The looming singularity.
January 27, 2004 7:03 AM   Subscribe

The Panopticon Singularity is an insightful rant by author Charles Stross that highlights just how close our society is to a data- and information-driven singularity. And it doesn't look like that's a good thing. Written for the recently discontinued Whole Earth Review, it is now available for all to peruse.
posted by LukeyBoy (15 comments total)
Moore's Law states that the price of integrated circuitry falls exponentially over time

This is false. Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors on a chip would double every 18 months.

Don't think about smoking a joint unless you want to see the inside of one of the labour camps where over 50% of the population sooner or later go.

The ubiquitous use of technofascist security doesn't prove or even support this. Who will do all the work? Automatons?
posted by the fire you left me at 7:16 AM on January 27, 2004

What, the Whole Earth Review was discontinued again? Much as I loved the mag, and respected its originators, why don't they just admit their time has passed?
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:52 AM on January 27, 2004

You won't be able to watch those old DVD's of 'Friends' you copied during the naughty oughties because if you stick them in your player it'll call the copyright police on you

Naughty Oughties, eh? I like that.

On another note, the Panopticon seems to be a favorite metaphor of cyber-libertarians everywhere. How do the prisoners fight back? If power is primarily derived from inbalances in information in the (near?) future, how do individuals fight back?

It'd be interesting to look at the population of "prisoners" and see how they would react to such a predicament within the logic of the metaphor. Do the prisoners try to glean as much information from/about their captors as possible, and then create a decentralized network of information sharing invisible to the jailers (tapping morse code on the walls or some such?)
posted by kahboom at 8:41 AM on January 27, 2004

Yeesh. There's so many things he doesn't say in here that I almost don't know where to start, and I could be here typing all day.

One thing I do want to address is that the technology of countermeasures always keeps pace with the technology of survelliance. For instance, it's pretty certain that Carnivore (total information mining) exists. If I wanted to exchange information with someone and I didn't want the government to read it, I would use a very strong PGP encryption, for instance.

If I didn't want my house to be transparent to terahertz (aka 'millimeter-wave') radar, I would add lead insulation to the inside of the walls of my home. Sure, quite possibly probable cause, but I know enough people who'd be willing to do it...

RFID dust? Considering that there's no way for the buggers to ground themselves, a good static shock would do wonders. Imagine if a person was wearing clothing with a metallic thread that was designed for that ... if police depended on RFID to track a person who was actively trying to avoid being tracked by that method, they'd lose quickly.

As far as the cell phone scanning goes -- there were so many problems with implementing that when trying to track airplanes passively, I have no fugging clue why this tinfoil hat nutcase thinks that it would be possible with the millions of cellular emitters of every frequency that are present in downtown. And I'm not even considering the signal flexing and modulation that happens when you're using a cell phone, or the other 800, 900, and 2400 megahertz emitters that are present EVERYWHERE and could hash a signal as delicate as a receiver tied into a computer that's attempting to create an IMAGE out of this hash. Let's say they're tracking a guy with a big gun in his pocket. And someone walks inbetween the emitter that they're using as a scanning source and the receiver with a malfunctioning 802.11b card in scanning mode ... and it's scanning outside of it's frequency range and into the cellular range. Boom! Lose the image in a hash of snow. Guy dissapears into crowd. Not even touching on jammers there, but you get the idea.

And last but not least, you still need people, at least in the short term, to make determinations about the crime and punishment! Our law enforcement agencies are growing at a fast pace and are always overloaded as it is -- I don't see security agencies having a problem getting all of this fancy equipment, but where the fug are they going to get the trained operators to handle stuff that's this delicate?

Lemme put it this way -- if I were to take the time, I think I could discredit each and every single 'invention' that he gave or think of a way around it.

