Advances in the Panopticon State: Drones Today, Nanotechnology Tomorrow
In order to fight against “anti-social behavior” in Britain, the “police force is considering using unmanned aerial surveillance drones,” according to Breitbart. “The police force for Merseyside, in western England, has formed a new Anti-Social Behaviour Task Force which will have a budget of one million pounds (1.85 million dollars, 1.5 million euros), and a staff of 137, drawn from both the local police and fire services.”
In order to make sure nobody climbs a tree or posts a flier (known as “flyposting” in England), drones will be dispatched, never mind the cost.
I kid you not about tree climbing and flyposting.
In the United Kingdom, they have something called ASBO, pronounced az-bo, which is short for Anti-Social Behaviour Order, a civil order specifying numerous illegal activities, including swearing at one’s neighbor. It is also illegal to drink too much water, as a man in Derby was busted for drinking around 100 litres of water per day—not that the state was worried about the man’s health, but rather that he had placed an unreasonable strain on local health services.
“Other more obscure orders have been issued, including a thirteen year old banned from using the word ‘grass,’ a seventeen-year-old forbidden to use his front door, and an eighty-seven year old man ordered not to shout, swear or make ’sarcastic remarks to neighbours or their visitors’. It should be noted, however, that these orders were not given entirely without reason: for example, ’so bad was [the aforesaid seventeen-year-old’s] behaviour, which included attacking homes and cars and shouting obscenities, that police had to use CS gas to subdue him,’” notes Wikipedia, citing the BBC and a Select Committee on Home Affairs memorandum.
Surveillance drones will make it easier for the police to nab tree climbers and scowlers. However, for all but the blind and nearsighted, it is relatively easy to detect a drone swooping over the neighborhood.
In order to address this problem, a Minnesota company is working on an “invisible” drone that exploits the “persistence of vision,” that is to say the thing whirls around like a helicopter blade, thus reducing it to a blur, making it difficult to pick out against the sky.
Soon, though, drones will not be required to catch the guy who farted on a subway platform. Due to the advances in molecular manufacturing [expected to be perfected by 2010], it will soon be possible to create “very small, inexpensive supercomputers that conceivably could run a program of constant surveillance on everyone. Surveillance devices would be easy to manufacture cheaply in quantity,” explains the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.
“Surveillance is only one possible kind of abuse. With the ability to build billions of devices, each with millions of parts, for a total cost of a few dollars, any automated technology that can be applied to one person can be applied to everyone. Any scenario of physical or psychiatric control that explores the limits of nanotechnology will sound science-fictional and implausible. The point is not the plausibility of any given scenario; it is that the range of possibilities is limited mainly by the imagination and cruelty of those with power. Greed and power are strong motivators for abusive levels of control; the fear of nanotech and other advanced technologies in private hands adds an additional impetus for abusive rule.”
Thought I was kidding about micro-sensors detecting an indelicate fart in public? “Surveillance nanotechnologies can arise in many ways,” writes Jacob Heller for Foresight Nanotech Institute. “The most likely form of nanotechnological surveillance is nano-sensors. These sensors, already under development, can detect minute amounts of chemicals in the air. For example, Owlstone Nanotech, a New York based company, will produce dime-sized wireless sensors that can detect toxins and explosive materials in the air by 2007. It should not be long until nano-sensors are much smaller.”
But why place a chemical and toxin-sniffing nano-sensor in a public place when you can place it right on the body of a possible offender? “Human implanted microchips may also become a useful tool of surveillance, since they would at least be able to track one’s location and possibly what that person consumed (drugs, junk food)…. the same nano-sensors that could ‘keep us safe’ could also be used to track eating habits, smoking, drug use, even perfume choice—basically any activity that leaves a chemical trace. More ominously, it would likely be possible to track DNA, which would mean it would be possible know where you are and where you have been.”
“Of course, nobody would advocate implementing such draconian surveillance, at first,” notes Heller. “However, security concerns, especially if the ‘war on terror’ continues into the foreseeable future, may prompt the widespread use of nano-sensors. Only after such technology is already ubiquitous does it become politically feasible to suggest that they be used to keep tabs on things like drug use,” or, for that matter, handing out subversive DVDs to strangers in public.
It is not so much the rebellious kid next door with spiked hair and a t-shirt emblazoned with expletives, or the average citizen’s consumption of cigarettes and junk food, but rather monitoring and neutralizing those who pose a threat to increasingly autocratic rulers. Seemingly silly British ASBOs are not so much about anal controllers intolerant of teenagers slapping up posters or neurotics drinking too much water, but rather using “anti-social behavior” as a pretext to erect a high-tech Panopticon, a 24-7 police state.
It is precisely the ubiquity of advanced surveillance technology that poses the greatest threat. “To understand the social impacts of observation, it is useful to consider the work of theorists like Michel Foucault and his assessment of [Jeremy Bentham’s] panopticon within prisons and elsewhere,” writes Michael D. Mehta. “As part of [the prison reform] movement, the French National Assembly launched a competition for the design of a new prison which would be cost-effective to run from the state’s point of view, and which would help create model citizens, or at least model prisoners.”
Indeed, the state is interested in “model citizens,” that is to say citizens unable or unwilling to dissent or effectively resist depredation. As Elton Mayo of Harvard Business School discovered in the late 1920s, people will modify their behavior if they are surveilled. This is known as the Hawthorne effect, named after the Western Electric Company in Chicago where Mayo conducted his sociological experiments.
In England, they are talking about launching automated drones to monitor and correct “anti-social” behavior—that is, behavior deemed anti-social by the state, the final arbiter of not only etiquette, but political thought.
In the brave new world envisioned by our rulers such cumbersome artifices will soon not be necessary. Instead, we can expect nano-cameras and sensors, gait analysis technology, terahertz radar, celldar, ubiquitous RFID “dust,” and inescapable data-mining of all sorts (see The Panopticon Singularity).
Naturally, we will be told about these emerging technologies, as the Hawthorne effect only comes into play when the surveilled are cognizant of their surveillance. It is not the az-bo, the Anti-Social Behaviour Order, per se, that prevents the kid from climbing a tree, but the possibility of being caught, especially with a camera-bristling drone circling above. Now imagine the kid wearing the all-seeing camera, having it embedded subdermally, or scattered around the environment as “dust.”
Chances are he will climb no trees.
Or, if he is “subversive,” a traitor to the state, or “hates his country” (as Bill O’Reilly would have it), he will be quickly discovered and disappeared before he infects others.
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