Privacy Strikes Back, Dave Eggers’ The Circle and a Response to David Brin

I believe that we have turned a corner: we have finally attained Peak Indifference to Surveillance. We have reached the moment after which the number of people who give a damn about their privacy will only increase. The number of people who are so unaware of their privilege or blind to their risk that they think “nothing to hide/nothing to fear” is a viable way to run a civilization will only decline from here on in.  Cory Doctorow

If I was lucky enough to be teaching a media studies class right now I would assign two books to be read in tandem. The first of these books, Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shocka book I have written about before, gives one the view of our communications landscape from 10,000 feet. Asking how can we best understand what is going on, with not just Internet and mobile technologies, but all forms of modern communication including that precious antique, the narrative book or novel.

Perspectives from “above” have the strength that they give you a comprehensive view, but human meaning often requires another level, an on-the-ground emotional level, that good novels, perhaps still more than any other medium, succeed at brilliantly. Thus, the second book I would assign in my imaginary media studies course would be Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle where one is taken into a world right on the verge of our own, which because it seems so close, and at the same time so creepy, makes us conscious of changes in human communication less through philosophy, although the book has plenty of that too, as through our almost inarticulable discomfort. Let me explain:

The Circle tells the story of a 20 something young woman, Mae Holland, who through a friend lands her dream job at the world’s top corporation, named, you guessed it, the Circle. To picture Circle, imagine some near future where Google swallowed FaceBook and Twitter and the resulting behemoth went on to feed on and absorb all the companies and algorithms that now structure our lives: the algorithm that suggests movies for you at NetFlix, or books and products on Amazon, in addition to all the other Internet services you use like online banking. This monster of a company is then able integrate all of your online identities into one account, they call it “TruYou”.

Having escaped a dead end job in a nowhere small town utility company, Mae finds herself working at the most powerful, most innovative, most socially conscious and worker friendly company on the planet. “Who else but utopians could make utopia. “ (30) she muses, but there are, of course, problems on the horizon.

The Circle is the creation of a group called the “3 Wise men”. One of these young wise men, Bailey, is the philosopher of the group. Here he is musing about the creation of small, cheap, ubiquitous and high definition video cameras that the company is placing anywhere and everywhere in a program called SeeChange:

Folks, we’re at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment. And I am not talking about a new building on campus. I am talking about an era where we don’t allow the vast majority of human thought and action and achievement to escape as if from a leaky bucket. We did that once before. It was called the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages. If not for the monks, everything the world had ever learned would have been lost. Well, we live in a similar time and we’re losing the vast majority of what we do and see and learn. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not with these cameras, and not with the mission of the Circle. (67)

The philosophy of the company is summed up, in what the reader can only take as echoes of Orwell, in slogans such as “all that happens must be known” , “privacy is theft”, “secrets are lies”, and “to heal we must know, to know we must share”.

Our protagonist, Mae, has no difficulty with this philosophy. She is working for what she believes is the best company in the world, and it is certainly a company that on the surface all of us would likely want to work for: there are non-stop social events which include bringing in world class speakers, free cultural and sporting events and concerts. The company supports the relief of a whole host of social problems. Above all, there are amazing benefits which include the company covering the healthcare costs of Mae’s father who is stricken with an otherwise bankrupting multiple sclerosis.

What Eggers is excellent at is taking a person who is in complete agreement with the philosophy around her and making her humanity become present in her unintended friction with it. It’s really impossible to convey without pasting in large parts of the book just how effective Eggers is at presenting the claustrophobia that comes from a too intense use of social technology. The shame Mae is made to feel from missing out on a coworker’s party, the endless rush to keep pace with everyone’s updates, and the information overload and data exhaustion that results, the pressure of always being observed and “measured”, both on the job and off, the need to always present oneself in the best light, to “connect” with others who share the same views, passions and experiences,the anxiety that people will share something, such as intimate or embarrassing pictures one would not like shared, the confusion of “liking” and “disliking” with actually doing something, with the consequence that not sharing one’s opinion begins to feel like moral irresponsibility.

Mae desperately wants to fit into the culture of transparency found at the Circle, but her humanity keeps getting in the way. She has to make a herculean effort to keep up with the social world of the company, mistakenly misses key social events, throws herself into sexual experiences and relationships she would prefer not be shared, keeps the pain she is experiencing because of her father’s illness private.

