There are two possible ways the world might look in the distant future, or perhaps even the not-so-distant future.
The first is a world filled with people empowered by technology, as we develop increasingly sophisticated tools to enable people to speak freely, associate freely, control their property and direct their own destinies. The story of this world is of a revolution in technology granting greater power to more people, freeing them from needs both economic and political. A world where every person’s powers of choice and control of their own destiny is protected both by technology and by the universal agreement of all that those rights are worth protecting.
The second is not so rosy. The second version of the future world is filled with people repressed by increasingly sophisticated tools to control them. Pervasive surveillance watches everything that everyone does. Advanced predictive algorithms multiply the effectiveness of mass data collection by making inferences about other aspects of a person’s life. The benefits of technology are consolidated in the hands of a few people who own enough capital to have large interests in major corporations. New technologies developed by these corporations are leveraged to make money.
The problem here is that an endless train of small, separate decisions which in isolation appear reasonable, will nevertheless lead us down the road to world #2.
The first reason for this is choice. From the perspective of any individual person getting a choice between more control over others and less control, that’s no choice at all. For a boss over their employees, or the NSA over citizens’ communications, or the CEO of a corporation over their intellectual property, the power to exert more control is always better than having less control, even if that power not exercised.
The problem that naturally follows, however, is that everyone else is presented with the same decision and the same general incentives. And if everyone else acts to increase their own personal amount of control, the result is a shrinking space of personal autonomy for everyone.
The current trend is clearly of shrinking personal autonomy, shrinking privacy, and shrinking personal control of each person over their property, their choices, their lives.
Recently there has been a great deal of discussion about surveillance. Some people seem to believe that it is a serious problem that there are some communications that are difficult to monitor, making it harder for law enforcement to catch criminals.
Encryption is an important front in the battle between empowering people with technology, and using technology to effectively control people. Encryption, used in conjunction with other technology, empowers people to have truly private communications. Undermining encryption, such as incorporating backdoors into popular consumer encryption systems, would instead empower law enforcement to monitor consumer communications. Even if we accept the position of law enforcement officials that such a backdoor would not be used by criminals (which is technologically impossible), this is a dramatic change in stance compared to historical protections on citizens’ communications.
Technology today makes possible an enormously expansive and comprehensive level of surveillance, the likes of which could never have been imagined in the 18th century by the writers of the Constitution. But the analogy with physical mail is useful here. For centuries, mail was considered a private, and legally protected, communication between people that would not be invaded by opening the envelope, at least not without good cause. The envelope is a layer of protection which we as a society have agreed that others should not intrude upon, because we all agree to respect each others’ privacy. An email is very much like physical mail. However, instead of placing their message inside a paper envelope, a sender places their message inside a protective layer of encryption.
From the perspective of law enforcement, the “problem” is that it is possible to construct an encryption system that even with a warrant, they are incapable of breaking. But the fact that criminals use secret methods of communication is old news, and a very familiar problem for law enforcement that they are simply going to have to accept.
The only way to EFFECTIVELY compromise an encryption system is to do is secretly, and to tell no one. Because as soon as someone knows their encryption is compromised they will immediately abandon it and switch to another system they believe to be secure. Law enforcement can research cryptography to come up with new attacks against cryptosystems- the “big boys” are without doubt already doing this, such as the CIA, NSA, etc, and are very unlikely to tell anyone about the fruits of their research. In short, an exploit that anyone suspects exists is worthless, and so having a public conversation about whether the government should have a public exploit is pointless. Granting a backdoor would only facilitate spying on citizens, and would be useless for the purposes for which law enforcement actually wants the backdoor. The only way to actually get what they want is to invest in research, and find a SECRET exploit in a platform that everyone believes is secure.
This is a clear-cut case of protecting personal autonomy, or infringing upon it. Either people can use encryption to have private communications, or they can’t have private communications. It seems clear to me that we, as a free society, are obligated to protect everyone’s right to have private communications with others. Eliminating the right to use encryption, and to have private communications, is also completely futile, and there is absolutely no practical reason to do so.
The second major problem eroding personal autonomy that we are now confronting in the 21st century is of the increasing sophistication of our understanding of human behavior, including psychology, neurology, and other areas.
