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Perceptive and myopic views of our transparent future. Especially police cameras.
David Brin   Jan 15, 2017   Contrary Brin  

Let’s veer from either science fiction or politics into our politically science-fictional new world of light. Starting with a reminder that my new anthology (with Stephen Potts) Chasing Shadows, is released this week by Tor Books, featuring contributions by William Gibson, James Gunn, Neal Stephenson, Vernor Vinge and many others, offering stories and insights into a future when light flows almost everywhere. Prepare yourself!  This might be a good start.

Steve and I will be signing copies, along with Scott Sigler, at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego, on January 27!

== Floundering gradually toward wisdom ==

In a vivid article - Should We See Everything a Cop Sees? - McKenzie Funk of The New York Times describes the wide cast of characters in Seattle who are grappling with a pressing modern problem, how to comply with a court order to make police camera footage available to the public.

It's a can of worms, because the police department is also legally required to redact or blur personal details such as faces or identifiable voices, for the sake of privacy. While Funk's article makes for entertaining reading, the story is murky about the context for it all. That context is a proliferation of cameras, getting smaller, faster, cheaper, better, more numerous and mobile at rates much faster than Moore’s Law.  

Short-horizon myopia is common to every person I've seen weigh in - even very bright folks - on this topic.  Sure, a few of us predicted all this back in the 20th Century - e.g. in EARTH (1989) and The Transparent Society (1997) - yet the very notion of lifting one's gaze beyond this month, following trend lines instead for three or five, or ten years ahead, seems impossible even for intelligent and critical observers like McKenzie Funk.

Regarding just the zoomed-in dilemmas of 2016, Funk's article does a good job of showing us the trees (the dilemmas faced by police, prosecutors, attorneys and citizens in adapting to these court decisions), without even noticing the forest. The context of why this is all happening and how this amounts to - for all the tsuris and aggravation - a huge victory for our kind of civilization.

I have called it the most important civil liberties victory of this century so far -- perhaps in thirty years -- even though it was hardly covered by the press. In 2013 both the U.S. courts and the Obama Administration declared it to be "settled law" that a citizen has the right to record his or her interactions with police in public places.

No single matter could have been more important because it established the most basic right of "sousveillance" or looking-back at power, that The Transparent Society is all about. It is also fundamental to freedom, for in altercations with authority, what other recourse can a citizen turn to, than the Truth?

But the forest is rapidly changing! Next year, the same scene that was today only visible on a cop-cam’s footage will have been covered also by the suspect’s auto-record phone app, or a passerby’s dash cam. Or a store’s security system, or chains of cheap button cams pasted on lamp posts or bridge overpasses by activist groups, or even hobbyists. Follow the price curve a bit farther and you have the sticker cameras that I describe in EXISTENCE, stuck to any surface by 9-year olds who peel them from great, big rolls, each with its own code in IPV6 cyberspace and powered by trickles of sunlight.

In that context, not a single issue wrangled-over in the NY Times hand-wringing article will seem anything but archaic - even troglodytic - just half a decade from now. If there was ever an era in desperate need of the Big Perspectives offered by science fiction….

== The pattern continues ==

After which I listened to NPR's To The Point broadcast about the regulation of police body and dash cams. And despite generally liking Warren Olney - he always asks good questions - I must say I was disappointed in how this topic makes everyone myopic. The only interviewee who applied two neurons to a bigger view was the former Redlands police chief, who gave thoughtful, logical answers... though like the others, only focused on the here and now. (All right, the ACLU guy got a little better, across the interview.)

Not one of them contemplated how technology made all of it possible - this entire topic would have been (and was!) science fiction five years ago - and every interviewee on Olney's show ignored how tech will be utterly different five years from now. None contemplated the proliferation of ever smaller, faster, cheaper cameras.

How could they have gone an hour without mentioning the one fundamental... that otherpeople than police have cameras? More and better ones, every day. This will -- and already has -- empowered citizens on the street.

Listen to the broadcast, then tell me how many hand-wringing statements will be even remotely relevant, as a skyrocketing percentage of police-citizen encounters will be recorded from more than just the police perspective, with both the suspect and onlookers loading their files into the cloud.

How, oh how, can we have such bright folks, who mean well and who want to solve problems, yet absolutely refuse to lift their gaze beyond the near-sighted today? Don't answer. We all know the greatest recent example: the entire political caste of the Democratic Party. 

A much smarter article that actually tries to peer ahead is this one in the Atlantic - Even the bugs will be bugged - by Matthew Hutson.

See a more in-depth analysis of central surveillance, predictive policing and tools for accountability from the new Scout site: Should the Future of Policing Look Like This? by Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath.

Futurist Glen Hiemstra discusses The Future of Policing -- looking at some of the problems and possible solutions for policing in the fast-changing world of today and tomorrow.

== Another try ==

More hand-wringing. Even when a writer tries to look beyond the immediate horizon, the usual result is short-sightedness.  As in this case: “Should Police Bodycams Come With Facial Recognition Software?”  Jake Laperruque, on Slate, warns that such technologies loom just ahead and will be used… unless serious efforts go into privacy protection.

Three plus points to Mr. Laperruque for at least trying.  And five more for an article that brings us up to date on current efforts to either introduce or construct facial recognition use by authorities… 

... then minus thirty points for failure to peer just a little farther, asking: “What on Earth do you think could possibly prevent this, over the long run?

Take into account a crucial factor, technological drive. Reiterating a point made above: as cameras get smaller, faster, cheaper, better and more mobile at a rate much faster than Moore’s Law (sometimes called Brin’s Corollary ;-) cop cams will get too small to see and the facial recognition databases will proliferate far beyond your ability to limit them with well-meaning, ACLU promoted regs.

This needn’t be a disaster, if common citizens share in the new powers of vision, able to scrutinize and criticize when no cop action can remain unobserved. If we can not only recognize any harm doer, but also catch and chastise eavesdroppers and gossipy peeping toms, who stare too closely, then a surprising side-benefit will be more, rather than less privacy. 

The increase in light flooding the planet could be prodigious, searing the harmful and helping drive trends toward our crucial victory condition. In other words, technological trends seem to work in our favor.

But first, our well-meaning paladins of freedom must get better glasses, and start looking beyond next year.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


It seems unlikely to me that “sousveillance” will survive its collision with the also exponentially increasing capacity to create realistic fake video and audio. What will it mean once any video or conversation can be manufactured cheaply and which only can be untangled from reality by very expensive and time consuming digital forensics? Fake news is just the beginning.

@ Rick..

#FakeNews is problematic for sure, yet is it any more insidious than any other propaganda? Faced with over abundance and concerns of authenticity it appears..

1. We believe everything?
2. We believe nothing?

Either way, the onus is on government to serve as vanguard, else they would be first to fall prey to total disbelief and distrust?

.. And like, why am I still having to download personal malware and Anti-virus protection, when every node and ISP and server on the web is protected?

bring on the soma. Allegedly Oxytocin makes tap water sparkle, (So I’ve been told)?


I guess I’m just wondering how important “sousveillance” of the rich and powerful would be if we’re unable to tell which images are true and which are false. Hell, it might even be worse, i.e. that no one will care when a US president is taped getting golden showers from Russian prostitutes because, oh well… we’ve seen worse. Who’s the vanguard supposed to be then, media, government? Who will believe anybody or care so long as one’s own interests are upheld? 

Welcome to Trump’s America. At the very least I could use a few Guinness.

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