On preview: Sci-fi authors have been calling this decade the "Naughty Oughts" or "Naughty Oughties" for decades. ;)
posted by SpecialK at 8:54 AM on January 27, 2004

San Francisco has a new panopticon style jail--the intent there is to stop prisoner rape. In that case, the panopticon is a good thing.
posted by y2karl at 9:08 AM on January 27, 2004

Gosh, you guys are sooo right. His arguments have *no* basis in reality and he's just a crackpot. I feel safer already.

Time to get high and watch friends.


There may be some technical issues with what he says. But the UK *does* have 4 million cameras installed. Wallmart *is* pushing for the wide adoption of RFID. It doesn matter *who* puts the RFID tag out there, once it's there, any damn fool or policeman can read it.

None of these things would bother me half as much if we could watch the watchers.
posted by jaded at 9:10 AM on January 27, 2004

Jaded - RFID tags don't run forever, and the tags wal-mart is pushing for are like the current security tags -- you can't get out of the store with them active, and they can't be re-activated.

(I'm a supply and logistics management major, and I've studied Wal-Mart's RFID scheme and RFID tags in general extensively.)

You can also de-activate one yourself by zapping it with static electricity. It's just a microcircuit. The receivers can also be 'jammed' with 'pings', which will wash out signatures of RFID tags in that local area ... although the jammer itself will set off every alarm in the store and it's pretty easy to find the locus of the jamming signal. And last but not least, you could walk out of the store with an item with an RFID tag in one of those lead-lined film bags, and no one would be the wiser, 'cept that security will have seen the RFID signal disappear and will probably start watching whoever was close to it when it blinked out on cameras.

For chrissakes, LEARN about technology before you fear it. The more I learn, the more I fear ... but I can also see ways around it pretty easily.
posted by SpecialK at 9:28 AM on January 27, 2004

I will miss the whole earth review.
posted by mecran01 at 11:29 AM on January 27, 2004

Time to get high and watch friends.

Dude, anyone who watches Friends while stoned is just totally uncool and deserves to be imprisoned in this panopticonic existence. Becker, now, that would be a whole different thing.
posted by billsaysthis at 12:15 PM on January 27, 2004

I agree with SpecialK. There is also the implicit assumption that technology will continue to increase exponentially in its capacities.

The truth is that Moore's law is not a law but a local observation which has been somehow enshrined. The way its bandied about makes it sound as if its quoted in physics textbooks. Here's one example of another projection of a local observation, one which seems more clearly naive and optimistic today.

Technology is still advancing no doubt but its running up against serious problems that cant be solved by a mere increase in processor speed: face recognition, advanced pattern matching, unbreakable cryptographic systems (whats not subject to the man-in-the-middle attack?) etc.

You could still argue whether government would still use flawed technologies for enforcement. But then its a political argument not a technological one. And we don't need to look into the future, we can look at whats happening now. How reliable are fingerptints, DNA tests, polygraph tests, breathalyzers etc. and what are we doing about them now?
posted by vacapinta at 1:31 PM on January 27, 2004

vacapinta - I'm dubious of your comparison of the "Dow 39,000" (or whatever the Dow was supposed to rise to) predictions for a number of reasons. Your example suggests the fallacy of predicting some fundamental change and yet one such fundamental change has already occurred (hence Metafilter).

The singularity can occur by a number of different pathways, not just by pure AI :

Optimize naturally born humans, at birth : Humans are already modifying their phenotypes ( by way of nutritional supplements, supernutrition, drugs, exercise, etc. ) - and genotypic modification, though given a temporary bad name from the tragedies of "Eugenics" and especially from the Holocaust, will nonetheless quickly become the norm - it is already coming to pass. There are currently hundreds of genetic tests available for would-be parents and for infants in utero. Soon, there will be thousands.

Legal or not, such modifications cannot be prevented - most parents want the best for their offspring and are willing to spend a lot of money to get it.

Further, the cyborg path is also well underway, with human/computer interfaces already well into the conceptual stage and experiments with nonhuman primates ongoing.