She also has a taste for solitude, real solitude, without any expectation that she bring something out of it- photos or writing to be shared. Mae has a habit of going on solo kayaking excursions, and it is in these that her real friction with the culture of the Circle begins. She relies on an old fashioned brochure to identify wildlife and fails to document and share her experiences. As an HR representative who berates her for this “selfish” practice states it:

You look at your paper brochure, and that’s where it ends. It ends with you. (186)

The Circle is a social company built on the philosophy of transparency and anyone who fails to share, it is assumed, must not really buy into that worldview. The “wise man” Bailey, as part of the best argument against keeping secrets I have ever read captures the ultimate goal of this philosophy:

A circle is the strongest shape in the universe. Nothing can beat it,  nothing can improve upon it.  And that’s what we want to be: perfect. So any information that eludes us, anything that’s not accessible, prevents us from being perfect.  (287)

The growing power of the Circle, the way it is swallowing everything and anything, does eventually come in for scrutiny by a small group of largely powerless politicians, but as was the case with the real world Julian Assange, transparency, or the illusion of it, can be used as a weapon against the weak as much as one against the strong. Suddenly all sorts of scandalous ilk becomes known to exist on these politicians computers and their careers are destroyed. Under “encouragement” from the Circle politicians “go transparent” their every move recorded so as to be free from the charge of corruption as the Circle itself takes over the foundational mechanism of democracy- voting.

The transparency that the Circle seeks is to contain everyone, and Mae herself, after committing the “crime” of temporarily taking a kayak for one of her trips and being caught by a SeeChange camera, at the insistence of Bailey, becomes one of only two private citizens to go transparent, with almost her every move tracked and recorded.

If Mae actually believes in the philosophy of transparency and feels the flaw is with her, despite almost epiphanies that would have freed her from its grip, there are voices of solid opposition. There is Mae’s ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who snaps at her while at dinner with her parents, and had it been Eggers’ intention would have offered an excellent summation of Rushkoff’s Present Shock.

Here, though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication cues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom you know and are trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen searching for strangers in Dubai.  (260)

There is also another of the 3 wise men, Ty, who fears where the company he helped create is leading and plots to destroy it. He cries to Mae:

This is it. This is the moment where history pivots. Imagine you could have been there before Hitler became chancellor. Before Stalin annexed Eastern Europe. We’re on the verge of having another very hungry, very evil empire on our hands, Mae. Do you understand? (401)

Ty says of his co-creator Bailey:

This is the moment he has been waiting for, the moment when all souls are connected. This is his rapture, Mae! Don’t you see how extreme this view is? His idea is radical, and in another era would have been a fringe notion espoused by an eccentric adjunct professor somewhere: that all information, personal or not, should be shared by all.  (485)

If any quote defines what I mean by radical transparency it is that one immediately above. It is, no doubt, a caricature and the individuals who adhere to something like it in the real world do so in shades, along a spectrum. One of the thinkers who does so, and whose thought might therefore shed light on what non-fictional proponents of transparency are like is the science fiction author, David Brin, who took some umbrage over at the IEET in response to my last post.

In that post itself I did not really have Brin in mind, partly because, like Julian Assange, his views have always seemed to me more cognizant of the deep human need for personal privacy, in a way the figures I mentioned there; Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Kelly and Jeff Stibel; have not, and thus his ideas were not directly relevant to where I originally intended to go in the second part of my post, which was to focus on precisely this need. Given his sharp criticism, it now seems important that I address his views directly and thus swerve for a moment away from my main narrative.

Way back in 1997, Brin had written a quite prescient work The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? which accurately gauged the way technology and culture were moving on the questions of surveillance and transparency. In a vastly simplified form, Brin’s argument was that given the pace of technological change, which makes surveillance increasingly easier and cheaper, our best protection against elite or any other form of surveillance, is not to put limits on or stop that surveillance, but our capacity to look back, to watch the watchers, and make as much as possible of what they do transparent.

Brin’s view that transparency is the answer for surveillance leads him to be skeptical of traditional approaches, such as those of the ACLU, that think laws are the primary means to protect us because technology, in Brin’s perspective, will always any outrun any legal limitations on the capacities to surveil.

While I respect Brin as a fellow progressive and admire his early prescience, I simply have never found his argument compelling, and think in fact his and similar sentiments held by early figures at the dawn of the Internet age have led us down a cul de sac.

Given the speed at which technologies of surveillance have been and are being developed it has always been the law and its ability to give long lasting boundaries to the permissible and non-permissible that is our primary protection against them. Indeed, the very fall in cost and rise in capacity of surveillance technologies, a reality which Brin believes make legal constraints largely unworkable, in fact make law, one of our oldest technologies, and which no man should be above or below, our best weapon in privacy’s defense.

