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David Brin on the Path to Positive Sousveillance

Ben Goertzel dialogues with the author of The Transparent Society

Isaac Asimov’s classic 1956 story “The Dead Past” describes a technology that lets everyone spy on everyone else everywhere. The government tries to keep this technology secret and arrest the scientists moving to publicize it, but some rebels let the cat out of the bag.  A government official, once he realizes the technology has been made irrevocably public, utters the following lines to the scientists who released it:

“Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone, and may each of you fry in hell forever.  Arrest rescinded.”

Asimov’s government official assumes that “everyone sees everyone else” is a nightmare scenario.  But would it be, really?  What if some version of Asimov’s vision came true, and everyone could watch everyone else all the time?

This potentiality has been labeled “sousveillance” – and it may seem like a scary idea, since we’re used to cultures and psychological habits predicated on greater levels of privacy.   But this is exactly the future projected by a handful of savvy pundits, such as computer scientist Steve Mann and science fiction writer David Brin.

“Sous” and “sur” are French for “under” and “over” respectively.  Hence, surveillance is when the masters watch over the masses.  Sousveillance is where everybody has the capability to watch over each other, peer-to-peer style – and not even the rulers are exempt from the universal collective eye.  It’s generally meant to imply that citizens have and exercise the power to look-back at the powers-that-be, or to “watch the watchmen.”

Figure 2.  Evolution of Steve Mann’s Life-logging paraphernalia

Mann’s experiments with video life-logging gave sousveillance a concrete and easily-understandable face.   Following up early explorations in the 1980s, starting in 1994, Mann continuously transmitted his everyday life 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, attracting attention from media and futurist thought leaders.  And Brin’s 1998 The Transparent Society is a masterful nonfiction tome exploring the implications of sousveillance – and arguing for its benefits, as compared to the viable alternatives.

In his book, Brin makes a fairly strong argument that, as monitoring technology advances and becomes pervasive, these are the two most feasible options.  Being monitored will become inescapable, it will be a matter of who is able to do the monitoring: only a “trusted” central authority, or everyone in the society.  Both have obvious disadvantages, but if persistent and pervasive monitoring is an inevitability, then sousveillance certainly bears consideration as an alternative to surveillance.

Like surveillance, sousveillance can occur to varying degrees, ranging from the ability of everyone to observe everything that goes on only in public places (as captured by omnipresent security cameras and other monitoring devices), to the ability for everyone to eavesdrop on everyone else’s phone calls and personal communications.  An argument in favor of more widespread sousveillance is that if the government is eavesdropping in these different ways, we may be better off if we all can do so as well, and therefore also eavesdrop on the government eavesdroppers.  As Brin puts it, “I may not be able to stop the government from knowing everything about me. But if you and I know everything about the government, then they’ll be limited in what they can DO to us. What they do matters more than what they know.”

More radically futuristic options, where thoughts and feelings are made subject to observation via brain-monitoring technologies, form a common nightmare scenario in science fiction (though more commonly portrayed as surveillance, not sousveillance).  But even the more prosaic forms of sousveillance will have dramatic implications.

Brin himself tends not to view sousveillance as scary or disturbing, using the analogy of people sitting at different tables in a restaurant, who could eavesdrop on each others’ conversations, but choose not to. Even the nosy generally refrain, because the eavesdropper is likely to be caught doing so, and snooping is disdained.  He reckons that if sousveillance became a reality, new patterns of social tact would likely evolve, and society and psychology would self-organize into some new configuration, which would leave people significant privacy in practice, but would also contain the everpresent potential of active sousveillance as a deterrent to misdoings. This can be illustrated by extending the restaurant analogy; if universal sousveillance means that all peeping toms are always caught in the act, then such a society might wind up with more privacy than you’d expect.