It is axiomatic that a better understanding of the world is always better. However it is important to be aware of how understanding the world gives us POWER, which can be wielded either well or poorly. Much like how the understanding of chemistry has empowered us to do countless beneficial things, and also the power to make bombs.
In this case, a comprehensive understanding of the subtleties of human behavior grants immense power to cause people to behave as the wielder wishes. Using small incentives, carefully structured systems, and by careful targeting of certain people among the huge reach granted by the internet, it is possible to manipulate people extremely efficiently. Economic incentives, social incentives, and many other types of stimuli can be leveraged to vastly greater effect with a deep understanding of exactly how people respond to them. A small “nudge” can be of much greater effectiveness when properly aimed at the right person at the right time. And a small “nudge” can allow the person doing the nudging to have a surprisingly high degree of confidence in an increased response rate to the stimulus.
What this means for personal autonomy is that we have to learn to deal with a society where we are under constant “attack” (in the computer science sense) to get us to act in certain ways that are beneficial to many other third parties who are attempting broad spectrum manipulation of the population. Like other technological change, resistance is futile. These new capabilities are the facts on the ground which we must work within. But there are steps we can take to ensure that personal autonomy is safeguarded, knowing that we can’t un-invent the wheel.
The central concern is to stop “predatory” manipulation. Most people would probably agree that there is a boundary between innocuous, even productive incentivization, and coercive or predatory manipulation. This is a major can of worms I won’t get into now.
A good example of this kind of subtle exercise of power is in the adoption of Windows 10. Although Windows 10 is actually an excellent operating system, the tactics used to get people to upgrade from their previous Windows version is an excellent example of a “nudge” approach in action. Having an automatic popup to tell users to upgrade is a start. Then, enhancing the popup by eliminating the option of a button that declines. Then, enhancing the popup again by secretly undoing users’ actions to avoid seeing the popup. Next, Microsoft has stated that they intend to make the Windows 10 upgrade a “recommended” update under Windows Update. This is an excellent example of “nudge” tactics which are, successfully, causing users to install Windows 10. Microsoft has the data collection capability, the understanding of users’ computer habits, and the actual power necessary to impose these “nudge” tactics. Most individuals don’t have this kind of influence and are unable to cause, with some degree of confidence, another person to do something specific that they want that other person to do.
With the kinds of information and computational power that large, sophisticated entities have access to, it is quite feasible to turn data collection into inferences and predictions, as well as targeted actions to cause people to do what you want them to do. With greater data collection, better algorithms for making inferences, and more power to act, that ability to influence others can become extremely powerful, and can serve whatever ends its wielder wishes, whether economic, social, or even political. As just one scenario to consider, what if Google wanted to act with a political agenda?
Hypothetically, would it even be possible to tell if Google was actually doing this?
And this brings us to the third and final critical issue, of power imbalance that is self-perpetuating. Although talking about “the rich getting richer” is very much in vogue right now, what I want to focus on is how technological capability begets increased technological capability.
What I mean by this is that productive technology tends to grow, even if only to create more of itself, but it also tends to improve. Someone invents the assembly line, and pretty soon factories are everywhere because they are a better method of production. Factories are successful, prompting people to develop better and better methods of improving them, constantly increasing their productivity, speed, efficiency, and other forms of improvement.
Suppose for the sake of argument that a new technology is invented; a robot which is capable of performing at least some significant fraction of the capabilities of a human laborer. Even if at first its functionality is limited, and its efficiency and cost-effectiveness is poor, such a machine would be like the initial invention of the assembly line. A small investment in those labor machines would do some sort of work, create some sort of product, which would act as a basis for expanding their duties, and provide a justification to research improvements for those machines. This company that invested in those machines would make more of these laborer robots, and develop better versions of them. The increased scale of their usage and their higher efficiency would further justify increased production, and increased research in further improvements.
The obvious conclusion of this type of self-reinforcing cycle is that owning a small amount of such machines would grow exponentially over time. Those with the money to buy these machines would make money from them, and would use that money to buy more machines. Those who get into the game of buying these machines earlier will have a big headstart in the power curve over late comers.