The same logic of the deterrent threat of legal penalties that we will need for, say, preventing a woman from being tracked and stalked by a jealous ex boyfriend using digital technology, will be necessary to restrain corporations and the state. It does not help a stalked woman just to know she is being stalked, to be able to “watch her watcher”, rather, she needs to be able to halt the stalking. Perhaps she can digitally hide, but she especially needs the protection of the force of law which can impose limitations and penalties on anyone who uses technological capacities for socially unacceptable ends, and in the same way, citizens are best protected not by being able to see into government prying, but by prohibiting that prying under penalty of law in the first place.We already do this effectively, the problem is that the law has lagged behind technology.

Admittedly, part of the issue is that technology has moved incredibly fast, but a great deal of law’s slowness has come from a culture that saw no problem with citizens being monitored and tracked 24/7- a culture which Brin helped create.

The law effectively prohibits authorities from searching your home without a warrant and probable cause, something authorities have been “technologically” able to do since we started living in shelters. Phone tapping, again, without a warrant and probable cause, has been prohibited to authorities in the US since the late 1960’s- authorities had been tapping phones since shortly after the phone was invented in the 1890’s. Part of the problem today is that no warrant is required for the government to get your “meta-data” who you called  or where you were as indicated by GPS. When your email exists in the “cloud” and not on your personal device those emails can in some cases be read without any oversight from a judge. These gaps in Fourth Amendment protections exist because the bulk of US privacy law that was meant to deal with electronic communications was written before even email, existed, indeed, before most of us knew what the Internet was. The law can be slow, but it shouldn’t be that slow, email, after all, is pretty damned old.  

There’s a pattern here in that egregious government behavior or abuse of technological capacities – British abuses in the American colonies, the American government and law enforcement’s egregious behavior and utilization of wiretapping/recording capacities in the 1960’s, results in the passing of restrictions on the use of such techniques and technological capacities. Knowing about those abuses is only a necessary condition of restricting or putting a stop to them.

I find no reason to believe the pattern will not repeat itself again and that we will soon push for and achieve restrictions on the surveillance power of government and others which will work until the powers- that- be find ways to get around them and new technology will allow those who wish to surveil in an abusive way allow them to do so. Then we’ll be back at this table again in the endless cat and mouse game that we of necessity must play if we wish to retain our freedom.

Brin seems to think that the fact that “elites” always find ways to get around such restrictions is a reason for not having such restrictions in the first place, which is a little like asking why should you clean your house when it just gets dirty again. As I see it, our freedom is always in a state of oscillation between having been secured and being at risk. We preserve it by asserting our rights during times of danger, and, sadly, this is one of those times.

I agree with Brin that the development of surveillance technologies are such that they themselves cannot directly be stopped, and spying technologies that would have once been the envy of the CIA or KGB, such as remote controlled drones with cameras, or personal tracking and bugging devices, are now available off the shelf to almost everyone an area in which Brin was eerily prescient in this. Yet, as with another widespread technology that can be misused, such as the automobile, their use needs to be licensed, regulated, and where necessary, prohibited. The development of even more sophisticated and intrusive surveillance technologies may not be preventable, but it can certainly be slowed, and tracked into directions that better square with long standing norms regarding privacy or even human nature itself.

Sharp regulatory and legal limits on the use of surveillance technologies would likely derail a good deal innovation and investment in the technologies of surveillance, which is exactly the point. Right now billions of dollars are flowing in the direction of empowering what only a few decades ago we would have clearly labeled creeps, people watching other people in ways they shouldn’t be, and these creeps can be found at the level of the state, the corporation and the individual.

On the level of individuals, transparency is not a solution for creepiness, because, let’s face it, the social opprobrium of being known as a creep (because everyone is transparent) is unlikely to make them less creepy- it is their very insensitivity to such social rules that make them creeps in the first place. All transparency would have done would be to open the “shades” of the victim’s “window”. Two-way transparency is only really helpful, as opposed to inducing a state of fear in the watched,  if the perception of intrusive watching allows the victim to immediately turn such watching off, whether by being able to make themselves “invisible”, or, when the unwanted watching has gone too far, to bring down the force of the law upon it.

Transparency is a step in the solution to this problem, as in, we need to somehow require tracking apps or surveillance apps in private hands to notify the person being tracked, but it is only a first step. Once a person knows they are being watched by another person they need ways to protect themselves, to hide, and the backup of authorities to stop harassment.

In the economic sphere, the path out of the dead end we’ve driven ourselves into might lie in the recognition that the commodity for sale in the transaction between Internet companies and advertisers, the very reason they have and continue pushing to make us transparent and surveilling us in the first place, is us. We would do well to remember, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in her book The Human Condition, that the root of our conception of privacy lies in private property. The ownership of property, “one’s own private place in the world” was once considered the minimum prerequisite for the possession of political rights.