Indeed, modest evidence for Brin’s optimistic perspective exists already, in the shifting attitudes of the younger generation toward privacy.  A significant percentage of young people seem not to care very much what others may know about them, openly putting all sorts of conventionally-considered-private information online.   And in line with Brin’s restaurant analogy, even though I could find out a lot of private information about a lot of people I know via their various online profiles, I very rarely bother to.  And the psychological makeup of the younger generation does seem to be subtly but significantly shifted, due to this limited “online sousveillance” that has arisen.  One may argue that society is slipping toward sousveillance bit by bit – implicitly and incrementally rather than in an explicitly discussed and deliberated way — as the Net comes to govern more and more of our lives, and personal information becomes more and more available online.

Now, 13 years after the publication of The Transparent Society, I was pleased to have the opportunity to pose David a couple questions about the potential future implications of sousveillance.  I found his confidence in the feasibility and potential value of sousveillance undiminished – but also detected a note of frustration at the ambiguity (and sometime skepticism or downright hostility) with which today’s general public views Enlightenment ideals like calm reasonable analysis, which Brin views as important for nudging society toward positive uses of sousveillance technology.

What’s your current thinking regarding the effects of widespread sousveillance on society — let’s say on a fairly open and democratic society like the US?  How would our social structures change?


It depends somewhat on just how widespread the sousveillance is.

“Truly pervasive sousveillance” could range all the way to radical levels portrayed in Damon Knight’s story “I see you,” in which the future is portrayed without any secrecy or even privacy at all.  Knight shows a humanity that is universally omniscient — any human, even children, can use a machine to view through any walls. And Knight depicts us adapting, Getting used to simply assuming that we are watched, all this time.

Now let me be clear, I do not care for this envisioned tomorrow! In The Transparent Society I devote a whole chapter to how essential some degree of privacy is for most people.   I argue that in a society full of liberated people empowered with highly functional sousveillance technology, sovereign citizens, able to apply sousveillance toward any center of power than might oppress them, will likely use some of that sovereign power to negotiate with their neighbors, and come up with some way to leave each other alone.

This is the logical leap that too few people seem able to make, alas.  That fully empowered citizens may decide neither to hand power over to a Big Brother… nor to turn into billions of oppressive little brothers.  They might instead decide that the purpose of light is accountability.  And shoving too much light into the faces of others, where accountability isn’t needed, well, THAT would also be an abuse, a socially unacceptable activity.  One that you can be held accountable for.

You can imagine a cultural adaptation to sousveillance, such that you can not only keep an eye on tyrants, but also catch peeping Toms — that is where we may get the best of both worlds.  Both freedom and a little… just a little… privacy.

Yes, I can see the possibility of that.  But even in this “best of both worlds” scenario, I guess sousveillance would have some real impact on how we think and live, right?   What do you think would be the psychological effects of widespread sousveillance.  How would it change our minds, our selves, our relationships?  Do you think it would make us mentally healthier, or could it in some cases make us more neurotic or insane?  Would some existing personality types vanish and others emerge?  Would different sorts of collective intelligence and collaboration become possible?


Well, certainly people who are simmering in borderline insanity — stewing and ranting and grumbling themselves toward acts of horrid violence — such people will be known, long before they get a chance to explode in destructive spasms.  We as a culture would find it harder to ignore such people, to shunt them aside and pretend the problems aren’t there.  So sousveillance could be a wonderful thing in terms of increasing our safety.


Neighborhood watch on steroids.  Right.

But on the other hand, if some of the little old ladies on my block could see some of the things that occur in my house, they might not like it….


Would the nosy interventions of well-meaning do-gooders infringe on the rights of those who don’t want to be cured? Good question. I would hope that personal eccentricity will continue to be valued, as it has increasingly been valued in the last few generations

Still, when it becomes clear that someone might be planning to do something awful, eyes will be drawn… and bad things will be deterred.


Yes, that much is clear … and the broader consequences are more fuzzy and complex, because it’s a matter of  how our psychology and culture would self-organize in response. There will be many distinct reactions and cases, dynamically linking together – it’s going to be interesting!


