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Ambiveillance

One of the first rules one is taught as a futurist-in-training is to avoid "normative scenarios" -- forecasts that describe what you want to see, even when the signals and evidence at hand make the scenario highly unlikely. This is much more of a challenge than non-futurists may think, as a good scenarist can usually come up with a plausible set of early indicators and distant early warnings to support just about any forecast. If one's work focuses on issues that have a strong ethical component (around human rights, for example, or the global environment) the problem is further multiplied.

One of the reasons I've been running silent over the past month or so has been the explosion of news around government (and corporate) surveillance of the Internet. Not that I'm especially worried about my own stuff -- I have a fairly public life, and have few secrets worth knowing. But the implications for the futures of privacy, security, commerce, communications, big data, and so forth are so enormous that I'm still trying to wrap my mind around where this is all going. And the desire to imagine normative scenarios about the potential outcomes is almost overwhelming.

Reality has a bad habit of undermining desired futures. Here's a non-privacy example: If you have a moral stance that says that individual access to guns should be strictly controlled or prohibited in the U.S., you may wish to imagine future outcomes where such restrictions are possible and widely accepted. But the evolution of 3D printers has made that kind of future highly implausible, as designs for 3D-printer-friendly firearms have now emerged and spread. As long as 3D printers are available, it will be extremely difficult to eliminate or control access to firearms, and as 3D printers become more capable, we'll see increasingly diverse and powerful printable weapons. Any discussions of "gun control" that don't acknowledge this are doomed to imminent irrelevance.

So when we think about the future of privacy, surveillance, and related concepts, one of the first questions we need to ask is "what real-world conditions constrain our possible futures?" What are the technical aspects of privacy and surveillance, and what kinds of changes would have to happen to shift the balance between the two? What are the political barriers? For example, if a leader took positive steps to reduce government surveillance, and subsequently a major terrorist attack happened, how likely is it that the public (and certainly the political opponents of said leader) would link the two? If the technological standards underlying the present-day Internet make full privacy essentially impossible -- not just vis-a-vis government snoops but also corporate "big data" behavior analysis -- who would actually have the capability to construct a more secure alternative?

I'm still thinking.

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