Later, property as in land was exchanged for the portable property of our labor, which stemmed from our own body, and capital. We have in a sense surrendered control over the “property” of ourselves and become what Jaron Lanier calls digital peasants. Part of the struggle to maintain our freedoms will mean reasserting control over this property- which means our digital data and genetic information. How exactly this might be done is not clear to me, but I can see outlines. For example, it is at least possible to imagine something like digital “strikes” in which tracked consumers deliberately make themselves opaque to compel better terms.

In terms of political power, the use of law, as opposed to mere openness or transparency, to constrain the abuse of surveillance powers by elites would square better with our history. For the base of the Western democratic tradition (at least in its modern incantation) is not primarily elites’ openness to public scrutiny, or their competition with one another, as Brin argues is the case in The Transparent Society, (though admittedly the first especially is very important) but the constraints on power of the state, elites, the mob, or nefarious individuals provided by the rule of law which sets clear limits on how power, technologically enabled or otherwise, can be used.

The argument that prohibition, or even just regulation, never works and comparisons to the failed drug war I find too selective to be useful when discussing surveillance technologies. Society has prohibitions on all sorts of things that are extremely effective if never universally so.

In the American system, as mentioned, police and government are severely constrained in how they are able to obtain evidence against suspects or targets. Past prohibitions against unreasonable searches and surveillance have actually worked. Consumer protection laws dissuade corporations from abusing, putting customers at risk, or even just misusing consumer’s information. Environmental protection laws ban certain practices or place sharp boundaries on their use. Individuals are constrained in how they can engage with one another socially or how they can use certain technologies without their privilege (e.g driving) to use such technologies being revoked.

Drug and alcohol prohibitions, both having to push against the force of highly addictive substances, are exceptions the general rule that thoughtful prohibition and regulation works. The ethical argument is over what we should prohibit and what we should permit and how. It is ultimately a debate over what kind of society we want to live in based on our technological capacities, which should not be confused with a society determined by those capacities.

The idea that laws, regulations, and prohibitions under certain circumstances is well.., boring  shouldn’t be an indication that it is also wrong. The Transparent Society was a product of its time, the 1990’s, a prime example of the idea that as long as the playing field was leveled spontaneous order would emerge and that government “interference” through regulation and law (and in a democracy that is working the government is us) would distort this natural balance. It was the same logic that got us into the financial crisis and a species of an eternal human illusion that this time is different. Sometimes the solution to a problem is merely a matter of knowing your history and applying common sense, and the solution to the problem of mass surveillance is to exert our power as citizens of a democracy to regulate and prohibit it where we see fit. Or to sum it all up-we need updated surveillance laws.

It would be very unfair to Brin to say his views are as radical as the Circle’s philosopher Bailey, for, as mentioned, Brin is very cognizant and articulate regarding the human need for privacy at the level of individual intimacy. Eggers’ fictional entrepreneur-philosopher’s vision is a much more frightening version of radical transparency entailing the complete loss of private life. Such total transparency is victorious over privacy at the conclusion of The Circle. For, despite Mae’s love for Ty, he is unable to convince her to help him to destroy the company, and she betrays him.

We are left with the impression that the Circle, as a consequence of Mae’s allegiance to its transparency project, has been able as Lee Billings said in a different context,” to sublime and compress our small isolated world into an even more infinitesimal, less substantial state”  that our world is about to be enveloped in a dark sphere.

Yet, it would be wrong to view even Bailey in the novel as somehow “evil”, something that might make the philosophy of the Circle in some sense even more disturbing. The leadership of the Circle (with the exception of the Judas Ty) doesn’t view what they are building as somehow creepy or dangerous, they see it as a sort of paradise. In many ways they are actually helping people and want to help them. Mae in the beginning of Eggers’ novel is right- the builders of the Circle are utopians as were those who thought and continue to think radical transparency would prove the path to an inevitably better world.

As drunks are known for speaking the truth, an inebriated circler makes the connection between the aspirations of the Circle and those of religion:

….you’re gonna save all the souls. You’re gonna get everyone in the same place, you’re gonna teach them all the same things. There can be one morality, one set of rules. Imagine! (395)

The kinds of religious longings lying behind the mission of the Circle is even better understood by comparison to that first utopian, Plato, and his character Glaucon’s myth of the Ring of Gyges in The Republic. The ring makes its possessor invisible and the question it is used to explore is what human beings might do were there no chance they might get caught. The logic of the Circle is like a reverse Ring of Gyges making everyone perfectly visible. Bailey, thinks Mae had stolen the kayak because she thought she couldn’t be seen, couldn’t get caught:

All because you were being enabled by ,what, some cloak of invisibility? (296)

If not being able to watch people would make them worse, being able to fully and completely watch them, so the logic goes, would inevitably make them better.

