The Coveillance State

Kevin Kelly believes that, rather than try to resist surveillance, we should make it work for us:

We’re expanding the data sphere to sci-fi levels and there’s no stopping it. Too many of the benefits we covet derive from it. So our central choice now is whether this surveillance is a secret, one-way panopticon — or a mutual, transparent kind of “coveillance” that involves watching the watchers. The first option is hell, the second redeemable. …

The remedy for over-secrecy is to think in terms of coveillance, so that we make tracking and monitoring as symmetrical — and transparent — as possible.

That way the monitoring can be regulated, mistakes appealed and corrected, specific boundaries set and enforced. A massively surveilled world is not a world I would design (or even desire), but massive surveillance is coming either way because that is the bias of digital technology and we might as well surveil well and civilly. In this version of surveillance — a transparent coveillance where everyone sees each other — a sense of entitlement can emerge: Every person has a human right to access, and benefit from, the data about themselves. The commercial giants running the networks have to spread the economic benefits of tracing people’s behavior to the people themselves, simply to keep going. They will pay you to track yourself. Citizens film the cops, while the cops film the citizens. The business of monitoring (including those who monitor other monitors) will be a big business. The flow of money, too, is made more visible even as it gets more complex.

Michael Brendan Dougherty pushes back:

Kelly’s vision of the future is more straightforwardly dystopian than any of the other controversial visions of a libertarian “opt-out” society emanating from Silicon Valley. He believes human life can, and ought to be, reduced to data points, that people will consent to be ruled like a mere cell in an Excel Spreadsheet and will even begin to understand themselves in the rudimentary categories of computation.

His essay is an occasion to remind ourselves that the future doesn’t unfurl out of present trends extrapolated into infinity; it is contested. And we have older, rather durable technologies that can prevent us from being dropped into a digitized fishbowl: the art of political resistance for one. Our Constitution, another.