Koch Summer Fellowship Essay: Democratizing Technology

So here is my Koch Fellowship application:

In the 1930s, two visions for the decline of Western civilization were predicted. Broadly speaking, these were the Huxleyan outcome and the Orwellian outcome. For the past three decades, cultural theorists such as Neil Postman and Jean Baudrillard have warned us about a Huxleyan future, one in which society, shaped by wave after wave of technological advancements, turns itself into a giant burlesque show, a hedonistic landscape of lost meanings and distant relationships. And yet, while we are now concerned with the narcotizing effects of new media, elements of the Orwellian dystopia are bubbling up.

In the city of Chicago, there are well over 2000 cameras set up by various state agencies to monitor intersections and areas of high crime, funded by not only local dollars but also by federal grants. Even though I have many reservations about the increases in complexity of cameras and surveillance techniques, the technological tide is cresting, and it is all but inevitable that small video recorders connected to facial recognition software will dot the cities of the future. Cameras of this type are, according to author David Brin, following a course theorized by Moore’s law, “halving in size, and doubling in acuity and movement capability and sheer numbers, every year or two.”

Just as there has been a push for transparency in government, I believe that we need to consider transparency of surveillance devices in public places. The power of tracking is quickly becoming asymmetrical on the side of state power, and I fear that abuses and further incursions into privacy will be the direct outcome if we do not take up this issue.

Recent history is replete with examples of these abuses of power, especially as it concerns surveillance. COINTELPRO, which lasted from the middle 1950s to the early 1970s, is exemplary of the lengths that state security agencies will go in order to protect national security, prevent violence, and maintain “existing social and political order.” Anecdotal evidence from poorer neighborhoods abounds that tells of security tapes inextricably going missing during potential occurrences of excessive police force. And recently, a former analyst with the National Security Agency claimed that they “tracked millions of e-mails and phone calls of everyday American citizens.” These are serious issues that seem to have slipped from public debate.

What if citizens could access these cameras? People walking alone at night could call up information on the next block to make sure they would not get mugged. Parents could feel safer about their children walking home. The aforementioned maltreatment by police forces in poorer communities could help to foster trust because of citizen empowerment. There is, of course, a great potential for abuse, especially as criminals find ways to exploit various gaps in the system, but we need to potential democratizing options. We must not be blind to the future, cameras and other surveillance devices are here to stay. Thus, we must strive to make sure transparency and privacy our top priorities.

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