In making this utopian assumption proponents of radical transparency both fictional and real needed to jettison some basic truths about the human condition we are only now relearning. A pattern that has, sadly, happened many times before.

Utopia does not feel like utopia if upon crossing the border you can’t go back home.  And upon reaching utopia we almost always want to return home because every utopia is built on a denial of or oversimplification regarding our multidimensional and stubbornly imperfectable human nature, and this would be the case whether or not our utopia was free of truly bad actors, creeps or otherwise.

The problem one runs into, in the transparency version of utopia, as in any other, is that given none of us are complete, or are less complete than we wish others to understand us to be, the push for us to be complete in an absolute sense often leads to its opposite. On social networks, we end up showcasing not reality, but a highly edited and redacted version of it: not the temper tantrums, but our kids at their cutest, not vacation disasters, but their picture perfect moments.

Pushing us, imperfect creatures that we are, towards total transparency leads almost inevitably to hypocrisy and towards exhausting and ultimately futile efforts at image management. All this becomes even more apparent when asymmetries in power between the watched and watcher are introduced. Employees are with reason less inclined to share that drunk binge over the weekend if they are “friends” with their boss on FaceBook. I have had fellow bloggers tell me they are afraid to express their opinions because of risks to their employment prospects. No one any longer knows whether the image one can find of a person on a social network is the “real” one or a carefully crafted public facade.

These information wars ,where every side is attempting to see as deeply as possible into the other while at the same time presenting an image of itself which best conforms to its own interest, is found up and down the line from individuals to corporations and all the way up to states. The quest for transparency, even when those on the quest mean no harm, is less about making oneself known than eliminating the uncertainty of others who are, despite all our efforts, not fully knowable. As Mae reflects:

It occurred to her, in a sudden moment of clarity, that what had always caused her anxiety, or stress, or worry, was not any one force, nothing independent and external- it wasn’t danger to herself or the calamity of other people and their problems. It was internal: it was subjective: it was not knowing. (194)

And again:

It was not knowing that was the seed of madness, loneliness, suspicion, fear. But there were ways to solve all this. Clarity had made her knowable to the world, and had made her better, had brought her close, she hoped., to perfection. Now the world would follow. Full transparency would bring full access and there would be no more not knowing. (465)

Yet, this version of eliminating uncertainty is an illusion. In fact, the more information we collect the more uncertainty increases, a point made brilliantly by another young author, who is also a scientist, Pippa Goldschmidt in her novel, The Falling Sky. To a talk show host who defines science as the search for answers she replies “That’s exactly what science isn’t about…. it’s about quantifying uncertainty.

Mae, at one point in the novel is on the verge of understanding this:

That the volume of information, of data, of judgments of measurement was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too much pain of too many people, and having it all constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if it was tidy and manageable- it was too much.  (410)

Sometimes one can end up in the exact opposite destination of where one wants to go if one is confused about the direction to follow to get there. Many of the early advocates of radical transparency thought our openness would make Orwellian nightmares of intrusive and controlling states less likely. Yet, by being blissfully unconcerned about our fundamental right to privacy, by promoting corporate monitoring and tracking of our every behavior, we have not created a society that is more open and humane but given spooks tools, democratic states would never have been able to openly construct, to spy upon us in ways that would have brought smiles to the faces of the totalitarian dictators and J Edgar Hoovers of the 20th century. We have given criminals and creeps the capability to violate the intimate sphere of our lives, and provided real authoritarian dictatorships the template and technologies to make Orwell’s warnings a reality.

Eggers, whose novel was released shortly after the first Snowden revelations was certainly capturing a change in public perception regarding the whole transparency project. It is the sense that we have been headed in the wrong direction an unease that signals the revival of our internal sense of orientation, that the course we are headed on does not feel right, and in fact somehow hints at grave dangers.

It was an unease captured equally well and around the same time by Vienna Teng’s hauntingly beautiful song Hymn of Axicom (brought to my attention by reader, Gregory Maus). Teng’s heavenly music and metalized voice- meant to be the voice of the world largest private database-  make the threshold we are at risk of crossing identified by Eggers to be somehow beautiful yet ultimately terrifying.

Giving voice to this unease and questioning the ultimate destination of the radical transparency project has done and will likely continue to do us well.  At a minimum, as the quote from Cory Doctorow with which this post began indicates, a wall between citizens and even greater mass surveillance, at least by the state, may have been established by recent events.

Yet, even if the historical pattern of our democracy repeats itself, that we are able to acknowledge and turn into law protections against a new mutation in the war of power against freedom, if privacy is indeed able to “strike back”, the proponents of radical transparency were certainly right about one thing, we can never put the genie fully back in the bottle, even if we are still free enough to restrain him with the chains of norms, law, regulation and market competition.