Yes – for instance another problem is that of shy people. They simply do not want the glare. We would need to develop sliding scales… much as today there is a sliding scale of expectation of privacy. People who seek fame are assumed to have less legal recourse against paparazzi or gossip articles than quiet citizens, who retain their right to sue for privacy invasion. So you can see that the principle is already being applied. In the future, folks who register high on shyness quotient will not get to prevent all sousveillance. But a burden of proof will fall on those who deliberately bug such people. The law won’t enforce this.  The rest of us will, by reproving the staring-bullies. It will be social, as in the tribes of old.


That’s one possibility.  Another possibility is that shyness, as we know it, basically becomes obsolete – and the genetic factors that lead to shyness are manifested in different ways, and/or get selected (or engineered) out of the gene pool.

Essentially, this is the greatest of all human experiments.  In theory… sousveillance should eventually equilibrate into a situation where people (for their own sakes and because they believe in the Golden Rule, and because they will be caught if they violate it) eagerly and fiercely zoom in upon areas where others might be conniving or scheming or cheating or pursuing grossly-harmful deluded paths…

… while looking away when none of these dangers apply. A socially sanctioned discretion based on “none of my business” and leaving each other alone… because you’ll want that other person to be your ally next time, when YOU are the one saying “make that guy leave me alone!”

That is where it should wind up.  If we’re capable of calm, or rationality and acting in our own self-interest.  It is stylishly cynical for most people to guffaw, at this point and assume this is a fairy tale. I can just hear some readers muttering “Humans aren’t like that!”

Well, maybe not. But I have seen plenty of evidence that we are now more like that than our ancestors ever imagined they could be.  The goal may not be attainable.  But we’ve already taken strides in that direction.


Hmmmm….  I definitely see this “best of both worlds” scenario as one possible attractor that a sousveillant society could fall into, but not necessarily the only one.  I suppose we could also have convergence to other, very different attractors, for instance ones in which there really is no privacy because endless spying has become the culture; and ones in which uneasy middle-grounds between surveillance and sousveillance arise, with companies and other organizations enforcing cultures of mutual overwhelming sousveillance among their employees or members.

Just as the current set of technologies has led to a variety of different cultural “attractors” in different places, based on complex reasons.


This is essentially my point. The old attractor states are immensely powerful.  Remember that 99% of post agricultural societies had no freedom because the oligarchs wanted it that way and they controlled the information flows.  That kind of feudal-aristocratic, top-down dominance always looms, ready to take over.  In fact, I think so-called Culture War is essentially an effort to discredit the “smartypants” intellectual elites who might challenge authoritarian/oligarchic attractor states, in favor of others that are based upon calm reason.

The odds have always been against the Enlightenment methodology – the core technique underlying our markets, democracy and science – called Reciprocal Accountability. On the other hand, sousveillance is nothing more or less than the final reification of that methodology.  Look, I want sousveillance primarily because it will end forever the threat of top-down tyranny.  But the core question you are zeroing in on, here, is a very smart one – could the cure be worse than the disease? I really don’t know. In The Transparent Society I mostly pose hard questions. But the possibility that universal vision might lead to us all choosing to behave better? Well, why should it not be possible, in theory, to take it all the way, and then use it in ways that stymie its own excesses?
OK, so let’s suppose this “multiple attractors” theory is right – and the “rational, calm, best of both worlds” scenario is just one possibility among many, regarding the societal consequences of sousveillance.  Then an important question becomes: What can we do to nudge society toward attractors embodying the more benevolent sort of sousveillant society you envision?


I really don’t know.  I at times despair of getting traction on this, at a time when such big picture problems are obscured by everything political and sociological having to be crammed into terms of a stupid, lobotomizing so-called “left-right axis.” That horribly misleading (and French) metaphor has done untold harm. If he were alive today, Adam Smith would be an enemy of Glen Beck.  If you can figure out why, then maybe you can think two dimensionally.

I guess I’ll regain my optimism, that people can live in a future that requires endless negotiation… when I start  to see a little more negotiating going on, in present day reality.


