The surveillance society is a step forward. But one that harkens back to our deep forager past.

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Celebrity nude photos pilfered from iPhone accounts. Ferguson. Body cameras. Deemed the surveillance society or the transparent society, the rise of camera surveillance seems unstoppable. The parallel I’d like to draw is to the rise of equality, as observed by Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 classic Democracy in America. From Tocqueville’s introduction:

In France the kings have always been the most active and the most constant of levelers. When they were strong and ambitious, they spared no pains to raise the people to the level of the nobles; when they were temperate and feeble, they allowed the people to rise above themselves. Some assisted democracy by their talents, others by their vices. Louis XI and Louis XIV reduced all ranks beneath the throne to the same degree of subjection; and finally Louis XV descended, himself and all his court, into the dust….

The various occurrences of national existence have everywhere turned to the advantage of democracy: all men have aided it by their exertions, both those who have intentionally labored in its cause and those who have served it unwittingly; those who have fought for it and even those who have declared themselves its opponents have all been driven along in the same direction, have all labored to one end; some unknowingly and some despite themselves, all have been blind instruments in the hands of God.

The gradual development of the principle of equality is, therefore, a providential fact. It has all the chief characteristics of such a fact: it is universal, it is lasting, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress.

Toqueville’s prophetic and timeless genius lies in using the deep “seven hundred years” trend towards equality as his lens into the future. He foresaw both an authoritarian and a republican form of equality were (and are) possible. Likewise, though on a much reduced scale, the surveillance society feels inevitable. It is driven forward on all sides. And like equality, the surveillance society contains both authoritarian and republican tendencies.

After the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, all sides came out in favor of more cameras:


Andreessen is of course referring to how bottoms up citizen surveillance cameras can fight top down Orwellian cameras. And brutality. To see why all sides wittingly and unwittingly labor towards more surveillance, let’s use Arnold Kling’s excellent three axis of politics framework.

  1. Liberals/Progressives see things along the oppressor/oppressed axis. They expect a video of Michael Brown’s shooting would show racist police brutality. Having more surveillance will help the oppressed. And also show liberals are morally correct.
  2. Conservatives see things along the civilization/barbarism axis. They see the video of Michael Brown robbing the convenience prior to the shooting as a sign of barbarism. Other conservatives see barbarism in the police shooting of an unarmed teenager. Some conservatives see both. Either way, they expect more video would show their fears of barbarism are well founded. And thus show conservatives are morally correct.
  3. Libertarians see things along the freedom/coercion axis. This is a bit trickier, as libertarians tend to be for citizen video (freedom) but against government video (coercion). On balance I think even libertarians support more video recordings to fight police coercion. Which would show libertarians are morally correct.

As an aside here, I’m nearly certain a video of the shooting would put Darren Warren, the officer who shot Brown, in jail. It’s a disgrace. But I suppose I’m not unique in my strong belief that video truth would confirm my priors. We see the same dynamic in sports. All sides are convinced the referee has cheated them, and video would prove them right. The larger point here is after every tragedy, be it Ferguson or 9/11, all sides demand less privacy and more widespread surveillance.

David Brin’s 1998 book The Transparent Society presciently foresaw a lot of what is happening today. Arnold Kling has a nice summary of the book, in particular with the table below:


Brin argues if only the government gets surveillance technology, the result will be Orwellian oppression (bottom left box). And if only citizen’s have it, the government will become unstable (upper right box). The problem with unstable governments is they are, well, unstable. Brin cites the examples of “1788 France, 1917 Russia, 1926 Italy, or 1933 Germany.” You get the picture. Unstable governments tend to transform into authoritarian oppression. Hence unless we give up on technology completely (bottom right box), we are stuck on the left hand side. The choice is between the letting both sides have surveillance, resulting in the transparent society (upper left box), or oppression (bottom left box).

I really liked Brin’s book back when I read it, but one aspect feels dated. Brin doesn’t spend much time discussing where all this video and photo data gets stored. Well, 16 years later in 2014 we know. It’s stored in the corporate clouds of Google, Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter, Facebook, Imgur, Flickr, Vine, Telco phone companies, LINE, Alibaba, WeChat, etc., etc. This means the privacy and policy questions of the transparent society are primarily ones of corporate regulation and governance. The recent Apple nude celebrity photo scandal is a good example. Or Facebook’s contested use of facial image recognition. Or Google’s revelation they track everyone’s whereabouts constantly. Or Robin William’s daughter getting severely harassed on twitter after her father’s suicide. Even Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA were less about the data the NSA directly collects, and more about how the NSA gets access to corporate data without due process. And while it’s true there are government cameras collecting data in police cars and at stoplights, as discussed above with Ferguson, all citizen social media data is stored in corporate clouds.

One surprising aspect of social media has been the bifurcation of anonymity. In earlier years on the internet people were often quasi-anonymous. Not anymore. Now it’s either full anonymous accounts (4chan, reddit, some comment sections) or purely above board accounts (Facebook, and more recently Twitter). The “average” kind of anonymous appears to be over.