The technologies of transparency may not have affected a permanent change in the human condition in our relationship to the corporation and the state, criminals and the mob and the just plain creepy, unless, that is, we continue to permit it, but they have likely permanently affected the social world much closer to our daily concerns- our relationship with our family and friends our community and tribe. They have upended our relationship with one of the most precious of human ways of being, with solitude, though not our experience of loneliness, a subject that will have to wait until another time…

The Dangers of Religious Rhetoric to the Trans-humanist Project

Thomas_Cole_-_Expulsion_from_the_Garden_of_Eden

When I saw that  the scientist and science-fiction novelist, David Brin, had given a talk at a recent Singularity Summit with the intriguing title “So you want to make gods?  Now why would that bother anybody? my hopes for the current intellectual debate between science and religion and between rival versions of our human future were instantly raised. Here was a noted singularitarian, I thought, who might raise questions about how the framing of the philosophy surrounding the Singularity was not only alienating to persons of more traditional religious sentiments, but threatened to give rise to a 21st century version of the culture wars that would make current debates over teaching evolution in schools or the much more charged disputes over abortion look quaint, and that could ultimately derail us from many of the technological achievements that lie seemingly just over the horizon which promise to vastly improve and even transform the human condition.

Upon listening to Brin’s lecture those hopes were dashed.

Brin’s lecture is a seemingly lite talk to a friendly audience punctuated by jokes some of them lame, and therefore charming, but his topic is serious indeed. He defines the real purpose of his audience to be “would be god-makers” “indeed some of you want to become gods” and admonishes them to avoid the fate of their predecessors such as Giordano Bruno of being burned at the stake.

The suggestion Brin makes for  how singularitarians are to avoid the fate of Bruno, a way to prevent the conflict between religion and science seem, at first, like humanistic and common sense advice: Rather than outright rejection and even ridicule of the religious, singularitarians are admonished to actually understand the religious views of their would be opponents and especially the cultural keystone of their religious texts.

Yet the purpose of such understanding soon becomes clear.  Knowledge of the Bible, in the eyes of Brin, should give singularitarians the ability to reframe their objectives in Christian terms. Brin lays out some examples to explain his meaning. His suggestion that the mythological Adam’s first act of naming things defines the purpose of humankind as a co-creator with God is an interesting and probably largely non-controversial one. It’s when he steps into the larger Biblical narrative that things get tricky.

Brin finds the seeming justification for the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to be particularly potent for singularitarians:

And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever. Genesis 3:22 King James Bible


Brin thinks this passage can be used as a Biblical justification for the singularitarian aim of personal immortality and god-like powers. The debate he thinks is not over “can we?”, but merely a matter of “when should we?” attain these ultimate ends.

The other Biblical passage Brin thinks singularitarians can use to their advantage in their debate with Christians is found in the story of the Tower of Babel.  

And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.  Genesis 11:6 King James Bible

As in the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Brin thinks the story of the Tower of Babel can be used to illustrate that human beings, according to Christianity’s  own scriptures, have innately god-like powers. What the debate between singularitarians and Christians is, therefore, largely a matter of when and how human beings reach their full God-given potential.

Much of Brin’s lecture is animated by an awareness of the current conflict between science and religion. He constructs a wider historical context to explain this current tension.  For him, new ideas and technologies have the effect of destabilizing hierarchy, and have always given rise in the past to a counter-revolution supported and egged on by counter-revolutionary oligarchs. The United States is experiencing another one of these oligarchic putsches as evidenced in books such as The Republican War on Science. Brin thinks that Fermi’s Paradox or the “silence” of the universe, the seeming lack of intelligent civilizations other than our own might be a consequence of the fact that counter-revolutionaries or “grouches” tend to win their struggle with the forces of progress. His hope is that our time has come and that this is the moment where those allied under the banner of progress might win.

The questions which gnawed at me after listening to Brin’s speech was whether or not his prescriptions really offered a path to diminishing the conflict between religion and science or were they merely a means to its further exacerbation?
The problem, I think, is that however brilliant a physicists and novelists Brin might be he is a rather poor religious scholar and even worse as a historian, political scientist or sociologist.

Part of the problem here stems from the fact that Brin appears less interested in opening up a dialogue between the singularitarians and other religious communities than he is at training them in his terms verbal “judo” so as to be able to neutralize and proselytize to their most vociferous theological opponents- fundamentalist Christians. The whole thing put me in mind of how the early Jesuits were taught to argue their non-Catholic opponents into the ground.  Be that as it may, the Christianity that Brin deals with is of a literalist sort in which stories such as the expulsion from the Garden of Eden or the Tower of Babel are to be taken as the actual word of God. But this literalism is primarily a feature of some versions of Protestantism not Christianity as a whole.

