The Camera Panopticon

Multi-billion-dollar Silicon Valley companies and their long tail of startups are gathering huge amounts of data about the world and about us. It’s time we began to understand why they’re doing it and what exactly is at stake.

Leader image
Spyware 2.0: Is it just about selling ads or is there a greater ambition?
Illustration by joelle L.

A brief history of the present

We live in a world where our new everyday things—our phones, computers, social networks—are owned and controlled by a handful of corporations that make their money by selling people not products.

This is a predatory model where you are the prey and consumer products are the bait.

Once a Spyware 2.0 company like Google has convinced you to use their products, they proceed to watch everything you do. Their goal is to learn as much about you as they can.

You are the lab rat.

They study you because the insight they gain about you is the value they sell to their customers.

You are the product being sold

Selling people is not an entirely new business model. There was once a very financially-rewarding global business built on selling people’s bodies.

We called it slavery.

Today, we frown upon that particular practice in polite company. It’s about time to ask ourselves, however, what are we to call the business of selling everything about a person that makes them who they are apart from their body?

If the question makes you feel uncomfortable, good.

If just thinking about it makes you feel uncomfortable, imagine how living within a system where this business model is a monopoly will make you feel. Then imagine what a society shaped by its ramifications will look like. Imagine its effects on equality, human rights, and democracy.

You don’t have to try too hard to imagine any of this because we are already living in the early days of just such a world today.

And yet it’s still early enough that I’m hopeful we can challenge the unfettered progress of this Silicon Valley model that is toxic to our human rights and threatens the very pillars of democracy itself.

The toxicity of Silicon Valley

The digital imperialism of Silicon Valley robs us of the ownership and control of our most personal and intimate spaces while simultaneously depriving us of a core democratic instrument: the public sphere.

The Silicon Valley model fosters the illusion of expanding the public sphere into the virtual realm while actually contributing to its destruction. It does so by replacing traditionally public spaces with privately-owned digital alternatives of its own design.

We see Twitter, for example, as a public sphere that furthers democratic ideals. It looks very much like a global park where everyone gets a Speakers’ Corner. In reality, however, it is actually a private space much like a shopping mall.

Just as the owners of a shopping mall are well within their rights to throw me off their private property if they don’t like the message on the t-shirt I’m wearing, Twitter is well within its rights to decide what you can and cannot say on its private property. It is not a public sphere. It is not part of the commons.

Twitter is as much a public space as a McDonald’s.

Privatise all the things

Silicon Valley’s business model is to privatise and commodify all the things. There are, broadly speaking, two major categories of things in the world: our persons and the world around us. And Silicon Valley companies like Google want to own both.

To privatise people, we must rob them of their human right to privacy and thus of the ownership of their persons and the simulations of their persons.

To privatise the world, we must rob the commons of its ownership and control.

If this sounds like classic conservatism to you, it is, wrapped up in the finely-tailored digital wool of Silicon Valley’s Randian libertarianism.

The goal of a Silicon Valley giant like Google is to own a digital copy of everything that makes you who you are and everything that makes the world what it is. If you can simulate people, you can predict and manipulate their behaviour. If you can simulate both people and the world, you can—to the degree afforded you by the fidelity of your simulation—predict and control the future. I don’t have to spell out to you why that is hugely valuable.

So Google’s ultimate goal is not to show you better ads.

Google is building the Camera Panopticon.

The Camera Panopticon

In Mesoamerican cultures, mirrors were seen as divinatory aids; it was taught that the image reproduced in the object would offer some glimpse into the future of the subject. The development of the camera obscura and photographic film gave us the means to disassociate the image from the person and retain it beyond its moment.

Some cultures believe that capturing such an image—a photograph—steals your soul. And while that thought may initially seem ridiculous (especially to an atheist like myself), we should not be too quick to dismiss the notion outright.

A camera obscura captures only an image of us and of the world. It is a simulacrum. But what if a camera could capture a simulation of us and of the world? It would, decidedly, require a bigger lens. Not bigger, exactly, but a different lens. Many lenses. What we call sensors, today. It would need lenses everywhere—not just watching, but hearing and measuring anything and everything. It would need lenses in our homes, watching us and taking environmental readings, lenses on our bodies and even in our bodies, and lenses capturing our interactions with others.

While a camera obscura recreates only a shallow facsimile of you, the Camera Panopticon creates a living simulation of you and of the world. A simulation owned and controlled by Google, Inc. A simulation that can be locked away in a virtual lab to be studied 24/7 like a lab rat. A simulation that is used to both predict and manipulate your behaviour.

Even with Google’s resources, the Camera Panopticon is not currently within its reach but Google is taking every step necessary to ensure that it soon will be.

When you combine Google’s recent investments in quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and robotics with their existing monopoly in digital services, devices, and connectivity, you get a perfect storm for creating the ultimate surveillance machine; the Camera Panopticon.

Quantum computing alone is set to usher in a paradigm shift in what is possible. When problems that currently take longer than the lifetime of the universe to solve become solvable in linear time, we take a huge leap towards what Ray Kurzweil calls “the singularity”.

The definition of the singularity may be that we cannot see beyond its event horizon but if one company is poised to take the first peek, it is without doubt Google.

And it will be a private, exclusive peek delivered through the lens of the Camera Panopticon: the oracle device with a quantum brain and sensors on every corner of the Earth, in our homes, on our persons, and even inside our bodies.

This isn’t some far-flung dystopian science-fiction future either; we are living through its infancy today.

If you think about it, The Matrix got it backwards: we don’t live in a simulation controlled from a tangible world, we live in a tangible world that is increasingly being controlled by simulations.

And the Camera Panopticon is the ultimate simulation of everything—the oracle device—owned by Google, Inc.

That is their end game.

And that is what we must make sure never happens.

If we value the human over the algorithm; if we want to live in a future where we control technology instead of vice-versa; if we want to live in a democracy and enjoy human rights, we must do whatever is within our power to make sure that no one entity owns and controls the Camera Panopticon.

We must make sure that it never gets built.

We must break the Camera Panopticon into a billion pieces and entrust each piece to its only legitimate owner: an individual. For our simulations are a part of our selves and, in a free society, I am the only legitimate owner of my self. As for data about the world, we must entrust it in the commons. It must be owned equally by us all, accessible to us all, and cared for by us all for the common good.

That way lies democracy and human rights and The Future of the Human.

The alternative is an autocracy the likes of which the human species has never seen and The Future of the Algorithm.

I know which I am.

And which side I’m on.

What about you?