So you’re saying that IF progressive forces could escape their entrapping metaphors and align behind the Enlightenment ideals of calm  pragmatism, THEN as technology advances, the odds would be fairly high of a relatively desirable “best of both worlds” sousveillance scenario coming about.   But that in reality, it’s hard to assess the odds of this.


Right. Human history suggests that the odds are low. All you need is a state of panic, over something much bigger than 9/11, for example. The needle will tip far over to surveillance… the people handing paternalistic power to a state or to elites who promise protection.  Sousveillance – especially the pragmatic, easy-going, self-restrained type I describe -  would be an outgrowth of a confident citizenry. An extremely confident one. That’s not impossible. We’re more confident and skilled at such things than our ancestors.  But, on the other hand, Star Trek we ain’t.  Not yet.


Right – history isn’t necessarily the best guide to the future, since a lot of things are changing rapidly in a richly interlinked way.  Technology, society and psychology are all changing, in some respects at an accelerating pace, and plenty of historical precedents are being thrown by the wayside.

Out of all these factors, my  mind keeps coming back to issues of psychology.  The societal attractors that groups of people fall into, are obviously closely coupled with the psychological attractors that individual people fall into.   If people start thinking differently, then they  may come to understand the societal situation differently….  To pursue your example, if the psychology of progressive people were somehow tweaked (say, by the advent of sousveillance technology), then they  might view themselves and their opposition differently.   Maybe being able to see more and more of how their opponents operate, via early-stage sousveillance technology, would give progressives a better understanding of what they’re up against.

I mean, it seems to me sousveillance could have a big impact on human psychology, in various ways.  For instance, it seems people may lose much of their sense of shame in a sousveillant society (due to being able to see that so many others also have the same “shameful” aspects).  You see this already in the younger generation – sexting implies a fairly low level of shame about body image; and the publishing of formerly-private-type details on various social media implies a fairly low level of shame about one’s personal life.


Well, there’s shame and then there’s shame. It’s been shown that when the public is increasingly exposed to a bizarre but harmless type of person, that type grows more-tolerated, but the exception is when that group exhibits willful harmfulness. Tolerance of – say – KKK-types goes down with every exposure.  Likewise, if extensive, deliberate voyeurism is viewed as harmful… and voyeurs are always caught in the act, well, you have that “restaurant effect” we spoke of, earlier, and people get some privacy, even in an all-open world. It all depends on what’s “shameful.”


And the whole phenomenon of “social role-playing” (cf. Goffman’s “Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” and so forth) will take on a different flavor when you know others have more capability to see through your masks — so that while social pretense will surely still exist, it may take on more of the role of explicit play-acting.

Overall, my guess is that sousveillance has a strong potential to lead to much more open, honest, direct social interactions — which would likely lead to many (surely not all!) people being more open, honest and direct with themselves, and thus becoming quite different than people typically are in modern societies.


Humans are essentially self-deluders. The mirror held up by other people helps us to perceive our own errors… though it hurts.  In his poem “To a Louse,” Robert Burns said:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us 
To see oursels as others see us! 
It wad frae monie a blunder free us, 
An’ foolish notion…”

(“Oh would some power, the gift give us, to see ourselves as other see us. It would from many a blunder free us, and foolish notions…”)

Or, my own aphorism is CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote to Error. Too bad it tastes so awful,


I’m reminded of a book I read recently, “Stepping out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self” (by Rodney Smith).  In the Buddhist view, the self itself is a delusion, constructed by the mind for its own practical purposes and then falsely taken as a solid reality; and the antidotes to such errors and delusions are things like mindfulness and meditation and wise thinking….   Which of course constitute a path with its own difficulties.

And compassion – the Buddhists place a lot of emphasis on compassion.  Being linked to others at a fundamental level via compassion helps unwind the delusions of the self.   And it does seem sousveillance may help here.  It’s easy to imagine some people would become more compassionate if they could more easily and directly observe the consequences of their actions for others.


This part is simply proved. Television did that, long before media went two way.  There are many unknowns, but souveillance would drive compassion.