The idea that the book of Genesis is literally true is not the teaching of the Catholic, Anglican, or large parts of the Orthodox Church the three of which make up the bulk of Christians world-wide. Quoting scripture back at these groups won’t get a singularitarian  anywhere. Rather, they would likely find themselves in the discussion they should be having, a heated philosophical discussion over humankind’s role and place in the universe and where the very idea of “becoming a god” is ridiculous in the sense that God is understood in non-corporal, indefinable way, indeed as something that is sometimes more akin to our notion of “nothing” than it is to anything else we can speak of.  The story Karen Armstrong tells in her 2009, The Case for God.

The result of framing the singularitarian argument on literalist terms may result in the alienation of what should be considered more pro-science Christian groups who are much less interested in aligning the views and goals of science with those found directly in the Bible than in finding a way to navigate through our technologically evolving society in a way that keeps the essence of their particular culture of religious practice and the beliefs found in their ethical perspective developed over millenia intact.

If Brin goes astray in terms of his understanding of religion he misses even more essential elements when viewed through the eyes on an historian. He seems to think that doctrinal disputes over the meaning of religious text are less dangerous than disputes between different and non-communicating systems of belief, but that’s not what history shows. Protestants and Catholics murdered one another for centuries even when the basic outlines of their interpretations of the Bible were essentially the same. Today, it seems not a month goes by without some report of Sunni-Muslim on Shia-Muslim violence or vice versa. Once the initial shock for Christian fundamentalist of singularitarians quoting the Bible wears off, fundamentalists seem likely to be incensed that they are stealing “their” book, for a quite alien purpose.

It’s not just that Brin’s historical understanding of inter/intra-religious conflict is a little off, it’s that he perpetuates the myth of eternal conflict between science and religion in the supposed name of putting an end to it. The myth of the conflict between science and religion that includes the sad tale of the visionary Giordano Bruno whose fate Brin wants his listeners to avoid, dates no later than the late 19th century created by staunch secularists such as Robert Ingersoll and John William Draper. (Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, pp. 251-252)

Yes, it is true that the kinds of naturalistic explanations that constitute modern science emerged first within the context of the democratic city-states of ancient Greece, but if one takes the case of the biggest most important martyr for the freedom of thought in history, Socrates, as of any importance one sees that science and democracy are not partners that are of necessity glued to the hip. The relationship between science, democracy, and oligarchy in the early modern period is also complex and ambiguous.

Take the case of perhaps the most famous case of religions assault on religion- Galileo. The moons which Galileo discovered orbiting around Jupiter are known today as the Galilean moons. As was pointed out by Michael Nielsen, (@27 min) what is less widely known is that Galileo initially named them the medicean moons after his very oligarchic patrons in the Medici family.


Battles over science in the early modern period are better seen as conflicts between oligarchic groups rather than a conflict where science stood in the support of democratizing forces that oligarchs sought to contain. Science indeed benefited from this competition and some, such as Paul A. David, argue that the scientific revolution would have been unlikely without the kinds of elaborate forms of patronage by the wealthy of scientific experiments and more importantly- mass publication.

The “new science” that emerged in the early modern period did not necessarily give rise to liberation narratives either. Newton’s cosmology was used in England to justify the rule of the “higher” over the “lower” orders, just as the court of France’s Sun-king had its nobles placed in well defined “orbits” “circling” around their sovereign. (Karen Armstrong, The Case for God,  p. 216)

Brin’s history and his read of current and near future political and social development seems to be almost Marxist in the sense that the pursuit of scientific knowledge and technological advancement will inevitably lead to further democratization. Such a “faith” I believe to be dangerous. If science and technology prove to be democratizing forces it will be because we have chosen to make them so, but a backlash is indeed possible. Such a “counter-revolution” can most likely be averted not by technologists taking on yet more religious language and concepts and proselytizing to the non-converted. Rather, we can escape this fate by putting some distance between the religious rhetoric of singularitarians and those who believe in the liberating and humanist potential of emerging technologies. For if transhumanists frame their goals to be the extension of the healthy human lifespan to the longest length possible and the increase of available intelligence, both human and artificial, so as to navigate and solve the problems of our complex societies almost everyone would assent. Whereas if transhumanists continue to be dragged into fights with the religious over goals such as “immortality”, “becoming gods” or “building gods”(an idea that makes as much sense as saying you were going to build the Tao or design Goodness)  we might find ourselves in the 21st century version of a religious war.

Machines Rule!

