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Participatory Panopticon: The Official Version

The Institute for the Future's 2007 Ten-Year Forecast included, as one of the forecast items, the Participatory Panopticon. IFTF is now making past Ten-Year Forecast materials more readily accessible to the public, and I was pleased to see that the Participatory Panopticon document (including a discussion between David Brin and myself) is now available for download (PDF).

A highlight from the Brin-Cascio conversation:

Jamais: Historically, we haven’t done a very good job at making village communities that allow their members to do and become the things that they want. Overwhelming observation has, by and large, been more often used to suppress outside-the-mainstream behavior than to go after the powerful and corrupt. How do you see this emerging world differing?

David: You and I are examples of the sort of people who were burned at the stake in almost any other culture. Yet, in this one, we are paid well to poke at the boundaries of the “box.” I’m pretty grateful for that, and for the millions of others like us, who are allowed and encouraged to bicker and compete and criticize. It is a noisy, noisome civilization and its imperfections may yet kill us all. But is so vastly beats all of the neat and tidy ones that came before.

Now we’re entering a new era when the village seems about to return. With our senses and memories enhanced prodigiously by new prostheses, suddenly we can “know” the reputations of millions, soon to be billions, of fellow Earth citizens. A tap of your VR eyeglasses will identify any person, along with profiles and alerts, almost as if you had been gossiping about him and her for years.

It’s seriously scary prospect and one that is utterly unavoidable. The cities we grew up in were semi-anonymous only because they were primitive. The village is returning. And with it serious, lifelong worry about that state of our reputations. Kids who do not know this are playing with fire. They had better hope that the village will be a nice one. A village that shrugs a lot, and forgives.

I have to say, that last line may be my favorite thing that David has ever said or written.


Cripes. How do your deal with the reputation tracking analogue of malicious gossip?

I can imagine competing services that suit the prejudices of subscribers. Imagine what the world would look like to someone to uses the Glenn Beck reputation tracker. Traitorous weasels everywhere!

Maybe a future Las Vegas could tout itself as being rep tracking free.

Heh. Funny you should mention such systems... :D

It seems a recipe for the quiet geeks to be drowned out by the loud and overly assertive. It is probably how village life used to be, but hardly conducive to change or innovation.

"A village that shrugs a lot and forgives" seems highly unlikely from everyday experience.

Is this what happens once everyone is online? I fear it is.

Reputation systems seem to be the area were law making ought to be focused. But I can't see this being understood before a politician is subject to lynch mob justice winning over truth. What chance of say Richard Dawkins' reputation or "bad" politician of the day being "fair".

Well, another problem is, way back when you could leave the fucking village and reinvent yourself in a new place. These days the things you did when you were little will haunt you forever. I can't see anything good in that honestly.

Brin has explored these questions in substantial detail in "The Transparent Society" - and did so years ago which I find quite impressive. The books is more insightful than I'd expected, less filled with platitudes like so many books about "reputation" and "surveillance" - though given Brin's nimble mind it's not entirely unexpected.

Every time people wring their hands about the "fragility" of our online reputations nowadays I have to laugh. Nobody need tell ME about what "the future" is like, when "the future" is assumed to have anonymous online smears become part of one's lifetime profile. Google me and you'll see what I mean.

I've lived the destructive side of this for almost a decade, already, and I can only say this: those who haven't yet been savaged by the troll herds and seen unfounded smears turn into "facts" by sheer anonymous repetition have NO IDEA what is in store for them down the road. Nobody is immune to it, it's too easy to smear someone and impossible to de-smear.

The only viable response is to learn to have a very, very thick skin to all this stuff. And, indeed, the majority cultural systems will simply raise their "noise filter" accordingly, as time goes by. It's like the "foreclosure crisis" - someone who was foreclosed out of a house 10 years ago was a worthless scumbag who couldn't pay their bills. But when the middle class gets foreclosed, it's simply redefined from a sign of ethical perfidy to a "crisis" and everyone gets bailed out.

The majority sets the standard for what is socially persecuted and what is accepted - when "normal" people see their google results clouded with troll smears they can't ever erase, the majority will quickly learn how to cognitively filter out anonymous, unfilitered garbage from more reliable data. Ten years ago, someone could go online and make a usenet post calling a prominent person anything they wanted - that one post would burrow into the archives, cross-reference itself, and soon enough get cited as "proof," in an endless loop of self-affirming slander. Nobody even bothered to see if these "facts" were anything but recycled troll excrement - but now that "real people" face this issue, that distinction will become very well understood, very fast.

The interesting thing I've seen in recent years is that, even as "normal people" learn to ignore troll posts, the old-world bastions of print journalism have no such interest in doing so. For them, if they google someone and see ANY "bad things" - facts or not, troll-created or not - they just ignore that story for something "safer." The net result is an ever-expanding group of us are simply off-limits for any coverage by the "mainstream media" because of old troll rumors. That's one reason you see less and less useful reporting in print media - they are far better at self censoring than any censorship board could be, and their censorship standards make no distinction between an historical fact and an anonymously-posted smear that's grown roots in google.

Ironically, some of the same people who have judged me "damaged goods" because my google results are shot through with organized rumor campaigns are now feeling very, very sorry for themselves when THEIR google results start throwing ugly little rumors. Boo hoo, it's "unfair" when it happens to them - when it was only a few of us out there getting smeared by the cowards hiding under the virtual bridge, everyone seemed to think it was terrific entertainment, a spectator sport. Not so funny when they're on the receiving end, themselves.

Fausty | www.cultureghost.org

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