So where is transparency headed? Well, let’s take a page from Tocqueville’s playbook. He saw so far ahead because his equality trend went so far back. If we step back even further to 10,000 years ago, all human societies were forager (hunter-gatherer). These societies were highly egalitarian, and ruled by strict informal norms enforced by gossip. Then farming was invented, making society hierarchical. This created have and have-nots. Farming also created privacy, at least for the rich. With the invention of cities and writing, a new type of semi-anonymous status came into being, where bureaucratic institutions like churches, civil societies, government and (later) corporations could track people using impersonal written records. What’s fascinating is how the changes created by the industrial revolution tended to move farmer norms back towards forager norms, as Robin Hanson has pointed out. Of interest to us here are the forager norms of equality and transparency/gossip.

Tocqueville’s dates the rise of equality much earlier than 1800, but it’s clear that democratic equality got a jump start from industrialization and the rise of the middle class. And while there are now debates over whether equality has stalled, I think it’s clear the attractions of equality remain as powerful as ever. Privacy is a bit trickier. But in broad strokes we could say if farming gave rise to privacy, then the industrial revolution and post-industrial society have gradually taken it away again. And now ubiquitous and cheap camera technology combined with the internet is giving this loss of privacy a discontinuous boost. The semi-anonymity of written bureaucratic records is morphing into instantly accessible online social media.

What’s still to be determined are the regulations and laws for companies that collect all this data. As bad as the NSA is in America, the problem of government involvement with corporate capitalism is worse in China. We can see the potential of oppression clearly enough. Personally I remain an optimist. I think there remains enough market incentive and competition for internet companies, especially outside China, to be somewhat judicious with their social media data. And these corporations have enough money and clout to push back against the government when it suits them. But we’ll see.

I grew up in a small town in Ohio with a single high school, where everyone knew everyone else’s business. The internet and ubiquitous cameras seem to be bringing us back to that small town world. But one hugely improved by the ability of people to self-select their own small town group to be part of. You’re no longer limited to just those you were born within walking distance of. And even better, if you move it’s easier than ever to keep close to your childhood friends and family. People often complain about gossip and petty status disputes on Twitter and Facebook. Dude. This is how the forager transparent society works. Get over it. Or I’ll look up your Mom on Facebook and tell her you’re being really really mean to me.


By Nathan Taylor

I blog at on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.


  1. I must admit the text is a brilliant propaganda piece and at times it almost sounds coherent if it wasn’t for all the logical fallacies. However, it conveniently omits a few facts:

    1. Surveillance is not limited just to camera recording but includes the collection and analysis of data about all communications, location, medical conditions, personal interests, feelings, etc. The accumulation of this data allows for the creation of detailed personal profiles and a life-long dossier of every single action a person decides to make. This is nowhere near the name/address/social security number paradigm that used to exist until a decade ago.

    2. The ability of citizens and government to watch each other is not nearly equivalent. Citizens don’t have access to places where important decisions are being made. I can’t record a corrupt official who signs a document that will hurt me in some way. Not to mention resources for data collection and analysis. Are you really suggesting that smartphone cameras and country-wide networks of face/plate recognition cameras are equivalent? What are the tools for influence and coercion each of the two sides has?

    3. Use of surveillance technology and lack of surveillance technology are not the only possibilities. Discriminate and targeted use of this technology is what is expected.

    4. There is no such thing as the universal democratic equality the article is referring to. Farming did not create privacy. The entire paragraph is just a bunch of truthiness.

    I also come from a small town where many try to know other people’s business, so learned to protect my privacy. The correct metaphor is that we’re all tied to a shaming post in a room with the rest of society – friends, enemies and government included. You either have to auto-censor every syllable that comes across your mind or suffer the opinion of every single individual that happens to hear you. My mom is not on FB because she’s afraid of having her privacy violated. She never registers for sites and participates only in the ones that don’t require registration. She grew up in a totalitarian society in which everything was monitored and has learned the hard way what is the price of privacy.

    1. I was reading through your comment and this statement stands out to me as false. “Discriminate and targeted use of this technology is what is expected.”

      When it comes to collecting, it’s all or nothing. You can’t put a camera in place that only sees criminals. The same statement goes for the NSA, they either collect all of a database or nothing at all. If we say we don’t want them reading our email or looking at our call records, we also have to concede that they can’t read an email from a drug cartel or terrorist.

      The government’s first obligation is to protect us, but some governments like the Chinese take it too far and use surveillance against their own people, not to protect the people, but to protect the government. Collection is not the problem, it is the analysis of the collected information that is where the potential for abuse is. The NSA building detailed personal profiles and a life-long dossier to protect us from terrorist, and drug cartel is fine, but if they do it to protect a political party, we are in trouble.

    1. Further thoughts on Ravens #27.

      Picking out individuals is what Japanese media does. It will highlight on national news a breach of etiquette by an ordinary person as if it was a big deal.

      In some ways similar to Human Flesh Engine and 4chan raids, a magnifying glass on an ant.

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