Meanwhile those who lack the capital to buy these machines cannot benefit from this explosive growth curve. It’s just not one of their available economic options. And without access to productive machines, their wealth creation ability is limited strictly to the mere value of their labor, which is a relatively fixed quantity of one human laborer per person, while that same person could massively multiply their productivity by owning an unlimited number of machines.
The point I wish to leave you with is that this has already happened. There is no magical line in the sand of developing some specific robot that causes this curve to get started. This curve has been underway since the Industrial Revolution, of replacing human labor with machines that only cost money. The development of productive machines has created an unprecedented amount of productivity and wealth creation, enabling a tremendous rise in standards of living, as well as world wars on a scale that a 16th century man could not imagine. Productive machines have enabled us to feed billions of people, go to the moon, and build a communications system that can instantly share the words I am typing now across the entire planet. But it has also created a tremendous power imbalance between those who own the productive machines, and those who do not.
That power imbalance leads to a perverse situation where the person (usually an entity like a corporation) which controls the productive machines has a tremendously strong bargaining position. Strong enough not only to set terms for small fries like customers and employees, but even strong enough to sway governments. An employee NEEDS their job, not just in an academic sense, but because they need to pay for rent, food, medicine, and for other resources they must have in order to survive.
My solution to this problem is to develop cheaper, smaller, easier-to-maintain productive machines that are abundant enough that everyone can own productive machines.
If every individual personally owns enough productive capital that they are not dependent upon the largesse of someone else allowing them to use theirs, then we have eliminated the pathological aspect of the power imbalance.
A perfect example of this type of decentralization of power is the humble 3D printer. Although currently 3D printers are interesting gizmos, in the near future I fully expect their increasing capabilities and dropping prices will make them extremely useful, even indispensable devices. Much like how paper printers went from interesting novelties to commonplace workhorse devices, except 3D printers have the potential to be far more useful, more powerful devices than paper printers ever were. I maintain that 3D printers will one day replace the factory as the predominant mode of manufacturing. 3D printers are orders of magnitude cheaper than factories, and unlike large, expensive factories they are cheap enough and small enough for literally everyone to own one.
I further predict that food production will need to see a similar change, of increasingly small-scale, cheap, and lightweight agriculture. Although not currently viable, a hypothetical small, automated hydroponics unit could allow a person to grow food without the need for large-scale industrial agriculture. Naturally, I expect this technology will be first developed for industrial purposes on a large scale, and as it becomes more advanced it will become possible to use the same technology more cheaply, and on a smaller scale.
The same principle applies to a wide variety of areas, from finance (i.e. Bitcoin) to transportation (i.e. Uber). By decentralizing, shrinking, and reducing costs, what formerly required a large, consolidated pool of capital in a large entity to do, can now be done by a single consumer. And that is a trend that should be embraced, and not rejected because the centralized institution that is being replaced is not a fan.
The overriding theme here is ensuring that empowering individuals is the guiding principle controlling how we use our technology. All of us need to agree that we hope technology leads to a future where every person has personal autonomy, and not a future where technology is the means by which every person is deprived of it.
Personal freedoms are more than just a right of non-interference, although even that basic, minimalistic understanding of personal rights is being openly defied. Personal freedoms mean that a person has the actual ability to choose, to control their property and their life.
A great many recent changes in our society suggest to me that freedom as simple non-interference is insufficient, in much the same way that a sheepdog’s policy of non-interference is insufficient to stop the wolves from eating the sheep. Non-interference does not save the sheep from the severe power imbalance between them and the wolves.
The future of society looks like one of two worlds. In the first world, everyone is empowered by technology and exercises their personal freedom however they see fit, because technology has eliminated the need for them to suffer the indignity of pleading with a corporation for their daily bread. An egalitarian world where nobody controls anybody, and where each of us must meet their own needs using their own property to do so.
In the second world, the corporation exercises that technology to stiffen its grip on the world’s resources and productive potential, and exercise more extensive control over more people. Greater surveillance, more sophisticated influence techniques, and simply controlling more resources and productive machines, mean that there is less and less personal autonomy for everyone except the people who control those corporations which own the world’s technology.
I leave it to the reader to decide whether they would rather live in a world where you lack the ability to tell other people what to do, and in return nobody can tell you what to do. Or if you would rather live in a world where a few people exercise expansive control over a great many people, in return for perhaps receiving the power to control a few other people yourself?