Science Fiction writers, who are perhaps the only group of thinkers taking these questions seriously, usually assume that the era when artificial intelligence rules over human-societies will only arrive after AI achieves human level intelligence or greater. But there is perhaps a way in which AIs already rule, long before they have reached such a level.

JP Morgan recently won the prize for ‘Most Cutting Edge IT Initiative’ at the American Financial Technology Awards 2011. It won this award on the basis of taking end of day risk calculations down from eight hours to 238 seconds. According to its backers, the continued use of super-computers for financial trading will allow the company to:

to minimise its risk and respond more effectively than its competitors to rapidly changing marketing conditions, particularly the financial turmoil in Europe,” said John Barr, research director of financial markets and head of EU research at the 451 Group.

JP Morgan is not alone in its quest to use Teraflop performing computers, fiber-optic networks and black box algorithms to seek to master the financial markets. Kevin Slavin, the founder of the gaming company Area/Code, of all things, gave a beautiful TED Talk in which he discusses the power of algorithms in our world (and not just the financial world).  In that talk, Slavin points out how computer based trading, so called black box or algo trading now comprises 70% of the US stock market- in other words 70% of stock market transaction are now decided by not just mediated through computers.

Black box trading puts a premium on speed, and so Slavin points out how this has led to the strange phenomenon of whole buildings in the heart of Manhattan being hollowed out and filled with computer servers for the advantage of a few nano-seconds. By far the biggest existent absurdity is an an 825 mile trench dug over the last several years to house fiber-optic cables linking Chicago and New York. As Slavin points out, a massive project of terraforming in the name of a slice of time unperceivable by human being, which portends other transformations of even greater scale. His argument is hammered home by recent plans to build a trans-Atlantic fiber optic cable that will cost 400 billion and save traders a whopping 5 milliseconds.

David Brin has a great article on what might be called an ecological understanding of such high speed trading. He compares financial algorithms to parasites.

Want the exact parallel in nature for these systems? It is those gut parasites or e-coli or salmonella, or Typhus, who nibble away the gradient of potential profit that the human trader perceives, between the current asking price and what he or she feels the stock may soon be worth.  These programs can now detect people getting ready to buy a stock they like, and pounce to snap it up first, then offering it to you at just a little higher price. You lose a bit of that gradient, because someone – a program – who did none of your research simply pounced faster than you ever, possibly could.

His solution to this problem is the imposition of a very small Tobin-Tax that would slow trading down to be closer to the level of “human-thought”. So far, so good.

The problem begins when Brin, by suggesting that the kind of super-conscious and dangerous AI, which is the persistent bogey-man of Sci-Fi writers, might emerge from such civilian rather than military sources,  looses sight of the brilliant argument he had been making. For super-computed algorithms need never be as smart as us to “gain control”. They might in fact be given control without ever evolving beyond the level of an extremely efficient and rapidly evolving virus. For, if 70% of the market is now controlled by algorithms, and financial markets are increasingly more powerful than democratic politics, then the machines, in some sense already rule. Something which would indeed have come, as Brin points out, as a “surprise”.

Replace the words markets with algorithms in the comments below by historian of democracy Mark Mazower and you should see what I mean.

MAZOWER: Part of this, I think, is because of the timeframe that we are now becoming accustomed to. If we are in an age in which the markets rule and the markets are not the trading and commodities markets, but they are the financial markets, then the politicians feel that they have to respond to everything in seconds and minutes. And so, part of this is a tussle between how important decisions will be made. Will they be made by the market and on the basis of the ribbons dictated by the market, which is to say extraordinarily short-term and fluctuating?

Or will they remain in the hands of the politicians and those people who elected the politicians?

SIEGEL: You mean that the nature of European democracy is actually at stake in this process of trying to deal with the financial crises?

MAZOWER: European democracy is not under threat. I don’t see alternatives of the kind that existed in the early 20th century to democracy. I discount those. But the extent to which politics remains an area for autonomous decision-making, that is very much up for grabs or will politicians simply be driven by their anxiety about the markets and how the markets will respond to this or that measure? And that is where, it seems to me, that the Franco-German axis has its interest. Because, whether or not you see Sarkozy and Merkel acting in a particularly democratic manner, they are acting as politicians in the name of the state to preserve a political enterprise.

The grand struggle, seems to me, markets versus politics. And then how democratic that politics is, well, that’s the question we have to think about.

The, one might say, almost algorithmic logic of it all appears to be this: Our financial markets are evermore dominated by a myriad of machines without self-consciousness or human-level intelligence. This machine-run market is increasingly at odds with our own democratic self-governance, and has, throughout the financial crisis, been proven to be more powerful than our democratic institutions. In other words, the machines, in a sense, already rule.