revolution catalyzed the ideals of freedom and individuality, corresponding increases in individual power during the computer revolution have catalyzed a sense of doom and a desire for autocratic rule.”

But what seems symptomatic for the approach taken here is a rather curious understanding of “openness”. For instance, in his discussion of public surveillance technology, Pacotti imagines two cities.

“In one hypothetical city, only the authorities have access to the cameras. The network is centralized, secret, and therefore vulnerable to abuses by government employees. Criminals are intimidated, but ”[c]itizens walk the streets aware that any word or deed may be noted by agents of some mysterious bureau.” In the other city, the cameras can be accessed by any citizen with a “wristwatch/TV”—or, presumably, any device connected to the Internet. The network can be used by a parent whose child has wandered off, a person walking home alone at night, or, broadly speaking, a society that wants to make sure that police show a “minute attention to ritual and rights” when apprehending a suspect.

If we must submit to a surveillance society, I think it is clear that an open network, in which no group, agency, or individual is privileged over any other, would lead to a society with a superior character than one in which the citizens remain separate from and observed by the government. Better for us all to be able to watch one another than for the “authorities” to monopolize this power and leave us with only the fear.

Given that technology lends power to those who use it, we are to make sure that every single citizen has the power to use technology in order to prevent us from having to submit from power-wielding authorities.

I can see how, starting out from the dissemination of software, mp3 files and cracks to undermine DVD encryption one would arrive at such an approach towards openness.

But it seems to me that when discussing social and political issues such as public life in cities, this approach reaches its limits: surely more “openness” exists in cities when there is no surveillance technology, and not when everyone can police everyone. All of this depends of course on the kind of society there is (one of axe-wielding mass-murderers is perhaps not the most open society to begin with, leaving aside its openness to axe-wielding and mass-murdering). Moreover, it strikes me as curious that Pacotti simply presupposes the public surveillance craze in the UK has indeed lowered crime; the last time I checked, opinions on the matter widely diverged.

Alas, one point seems clear: unless one moves beyond thinking merely about technological access, discussions about social and political openness will remain severely impoverished.

As an aside: It may be an inappropriate metaphor, but would advocates of an open society really argue that more openness is achieved when not only the police, but all citizens have free access to fire weapons?

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