And these positive psychological changes, occurring in some, could trigger an enhanced ability to sense some of the negative or deceptive psychological characteristics of others….


I see no conflict between your perspective and mine. The thing that makes people reticent, paranoid, prejudiced, or eager to surrender authority to oligarchs always boils down to… fear.  A sousveillant society should equilibrate upon one with a low fear level, as we see kids display on social networks.

You say open/honest/direct.  I would add “forgiving.”  Kids count on being able to shrug off today’s stupid photos and statements, in the future. They know many of the things they are posting, at age 17, are dopey and even sick.  They are vesting themselves in a wager that you and I will turn out to be right, and that we can build a society that chills-out about non-harmful mistakes.

Hmmm…..  So, as an SF author, how would you make the personalities of the characters different if they were situation in a society with powerful sousveillance technology in use?


Well, one key point is that satiated people tend to have calmer, less fearful reactions. But it also depends if they were raised in a society that teaches satiability.  Satiation and satiability are not the same thing. Without the latter, the former is futile.


I see, and we in modern America tend to teach our kids to grow up insatiable!!

As Mignon McLaughlin put it, “Youth is not enough. And love is not enough. And success is not enough. And, if we could achieve it, enough would not be enough.”

But what you seem to be saying is: if our society shifted to teach satiability, then we would be satiated (since we certainly have the technological capability to satiate ourselves in various ways!), and we’d be less fearful, and hence more likely to approach sousveillance with Enlightenment values rather than fear-driven values.   It’s certainly interesting to dissect the psychodynamics of the situation in that way.


Well, yes.  I suppose. I do think we’ve already walked some paces down the road, from where our ancestors were. Note that when I say “satiable” I do not mean an end to ambition. I just think sane people, when they get what they say they wanted, should actually become happier and need it less. Then move on to other desires.


That’s certainly true in a sense, but that sort of “sanity” is fairly rare in the modern world, as you note.   And it’s been rare for a long time, maybe since the emergence of civilization and the end of the Stone Age cultures.  Harking back to Buddhism again, this seems to relate to the “cycle of dependent origination” — desire leads to grasping leads to birth leads to death leads to confusion leads to action leads to sensation leads to desire, etc.   The Buddhists complained about the ongoing cyclic phenomenon wherein the more you get the more you want and so forth – and this was thousands of years ago, before TV advertising and processed junk food and all that.  But I’ve often wondered if this whole cycle (lack of satiability, you’d call it) is largely a transitional phenomenon – it wasn’t so prominent in Stone Age societies (or so it seems from study of current Stone Age societies like the Piraha in Brazil and the Bayaka in Africa, etc.), and maybe it won’t be so prominent in more advanced technological societies either.  And maybe sousveillance could be part of the change by which we move back to a state of satiability…

Certainly, one might think that sousveillance could help increase satiability, because it could help people to see that others aren’t really any better off than they are.  For instance, my envy of the rich drastically decreased once I got to know some rich people moderately well, and saw that their lives really aren’t dramatically qualitatively better than everyone else’s in terms of quality of experience, even though the material surround is more impressive….

Well, I’m probably speculating too far here — I guess these particulars are hard to dissect without sinking into total wild conjecture.  But anyway, there does seem to be some hope that the psychological and social factors may all come together to yield a future in which society adapts to sousveillance in a positive, rational, healthy way.  No guarantee, but some hope….


Well, I always have hope. Most cultures burned crackpot gadflies like me at the stake for saying deliberately provocative things. Here and now? People pay me for it.  I love this civilization.  I want it to survive.


Hear, hear!   Our civilization is wonderful in spite of its dark aspects, and far from stable but rapidly growing and changing.   While I admire the apparent satiability of Stone Age culture, I admit I don’t have much desire to go back to that.   I do overall tend to view our civilization as a transient phenomenon, and then the problem is how to nudge things so the next phase that it grows into is something more positive — maybe getting back some of the past things we’ve lost as well as getting new things we can’t now imagine.  You could view our civilization as a clever but unruly child, and then the hope is that it grows up into something even more interesting!