Changes

I am more than old enough to have seen dramatic changes in society, but nothing compares with what is coming.

Soon we will see an almost complete loss of privacy due to the development of methods for the very large scale collection of social data. Try to imagine how susceptible you would be if others had megabytes of information about you.

For many years I have written about social technology, which I naively thought of as benign.

I compared the tools and techniques for use in society to those of medical technology before the discovery of bacteria and viruses.

Over the course of a century efforts to prevent the spread of disease were entirely benign. It was only later that the idea of germ warfare was discussed.

As far as I know, there have been no attempts to use infectious diseases as a weapon of war.

The malicious use of social technology can be more subtle however, right up until the point at which everything gets out of hand.

There is a basic algorithm for collecting vast amount of social data. I call it recursive exhaustion, having had to make up my own name for it. As I explain elsewhere, I came across it while beginning to write a novel. I’m sure it cannot be my invention but I’ve been unable to find any reference to it on the Internet.

It was a shock to realize that this algorithm could be used to gather such a large amount of information. The book I was writing was to be a techno-thriller, in which the antagonists used this algorithm to find people susceptible to blackmail and intimidation. As they did this, they were acquiring more and more power, especially political power. There was a serious danger they could take over the world.

It is OK to present a scary scenario in a work of fiction, but quite different to take it seriously.

Paranoia has never been my problem, I tend instead to suffer from a naive optimism.

But in this case I am genuinely worried.

I read a lot of history. While growing up I was most interested in the sciences and read a lot about them. Now I read almost nothing but history books. What I have learned is that the most unbelievable things have actually happened.

I greatly enjoyed the 13 episode documentary series World War II in HD color, which contains nothing but original movie footage of the war and a few events leading up to it. The film has been processed to improve its visual quality and colorized in an entirely plausible way to emphasize distinctions which might not otherwise be visible. Purists will object to colorization, but I am glad of it.

The shocking thing about that last paragraph is that I could casually say “I greatly enjoyed”, something so horrible. What I have to keep reminding myself again and again is that this actually happened and those are actual visual records of it. It is easy to say that the events happened long ago, but they happened in a Europe which had already produced some of the world’s greatest art, literature and music. It was a modern society with cultural, political and legal institutions. It had newspapers, radio, railways and automobiles.

Yet over the course of a few years it all fell apart. Somewhere between 50 and 80 million people died, about half of them civilians. More than a quarter of the deaths were due to war-related diseases and famines.

This is unbelievable, and yet it actually happened.

On 27th of October 1962 it came down to the actions of of one Russian naval officer, Vasili Arkhipov which prevented the launch of a nuclear torpedo against the US Navy.

Year later in 2002, when discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time, stated, “We came very close” to nuclear war, “closer than we knew at the time.” Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, an advisor for the John F. Kennedy administration later said “This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.”

This danger can emerge again in an entirely different form if hostile governments collect enough information to blackmail people.

As well as a danger from hostile governments, there is also a danger from criminal organizations and even from elements of our own government, which could turn in a totalitarian direction.

There may be solutions to these problems but I don’t see any right now. All I see is a dramatic change on the horizon.

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