The best critics of the classic Singularity mechanism - Lanier, for example - make decent arguments but do not pay attention to these likely end runs - that smarter humans, both eugenically engineered and also via the cyborg route, can design better hardware and software which can, in turn, at least enable even smarter humans.....and so on.

Then, there's evolutionary software, such as Danny Hillis'....or there's the brute force strategy of Hugo de Garis, for the creation of his "artilects"........on and on. There are, really, many routes to the Singularity.

And most of these trends tend to be driven especially hard by Free Market mechanisms, though I reject the antidote to this (totalitarian repression).

So - Hang on to your hat.
posted by troutfishing at 7:24 PM on January 27, 2004

well, i don't plan on being around when this all comes to pass. have fun, and good luck!
posted by quonsar at 7:26 PM on January 27, 2004

So you say.....

Modern science has got a groovy pickle jar to shove you into, quonsar, until they've worked out the kinks of relative immortality.

You'll want it too. They all do.
posted by troutfishing at 7:50 PM on January 27, 2004

Troutfishing -- Thanks, that's great food for thought, and that made the concept of the singularity itself pop out in ways that the original and very laughable article didn't succeed in doing.

Basically, your argument is that the critical mass of increasing human intelligence and technology will eventually conspire to create a panopticon critical mass, and therefore the singularity. We can see singularities forming in our own society at the moment -- Wal-Mart with retailing, the democratic and republican parties and their messages overlapping and merging... countless other examples that I can think of in our news.

However, you still miss two logical fallacies that exists in the panopticon argument --
1) The increasing mass of human intelligence and technology will create a panopticon society.
Refutation: The increasing intelligence of humans will allow increasingly sophisticated countermeasures to become available.
Proof: The circumvention of copy protection on digital media -- from eBooks to DVDs to CD-ROMs to computer software to Apple's iMusic download format. Day-Zero computer software hacks. The online Warez community.

2) The panopticon society will be in the form of a singularity -- an unescapable mass.
Refutation: Maybe so. But always remember that singularities are rarely stable and can collapse in on themselves via both external and internal pressure. To be stable, a singularity needs to eliminate or absorb all competitors and very carefully needs to not collide with competitors, or needs an environment where competitors cannot form or cannot be sustained.
Proof: AT&T (was broken up by external power). The impending collapse of Hewlett Packard (swallowed another fish that was too big). The Soviet Union (pulled apart by internal forces). Admittedly, none of these were true singularities -- they weren't all-pervasive and did have competitors. However, it would be difficult to forsee a time when there aren't small groups of people (and would be illogical to eliminate the chance that there would be) living "off of the grid" so to speak, and protecting themselves and loved ones with their intelligence.

Therefore, it's safe to assume that there will always be challenges to any singularity's formation and continued existence.

And THEREFORE, even if a proto-singularity (like the US gov't) makes it to singularity-hood (us gov't to world gov't), the chances of a singularity existing go down the longer that the singularity exists due to the challenges:
* the expense of the necessary innovation that's required to meet and eliminate challenges to the singularity's existence.
* the changes to the original (arguably perfect) model of the singularity that are created by the incorporation of other proto-singularities (and the threat of total subversion -- i.e. pagans vs. christians)
* the unpredictable actions of fringe elements

So basically, I don't see a singularity of any sort forming unless it's a base meme that will help move our whole society forward. (i.e. agriculture, written language, formal education...) And even then, the memes have a tendency to collapse if not maintained or no longer required... like, apparently, education... and, if you've had to grade any college frosh papers recently, written language.

Bah. Thanks for listening. I'm going to go drink heavily now. Gotta kill off a few brain cells...
posted by SpecialK at 8:18 PM on January 27, 2004

SpecialK - Although I didn't actually address it, I also thought that the "Panopticon Singularity" concept was a bit cracked. I still think the Vingean Singularity quite possible, but I'll have to think a bit about your points.

There are some good discussions of the Singularity at and (Ray Kurzweill's site, and I may have thrown in one too many "l's" there)
posted by troutfishing at 9:43 AM on January 28, 2004

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